Tony talks about his background, family, and his interesting career path and goals (2:20)
What drove Tony to earn two master’s degrees (11:40)
Some of the biggest challenges Tony faced when transitioning from teacher to principal (17:00)
Tony shares some of the greatest lessons he learned from those early challenges, and why you should take your work very seriously (but don’t take yourself too seriously), while always keeping students at the center of everything you do (20:53)
How Tony keeps himself off the treadmill of mediocrity and just going through the motions (23:25)
Why it’s so hard for one person to change a negative culture at a school when you’re the only one who seems to be trying to – a positive culture must start with the leadership, but here are some tips for those who find themselves in that situation (29:55)
A very moving story about one of the most memorable and difficult experiences of Tony’s admin career (37:25)
The best leadership advice Tony ever received is about being reflective in your practice, thinking a question through, and not responding immediately (44:40)
Tony’s top book recommendations for Edu-leaders (46:00)
Why Tony loves Touchcast and audioBoom (47:52)
Here’s Tony’s advice for admins when it comes to working with students (50:00)
Tony’s advice for admins when it comes to working with teachers (50:32)
If Tony had a time machine, and could go back and give advice to himself when he was just embarking on the past to becoming an education administrator, here’s what he would tell himself (51:20)
Books mentioned in this episode
Apps and tools mentioned in this episode
Connect with Tony Sinanis
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Educators Lead Ep. 24
Show notes: http://www.educatorslead.com/tonysinanis/
Welcome to educators Lee when we interview leaders in education to offer inspiration and practical advice to help. Launch educators into the next level of leadership. I’m your host Jay Willis and I want to thank you for subscribing to our show.
Intro: Dr. Tony Sinanis is currently the lead learner. At Cantiague Elementary School – Jericho, New York. Cantiague was named a 2012 National Blue Ribbon School Antonie receive the 2014 New York State. Elementary Principal of the Year award. Tony is active on Twitter and serves as a founder and co-moderator of N.Y. Ed Chat. Tony has presented it both national and local conferences based on his work with social media and school branding. Tony is also an adjunct professor at Lehman College as part of their educational leadership program. Finally. Tony has coauthored two books for Koren press with Dr. Joseph S. Sanfilippo, MD He’s also been on the show. The power of branding. Telling your school story. And Principal professional development, leading learning in the digital age. That is. I will say brief introduction but there’s part of the introduction Tony but tell us a little bit more about yourself.
Tony Sinanis: So yes. The name is Tony Sinanis, and I am a lead learner here a Cantiague Elementary School. And we learn are being the equivalent to principal of the school and I have been here for eight years. So aside from my professional world. Most important thing that goes on in them out of life is my son his name is Paul. And he is eleven years old and he’s in sixth grade and so. Being a dad of a kid who just got out of elementary school and then being the principal of an elementary school always an interesting experience to get to see things from both lenses. And it definitely lightens me and influences not only my decision as a dad, but my practices an educator so when my down time that’s where I spend a lot of time doing aside from like reading and writing but I’ve been an educator for 19 years and I started off as a classroom teacher and then transition to an administrator after 8 years of teaching. And this is actually my 10th year as a principal in 11th year as an administrator.
Jay Willis: So I guess kind of backtrack a little bit. What was your career path then like after college you went to, you became a teacher?
Tony Sinanis: Yes Sir so I graduated from N.Y.U. in 1997 and right out of college but maybe like 2 or 3 weeks right after graduation. There was a job fair at a local district in New York City public schools. And it was literally. What are the most stressful experiences I had because you it was in a school. And you went from classroom to classroom and there were administrative representatives from different schools. In this district in this building. And they all had different jobs and so you basically like cattle call. There were like hundreds of people going room to room and I had no experience. You know I done student teaching but certainly I don’t know if I was qualified to have my own classroom yet. So it was pretty stressful and I remember actually in the end on that day I had three different job offers. And I had to kind of really do some weighing the pros and cons. And I ended up accepting a position teaching 5th grade at P.S. 148 which was like in east almost in Queens. And in New York City and is about ten minutes from my house so that was great and they got me my own classroom which was great one of the other positions was like a special area it was just doing writing with a bunch of different grade levels and although that was an English. Minor. I didn’t know that I wanted to bounce from room to room I really wanted a class of kids to work with for the entire day. And the other opportunity presented itself was a 3rd grade placement but it was in a school that was a bit further from my home and so I thought I’d take the fifth grade one that’s closer. House. And so that was in 97 and. So I spent that summer getting ready and I started school with 37 kids in my class. In my first 5th grade class. about 17 of them didn’t speak English it was kind of a blended class so that was kind of interesting because the I had no training on how to work with people whose native language wasn’t English. Even though I am the child of immigrants and both my parents were born in Greece. And I didn’t speak English til later. I just didn’t have experience in that area so it was a bit challenging but you know ultimately kids respond to people who they feel comfortable around right? And who they can sort of trust and where they feel happy. And so I feel like that was the tone of the room so even though language barriers existed. It was something that we were able to navigate because there was a sense of community in that space and primarily my focus. In my first few years an educator. I was really passionate about. Developing community in the classroom so I worked at 148. For 2 years and then I transferred to a school in New York City in Manhattan. P.S. 41 and the reason I transferred. Because it was school industry two in the New York City public schools and District two is known for its amazing professional development. You know people like Shelley Harlow in where they are Lucy Caulkin was there and. Carl Anderson and you know names that I’m not even recalling about people who were coming into my classroom and modeling literacy instruction and modeling math instruction and really supporting the development of the teachers in the space and. So as an opportunity I couldn’t pass up. Even though it meant that I had to travel like I did our everyday each way. It was it was really. It was quite worth it and so I worked there for of year. And then that opened some doors for me and I secured a position in Long Island. So in the suburb of New York City. Hewlett-Woodmere School District is like on the south shore of Long Island and teaching 5th grade there. And I did that for 5 years. And that was an unbelievable experience because I went from. You know inner city urban kind of environment. Having upwards of 27 to 28 kids in my class at least if not you know up to 37. To the space where I only had twenty four kids and I had thousands of dollars to spend on resources and. You know parents were willing and available to engage and support. Language it wasn’t a barrier there just so many amazing. And different opportunities that were available to me. Not any better just different you know and so I was able to do that for 5 years. And in that time. While I was at Hewlett elementary school. I also that. Amazing professional development there and I learned a lot about literacy instruction and the reading writing workshop. And I learned a lot about hands on math. Thinking and science integration that was. Unfolds those really powerful experience for me and I worked with some amazing educators in that space as well. During that time. My son was born. And I got my degree in administration and I had a master’s in educational technology. After my son was born I just felt like I think I need to be in a be in a position where I can impact more kids and make a difference because I wanted after my son even though he was a baby. And so that’s when I started applying for administrative positions and 2 or 3 interviews out I was offered my first assistant principal ship in Valley Stream which is also on the south shore of Long Island. And I did that for 1 year. And my first year they are the principal was promoted to assistant superintendent and so the position of principal was available. And I was young and probably more cocky than I should have been and as I was like “I’m gonna buy the principal’s office big deal!” I was 31 and I thought pretty much do anything. And it was probably one of my bigger professional mistakes. Because I wasn’t ready to be a principal. I wasn’t ready to lead a community that was still resolving various issues one being a change in leadership because they were like three superintendents in three years. Change in demographics in the community, change in the Board of Education. Just things that I was not really prepared to navigate and I certainly did not have that skill set to navigate successfully. So it was a really tough 2 years as principal at clear stream Avenue Elementary School. Which is a great school and an amazing. You know. Staff will really work hard and I love my kids they were like the highlight of my day but it just wasn’t the right fit. And I and I kind of realized that about a half year in into my principal ship. To spill Sophocles I was in a different place as I mentioned you have the skill set, there were also some issues of race. That were that were not being addressed you know so was a predominantly African-American and Latino community with a staff that was predominantly white with a board that was predominantly white. And then the community started to change. And the adults in the community were not representative of the kids in the community. And I feel like that that created a disconnect. You know we really couldn’t relate, we really couldn’t understand, we really couldn’t appreciate. And I can assure you as a young administrator I had no idea how to. You know bridge sarcasm and how to address those issues and. I didn’t even realize that we needed to focus on sort of cultural literacy skills of the staff. And so it was a really challenging time for me because of the change in central office leadership. The ideal amount of support wasn’t there. I didn’t feel. You know so I got to a point of my second year the principal ship right. Sort of made a decision where I was either going to apply for a different principal ship. Because maybe it was just not the right fit for me in that space or I was going to go back to teaching. Because maybe being a principal wasn’t the right thing for me. But luckily, Cantiague need a new principal Jericho school district was looking for someone. And I got this job and it’s been 8 years. The most amazing 8 years of my career and it is like aside from seeing Paul that was my son this is like the highlight of my day and of course. Spending time with my. My partner I love him to I don’t want to neglect him. But the work that I get to do here in Cantiague is just unbelievable and I’m blessed to have this job. So that’s pretty much a ___of my professional career.
Jay Willis: So had you already gotten your master’s degree before your son was born?
Tony Sinanis: I did I completed 2 masters before my son was born. One in Educational Technology and one in Educational Leadership or Administration.
Jay Willis: OK. What was the inspiration for getting those because at that point. It sounds like you hadn’t quite made the decision to go into school leadership at that point? Or is that wrong?
Tony Sinanis: So the Educational Technology Masters was kind of like a must like in New York State. We are required to have a Masters. Within the first five years of our teaching if we don’t go into the position of the Masters and so I did not have one when I started out I just had a bachelor’s from N.Y.U. So I pursued Education Technology because not that I was necessarily “techy” per se but I was interested in the idea. And so I went through this program and while I was in this program at the New York. Institute of Technology. They had launched this Educational Leadership Program and one of my professors. As it’s nearing the end of my first Masters continues like “Tony I think you really need to consider pursuing a master’s in administration as an advance certificate it’s basically it’s like a Masters. I think you’d be great” And at that time what it really meant was more money. Like that I could get paid because more credits I can move up to you know the salary scale. So it’s more about that than it was even ever considering the notion that I’d be in administrator because you know who wants to go to the “dark side” everyone wants to stay at the light side of the spectrum. And I didn’t know that I was ever wanting to be away from my kids you know so the classroom was where my heart was. But like I said when Paul was born. It just kind of shifted my perspective a little bit and it gave me perspective and it gave me purpose I felt like and I don’t know something just switched on and I was like “I want to go and work with an entire school and create a school. The ideal school that you know I want Paul to go as a student and I want to teach it as an educator and I’d want to be a family member and as a parent” And so that kind of just became my motivation and it was just kind of switched on out of nowhere unexpectedly kind of like how the unconditional love things switched on. Yeah the minute Paul was born and so it was something that was lit in me and I had to pursue it. To see what it would feel like and if it was what you know what I wanted and it ended up being exactly what I wanted and needed. So
Jay Willis: Yeah, That kid factor boy that actually kind of in my own story. It had a similar effect where I wouldn’t say floundering by any means but just probably not quite as much a sense of direction. But then once you’re a parent it just changes your complete. I mean it changes your world really but definitely your perspective in. You kind of just, you become more of an adult I would say
Tony Sinanis: Yes, You know what you become more of an adult and you start to realize what it means to genuinely put someone else’s life before your own. And what it means to not even think about yourself like this is second you know.” Yeah alright I will make sure I get a new pair of shoes.” You know as you’re walking around with a whole new shoes. But I first have to go do this for my son or whatever and that sort of thinking and that mentality. Shifted its way into the way I sort to view my student’s coz I got it! Like this is you know in the best way that I can summarize it is that you know Paul is like a physical manifestation of my heart and soul like he is everything outside of my body. And I came to school and I looked at my students at the time and I was teaching 5th grade and I was like “Yeah, Here is Jeremy sitting right in front of me. Jeremy is his mom and dad’s heart and soul. This is like a gift and a privilege to be able to do this work with kids” And so for me it just felt even more important and more exciting. And so, although I was sleep deprived and I was exhausted and whatever I hadn’t showered you know all that stuff it definitely gave me perspective that was. That was powerful and I would almost argue like transformational in terms of my practice and my beliefs. My craft.
Jay Willis: Yeah, I can completely relate we have three kids 9-year old a 4-year old a 2-year old and. Yeah. It’s incredible.
Tony Sinanis: I mean I only have one. And I think one is you know for me enough but yeah. I can’t barely manage the one. But you know I’m also fortunate to be surrounded by really incredible and supportive family and his mom is a wonderful person and she does a great job raising him and helping him grow into this really great little boy and I have the privilege of being his Dad and so, it’s a great thing and you just don’t realize. You know not what matters not that things don’t matter before a kid but that you don’t realize what matters in life. When it comes to kids until you have one.
Jay Willis: Yeah definitely provides perspective I would say for sure. Completely different perspective. So it sounds like. I mean you kind of had already taken most of a lot of your schooling what additional schooling was required in order for you to become a principal like after some was born.
Tony Sinanis: Nothing was required. I had gotten all the certifications and I passed. I know there was a test at the time I think I can remember I think there was I passed that test so I was good to go and I had everything I needed. So academically speaking I was prepared to be a principal but I can assure you I wasn’t. I kind if failed miserably at my first ones principal ship I think because I was not in a place, I didn’t have the maturity, I didn’t have the experience, I didn’t have the perspective. As much as parenting gave me a perspective. It’s not the only perspective you know and you have to be able to identify with people and that was. That was missing for me and so was it’s a challenge. Academically I had what I needed but professionally as I said a long way to go.
Jay Willis: Yeah. Well so what were some of those struggles I know you mentioned it earlier like you weren’t really prepared but I mean specifically what were some of the greatest challenges that you faced in transitioning.
Tony Sinanis: I think a lack of a thick skin and so taking almost everything personally. And that’s really hard because 95% of the things you know sort of confronting a ___ or not personal in nature. But they become personal because I invested my life into this you know and sacrificed. Personally because I was at school at the crack of dawn and I didn’t leave until late at night. And I was working all the time and but in the end I realized I wasn’t working really smart because I was emotionally depleted I was you know physically tired and again I didn’t have experiences that were going to be beneficial to our entire community and that was that I was a tough thing as a 31-year old young white man. I had to start to understand this notion of privilege. Because I had a whole lot of privilege and I was working with people in the community who did not have the same access that I had just because I was a white man and they were not and that was something and couldn’t wrap my head around at the time I didn’t get it was kind of like but wait. You know my parents are immigrants too what’s the big deal. Yeah. It’s totally different to be a child of European immigrants that is someone from. You know an immigrant child of someone from the Caribbean or Africa or wherever. And so that inability to identify with a community of people were less challenging because it did not allow me to best support their needs and to really sort of create a school environment. That was tailored to meet the needs of this community and I think we were functioning as a school that work really well about 15 years before that. But had not made the necessary adjustments to work well at that time. And so we were trying to make the kids fit the school instead of the school fit the kids and I was a lot of it was my fault because I didn’t know any better and I wasn’t my practice wasn’t informed and so I was making decisions that were not ill intended. But just were not informed and so it was not always working out in a best way. I was tough.
Jay Willis: Yeah. I know for myself it seems like. So my greatest lessons and some of the greatest leaps in character development for me have been through some of the greatest challenges that I face like I don’t learn probably near as much from my successes as i do my failures which I hate to say because you love to succeed right but to be honest. It’s really it’s on the heels of those failures that you’re even able to succeed. To the levels that you are because of the lessons that you learn from his failures. So what would you say are some of the greatest lessons that you took away from that challenging experience?
Tony Sinanis: So I think. I think the one thing that I always carry with me and I try to impart on my students than I graduate program at Lehman. Who are aspiring administrators and I try to share with us that here is pretty simple. Take your work really seriously, but don’t take yourself that seriously. I am replaceable as the principal right, this position that I’m in as a Principal Cantiague school is not about Tony Sinanis. So the day I pick up and leave whether it’s you know I retire I move on. Someone else is going to come in and do just as good if not a better job than I did it’s not about me the individual. But my work as a principal, my work as an educator, my work as a learner. Is really, really important because it’s all about kids. And that’s the second thing that I learned. Always have to keep kids at the center of everything you do. And every decision you make and unfortunately and we thought that in schools and so often in my early experience as administrator. Decisions were made about the adults and what’s going to be easiest for the adults in the space or what’s going to receive the least amount of pushback from the adults in this space, or what’s going to you know require the least amount of time to implement for the adults and rarely did I focus the conversation on “Is this the best thing for kids? You know we giving every kid an entry point regardless of their readiness level? “I wasn’t having conversations like that I wasn’t doing that work. So that notion of you know taking your work seriously but not yourself. Keeping kids at the center I think is important in the third thing is to have fun. You know let your heart be part of this job lead with your heart lead with your emotion. Not all the time you know certainly you need that logical and rational perspective a lot of the time. But share the joy that you experience. You know I’m not the person that’s says don’t smug to December no. I smile from the second I see our kids you know. And I share of myself my kids know about Paul. You know my kids know about the fact that I’m a diehard Mets fan. You know whatever my kids know that I’m secretly but not so secretly obsessed with Mariah Carey whatever. I don’t judge me. So those are those are to me that’s part of the fun of this work is that you could get to connect with people. It’s like you know the best the best job on the planet. And so avail yourself to that. .
Jay Willis: Yeah. So talking about this. I mean obviously this is one of the greatest lessons that you learned but I know in any job any position. There is a tendency to be a poll just kind of a natural thing that happens where you can easily kind of just get caught up in the sort of the conveyor belt where you just you show up you do you thing you go back in and don’t really make. Maybe it is much of an impact you definitely don’t bring all of yourself to what you’re doing. But like so in those, in kind of it what makes me think of this is we’re talking about how maybe the school wasn’t growing with the kids. It was just trying to like cream the Kids into the school that was already there but it’s like you weren’t growing with the kids. So like. How do you as a leader get yourself consistently to that point where you’re not allowing yourself to be on that conveyor belt? And you’re not allowing mediocrity and just kind of that just through life mentality like how do you bring it every day?
Tony Sinanis: I do bring it every day because I’m crazy. I’m a bit intense. But I think the way I bring it every day. Is that at first and foremost, I’m a learner and I model that I try to model that everything that I do. Whether I’m talking to a teacher. Whether talking to a parent, whether I’m talking to a kid, whether I’m talking to a custodian, a secretary I am a learner first. And I think if we can approach our work as educators from that perspective. I think it totally shifts the culture of the community. And that is something that I’ve gotten as feedback from our staff. Been here years we could very easily lower ourselves into a very comfortable and content stagnant place. Because our kids are awesome! And they will do well! In spite of us on some level. But we’re not comfortable with that. Personally I’m not comfortable with that. I literally and genuinely focus every day on trying to learn at least one new thing. And I share that and I try to model that like I said with every change that I have. And so when it comes to the faculty meeting it’s not me standing up there and sharing you know “Nuts and bolts” about the schedule for the week coming up and “blah blah blah” it’s me at talking about something I learned it’s me talking about something I’m excited about you know. Are there times I come to work frustrated and tired? Absolutely. I don’t show that when I’m here because it’s not about my work here. You know I might be frustrated because it took Paul 2 hours to do homework last night. You know I might be frustrated because this morning when I woke up. You know my partner drank all the milk and I can’t have cereal. Up as much as I was a little annoyed with Felix. It wasn’t anything to do with my work here and so I leave it at the door when I get here and I’m excited because it’s a new day and it’s going to bring opportunities. I think the other thing that I’ve embraced and it’s something I learned from a friend of mine named Jason who I connected with on Twitter and talked to at length about educational systems while I was doing my dissertation. But I’ve tried to refrain situations and instead of focusing on problems. Really try to keep the focus on solutions. So that we’re constantly looking at being better iterations of ourselves. So that we are working towards an ideal. Instead it’s running around and putting out fires. It’s kind of like yeah where do we want to be like where do we see ourselves a year from now two years from now a month from now. Whatever, and working towards that instead of OK this just came up. Let’s fix it and move on because that’s easy to fall into. But then all you’re doing a solving problems. And you’re not working towards something and I think that’s an important shift in thinking in a Peter saying yes work. Really speaks to that a whole organizational systems thinking. But that goes back to being a learner first. You know when to learn from this experience it’s not just someone put the fire out and move on a minute potentially have to put a fire out but I want to learn something. So for the next time encounter a similar situation. I’m a step ahead. And I can be you know proactive in that situation not reactive.
Jay Willis: Yeah. And figure out who’s starting the fires?
Tony Sinanis: Yeah. Oh my gosh! Who’s starting the fires?
Jay Willis: Instead just constantly putting the fires out figure out now what’s causing these fires.
Tony Sinanis: And also empowering those around you to figure out ways to put out the fires that sometimes they’re creating themselves in-advertently, advertently. You know empower those around us I’m a big believer in distributed leadership. I don’t have the answer to everything all the time. So you have a problem if you have a better solution or you have a solution. Go to it! Give it a go I will support you. Because if you can tell me that it’s in the best interests of kids I will stand behind a 100%. And that’s really how I push the work every day and I think our teachers know they have the flexibility. You know we don’t teach curriculum. But we try not to teach curriculum which try to teach kids. We try not to do test prep. Because we know good instruction. Trumps test prep. We try to incorporate student centered activities whether its genius hour or passion based learning. Because we know that’s what’s best for kids and our teachers that have a space to do that is no prescribed way to make that happen it’s kind of like here’s an idea. How do you think this might look in your classroom? And I think that that sort of philosophy of distributing the leadership. Can be can be really positive for a space.
Jay Willis: Yeah. Just don’t worry about. Who’s presenting the idea just what the best idea when and.
Tony Sinanis: Exactly! And don’t keep it to yourself and that’s the one thing that amazes me about this place. Jay I can’t even tell you and as I briefly genuinely believe it has nothing to do with me. The staff here is so incredibly collaborative and so incredibly dedicated to being successful collectively. I’ve never seen anything like it. And I worked in places where people have to like rip out other people’s bulletin board. Because it’s like competitive. You know I’ve seen some crazy stuff. Here is like the opposite. It’s kind of like “Oh hold on let me help you do that better or here’s how I did this” And we have kids be part of those conversations to like our teachers learn from our kids’ our kids come to faculty meetings and they lead professional development for teachers. And our teachers love being in the seat of their learner. And having our kids be the lead learners it’s a really powerful thing. But and a just this tiny shift. The tiny shift from focusing on the teaching and the adults to focusing on the learning of the kids.
Jay Willis: Yeah. So if one of our listeners finds of themselves. Maybe in a situation like the one you described where people are tearing down their bulletin board. I mean do you think there’s a way to help change that culture. Like just how can you know what 1 person can do to find themselves in that culture. That could start making a positive change?
Tony Sinanis: You know I think it depends on the position the person’s in I think it’s very difficult for a classroom teacher in isolation to change the culture of a building. The more and more research I’ve done the more and more reading I’ve done and I’ve learned from years ago people like Todd would occur and you know Michael fullen and is a culture starts with the leadership of a building. And so if culture manifests itself in a way where people are ripping each other’s bulletin boards down. Probably it’s not about those people doing the ripping of the bulletin boards down. Instead it’s about the leadership of that space that is sort of breeding contempt and divisiveness as opposed to collaboration and cohesiveness. So you have to really look at that piece with that being said. I think teachers and students very much dictate the trajectory of the culture and what it feels like as you walk through this space. You know that the principal might set the tone and certainly shapes the culture but the teachers and the kids and their families. They are like the living in body men of the culture I like how they treat each other how they talk to each other how they interact with each other those things are the physical manifestations of the culture and if it’s a positive space you are going to see positive interactions if it’s not. You’re not going to see them. And that’s when you have to kind of trace it back I think to the leadership of the building. Now if you’re a teacher dealing with someone ripping down your bulletin boards. Then I think you need to have honest conversations with the person on the other end of that. So like what about my bulletin board put you in a position where you totally get to rip it down. You know and not necessarily confrontational. But almost like an exploration. Can you tell me a little bit about why this had to be the result of something? Like what were you feeling? And you know why did you feel that way? What that I do to make you feel this way. Even if you want to put the ownership on yourself even though you may not have done anything wrong. And so that’s kind of I think you know my suggestion would be “to confront it but not in a confrontational way” to confront in a way that will actually I think. Result in collaboration because you get maybe have a conversation with the person on the other end of that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s going to work out in a positive way. But at least you can approach it in a positive way instead of like coming back later that night or ripping down there.
Jay Willis: Letting it Escalate instead of yeah yeah
Tony Sinanis: Yeah exactly just at least putting it out there and trying to address it. And again focusing on the solution instead of the problem. It’s a simple way to reframe things but if you keep your focus on the solution. It generally ends up a lot more positive than when you focus on the problem.
Jay Willis: Yeah! That is great and I have kind of tried to live by something on that, of course not perfect. I’m always trying hard and I never do anything all the time that I should do right but something it’s. I try to you know. A quote that I heard I don’t even know who to give credit to for this but “If you’re not part of the solution you’re part of the problem.”
Tony Sinanis: Yes, That’s simply it. You’re right that’s it.
Jay Willis: Because so many people they’ll just complain. But what is complaining accomplishing? If you’re not doing something to actually make it better than you’re just contributing to the problem.
Tony Sinanis: Right, right, and I think that that’s. That’s a big part of it. And that also starts a leadership. Because as a leader am I creating a space where people feel comfortable and supported enough to try to problem solve or not? because I often find in spaces where the focus is on the problem. And complaining about the problem. It’s because the people in that space don’t feel like there’s someone there to support them in their efforts to solve the problem. So I never turn anyone away. Because I do want to work with someone I try not to just give an answer right away because I want people to feel like they’re part of that process. But people need to feel supported. Teachers work their butts off every single day, every hour of the day when they leave the building. Over the weekends over the summer months. Are teachers pour their hearts into this work and. I’m not talking about some of the teachers I’m talking about the majority of the teachers and are there some teachers that are like not as great as others? Yeah that’s true. But that’s true in every profession. But in my experiences and you mentioned Joe Sanfilippo recently that you had an opportunity to speak to him. Joe and I had the chance to go speak to different educators across the country. We see a whole lot more good than we do anything else and so that knowing that that’s at the root of a lot of our schools. Then work from that space make people feel supported make people feel valued and give them a voice in whatever is going on because I think that shifted from the problem again to the solution.
Jay Willis: I like that! That’s probably a connection in my brain that I hadn’t really made before. But if you empower people. When they complain there, when they feel like they can actually be a part of this solution. And you help them see that they can be. I would guess that really helps to minimize the complaining. Because they realize that when you come to them. Well if they come to you with a problem. Then you’re going to be the first person on the team to help fix that problem. You know…
Tony Sinanis: Yeah. And I think listen, you have to validate that there are problems in the work that we do we’re working with kids, we’re working with families, we’re working with entire communities. We’re going to encounter problems. So you can’t also turn a blind eye to then pretend that they’re going to go away. Because they’re not. And I’ve seen that in cases where people who are very kind and now actually coming from a really positive place leaders avoid the problems. But to they’re end so you have to validate that when someone comes see you with a problem. “I hear you. You know clearly this something that’s challenging right now are frustrating right now or difficult right now. And so how are we going to fix that. Because I wanted to better.” You can’t just be like “oh that’s not a big deal or you know get over it” And sometimes you don’t want to feed into it right? you know want to like inflame it but you need to validate that someone’s feeling that way and they have good reason to feel that way. But then move on to the solution right and that’s critical.
Jay Willis: Yeah. And I can see that that you empowering them and just helping them reframe it will help them get to that point. Quickly. From the solution focused. I’m sorry from the problem focus to the solution focus.
Tony Sinanis: Yeah. That’s the goal and doesn’t always work unnecessarily.
Jay Willis: So people just like to complain right.
Tony Sinanis: Yeah and sometimes I just like to put out the fire instead of trying to problems solve it. People just move out of the way I’ll take care of it and you do your thing and I’ll just you know we’ll move on and that’s just even as a parent you have that sometimes right? Like, here I hope you put your code in your shoes on so we can get out of here instead of practice. Trying your shoelaces on your own or I’ll help you with your math homework so we can get done ten minutes faster. Instead of letting you know your child work it out and even maybe have a little bit of a tough time. And feel uncomfortable all the times. That’s a good thing for a kid to feel sometimes just faster and easier to go the other way. So that’s a reality too.
Jay Willis: But they just don’t learn that way.
Tony Sinanis: They don’t learn that way neither do we as adults.
Jay Willis: Yeah. So kind of shifting gears a little bit. I know you’ve been in administration for a while and you probably have some just awesome stories of the impact you’ve been able to be a part of or witness. But what if you could take us maybe to one of the most meaningful or significant stories and just share that with our audience.
Tony Sinanis: So that I think the most challenging thing that I’ve ever experienced as an administrator was having the death of a teacher in our school and I was in my first principal ship and we had a teacher who actually had a baby in early February and she was a young woman who was 31-years old and she was out of maternity leave. And she came back and I would never forget it is you know. It literally change the. My life. She came back on Thursday May 1st and came back to school and it was great to see her and we’re so happy she was back and she went home that night and she fell asleep on the couch and ended up having a massive heart attack and dying. So in an instant everything just change you know as a Friday morning when we got the call and I could not even believe it because I’d just seen this woman she just came back she looked wonderful. Her you know her baby was adorable and yet there was this phone call on Friday morning. Telling me that she had passed and I could not even wrap my head around it I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know what we would say to those kids who had just seen their teacher you know she had just come back from her leave they saw her. It was traumatizing, paralyzing. I didn’t know what to do. Suddenly I you know kind of to step back and I kind of like myself in my office for a couple of hours had some colleagues come over to try to you know counsel me and comfort me even because her classroom happen to be right next door to my office I saw her every day and we talked every day and it was. I couldn’t even believe it and so what happened though in the days after that it really deepen and strengthened our sense of community. We pull together for each other we pull together for our kids. I worked it out so that any teacher and every teacher who wanted to be at the funeral was at that funeral. Whether it meant. Combining classes getting subs from just about anywhere. Superintendent was even willing to come over and cover classes. It gave me an understanding of what do we do. When one trauma. Impacts kids and how do you handle that and it was humbling in a lot of ways and what I learned was. You can never be prepared for every situation that comes up but how you handle the situations that come up is very telling about how the building will move forward and for me it was just trying to be as constant and as supportive and as understanding and as empathetic as I can be to everyone in that space. And it was tough but it changed me and it harden me a little bit in some ways but it totally soften the up in other ways and gave me a lot of perspective an appreciation for the moments. That we have and that’s something that I imparted I try to impart on our staff and our kids. Not necessarily by sharing that story but what I learned from that story and how that’s impacted the work that I do on a daily basis so that and I was a tough think as you know we had to repair a letter that went on to the parents. I had to talk to my staff that afternoon it was it is a Friday afternoon and it was an emergency faculty meeting and people are like what is going on and I had to stand in front of them and tell some of these people who you know she was their best friend. It was it was really very difficult. But as I said it brought us together as a community and we really we stuck it out in the last eight weeks of school. As difficult as they were was probably some of the best times we had together. Because we really came together as a staff in a community.
Jay Willis: Wow! So that’s kind of like the worst and best. Yet all wrapped into one.
Tony Sinanis: And I’ll tell you this. There is no class in administration school how to deal with the point. That doesn’t ever happen. So you really have to kind of figure it out. But also rely on the people around you and so that with that was. That was really very difficult for me personally. But professionally. It changes the way that I look at things.
Jay Willis: Yeah. Yeah. Again that perspective. You are talking about earlier. Has major life events it’s just amazing how different you know they make you see the world.
Tony Sinanis: Yeah. Yeah. And again. Immediately my mind went to the solution right like so we had a huge problem that we’re facing. What we’re going to do and the primary focus is what are we going to do for our kids? What are we going to do for that class of kids? And what are we going to do for their families? And then what are we going to do for our staff. How are we going to move forward because certainly we could have been mired in grief and we were in there was grieving. You know that we didn’t we didn’t you brush that under the rug. They were very open and honest and raw conversations that happened and we were working towards where we wanted to get as opposed to be mired in that difficult point where it was tough.
Jay Willis: Wow.
Tony Sinanis: OK that’s not really an uplifting story
Jay Willis: Yeah I know but I’m glad you shared me mean a lot of the stories of course that we have on the show or are likely. This mean you know this kid did this and came back after high school and it was just need to see their successful and I love those stories. It definitely caught me off guard but I see what you mean. Because like my wife has gone through cancer. Like we almost lost her son when he was born. Now he has a muscular disorder that we just kind of his constant like daily battle. And it’s just why I would never choose. Some of those circumstances. I cannot deny how they’ve caused me to change as a person and how they help me become stronger and have more depth as a person.
Tony Sinanis: That’s it. You hit the word depth this is what happened and it’s funny you mention your son. My son was born with a bunch of issues and one of them being congenital scoliosis and he has rods in his back and he has surgery every 6 months. And if I can tell you that the way that he is redefining courage and strength to me. Has given me depth and more than anything. It has given me such an easy and empathy like when I see someone coming here and they’re struggling. I can empathize with them because I’ve been there or if I haven’t physically been in the same situation. I know what it’s like to hurt for someone else because you want. You know you I’m sure you want nothing else but the take whatever issues your son has in and let them be your own you know I never want to see anyone like that around you suffer and so when you can. I feel like look at kids in that way not the like you said other you would wish that on anyone but they you never want them to suffer you want kids have access to the best, to the safest, to the most positive. Then that really helps in the work that we do as educators because there we can see the negative in a second. And that’s the easy thing to do and we can feel the pain because that’s the easy thing to do in the frustration and the challenges. But on the flip side of that our opportunity and our rewards and our kids who are excited to be in a space with us and it’s just an amazing opportunity to have every day.
Jay Willis: Yeah. So I’m going to I’m going to roll through a few rapid fire questions only be respectful of your time how much longer do you have?
Tony Sinanis: I can probably do another like seven minutes.
Jay Willis: That should be plenty will all get used to these quick. So first off what’s the best leadership advice you’ve ever received?
Tony Sinanis: The best leadership advise I’ve ever received. Is “don’t respond to a question right away” Take time to think it through and be reflective in your practice?
Jay Willis: That’s good. What would you say is your biggest strengths as a school administrator?
Tony Sinanis: I think my humanity or at least. My attempt to see the people in front of me. Not just teacher’s not just students not just parents but the individuals and who they are and developing relationships with those people are very open with who I am as a person and I and I’ve been through some interesting personal journeys and one of them being coming to terms with my sexuality much later in life. I and I shared that journey with our staff. And I shared the journey with our community I blog about it and so that notion of being transparent and connecting availing yourself of connections with people. I think that’s one of my strengths of these that’s what I tried it to every day.
Jay Willis: Besides of course the two books that you and Joe Simpson to have written which of course everyone listening should buy. But besides that are there any other books that you would recommend for other school leaders that have made an impact on you?
Tony Sinanis: Definitely like. If you’re an educational measure you need to read “What Great Principals Do Differently” by Todd Whitaker because he is like me amazing and it genuinely has shaped. All of my thinking as an administrator. I mean I write my newsletter. Because of him I talk to people in a certain way because of him. I can’t tell you enough about that book. And it’s you know it’s at least ten years old probably more. Great read and then for something a little more current. I highly recommend “The Innovators Mindset” by George Couros. He’s an educator from Canada. And it just the book just got released maybe late last year and I read it. Quick read but just this idea of being in you know approaching education with innovative solutions right looking at things in different ways and leading like a culture of creativity which is what George stresses in the book I think. I loved it and it reinvigorated me into really very much aligned to what I believe so it’s great to see that. Those are just two books I think an author whom I’ve read also recently at Barney’s Pernille Ripp and a teacher in Wisconsin but she wrote a book about “Passionate Learners” To another book about empowering. Students in schools. She’s also a must read and. I mean I can go on and on because I love to read but those are the ones.
Jay Willis: We have less and seven minutes though. I’m just kidding! Yeah I’m sure you have a lot of books that’s great! But you know leaders are learners. So you’re always reading I’m I have a whole bunch of books right now that I’m sort of halfway in. Is there anything in any technology that you would recommend other school leaders besides like Voxer, Twitter that they might not be aware of?
Tony Sinanis: I think people should familiarize themselves with both Touchcast and Audioboom, Because Touchcast playing a video App, you can make up to five minutes of video for free and easily links to YouTube great way to share information with the community we do video newsletters here or Cantiague each week. And our kids do an update so instead of doing a paper newsletter or email with an update. Our kids get on camera they talk for like five minutes or less about all the great things that are happening in a garden through fifth grade. And we do that every week. That’s a free app. And so if principles or teachers are interested in something like that sharing information in that way it’s a great app to use. Even if they want to potentially flip. Instruction or flip a faculty meeting. It’s a great way to video. Information you need to share put it out there. And then on the other end the spectrum is Audioboom which is a recording a voice recording device apps. I mean that you can use for podcasting are sharing information. That’s a really nice alternative to making a phone call sometimes but putting that information out there in a different way so I highly recommend those two apps because they’re a great way to tell your story. And as you mentioned Joe and I wrote a book about. You know bring in your school and telling your school story and so often we do what newspapers and you know new shows television shows or whatever to tell the story of schools. And they’re not even in the schools they’re not interacting with the kids in the staff. So these are apps that allowed us as a dictator such all those stories and communicate the stories of the people beyond the context of our school.
Jay Willis: Yeah and there has to be great for the kids ahead chance to watch one of them right before we did this interview knows a cause. I just can’t imagine how that helps to instill confidence in those kids. Feel ownership of the school and yeah.
Tony Sinanis: Are you kidding is awesome to watch them in there so excited literally fight to be in a video update and you had to act. You know when I was in elementary school. I was scared of my principal I don’t even want to talk to a principal let alone. It basically come into my office they take it over for about a half hour they just. It’s amazing to watch and I’m honored to be a part of that.
Jay Willis: Yeah. So a couple more questions first. What advice would you have for a school leader working with the students at the serve?
Tony Sinanis: Make sure that you keep kids at the center of every decision that you make. So if you can go home at the end of the night. Then look in the mirror and say yes I did what was in the best interest of kids. Even when it wasn’t easy, even when I wasn’t popular and then you doing the right thing. And that’s the most important piece of our work is our kids. So I think that would be my advice and don’t take yourself too seriously. You take the work seriously. You know be passion about the work. But don’t take yourself that seriously.
Jay Willis: So along those lines what advice would you give for an administrator working with the teachers?
Tony Sinanis: The same thing and. Remember that there are people right like your teachers our spouses and our daughters and our moms or husbands or dads. All those aspects of their life. Shape who they are as an educator. To get to know them. Invest in relationships. Because it is my belief and although I haven’t done the research yet to support it. It is my belief that highly effective schools are built on positive nurturing relationships that are rooted in trust and respect. It’s all about relationships.
Jay Willis: Relationships, relationships. So if people want to connect with you what was your Twitter handle again?
Tony Sinanis: I’m @tonysinanis. It’s my handle and my name.
Jay Willis: Ok, very good. So last question. If you could go back to when you were a teacher if you could hop in a time machine and go back to the point in which you just made the decision to go to school leadership you could give yourself. Advice. What advice would you give to your younger self?
Tony Sinanis: Slow down and enjoy the experience and don’t worry about what’s coming up next. Be in the moment.
Jay Willis: That is great advice. Live with passion
Tony Sinanis: Right yeah there’s so many amazing things on around us. Around me every single day. And I’ve gotten to a point now in life and I know if it’s because I turned 40 you know what it was but. I can slow down and appreciate them. And although I’m always excited about what upcoming opportunities might present themselves for us within Cantiague. I don’t worry about what’s coming next I really just try to enjoy the moment and I live my personal life like that you know. With our family with, my son, or my partner with our parents my siblings it’s you have moments together. Be in those moments 100% you know put the phone away. Shut the computer off turn the T.V. off if you can whatever you know whatever the case may be and try to be immersed in that moment and be 100% you in that moment.
Jay Willis: Well Edu leaders this is been a great interview today for the show notes of today show and other resources visit educatorslead.com and type the word “Tony” into the search tool to find his show notes. Tony thank you for sharing your journey with us today.
Tony Sinanis : Thank you Jay for giving me a basis shared for the exciting opportunity to have your an amazing host that to say is someone who does the podcasting on the other end you make me look terrible so I have a lot to learn that I’m going to work on that now.
Jay Willis: That was very kind too kind I think but thank you
Tony Sinanis: You’re great I love what you’re doing so keep doing what you’re doing and keep inspiring. Those around you and far beyond where you are to so thank you.
Jay Willis: Thanks a lot Tony I appreciate that and that wraps up another episode of Educators Lead.
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Educators Lead is a podcast created to help launch educators into the next level of leadership. This show is for you if you are interested in educational leadership as an assistant principal, principal, superintendent, teacher or someone who hopes to be a school leader one day. Educators Lead offers inspiration and practical advice to help you lead more effectively. Jay Willis interviews school leaders weekly to discuss why and when these educators made the decision to move into school leadership, challenges along the journey, and stories that made it all worthwhile. Educators Lead is a great resource for any educator looking to make a greater impact.
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