Two Ingredients To Start

I had an email exchange with a teacher a couple weeks ago that left me blown away. I have to say it’s one of my favorite emails in quite some time (is that even a thing?). So here’s the context – A small but significant department within our school is needing to find a successor for the long-time leader as she is retiring.  And a veteran teacher within the group wrote to me this week with the intention of advocating for a candidate.  However, what she did was two-fold as she illustrated for me her influence as a leader as well as inspiring me around the idea of what makes a great teacher.  Check it out:

I struggle with where to go from here other than “C’mon! Does it get any better than that?” Those are the building blocks, the ingredients needed to be an effective teacher. 

The first descriptor aligns with the notion that relationships and connection must be present for any significant learning to occur.  And that when that relationship begins with the idea that you are coming from a good place, that you simply extend kindness, then so many doors are opened.

The second descriptor touches on the idea that we must work hard at being good.  We can’t just hope to be better, we can’t pray to be better, and we can’t wish we were better.  We have to reflect today on what can make us stronger tomorrow. And not just to improve our practice – she goes on to say AND improve student results.

Finally, she is 100% on the money in that everything else builds off those two elements.  When I look to hire a new teacher, someone with little to no experience, then I have often focused on whether they like kids and if they know their content.  My thought has always been that we can build effective strategies and develop you.  However, this leads me to understand that it’s not as complex as I thought.  This teacher simplified it.Colin Powell QuoteEach time I read this quote from Colin Powell, I find myself drawn to the idea of how a leader can hear many different ideas and narrow down the focus to a simple idea or two.  I work hard on this trait as a campus leader myself – sometimes with a focus on a solution and other times only on finding common agreement.

This teacher may not hold a specific title or role within her department, her campus, or her district.  Yet she is a leader and she has influence.  I know I am changed.

I wrote a few years ago reflecting on the Drew Dudley TED Talk regarding Everyday Leadership Who Doesn’t Like a Lollipop?  A major element in that piece is the idea that sometimes we reserve calling someone a leader until they have done something publicly remarkable.  And he argues that, instead, it is many smaller acts that define a leader.  This email illustrates that idea for me. And while I’m happy to enjoy this new idea of what makes a great teacher, I’m most energized by the notion that another leader has emerged on campus.  As that will serve all of us well. 

How are you ensuring that you do not miss those small comments, conversations, or constructs that could lead to moments of simplification – inspiration? Are you actively listening for those small nuggets, those ingredients that can make something so much more clear?  

 

 

 

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?

 

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.

 

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?

 

Inspiration On a Morning Run

I have been an active runner for many years now, and typically get out 4-5 times a week.  I love it.  This morning, I was running in the neighborhood and I saw a neighbor walking toward me on the sidewalk.  I waved and said Good Morning.  He waved back and said, “New Years resolution?”  I quickly searched my mind for a reply, something that could be uttered without breaking stride, that acknowledged the commonalities between us that could transcend simple age, and something that would not necessitate further conversation.  The product of all that rapid, and one could argue, unnecessary thought, was three simple words, “always moving forward.”  Pleased with myself, I kept moving, offered a thumbs up with a smile, and concluded that my beautiful retort would be the best answer he would likely receive in his quest among our shared streets.  Surely no one had been able to offer such wisdom on the spot – certainly others were stumped by his inquiry.  Magic!

However, about 25 seconds later, I realized he wasn’t soliciting resolutions from those he saw in the neighborhood.  Rather, he was asking if I was running that morning to launch the start of a New Years resolution.  D’oh!  Homer-DohWhile the prestige I had placed on him and his open question to the neighborhood was not just that – I still walked away thinking about those three words.

Eddie George was a Heisman Trophy winning running back at Ohio State and then had a successful career with the Tennessee Titans in the NFL.  While he would batter and bruise his way to each yard on the football field, I remember commentators attributing one specific quality to his rushing style – they say he always fell forward.  And that by standing more than 6 feet tall, this specific ability could often grab another yard for his team.  And each yard, over time, grew to more achievement.   Eddie George

Each year, my fellow #compelledbloggers share a challenge where we identify one word or three words to guide our learning for the coming year.  Lately I wasn’t feeling either.  However, through this random morning run, I realize that “Always moving forward” is three words.  And I think it’s pretty good as it focuses on improvement, even if only an inch at a time.  It’s also aligned with a book I just started, Atomic Habits, after a close friend recommended it.  The idea being that similar to an atom, there are small little things we can develop as habits, that can, with patience, lead to desired results.  So I have decided that Always Moving Forward (AMF) will be my three words.

I will focus on little things I can do each day that can influence the overall year.  I see these being in the personal relationships I strengthen, the campus leaders I further support, and the resulting student experiences that grow more powerful.  #Destiny

How does potential inspiration find you?

 

Two Family Holiday Traditions That Influence My Leadership

Within my #CompelledTribe blog group, our topic for this month is focused on traditions.  And at this time of year, it is easy to conjure up images of traditions that may exist at family or work.  Personally, it seems as though anything we might do twice can become a tradition.  “We did it last year and had fun.  So we have to do it this year.  It’s a tradition!”

As I further reflected on my favorite family traditions for December, I quickly realized that the underlying sentiment between them both also spills over in to my leadership style.  Let me try and explain.

Christmas Eve for my family includes everyone coming together and enjoying time with each other while eating pizza.  Cheese for the kids, supreme for the adventurous, and pepperoni for most of the rest of us.  Extra sauce, traditional crust, and lots of napkins are the norm.  We forgo the salad for laughs and there is an age minimum for those that get to go pick up the meal – and grand smiles when the latest nephew “graduates” to pizza escort.  There is also a theme each year which may include goofy holiday hats, silly magic tricks, or simply dorky jokes.  Old stories and hearty laughs are what is most important.  IMG_8437Christmas Day begins with the normal stockings and presents.  And as the morning nears end, we prepare for lunch.  However, with deliberate intent, there is no stress in preparation for this meal.  Cold cuts, fresh rolls, chips and queso lead the way.  Instead of a ham or turkey with tasty sides, we choose melted cheese rolling over perfectly salted tortilla chips; mayo on a fresh roll layered with salami, ham or roast beef.  The prep time is minimal and we all appreciate that.  Reminiscing, joking around, and warm smiles are the currency.

I love both of these traditions because of what they represent – namely that being together is what is being celebrated.  You don’t need some fancy lunch/dinner that hits someone else’s expectations in order to enjoy the holiday season.  Stress and angst as family members focus on a large meal is not where I want our energy.  Rather all of that is traded for time being present with the person next to you.  Appearances don’t matter – you don’t have to be cool or appropriate.  Rather you are simply in the moment.

These two traditions remind me of the same approach I take when serving as a leader; namely that the experience is what matters, not the specific setting.   Each day, week, semester and school year, I work with others to create meaningful experiences for our students and our faculty/staff.  I believe that the magic that happens between our students and adults on campus has little to do with the way our building may look, the manner in which we organize the tables and chairs, or the style with which I organize the main office.  Rather its about the people – all day, every day.  I adore the traditions with my family and I so appreciate the way my school focuses on the very same things.  True CurrencyWhich of your traditions best reflect you?

George was right! The Birth of Cardinal Hour

IMG_1530For twenty years we have had a single lunch for our 3000 plus students. It’s one hour long and they can eat anywhere on campus. As visitors enter the building during lunch they are often taken by surprise as the students walk, talk, play guitar, study for quizzes and just hang out with their buddies. Many walk with a bag of chips in their hand as they socialize with new friends. At the same time in classrooms on each floor there are tutorials happening, clubs meeting, and teachers simply connecting with kids. The single lunch period absolutely provides the structures needed for students to be supported in all sorts of ways. Additionally, it has also built a culture where the students completely feel like their school belongs to them. They are trusted, they have agency, and they value it. And for nearly 20 years we kept it just like that.  Check out this 2 minute student-created video about our one lunch Click here for video

However this year we decided to bring a new element. You see, we were pioneers in this movement years ago. But other schools caught on, and, frankly, they were passing us in terms of maximizing the time for kids. So this summer we began to learn, again, how a single lunch period could work for kids. This time our goal was not to invent – rather to innovate.  And thus Cardinal Hour was born.

Invention-or-innovation

What we began to understand was that most of our students understood what was being provided to them and took advantage. However our freshman, the most vulnerable, had not yet developed both the agency and organization needed to make the one lunch work for them. Also, we had a moment of clarity whereby we realized that so much more was happening during this hour then just lunch.

Cardinal Hour is the midday activities that occur from 12:20-1:20 each day. The first half is Red Block and the second half is White Block. A beeping bell denotes the midpoint where a meeting may be ending while a new opportunity is beginning.  A student may go to the Problem Solvers Club for Red Block, hear the bell, and then head to Geometry for a scheduled tutorial.  Or maybe they eat first, and then the slight beeps tell them that White Block is beginning, and thus they need to hustle to the Feminist Club meeting.  The rebranding of our midday activities – which include lunch – allowed us to bring structure for students and teachers while also highlighting the fact that so much happens during this Hour.FullSizeRender 2My learning from this is two-fold. First I learned that subtle structures within a larger piece can bring strong advantages for kids and adults. Second I learned that even your most successful and “tried & true” school routines need to consistently be re-examined so that as you learn more, they can be improved. We should never slow down when it comes to learning about how powerful our school can be for kids.

What’s the next aspect of your school that could use some innovation?

 

 

We are Where We are Until we Move (and sometimes that’s okay)

Before I attended my first EdCamp, I had been versed in Open Space Technology – an early version of an “unconference.”  The premise is similar in that it is participant driven.  There are four principles that guide the OST and I often find comfort in the first which is to say that whoever attends is exactly who needed to be there.  I try to remember this and share it with others when there is a session held or meeting planned and we have less people show up then hoped.  One could quickly view it as a disappointment.  Or you can choose to see it as a reminder that those that did come are exactly who needed to and that, as long as they have a positive experience, then that is the measure of success.

During our two weeks of professional development with teachers this past August, my school was selected by Dr Brene Brown to pilot their new Daring Greatly Educator Program.  Two full days of training with her team including the first day with Dr Brene Brown leading the work.  What a coup, right?

Upon confirmation with her team in May 2018, we bought Daring Greatly and Rising Strong for each of our 225 team members that would participate.  We could not believe our good fortune and, as others kept asking us how it happened, we kept focusing on how it would reshape our work with kids and each other in the coming school year.  I asked them all to at least read Daring Greatly and be ready for the two days in August.  IMG_4775Here’s the thing, not everyone is ready to dive in to the kind of work on themselves that Dr Brown requires.  Shame & vulnerability are not easy to access no matter how willing you might be.  And thus as the days approached for these two days of learning, we began to get nervous.  While most had at least taken their books home for the summer, there were some that left them at school in their mailbox all summer.  They didn’t even pretend!

Cut to the chase and overall the two days went very well.  As a whole the faculty and staff were engaged and asked questions, shared with others at their tables, and had positive things to say.  Yes, there were also many that went through the motions, may or may not have come back from breaks on time, and resented the two days not in their classrooms.

But this is when I got back to my OST experiences and remembered that everyone is at their own place.  And that is okay.  If those that were ready soaked up the learning then that was fantastic.  Surely there were others that likely got more out of it than they expected and I’m excited for how their kids will benefit this year.  And there were some that did not engage at all.  And that’s where they are right now and that’s okay.  Those that “showed up” were exactly those that needed to.  IMG_5187Sometimes we wait for consensus.  Or we poopoo an idea or initiative because some won’t engage or will be negative about it.  The conclusion I draw from that is two fold:  (1) If you wait then that’s really more of a reflection of you & your poor leadership than of them; (2) When you hesitate to move forward with something because you don’t have 100% on board then you are giving all the power to others.  Don’t do that.

We are all at our best for students when we remember that leaders lead and managers manage.  Figure our which one you are and be that.

What kind of learning have you done when faced with similar situations?

Movie Popcorn Can Bring Inspiration

This last weekend I was able to breakaway from some of the stress and see one of the Academy Award Nominated Best Movies – 3 Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri.  I enjoyed the movie yet during a particularly climactic scene, there is a line shared that has continued to resonate with me.

_Cause you know what you need..._ Love. Because through love comes calm, and through calm comes thought. And you need thought to detect stuff sometimes...It's kinda all you need_ - WoodyThere’s a whole lot of stuff happening in my school district right now.  We’ve lost 17 school days on my campus this year to Hurricane Harvey, Ice, and an Astros Championship Parade.  The stress on everyone has been palpable.  Toss in that our school community was particularly impacted with more than 600 families displaced, and you can get a sense of how we’ve all arrived at the description of “it’s just a crazy year.”

It’s February which means the plans for next year are being hatched, and for many reasons our school district is facing a financial challenge that’s not been seen before in this district/city/state.  How we come out of it is yet to be determined.  What is certain is that we have students this afternoon, this week, this month, and this semester that need us at our best.  So how do we navigate through tumultuous times?

Previously, I wrote, in this blog post, about the advice my mentors had for me as a new campus Principal dealing with struggles.  However as I look to make my way through this spring semester, I am choosing to take a different approach.  For me to have the needed clarity to steer through these challenges, I am going to focus on love in all its forms.  Perhaps it’s a thoughtful card received at the right moment, or a smile in the hallway to someone feeling lonely.  Maybe it’s attending the Lasagna Dinner for the Band or simply cheering on your students at the Girls Basketball game.  Or it could be as simple as visiting a teachers classroom, sharing fist bumps with everyone, and bringing value to what we do.

Chalkboard - LoveRemembering what we love brings the needed calm that leads to thought.  Yeah, I think my trip to the movies with a large popcorn, SnoCaps, and a Cherry Coke just brought me my plan.

What’s the latest quote from TV or Film that has brought you inspiration?

Turning the tables on interviews

Todd Whitaker said that there are two ways to have an amazing school: Hire great teachers and improve the ones you already have. Now I’m not here to focus on the best means to improve the ones you have as that requires personalization and is work I continue to strive toward each day. However I have always been a firm believer in the importance of hiring well.  And have been surprised over the years by the number of school leaders that delegate this responsibility. It’s far too critical to both the health and success of every school. 


I love interviewing candidates. The main reason is that it allows you to be unapologetically aspirational. You have the chance to find someone that will make your school stronger than you may have imagined and someone who can take your kids to the highest levels. Now I’m not saying that you offer any deception about your current reality when seeking a best fit or job match among candidates. I am encouraging you to focus during an interview on those days when “we are at our best.”  Seizing the opportunity to engage in affirmative inquiry allows you to reflect on your wins without being discouraged by your areas in need of growth.

My campus has strived for excellence since the doors opened in 1955. For a large urban high school, the stability with leadership exceeds expectations and when coupled with a large core of veteran teachers committed to keeping a high standard for everyone, I know we are normally blessed with a sizable pool of applicants.  That being said, the evolution we have undertaken of late has been the means by which we have had to adapt and develop our strategies to impact that work toward similar lofty standards.  We haven’t done this work without struggle, doubt, and a lot of honest reflection. Our learning the past five years has pushed me toward this different slant when interviewing people to join our team.  Largely it is that we really should be the ones that sweat a bit as we search for that person that will make us better.  When sitting across from a strong candidate, it really should be us that is sweating a bit. Rock star educators aren’t everywhere, and so it’s at that moment that I feel the tables switch.  

As a team we now better understand that we aren’t looking for someone to remark that they are a quick learner and willing to “fit in” to our school.  I make it a point to let them know that I am not looking for someone to sit at the end of the bench for a year and wait their turn. Every hire must include a belief that the new team member makes us stronger and will push our thinking and thus the overall learning on campus.  And so we are really the ones that should be nervous that they won’t choose us.  We should wonder whether the learning that we emphasize for both our students and our adults is enriching enough to bring along the best. 

The clarity with which I have seen this over the past 6-8 weeks has excited me in new ways. And I think it may even remind all members of our school community that they have agency each day.  Finally, it reminds others of our vision as a school community. We get the chance to tell our story and our responsibility to do just that is paramount to every school community.  If we ignore or miss this chance, then we leave others to either tell their version or permit a suspect version to gain credibility (as there is no contrary response or narrative). 


Screening candidates, scheduling interviews, checking references, and then working with HR to bring on a new person is work.  It’s an invstement and deserves the same due diligence we would exercise within our personal lives.  The timing for most hiring couldn’t be harder as it’s at the most hectic juncture in the school year. But, I mean, c’mon, is there anything better than landing that rock star addition to your team.  What interview practices might you consider shifting this summer?