I recently shared on Twitter an article that came to me from Runners World. The title spoke about how competitive runner Molly Huddle handles a bad race or workout (Click here for the article) She explains that when she was with two other famous runners in an elementary school, the kids kept asking questions about failure. This surprised her, and admittedly, probably would have surprised me. However as I was running this morning, I thought about this very idea. Kids were focused on what could be learned from failure. At that young age, they understood that it’s what can be taken from adversity or failure or a bad experience that might matter most. They get it. Maybe they don’t have the words to articulate what they are exploring, but they were seeking ideas for how to handle it. And when they face it, they may be a bit more equipped to respond.
And this now begs the question – where does that approach go as they get older? And how can we bring it back?
Later she contrasts excuses vs reasons and I found this compelling for educators. Too often I think we offer, or at least entertain, excuses because that is often the path of least resistance. It’s always easier to look for a culprit rather then to look for a path forward. The students she spoke with seemed to understand that stuff happens. And when you opt to ask questions then you can reflect. And when you commit to reflect you find a solution or a next step. It is the act of choosing – making a decision – that matters.
Which of your most recent mistakes did you choose to learn from? Did you start that process alone or with someone else? Which of those two options works best for you?
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.
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)?
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.The 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.
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?In 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.My 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?
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.
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.
This 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.
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!
Inception is one of my favorite movies not only because it is highly engaging and well produced – it also references the idea of each person needing a totem. For the characters in the movie, they employ a totem so that they know whether they are still dreaming or not. The idea is to always carry something simple with them so that they can take a potentially complex issue (asleep or awake) and solve it by using a simple item.
Occam’s Razor. KISS. Robert Fulghum. These three ideas or people are what serve as my totem and often help me recover as a leader. They do this by reminding me that the ability to hear, understand, reflect, and address/solve a problem or issue is usually completely within my zone of influence. Occam’s razor is a philosophical principle that says that the least complicated explanation is usually the correct one. KISS is a reminder to Keep It Simple Stupid! And Robert Fulghum is the author of All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten, the book that reminds me of both the previous ideas – namely that, at its truest essence, any idea/concern can be resolved by utilizing a concept I learned long ago.
This month as a member of the #CompelledTribe, we were asked to share a book, or multiple books, that influence our work and that we would recommend. AIRNTKILIK is such the book for me as it has always served as a powerful reminder that when dealing with people – which is what we do all day every day – so much of what we learned as a young person can still serve us well. My tattered copy that stays nearby was a high school graduation present, and it became a life lesson piece for my family moving forward. Some of the reminders are timeless:While many of these remain aspirational – still no cot in my office – I do try and embrace the others when interacting with others (both while wearing my principal hat or my parent hat). And as a leader, I have literally and metaphorically grabbed on to this advice as it reminds me that at our core, each faculty and staff member made a decision to step in to a classroom or school where children are in need of so much. And often what they need, what we all need, is simply hope. The idea that things can be better. Complication does not usually inspire. Simplicity does.
Finally, I would add that a large part of what we do in leadership is connected to the stories we share. Creating a narrative that makes an experience accessible to others can enable a vision to be understood and a path forward to form. The Storytellers Creed from Robert Fulghum is also a reminder to me of the charge we have as leaders on a school campus. Each year I try to share this advice with seniors as they embark on their next adventure. What helps you reset when faced with a challenge?
For 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.
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.My 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?
At the end of last school year, one of the areas of learning that our faculty/staff identified was feedback. Teacher to student, student to student, leadership to teacher, etc. The campus wanted to learn more about how to offer feedback that was useful and could be leveraged for improvement. Having this focus enabled me to return to some training I had received years ago based on the work of Carolyn Downey and the 3-Minute Classroom Walk-Through. Click here for a strong description.
So what I find most valuable from the Carolyn Downey work is the reflective question. Essentially, the idea is that after you complete your walk-through, either via email or a planned “bump into”, you share what you observed and then leave them with a reflective question. Follow that with built in time for them to reflect on it. Perhaps you tell them you’ll check back in later. Or simply leave it open-ended. The purpose is to have them reflect.
I find this most powerful when I focus on a decision that they made. Perhaps its the strategy they used to check for understanding; or maybe its a choice they made to use segments of a video; or merely directing students to either work independently or collaboratively. The point is that they select their next steps, they consciously decide to do something. For many it is muscle memory.
I strive to ask the question in a manner that focuses them on an instant – a decision point.
“When you decided to have the students work collaboratively on the lab, what outcomes were you striving to achieve?”
“How do you think your lesson would have gone for the students if they had been provided guided notes for the video you showed?”
“When introducing a new concept, what do you consider when choosing a formative assessment tool or strategy?”
Each of the questions above works from a premise that they were fully prepared and thoughtful with the questions they asked, or the lesson they designed. It then moves from there to a choice they made and asks them to reflect on it.
Could I have sought the same information by simply asking “why did you have them work with partners?” or “why did you or didn’t you provide guided notes?” Maybe. That’s certainly more direct. However the word “why” is incredibly powerful. Generally speaking, it leads the receiver of the question to take a defensive position. And that is the last thing I want to do when building rapport for feedback. Asking “why” can lead them to narrow their thinking just as I want them to expand it.
As you work toward having teachers understand the effects of the decisions they make, of the plans they develop, what strategies do you employ?
What would it look like for you to not use the word “why” for the next week with your students or your staff?
New shoes have it rough. They are added to a closet not knowing anyone; they can be a bit stiff, and how long they’ll be in favor is not clear. Yeah, maybe they are looked at with great optimism and perhaps they’ll remain shiny and exciting for awhile. But it’s difficult to mix in with the preferred running shoes, or the dress shoes for fancy occasions, or the last “hopefully cool” pair that now seems to have found a “permanent home” in the back corner. It’s a life that few would ever seek.
The first week back from winter break is always hectic as its the start of a new semester. With that comes students checking in while others are checking out. The first day back I was cruising through our counselor suite at lunch. This area is always hectic as our nine counselors work with kids while others may simply hang there as its their spot on campus. And I’m totally good with that. This past Monday I came across a big guy standing with his dad, and they both had that “new student look” to them.
“Hey, are y’all new? Welcome to Bellaire.”
“Yes, we are checking in today. This is my son Brandon,” said the dad.
“11th grade?” I asked
“No. I’m a senior,” said Brandon.
“Changing schools senior year. Thats a big challenge,” I said.
“I’m not worried. It’s gonna be great.”
After assuring them they were in the right place and letting them know to reach out if they needed something, I kept moving on my way.
As I cruised through the following day, I saw Brandon in the suite again, this time kind of hanging by a bookshelf. We exchanged pleasantries and he said he was doing well.
Two days later I came through again, and Brandon was fully exchanged with the boys. Laughs were being shared and a couple awkward high fives were also tossed in. As I injected myself in to the conversation, I asked the regular fellas how it was going with Brandon. They said it was going fine. Brandon then shared an incredibly insightful statement.
“Out of all the places where I’ve been the new person, this is the first school where I wasn’t made to feel bad because I wasn’t at the homecoming game sophomore year. Or whatever big event that they have deemed was a “must attend” in order to be relevant. I love it here because people have just accepted me.”
Wow! I was in awe of his awareness of potential high school mores. It was clear that Brandon had endured on multiple occasions being the new person. He had likely felt joy and had clearly felt the sting of not being able to quickly find his place. I want to think that his quick transition and the expedient manner in which he found “his place” was because of our school. Truthfully, it may have been a piece of it yet I have to believe this kind of warmth is in pockets of schools across the country. I felt it significant because of his awareness of what could be. He entered the first day with promise of this time being different and he was able to find his group – join his tribe.
Finding your place in this world can be tough. And in schools it can be emotional and draining and scary. While schools have transition plans for kids who enter in August/September, I needed this reminder of how critical it is that we not lose sight of those that enter later. And that when your group of “regular fellas” step up and embrace someone new, let’s be sure to recognize them as well.
How are you supporting your students as they all search for their spot?