While I’m Gone

My youngest daughter is completing her first semester of college and is off to a wonderful start.  My wife and I moved her in the Thursday before school started and then rushed back to Texas as we both had opening day for our two schools that next Monday.  The timing was tough to be gone from my campus – the whole last week before school started.  Thoughts of “how will we be ready?” or “how will I know we’ll be ready?” naturally crossed my mind.  However it was brief as the strength of my leadership team was evident and I absolutely remain in awe of the professional spirit my teachers bring toward their preparation.  We were going to be fine and so I was able to focus on my daughter.  Removing my principal hat and donning my dad cap, I soaked up the hours in the car as we traveled across state lines.  I pushed the cart with patience as we made that last minute run to Target.  And I tried my best to carefully unpack and hang correctly a variety of pictures, lights, and shelves on the wall.  The best element through it all was that I was able to be present with her.

Emma was three years old when I became a principal so this life is all she really has known.  My family understands the gig I signed up for and they have always been supportive.  At the same time there have definitely been sacrifices and I have to admit other times where my mind was split between the present and the school.  I don’t love that but its true.  Yet that week I was pretty much all in.  And she knew it.

Leader when you're gone

This is my 16th year as a secondary principal with the last 8 years at Bellaire HS and I know that I have had an influence on those I work alongside.  And so upon my return in August, as we began our weekly leadership meeting with connections, I was pleased to hear more than one person comment on how smooth the first week went this year, and that it was likely our smoothest in the last few openings.  I smiled and remarked that my being away for a week must have enabled them to really get everything done.  We all laughed…yet it wasn’t a joke.

I have heard others remark that sometimes a leader needs to “just get out of the way” and let people do what needs to be done.  Well I learned that going 800 miles away can enable other leaders to remain at their best.  Now I don’t plan to regularly take a vacation the week before school opens, but I’m going to mark this one as a win.

What examples can you recall of when you literally or metaphorically got out of the way and the impact of your leadership remained strong (or got stronger)?

Living in the Gray

Awhile back I was making my way through Dare to Lead by Dr. Brene’ Brown, and stumbled upon this quote which left me intrigued.

“Leadership is the ability to thrive in the ambiguity of paradoxes and opposites”

– Dr. Brene’ Brown

I appreciate the use of the word Thrive.  First it reinforces the idea of a wide spectrum of performance when it comes to leadership.  Second is that if there are gradients of performance then that also means it is complex.  Each of those are affirming to the notion that leadership should be respected.  It doesn’t say live, survive, complete, etc.  It says that in order to prosper or flourish as a leader you must be able to operate with ambiguity.  So lets talk about that.Leadership ThriveI am drawn to the idea of Ambiguity being the same as inexactness.  And the gray is where we often attribute the idea of being open to more than one interpretation.  So much of what we do as leaders lies in the contrary.  I understand the discomfort with not always knowing when so much is at stake.  I get that it is hard and challenging, and you may not understand for a long time whether your choice was the best one.  That small undefined area, that sliver of mystery, is where the strongest leaders have the chance to emerge.  To thrive.

So often when we are thrust in to the role of being a leader the immediate goal is to appear proficient.  We want to be able to answer each question, address each concern, and keep everything moving forward.  A new leader can survive making decisions early on – many of them likely simple and black/white.  And maybe even the gray ones seem easy enough as most people being supervised will be polite and offer the benefit of the doubt.  However, some leaders linger in that space, they get comfortable.  However I don’t think you can thrive – prosper – flourish – if you don’t dig deeper in to that gray area.  It’s hard.  Yet the gray area is where risks are taken, lessons are learned, and better ideas emerge.  If you aren’t willing to lean in to the gray area then you may never realize your potential.

I don’t know, I haven’t figured this one out yet.  It’s been rolling around in my head for some time.  What do you make of this descriptor for leadership?  How do you wrestle with the unknown?

 

Learn Even More From A Story

These past few weeks I’ve had the opportunity to be reminded of the power of a story.  More specifically, the impact of a story not yet finished.  This piece of learning for me didn’t come as a result of a story I shared/told; rather it came from an experience.

Earlier this month I had the chance to serve on a scholarship committee at my school. What’s a bit different about this is that the first three principals have scholarships established in their names. And the three committees interview the eight finalists at the same time. These finalists emerged after careful screening of all the applicants.  Some may emerge based on perfect GPAs or outstanding leadership positions.  Resumes and applications that seem flawless often bring interest.  However, over the last couple years, I have been quite pleased as the committee has had the chance to hear students from all types of backgrounds with all types of experiences.  Each of them has the chance to tell their story.

Similar to the last few years, at the end of the interviews, the members of the committee are always impressed by the students.  And not usually in the way the adults might expect.  The students have had the chance to show how they are so much more than what is on paper.  And that they are more than a single story that someone might attribute to them.storytelling-quote-009-native-americanThe challenges that kids face nowadays far exceeds my greatest dilemmas.  I suspect that is true for most of us.  I wrote about this in one of my first blog entries a couple years ago Thanks David Bowie. Ch-Ch-Changes.   Each of us would serve our students and feed our souls in powerful ways if we would remember the impact of a single story.  And recall that the best way to reach that access point is through relationships.  In my experience, a relationship has the best chance to flourish when we simply listen.  Establish a small bit of trust, show interest through questions, and then just sit back and take it all in.  A paper resume can share some facts, raw numbers.  It can even begin to add color to a portrait if there is an essay or personal statement.  However it is only when we hear voice and see eyes and listen to a story that we are moved.  And within that journey we learn more about someone else and we gain more understanding of ourselves.

 

I would encourage you to watch this 3 minute video of Chimamanda Adichie warning us about the conclusions we sometimes draw about others: The Danger of a Single Story.

Let me know what you think.

 

You’re Hired! Are You Ready? Better Yet, Are We Ready?

My first years as a Principal, a common question I would ask candidates at the end of an interview is what four adjectives their students (or peers) would use to describe them.  Four is a good number as many people quickly cite two or three.  I don’t let them off the hook for that last one as it often brings the best answer as it necessitates the most thought.  One interview sticks with me as the candidate offered an answer I had not ever heard before, and that I have not since received.  BOLD.  She shared that others thought of her as bold.  What an amazing term to use for multiple reasons.  First, as I mentioned, it is not common.  Second, it is an honest admission from the candidate that “you’re going to get something a little different with me.”  I hired her and we did.  Though, honestly, I’m not sure we were ready for it.

Last week I was revisiting Chapter 8 of Todd Whitaker’s What Great Principals Do Differently” and I was struck, again, by his notion that we should strive to make our schools more like our newest teachers.  He contends that the most effective way to improve a school is to hire great teachers.  I don’t know anyone that would disagree with that at face value.  However the catch is on the approach you take toward that end.  What do you do once you’ve hired them?Leaders Are Those That Empower OthersIn the past I have challenged some new hires to help us continue to grow.  I offered this charge to those coming in to leadership positions though they were primarily outside the classroom (administrator, counselor, coordinator, etc.).  I would tell them, “I didn’t hire you to sit on the bench.  I expect you to get your footing and then get to sharing.  We need your talents, your ideas, and your passion.  Can you commit to get in the game with us?”  The most common response was a “You bet” or a “Yes, I can.”  Upon further reflection, I realize that I was not challenging new teachers to do the same.  I suppose I didn’t want to “saddle” them with the responsibility of improving our campus.  Yet, at the very same time, I knew/know that the most powerful work for students happens as a result of what teachers do every day in their classroom.  So I suppose, while maybe having a good intention, I was instead limiting the impact of these new members.  Not cool.One Voice Can Change The Room_ - Barack ObamaMy commitment is now to push ALL new members to our school community.  I will lay this foundation during the interview process and continue it in to the fall semester.  There is so much talent that can be leveraged for the betterment of our kids.  And sometimes all you need is that one person to float a novel idea, see something in a fresh light, or simply ask an old question in a new way.  Makes no matter how it begins – only that it does.

How are you going to set the tone when it comes to improving your class, team, or school?

You Never Know Where That First Step Will Lead

There is a great story that Sir Ken Robinson shared during his famous 2006 TED Talk regarding how schools kill creativity.  In the video he tells us of two anecdotes involving a little girl and a little boy.  And the gist of the story is that both of them separately take chances with whatever they are working on – they Give it a Go!  They aren’t afraid to be wrong when they are young and they’ll take a chance.  (Here is a link to that particular section of his TED Talk Sir Ken Robinson Link )

Inspired by his commitment to creativity, I have tried to model what it is like to take a chance as a leader.  The last three years we have begun each year focused on the idea that LEARN is a verb.  We began this by focusing on the muscles and pushing our teachers to commit to the experience of learning.  We asked them to choose anything they wanted to learn about – it didn’t matter if it was connected to education at all.  Rather we wanted them to simply be a learner again.  I wrote about how I did this with my leadership team in a previous blog My Attempt at #GeniusHour with Adults.  In any case I was now trying it with 185 teachers and 30 support staff.

“Learning is experience.  Everything else is just information.” – Albert Einstein

Our second year we focused on the brain and what you did with your learning.  Having engaged as a learner again, we wanted them to exercise their creativity in how they demonstrated that new knowledge. The idea was that simply learning something is no longer enough.  The next step, the innovative step, is to create something new from your learning.  And, perhaps, the biggest step is/was to then share it with others.

“Learning is creation not consumption.” – Dave Meier

Finally, this fall we pushed with the heart.  Fortunate to have Dr Brene Brown and her team spend two days with our faculty/staff was an amazing opportunity to really push us forward.  In retrospect, I believe this was definitely an act involving vulnerability as I knew some people would be thrilled and others dismissive.  I processed this experience through a blog post a few months ago We are Where We are Until we Move (and sometimes that’s okay)  I have seen the impact in pockets around campus, almost like seeds planted.  Time and patience is what’s needed for this to flourish and saturate the campus.  Our kids can only benefit so I’m in it for the long haul.

“We are born makers.  We move what we are learning from our heads to our hearts through our hands.” – Dr. Brene Brown

I share all of this as I reflect on what we continue to do.  Truthfully, when I embarked on this work with others, I didn’t know where it would lead.  I certainly couldn’t have predicted that nearly 200 faculty/staff would share their personal learning with others, making themselves vulnerable in new ways that I doubt they anticipated.  I would not have placed any bet in Vegas that Brene Brown would select us as a pilot school for her Daring Greatly Educator Workshop.  And had I known about the stumbles along the way, the eye rolls that I saw, and the comments that I heard, then I doubt I would have embarked.

I heard Brian Apsinall say on a podcast the other day that “it’s okay to be where you are.  It’s not okay to stay there.”  So I guess I moved.  I gave it a go.  And I hope you will also.

 

Quick Tip for How a Google Form Can Frame February for Your Faculty

In Dare to Lead by Brene Brown, she shares a story of a leader within the US Army that has spoken about the challenges her soldiers face at different times during their tour of duty.  While I am not equating risking your life to defend our country with teaching each day, I do believe that both are at their best when members of either community understand their interdependence on one another.  The story concludes with the idea that often when we are struggling the most, and morale may be low, the real culprit may be that we are lonely.

If you think about it, February can seem to isolate us as we are stuck inside with our students, or stuck inside with Netflix.  The human connection that is so inherent in our daily work can feel strained or frayed or simply absent.  So how do we defeat loneliness when we are on campus with, sometimes, 3000 other people.

Mad Cool Award QuestionsThis year I have established the Mad Cool Awards.  Focused on recognizing innovative work that is happening on campus, adults have the chance to recognize really cool stuff that is happening on their campus.  Realizing that innovation is simply taking something that already exists and making it better, I ask them to complete a Google Form that asks just a few simple questions.  And I consistently include the link to this form at the beginning of meetings and as an extra piece every so often within an email.

The next step is to use Autocrat as an Add-On to Google Forms.  Essentially this allows you to mail merge the responses from the form in to a Google Doc.  However, as I learned, there must be a template that you have in place for Autocrat to use.

Here is a video that I used for how to create your own custom template within Google Doc Click Here.  Once the template is created then you will have it available each time you run your awards.  Now you can use Autocrat to generate the docs using the template.  I found this video very helpful Using Autocrat with Google Forms.

Mad Cool Lightbulb

Though the Google Form remains live at all times, I run the Mad Cool Awards once a month.  After generating the Mad Cool Certificates, I do give a quick glance over to ensure the spelling is good and the grammar works within the template.  This takes some time however I don’t want either the nominee or nominator to see an unintended error.  Once that is all set, then I print and prepare to deliver the awards.  Now you can do this a few ways.  Presenting at a faculty meeting is likely most common though I have shied away from that.  Instead I take one or two other leaders with me to the innovators classroom and interrupt with great news.  I tell the kids about what a Mad Cool Award is and that we are here to give one to their teacher.  I read the wonderful words to the recipient and each time applause has broken out at the end.  We then take a picture and spread the word through all of our social media channels and communication tools.

I don’t think this necessary solves the doldrums that seem to come every year around this time.  However I do believe that it reminds others of the power we have each day to change lives.  And not just the lives of children.  It’s a form of connection that helps us feel a little less lonely, maybe a little more connected.  And feeling connected to others is 100% Mad Cool Stuff!

A Call To Explore

Years ago I visited the Arlington Cemetery in Washington D.C.  Standing with a friend near the Eternal Flame, we found ourselves in awe both by the setting and the words from a JFK speech inscribed on a wall.  Breaking the silence, my friend simply stated, “it feels like he took all the best words.”  I simply nodded my head.  She was right.  leadership & learningAs a result of my PLN growing over the last several years, I have become convinced that investing in ourselves is paramount to growing stronger as leaders.  If you are not pushing yourself to learn more – either through reading, writing, posting, or lurking – then you are robbing others of all you can offer.  Don’t do that.  Instead, get in the game.  Personal or professional learning is now available 24/7 from the comfort of your couch.  Will it come in spurts?  Will it ebb and flow?  Might it be hard and confusing at times?  Yeah, probably.  The most important stuff usually is.

Merriam-Webster offers as a definition of the word “explore” the following:  to become familiar with by testing or experimenting. Inherent in the definition is being an active participant.  As I continue to work on my own leadership, I find myself drawn, more than ever, toward learning more about leadership in many forms.  Whether it is through my reflecting on an article, blog, image, or a personal lesson learned, I commit to #explore what it means to be a leader, especially when working with both students and adults on a large urban campus.  I intend to hold myself accountable through my reflections within this blog.   img_5fa2bec61763-1Accepting that JFK was right and our learning is critical toward our leadership, how can you commit to be active now?