“This Might Not Work…”

I was listening to a podcast with Seth Godin as the guest and the discussion covered many topics, eventually landing around the ideas of “saying no” and “learning how to fail.” Seth goes on to share that as a teenager he started to employ the phrase “This Might Not Work” as he was introducing a new idea or strategy for action. And what emerged for me was inspiring.

In this time of accountability and school ratings (accompanied by the lack of patience), I think we can agree that mistakes have too often been stigmatized. Consequently, we shy away from trying something new or taking that bold step forward.

I learned that the power of the phrase – This Might Not Work – lies in how it sets expectations. Consider the two approaches below.

The former sets the responsibility at the feet of the person that originated the idea with the operational assumption that it will work. The latter makes clear that this may very well fail, and that we only move forward if the team wants to do it. One places the pressure, and possible joy, on a single person while the other permits the joy to be shared regardless of whether it works. Thus the fear of failure is minimized (if not removed). This is important if we want to be a part of creating anything original.

Think about it – we’ve all hatched an idea or shared in the development of a plan that we “never thought would actually work.” Or maybe the response was something along the lines of, “this might be just crazy enough to work.” Those memories usually include smiles and a nostalgic look back on the entire process. That’s the joy I am referencing.

I know that I’m going to try this out in my next planning meeting and I hope you’ll do the same. Let me know how it goes.

Reminder Outside Rockefeller Center

Service is black & white….hospitality is color. Getting the right dish to the right person (delivering the curriculum) is providing the service. When a connection is made, when a person feels heard and seen, then you are sharing hospitality. Add color and life and movement to the interaction & that’s what will be remembered.

In this episode of the A Bit of Optimism Podcast with Simon Sinek, his guest, Will Guidara, shares the story of a group of foodies that visited his 5 STAR restaurant in NYC. They gushed over all the wonderful meals they had enjoyed at the best restaurants in the city (and in the world). One of them then remarked that the only thing they had not had in NYC was a “dirty water” hot dog. Specifically, for anyone that has not enjoyed this delicacy, a “dirty water” hot dog is bought from a vendor on a street corner in Manhattan. So Will overheard this comment, rushed out to the corner vendor, and purchased a hot dog. He then had it served in an elegant fashion, and the table of foodies was amazed. Their experience escalated to unforgettable and they now had a story to tell friends for years.

The big takeaway for me from the episode was that when unreasonable hospitality is experienced, either personally or as a witness, the release of oxytocin and other “feel good” chemicals is the same for both the recipient AND those that witness it. In essence, it is the brain teaching us that being kind to others, whether hearing a story of kindness or witnessing generosity, makes us feel better. I mean, think about the TikTok videos or reels that touch your heart – and we are merely a witness to them. Small moments can inspire big notions to perform something similar for another.

It makes no difference whether we are in the restaurant business or the education profession, we always have the chance to add color to someone’s life. Often we merely need to slow down, listen, and then leap. And while our attempt/success rate may not be as high as we wish, there is never a shortage of opportunity. Strive to be deliberate. Moments matter.

I’ve Moved!

There comes a time in life when a new adventure unfolds and the choice as to whether or not to plunge is in front of you. That moment came for me a few weeks ago, and I have chosen to accept the full-service retirement that the state of Texas offers public school educators. I am not certain yet exactly what may come around the corner yet I’m proud of the 30 years I served in public education.

My entry into Twitter and the incredible learning that has occurred there began upon my appointment as the Principal of Bellaire High School. My Twitter Handle for the last nearly ten years has been @m_squaredBHS and my identity with the school has been synonymous with the professional learning I have experienced. However, I am no longer leading that campus and so it feels appropriate to move on to a new handle that is more indicative of the learning I want to continue in the education space. Thus I have made the shift to my new Twitter Handle @mcdonoughEDU.

I’m excited to embark on this new adventure while remaining solidly within the Education Setting. I plan to begin more regular posting this month and look forward to continuing to explore leadership alongside you.

5 Coaching Questions

I have to admit that, for a short time each day, I’ll watch TikTok. In addition to some incredibly creative videos, there is quite a bit that can be learned. Of late, I have stumbled on to @Askvinh – a resource that either affirms practices that I’ve tried or inspires new strategies to use. If you aren’t familiar with him, then I would encourage you to check him out. Some good stuff there.

An important element for any leader to learn is how to coach someone that has a dilemma. Often we default toward consulting, wherein we give them specific advice to move forward or solve a situation. And sometimes that’s what is needed and is completely appropriate. The more challenging piece for both members can be a coaching scenario. This is where the leader helps someone reach their own conclusion. It is harder, takes more time, and can lead to frustration. I think these five questions from an @askvinh TikTok can help & I’m eager to share them.

  1. What’s on your mind? This opens the door for anything and avoids the trap of embarking on the conversation from a specific mindsight. So instead of asking, “What’s wrong?”, which can set a tone of discontent, you are expressing to this partner that you have an open mind and are available for whatever might emerge.
  2. What else? This allows the speaker to share everything they want with your permission. They can empty the tank.
  3. What’s the challenge? This focuses them on the obstacle or hurdle that seems to be in the way. You are giving them the opportunity to define this which takes it from a “soft or gooey” state to something more specific, more objective.
  4. What do you want? This forces them back toward a solution. Essentially, you are pointing them forward and it remains personal. This is still about them.
  5. What can I do to help? This is where you learn whether you need to offer a specific set of next steps or if they feel confident to move forward. Either way, you have helped.

It’s not uncommon for people to elevate to leadership positions based on individual accomplishments. Sometimes the resulting personal struggle revolves around the development of management muscles. And at the same time, we are mentored to strengthen our leadership potential by becoming active listeners. I totally agree with a commitment to that skill.

Through my exploration of leadership, I have come to the conclusion that we can more explicitly develop leadership in others through the questions we ask. I believe those five questions are effective, and I encourage you to try them in your next conversation. Let me know how it works.

The Need to be Significant

A couple years ago, I committed to exploring leadership with this blog. I think I’ve been pretty good (maybe a B-) about doing that though I’m trying to be more consistent with my own learning (and then sharing it). This post is a direct result of that.

I recently listened to an episode of Simon Sinek’s Podcast – A Bit of Optimism https://simonsinek.com/discover/episode-35-raising-resilient-kids-with-angela-duckworth. Truthfully, I’m a bit hooked right now. The episode had Angela Duckworth as the guest, so you would expect that the idea of Grit emerged. And while it did, there is a different aspect that resonated with me. And I think it absolutely is an extension of leadership, specifically building leadership in others.

During the conversation between Simon & Angela, there is a brief mention of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and how it works. I did not know this yet it was revealed that the data points toward the conclusion that even if someone masters the first 11 steps, if they fail to accomplish step 12, then they have a very high likelihood that they will succumb to the disease once again. The 12th step – help another alcoholic.  Essentially “help someone else with the thing they are struggling with.”

There is an inner need within us all to be significant. In moments where we are struggling, having the chance to act in a significant way for another is often exactly what we need to begin to turn a corner. I believe this can also work as we build leadership in others. Purposely seeking out opportunities to ask for advice or input from an aspiring leader allows them to contribute. And by reflecting and offering their words, they often walk away having gained more from the experience than you. 

To be clear, this is not limited to adults. In my more than three decades of working with young people, I often found that struggling students can begin to prosper when they are asked to help another. Being trusted by an adult is powerful and builds assets within that young person at the first moment. Honestly, I wasn’t always aware enough to act on this wisdom as too often I employed the “usual kiddos.” That was a missed opportunity and I needed to be better.

Finally, it is the act of committing ourselves to each other that also leads toward the further development of a community. I talk about this in a previous blog regarding Everyday Leadership Who Doesn’t Like a Lollipop?. I would challenge you to be purposeful the next time you have the chance to enable someone to be significant to another. A tiny shot of “I believe you can do this” or “I need your help/insight/wisdom with this” can go a long way.

So who comes to your mind right now? And how will you act on that tomorrow?

Saying Hello (Again) Isn’t So Hard

As you leave your office and head down the main hallway, a laundry list of thoughts crosses your mind.  The parent conference you just left, the teacher you need to see now, the district deadline that is quickly approaching, and the big basketball game tonight versus your rival.  All of this consumes your mind and then you see a young man walking down the same hallway toward you.  He looks to be on his way somewhere, he has a pass in his hand, and he is looking down.  You have a decision to make – one that I think is so crucial for any adult on campus.  Empowered to shape the culture and climate of your school at every moment, what decision will you make right now that reinforces what you believe is important?    

Just over twenty years ago, I was finishing my first semester in grad school on my way to Principal certification.  Sitting in a training with my cohort, I was introduced to the idea of 40 Developmental Assets for Adolescents.  The Search Institute had sent team members to speak with us about these different assets and how they can influence the possible outcomes for young people in middle school or high school.  And since those were the only levels I had taught, and thus likely to be the levels at which I served as a campus leader, I was definitely interested.  As the speaker took us through research and findings, I remember hoping that he would offer some examples.  He finally did and I can say that one example, in particular, has remained a hallmark of what I believe should happen every single day.

Now retired, I can recall making my way around campus each morning, afternoon, and evening, and I would see students in the hallway.  Maybe they were returning from their locker, visiting their counselor, completing an errand, or merely running late.  And what I realized was that often adults walk toward them, heads down, and pass them without saying a word.  I mean, I understand, I guess, as we are busy.  We have things to do.  However, I am of the belief that when we choose (and it is a decision we make) to NOT speak to that young person, then we are missing a chance to acknowledge that they exist and that they matter.  Sadly, for some, these same young people get that feedback (or lack thereof) every day at home, on the bus, in the car, and throughout the school.  And when I chose not to greet them then I was just as guilty of not helping build assets within them.

So I changed my practices.  I committed to making eye contact with each of them and saying “Good morning”, “How’s it going?”, or “Good afternoon.”  It’s not an extensive conversation yet it is acknowledgment.  To be honest, most merely smile and echo back the sentiment.  Some don’t reply at all and I learned to roll with that.  However I am of the firm belief that it matters, and the shy smiles that were offered in return were what made me certain.  Thus it became a staple for me for nearly two decades as a campus leader.

So when you are cruising down the hallway tomorrow, with lots on your mind, don’t miss the opportunity to remind a young person that they are significant, that they are worth your time, and that you share this world with them. Perhaps you’ll become as well known as this young boy from England during the lockdown in 2020.


Friendly toddler says hello to everyone he meets (🎥 : PA) #toddler #friendly #hello #greet #toddlersoftiktok #cute #friends

♬ Summer Time (Cute) – モイモイ

How Do You Choose To React?

In January, I participated in a common blog activity where I share my #oneword that will launch me into the new year (What Are You Prepared To Do?). It’s a good exercise, and, admittedly, this most recent year has been tough. Yet I recently read something that sparked me and thus I’m embarking on a new exploration where, at the end of the year, I reflect on the learning I’ve done with my #oneword.

My focus in January was on the idea of RESPONSE. And while I imagine the totality of responses that have been generated these last twelve months is likely similar to any other year, it sure doesn’t feel like it. I’ve had to listen and manage and learn. I’ve had to act gently when I was frustrated and lead bravely when I was unsure. Those who’ve read or followed any work by Dr. Brene’ Brown know of her adoration for the Man in the Arena. Well this year, I think each of us has been kicked and knocked down and faced struggles all while daring to be great for those we stand alongside. Yeah, I’m declaring it right now – we’ve earned it.

And so it was on a recent trip that I had a friend lend me her copy of The Gifts of Imperfection. There are many pages I dog-eared and lots of quotes I wrote down, yet the section on calm is what resonates with me today. She defines CALM as “creating perspective and mindfulness while managing emotional reactivity.” In practice, she says that she tries to be slow to respond and quick to think. I love that.

Connecting with others and making yourself vulnerable is hard. And in those moments where you look around and others are looking to you – well – game on! You see, it’s right at that moment that we have the opportunity to choose how we will react? How will we respond? When I’m at my best, I find that I most honor my commitment to a response by slowing down. It’s not weakness or indecisiveness. Rather it deserves to be seen as a strategy – slow on the outside while thinking quickly on the inside.

I understand this isn’t breakthrough science and that many are likely practicing this. Yet it was a helpful reminder to me as I rumbled with my #oneword challenge for 2021.

Thinking about when you’re at you’re best, what’s a practice or behavior that you’d like to replicate more often?

Thirty Seconds That Woke Me Up

I saw this commercial the other day and it stuck with me. Thirty seconds long and yet I had to share it with others. It seemed that, in that moment, Western Governors University had summarized what a personalized education plan could/should look like. Check it out here: The University of You

Years ago I attended a PLC institute and got to hear Rick DuFour talk about public schools and this new model for how educators would come together to make student learning more powerful. Specifically, I remember him saying that what needed to be learned was static (constant) and that the amount of time needed to demonstrate the learning is what was dynamic (the variable). The idea of removing the mandate that a kiddo had to demonstrate mastery of the content taught in this classroom, at this school, in this town, by this date, resonated and made complete sense. That was nearly 20 years ago and I don’t think we’ve made nearly enough progress.

Even as we come out of the March 2020 – August 2021 virtual vs Face-to-Face school experience, far too many public schools are, in my opinion, stuck. Foregoing the opportunity to do something different, something unknown, something better for kids, we slid back into what we already knew. “Now isn’t the time to try something else because we have lost so much” is the refrain I kept hearing.

I’m not saying we blew it as we can always get better. Heck, it may have been the right decision. Yet I do believe that the next leap in public education is figuring out how to really personalize learning for a kid. And honestly, today, at this moment, it feels like too much to tackle. Sure, I’ve got early ideas of what some of the key elements might include; and certainly thoughts on what should NOT be part of it (required seat time, one-shot-assessment, etc). But how to make it all “fit”? I don’t know. Yet we’ve got to do something.

I have spent the last 12 years leading a large comprehensive high school, and I think that’s the level that is most in need of growth. I have to believe that we can gather enough intellectual and political will to change some pieces so as to improve the overall experience. I mean, we sorta have to, right? Can we at least agree that we are in a moment of urgency? Now it’s going to take lots of people smarter & wiser than me to rally together on this, at the most local level, and I’m ready to join that conversation. We’ve got to take action so that they can begin to view their 8:30-4:00, five-day-a-week, “job” as something with potential rather than another thing to endure. I know that my students are watching and they’re growing tired of waiting.

Now I know almost nothing about WGU yet they seem to have a clear vision of what & for whom they exist. And their plan signals a boldness that isn’t exclusive to them. Maybe it’ll work. Most likely they’ll learn and have to adapt and adjust. But you know what, they’re trying. And I know that, personally, for me right now, I’ve got to commit to furthering my own learning in this area. I can be better. We have to be better.

What Are You Prepared To Do?

One of the first things I did as the calendar moved from December to January was awake early so that I could prep for a half marathon just outside Houston. I was desperate to toe the line and give it my best – especially on this first day of the year we seemed to collectively & desperately long to finally arrive. I can’t adequately discuss everything over the previous 12 months; rather I find myself focused on how to react to what has happened. As i laced up and stretched, I found myself grateful to be healthy and prepared to run with two friends; my mind focused on trying to set a new personal record. This private moment of satisfaction was a small step toward measuring how I will value my 2021 #OneWord – RESPONSE.

I have written before on the work my school was able to do with Dr. Brene Brown a couple years ago, and a piece that has always resonated with me is her discussion of empathy.  Specifically she talks about our habit of “silver-lining” something as we try to respond to what someone else is sharing.  And she goes on to say that “rarely can a response make something better.  What makes something better is a connection.”  Thus I am going to strive to focus more on what is being shared and less on trying to solve the situation.      

As a school leader, there are often moments where my office can become a sort of confessional. Whether it is a struggle, a mistake, a triumph, a hurdle, or a blunder, it is not uncommon for someone to become emotional. Often they reach for a Kleenex and then offer an apology (my standard answer is that the tissues are there for a reason and I have lots of them). So the other element of my #OneWord – RESPONSE – that resonates with me is that in order to best serve the intent of the word, I must pay attention. I have to commit to invest myself in the moment. By focusing on the human connection, and freeing myself from a self-diagnosed need to react and fix and solve, I will be more able to actively listen.

Dr. Brown uses the phrase, “the story I’m telling myself in my head” to help us try to reach a point where we can truly listen. It’s not easy to trust that the other person is always coming from a good place. And that’s fair, however they are coming from a place that is very relative to them and the situation. Embarking on a RESPONSE with that understanding is what gives us a chance for real connection. The other day, a teacher on our campus, saddened by the 85-90% of our students who remain virtual, stated that he was “done with distance. I want my kids safely back with me so that I can (metaphorically) get my arms around them and connect.” We all miss being #together and the connection that is inherent inside our classrooms. And when our setting returns to some form of familiarity, our RESPONSE, each and every day, will be taxing and challenging and rewarding and exhausting and emotional. The better prepared we are then the stronger we can be for each other and for ourselves. How has finding & developing your #OneWord been pushed this year?

Looking Back Can Move Us Forward

Three weeks ago, we welcomed our faculty back to campus. For those of us that had been working on site since July, we were excited to have more people, energy, and ideas inside the building. And when the students joined all of us a week later, we found ourselves hoping to have some sense of “normal” back in our professional lives. In alignment with the state of Texas, our district allowed students to choose whether they wanted to remain virtual or opt for in-person learning. For October 19 – December 4, nearly 84% of our students chose to remain virtual. Essentially that is five of every six students decided that staying at home could work for them at least for another six weeks. So while we saw kids walking our halls for the first time in seven months, and we offered smiles through our eyes, it certainly was not the same as before. And as we close out this second full week of students on campus, I have to admit that I find myself harking back to “old times” when more than 3000 kids filled our halls and classrooms with laughs and questions and retorts and all that I adore from this age group.

A month ago I finally read an article I had bookmarked, Why We Reach for Nostalgia In Times Of Crisis, and I realized that what I and others were feeling was both okay and helpful. The article makes a point to share that nostalgia can serve as a transitional object that helps us navigate stressors as we move from before the trauma to the inside of the trauma (and then out the other side). Dr. Stoycheva goes on to say that “It increase your ability to self-soothe during a stressful time.” Presuming that what we are all experiencing is certainly trauma, I would contend that looking back on old pictures, watching old movies, and reconnecting with old friends can be healthy. It can assist us as we navigate through the uncertainty. Now, to be clear, the article also points out that we should be careful not to dwell too long in the past nor apply any revisionist history to relationships that were unhealthy. We must remain self-aware enough to respond positively to the question, “why am i craving this and what do I hope to get out of it?”

During our professional learning in late August, I took my faculty and staff through a bit of a trip down my personal memory lane. I shared pictures of when I was young and memories that I rekindled since March 2020. I then split them in to small groups and asked them to briefly consider and share something they longed to do again – something they missed. It could be personal or professional, and most found themselves easily in either category. And to a person, it wasn’t a specific event or a lesson or day at work that they necessarily longed to engage in again. At the core was a relationship; a connection to others regardless of the setting. A sense of being together.

What are you hoping to be able to safely do again soon? How can you lead your team through #NostalgiaNovember? I plan to share images that bring me warmth during this month and I hope you will consider doing the same. Let’s remind others that “waxing nostalgic” can be healthy by using the hashtag #NostalgiaNovember. Stay classy, live long & prosper, and may the force be with you.