Peace, Love & A Little Competition

Five years ago, I decided that I wanted to run a half marathon.  I had run lots of 5Ks, many 10Ks, yet had never taken on 13.1 miles.  I was in my early 40s and so maybe I could chalk it up to any number of generalizations, however it ended up being a powerful learning adventure for me and has influenced my work as an educator.

Faced with the question of Collaboration vs Competition, I found myself in that quick struggle to choose one or the other.  And after further reflection, I found myself, similar to most educators (I suppose), reaching for collaboration.  Of course it has to be that, right?  Either as a product of working with Professional Learning Communities (PLC), leading a large campus, or simply being part of a larger Professional Learning Network (PLN), I have routinely placed myself among others working on something larger.  All of this was churning through my head as I ran a tempo run earlier this week in hopes of setting a new personal record (PR) in an upcoming race.  And then it hit me.  Given one condition, I am convinced that competition maximizes collaboration.

zero-sum-game

The concept of Zero Sum is often used in negotiations and business dealings.  It is centered on the idea that whatever is gained by one side is lost by the other.  The concept of “winners” and “losers” naturally grows from this idea and, I would suggest, consumes our notions of competition.  When the Astros play the Rangers, one team wins and another loses.  When our boys basketball team plays its rival, once the competition is completed, there is one team feeling successful while another looks for corrections.  Yet, if we shift competition away from the idea of Zero Sum, and look at it more similar to track, cross country, or swimming, then I believe competition enhances collaboration.  Personally, each year I run the Houston Half Marathon with 25000 other people and I will never win.  Yet, I can set a new PR (get smarter/faster/stronger) and the race (competition) brings me to that outcome.

Competition can also bring a sense of purpose to collaboration.  If you are bringing a group of people together to work interdependently on something then the idea of getting smarter, faster, or stronger should be part of the discussion.  And when that team has an achievable goal or standard in front of them, then there is a measuring stick to use at the conclusion.

stop watch and running track

Certainly there are other schools in my district that we measure ourselves with and I am always protective of how my teachers are perceived when it comes to growing kids each year.  So there is a sense of competition.  However, similar to when someone is passing me in the Half Marathon (which often occurs more than the reverse), I am happy for them.  As I have learned that together we compete yet the individual growth I make in my performance is for me alone.  There really are no winners or losers.

Thus I would leave this post with the idea that once we shift from the Zero Sum idea of competition, our students can benefit tremendously as we collaborate to create the best learning experiences for them.  Making them smarter, faster, and stronger brings the potential for all types of rewards.

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My #OneWord for Two Lives

I am going to be honest in that I am not big on themes or resolutions.  In fact, I secretly would crack wise about the neighboring schools that felt a theme or idea should guide their year.  I believed that the work was the work and that we shouldn’t need pencils, or t-shirts, or shiny signs to get there.  I suppose I also took on this philosophy in my personal life and thus refrained from resolutions every January.  Sure, I might secretly mutter something to myself, however, I wouldn’t share it with others.

 

oneword2017Truthfully, I don’t know much behind the idea of the #OneWord.  I suppose that at it’s essence it is a decision to not subscribe to a specific act (eat better, be nice, say thank you, etc) and rather commit to the concept behind a word.  And so I am going to give this a try for 2017.  My #OneWord for 2017 is ENGAGE.  And this word will thread through both my professional and personal lives.

I choose to continue to ENGAGE in my own learning.  The past 12 months have been powerful for me as I pushed myself to remember what it’s like to be a learner.  I started this blog, reconnected via Twitter, began to build a larger PLN, and am enjoying my Voxer group.  It’s been a positive experience that I want to continue.  It makes me better.

I choose to ENGAGE in those difficult conversations that so often come our way as leaders.  In the past I may have prioritized the ones that were urgent or that challenged my curiosity.  However I know that when I am being honest with myself, I sometimes pushed off those tough chats in hopes they either resolved themselves or became moot.  The idea of something being “easier” can be quite alluring.  For 2017 I intend to resist the easy route and push myself to be better.

I choose to ENGAGE with my student body in new and exciting ways.  I know that I can’t personally connect with all 3500 students within one school year.  Yet I can make efforts to add new means for how, when, and where our paths do intersect.  Perhaps it will be via the use of video, social media, and/or a microphone.  I’m not sure yet.  It’s too easy to forget that it does matter just how present we are with young people and each other.  Around this notion, I know I can do better.

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Finally, I choose to ENGAGE with my family more.  I could not be the type of high school principal that I am (and that I continue to aspire to be) without the support and understanding of my wife, my son, and my daughter.  There are times they get less of me so that I can offer more to my students, faculty, staff, and community.  My family rolls with it pretty well as that’s the gig we signed up for and they understand.  However, Jacob is in 12th grade and Emma is now in 10th grade.  They won’t be home for much longer and I can’t forfeit those remaining days and months.  So I choose to engage with them by sitting in their room together, making dinner together, listening to records together – trying to just be together.  These are small things however they matter and they can add up.  It’s important to me to be better with them.

In which ever way you interpret the turning of the calendar to January, I hope that you consider choosing a single word to drive your actions.  There are so many wonderful words out there to choose from; similar to a long journey beginning with a single step, your selection of just #OneWord might launch quite an exciting adventure.

How will you start today to engage in your own world?

Thankful to my mentors as they remind me about unity

“Focus on your primary”

basketball-referee

A dozen years ago, I was a new principal fortunate to have a strong mentor.  He guided many of us as we embarked on a new adventure.  Blessed with seemingly a never ending supply of energy and time, he shared with us a story about his experiences as a basketball referee.  He said that there would be times where the game was getting heated, fans were bristling with every play, and tensions were rising.  At that very moment a game could spiral out of control for the referees or it could remain a contest of skill and talent.  Our mentor would tell us that the way you make it through those times of turmoil was by focusing on your primary.  You see, unknown to the average fan like me is the specific tactic that referees are charged with -to focus on their primary coverage area.  If they do their job, then when working with the other officials, the game will maintain its intent.

I have to trust my teachers to focus what they excel at – which is to teach.  Ensuring that routine remains for kids is important.  Life outside of school can be hectic and the rhetoric that fills nearly every portal of communication can be overwhelming.  Thus kids need the refuge of school, and they need it to be predictable.  Enabling teachers to do what they need to do and keep the work moving forward is what sets the conditions for our kids, and for the entire school community, to persevere.

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I had another mentor when I was a principal intern and he always had such wisdom to share and faith in young people.  Early on he tasked me with setting up interviews for an Asst Principal vacancy we had, and he told me to put together a group of 4-5 students.  These kiddos would take each candidate on a tour of campus.  After all the candidates had been interviewed by the committee, the students would come in to offer their take on each person.  My mentor would always say that anyone could come in with the right answers and impress adults.  However, he would add, kids have a much sharper radar for what can fit on a campus.  He would tell me to trust them.  As with many things this mentor offered, I adopted this practice and I’ve used it for each administrative vacancy.  And every time the students have been right.  If we follow their lead and trust them to sniff out the BS and navigate to what matters most, then we can make our way.  Kids are far more resilient than adults when it comes to change.  Maybe they have to be for reasons out of their control, however taking the time to stop talking to them and start listening with them remains a sound strategy in my book.

Finally, I would add that as a principal, my charge toward unity lies in the work of cultivating a culture that can withstand the hardest of times.  Insensitive comments will arise – either from students, parents, or adults on campus.  It will happen.  And at those very moments we have to believe even more in the community we have established.  We have to have faith that, in some way, the values and commitments we have agreed to will help us respond in the most appropriate manner.

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I have always believed in young people and what we can learn from them.  I’ve written often about how much more aware they are then we often give them credit for.  Yet at this time, as I try to bring to close the power of resilience, and the faith I have that we will unify and that good will still prevail, I find myself drawn to the words of a rock-n-roll veteran.  If you have never listened to “The Land of Hopes and Dreams” by Bruce Springsteen, then I encourage you to sample it soon.  The lyrics are below.

Grab your ticket and your suitcase
Thunder’s rollin’ down this track
Well, you don’t know where you’re goin’ now
But you know you won’t be back
Well, darlin’ if you’re weary
Lay your head upon my chest
We’ll take what we can carry
Yeah, and we’ll leave the rest

Big wheels roll through fields
Where sunlight streams
Meet me in a land of hope and dreams

Well, I will provide for you
And I’ll stand by your side
You’ll need a good companion now
For this part of the ride
Leave behind your sorrows
Let this day be the last
Tomorrow there’ll be sunshine
And all this darkness past

Big wheels roll through fields
Where sunlight streams
Oh meet me in a land of hope and dreams

This train…
Carries saints and sinners
This train…
Carries losers and winners
This train…
Carries whores and gamblers
This train…
Carries lost souls

I said this train…
Dreams will not be thwarted
This train…
Faith will be rewarded

Public schools take everyone that shows up at the front door and commits to make them stronger.  During these challenging days, I believe that our school community can be the train for all of our students, our faculty, and the entire staff.  Frankly, I would argue that it may be the only reliable vehicle for both unity and change.

What else are you employing as you work with your communities?

Saying & Hearing Thank You

Early on in my career, I was encouraged to keep a box near my desk.  You know, a receptacle for all the letters and cards and words of encouragement that would surely come my way. And as I made my way through that first month, and then that first semester, I began to wonder if my small shoe box was too lofty of a goal.  Or perhaps I simply wasn’t connecting with my students as I wished.  Finally, on a piece of green construction paper, 7th grader Robin had glued a handwritten letter offering me praise for simply not giving up. Those words helped me keep my footing through the winter break, survive the tough February days, and launch me toward the summer.  Twenty-five years later and I still have that letter. However I have outgrown the shoe box and find myself filling a nearby desk drawer dedicated to these positive messages. Not only does the drawer remind me of my better moments, days, months and years.  It also reminds me to take the time to share positive words with others.  black-shoeboxA challenge I had to overcome was allowing myself to simply receive the compliment.  Too often we deflect and say something like: “oh, it was my pleasure”, or “no, you are the one I should thank.”  When we do that we steal from them a small piece of the joy they have for us.  We rob them just a bit of the power that comes with recognizing another.  I would recommend that, instead, we simply say, “Your words mean a lot.  Thank you for taking the time to share them with me.”  I know this is easier said than done however I have learned that those few words carry more power.

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Becoming friends on social media with former students can be another way to remain connected while also serving as a reminder that you had an impact on their life.  When someone chooses to include you in the minutiae as well as grand moments in their life, they are telling you that you matter. And as I engage in pictures, videos, and stories of their emergence into adulthood, those beaming moments around marriage, the celebrations of becoming a parent, I am quickly reminded of my impact.  And I work hard to give it all the space to breathe.

thank-you-post-it_languagesSo as you sustain your effort through this fall semester and look toward the grind of the early spring, I hope that you will remember the power you have each day to positively impact a young person.  Regardless of whether or not they find the right words to thank you, I am certain they appreciate what you do each day.  Perhaps they will write a nice card or draw you a picture. Or maybe they will come in one morning to share something amazing their family did over the weekend. Or it will be a simple smile they offer, a “thanks” on the way out of class, or a nod in the hall. Regardless of the form it takes, work hard to not miss it.  Because you are significant and they want you to know it.

How are you making sure that you are showing gratitude for others while also being able to receive it?

Celebrating the 1st Week – Texas Style

So as school crept closer, I found myself and many others reflecting, writing, and sharing all that got us excited for the first day of school.  Wonderful ideas around vision, around what is possible, and around caring for our students filled my timeline and I ate it up.  This was my 25th opening day, and I still approach each one with energy and enthusiasm.  However it is another element present on the calendar this time of year that gets me really pumped.  Friday Night Lights!  And as the end of the first week of school drew closer, I couldn’t think of any better way to wrap it up then a home football game.

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Texas is known for football and in Houston it dominates the weekends in the Fall.  Now I am certainly a sports fan, and spending time at school games is an easy thing for me to do.  The passion and commitment that our coaches, parents, and community members bring to our student-athletes is strong.  There is something special about rooting for a team that brings people together.  If you’ve ever gone to a professional baseball game and high-fived the stranger sitting next to you after a home run, or embraced a group hug for your entire row after the winning touchdown, then you know what I am describing.

Yet I love high school football games for another reason.  After the weeks of practice, the prepping of uniforms, and the big pep rally, it is time for 3500 students and 250 faculty/staff to come together as one with the greater neighborhood/city.  I believe Friday Night Lights is the exemplar of what community means for a comprehensive high school.

BK FB PicThe sentiment I always share is that it is a chance to see many elements of our school together in one place, at one time, with one focus.  Perhaps it is the 50 players on the field flanked by 10 student trainers and managers, or the 18 cheerleaders leading the crowd.  Maybe it’s the 45 member drill team or the near 100 piece marching band that pumps up the halftime show.  Possibly the 8 Birdkeepers that are assigned to guard our mascot – a tradition nearly 50 years old – or the 12 elected Booster Club officers that run the flags after each score is what ties it together.  Regardless of the group that brings you out that night, we are talking about more than 250 students united.  Each of them with a role to support our school and show their pride in our school colors.

My point is that a school is more than just what happens inside four walls from 7:40am – 3:15pm.  The evidence is clear that extracurricular activities are vital toward students remaining both physically and mentally engaged during the day.  And it is many of those very programs that tie communities together.  They allow us to remember our history while celebrating the present.  Having something for us all to rally around allows the individual interests and passions of our students and our educators to flourish.  And as the opening kickoff approached for Texas HS football, each team, each school, and each community had a moment filled with nothing but hope.  An optimism that anything is possible.

BIGGER PLAYOFF CROWDSo as I wrapped up this week and watched others head to their cars with smiles yet exhausted shoulders, I found it easy to feel pepped up as it was game night.  And as I parked at the stadium and exited my car, I could hear the band playing a familiar tune and the PA announcer declaring a first down.  As I greeted the familiar faces at security and spoke to our ticket takers, I felt a peace come over me.  Grabbing my hot dog, popcorn, and bottle of water, I smiled at parents, said hello to students, and found my usual seat.  The first week of school was over and I was in my happy place.

What events at your school best represent your school community?

My 2 Week Personalized Learning Adventure

25 years.  Nearly a quarter century.  I have worked in education and within my single school district for more than half of my life.  Goodness.  And while I may not be able to explain just how I made it this far, how I stayed afloat through all the tough times, and how I stayed away from burnout and boredom, I do know that if you don’t continue to try things, to experiment, and to commit to remaining a learner, then you surely won’t make it.

Each of the last several years we have been given two consecutive weeks of professional development (PD) time with our faculty.  Now at first glance, you might believe that to be wonderful and such a welcome gift from the school gods.  However, I have learned that, as educators, we do much better with kids around.  Two solid weeks of only adults on campus can be taxing.  The energy, the zeal, and the urgency aren’t there when kids are not present.  We need them as much as they need us. The flip side is that designing two weeks of learning for your teachers that is not full of sitting in the cafeteria/auditorium/multi-purpose room and seeming like yet another meeting, can be daunting.  As the Principal, I have to remember that teachers want to move in, work with their teams, and prepare for the first day of school.  I have to give them that time. With all of that in mind, and as June headed in to July, I began to focus on planning PD for my 190 teachers.  I sharpened my focus on how to move from structured to personalized professional development.

Death bu Inservice

So this is my 5th year as campus principal and 9th year on campus.  I have a strong understanding of my faculty and staff, and thus I wanted to try something different.  Simultaneously I wanted to create a setting whereby they re-engaged as learners while also respecting them as professionals.  I wanted to model choice and creativity and exploration.  Crafted similar to a conference format, I aspired to build something I had not, personally, ever experienced.  This was critical to me as I believe that these very elements, when put in to practice within our classrooms, lead to more authentic engagement by our students.

In a nutshell this was my plan.

During the first of our two weeks, I included all the usual stuff: a welcome back presentation from me, time for PLCs and Departments to meet, and devoted moments for everyone to complete the required online district trainings.  However this year I gave them a learning menu in the form of a Tic-Tac-Toe board that had new experiences as the nine blocks.

Tic Tac Toe Board

  • Chit Chats are 25-30 minute gatherings around a central topic or question.  Each of these Chit Chats was scheduled for six over the two weeks.  There was no formal presentation and each person could attend if they choose.  If the topic didn’t appeal to them then don’t come.  Keep working with your teams or on your own planning.  The Chit Chats were organic and I merely brought the food.  Cookies in the afternoon, donuts in the morning, and fruit for the mid-morning session.
  • Make & Take sessions are focus on a single strategy, skill, or tool.  These 45 minute sessions provided a forum for you to learn something specific that you could immediately incorporate in to a specific lesson (or simply in to your classroom).  I offered ten of these sessions during the two weeks of PD.
  • A Learning Lunch is centered on a larger question.  Both Wednesdays included these with the understanding that everyone brought their own food, and that we would sit in a giant circle.  While I opened each session with a reminder of the general question, and affirmed that participation is completely voluntary, it was not uncommon for me to stay silent the rest of the time as the teachers drove the discussion, and thus their learning.

The common threads among each of these three events begins with the fact that they were elective learning opportunities.  If someone wanted to learn about the topic – whether by actively participating or merely lurking – then they could do so.  Most of the sessions were not formally led by me or anyone from my leadership team.   Finally, each of these new experiences were chances for them to elect to learn.  That was the key in my mind.  Providing the setting for them to experience choice and then make a decision.  Now the Tic-Tac-Toe board could be turned in for prize drawings – if they choose to do that.  There were no signatures required as this was not any type of compliance piece.  Teachers are professionals and I wanted my faculty to feel that in an overt way.

I also asked teachers to join our faculty/staff Remind group and I used electronic communication to remind them of upcoming learning sessions that would be available. Joining our 11 day Twitter Challenge was also an option.  Finally, the center block  of the Tic-Tac-Toe board was each of them signing up and participating with a team during a BreakoutEDU session.

A large part of my learning in this adventure included a deep dive in to so many digital tools.  Making use of Google Docs, Remind, and Google Forms (to gather feedback & add topics over the two weeks) allowed me to communicate in a manner I couldn’t have before the technology.  My agenda was not a static document – I was able to change and adjust.  Agility was on display and that also was an approach I wanted to model for my faculty.

Jumper

I don’t yet know how it is being received or how effective it will end up being.  And I’m a little nervous about that.  Similar to my most recent blog post My Attempt at #GeniusHour with Adults, we have asked all of our teachers to choose something they want to learn about this semester or school year.  Now it may not completely meet the district expectations and I’m probably taking a bit of a gamble with that.  However I do believe it is the right approach THIS year with THIS faculty.  I now know that choosing to be a learner – whether your 1st year or 40th year as an educator – is critical to each of us staying relevant for our teams and, most importantly, for our students.

What types of behavior are you modeling for your teachers as the start of school approaches?

My Attempt at #GeniusHour with Adults

I have been a secondary principal for half of my education career – 12 out of 24 years.  Starting this fall, I will have been in the main chair more than I was anywhere else.  And so as I enter this off-season and reflect on the past school year, I can honestly say that I pushed myself in a new way.  You see, I was starting to get a bit stale.  Yes, I still was intensely challenged, and the commitment to my campus, its students, faculty, staff, and community, had not wavered.  I simply wasn’t sure what was missing.  And thus, I spent this past school year trying to figure out what I was trying to figure out.

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Twelve months ago I entered the summer focused on the idea of becoming a learner again.  I juiced up my iPad, downloaded some great books, and read a lot.  The focus of what I consumed relied upon Twitter, and thus I resuscitated my twitter handle and committed to jump back into the learning.  I was excited.  I ate up articles, retweeted prolifically, and tried to spark wonderful conversation.  My followers grew slowly and my notifications were few.  I didn’t feel like I was gaining traction.  And so when the start of the new year came, it was easy to “get busy with school.”

In October I attended the What Great Educators Do Differently Conference in Chicago with two friends.  I was inspired and my learning engine was reignited.  This idea of discovery and sharing and pushing myself was exactly what I needed.  And as the conference closed, I kept hearing people mention #GeniusHour.  I didn’t know what it was, and, honestly, I was afraid to ask.  I nodded my head and figured it was something I could research later.

A few weeks later, I revisited my notes from the conference, and came across the term – #GeniusHour – again.  I decided to google it.  And as I perused the first website, and then the second, and then the third, I became energized again.  My thoughts raced from, “sure this can work in ES or MS, but what could it look like in the content-obsessed world of high school.”  And then the light bulb went off.

I spent the next two weeks constructing a #GeniusHour presentation for my administrative team.  I then presented to the 12 of them the idea of #GeniusHour followed by the challenge that would come their way.  I told them that we were each going to embark on this work and purely learn.  Topics could be related to school or education, or they could be something more personal.

GeniusHour Final

The room was silent.

A few members of my team had smiles as they knew what they were going to do.  Others had clarifying questions – perfectly acceptable.  And others basically kept their heads down.

I told them that they didn’t have to seek my approval.  That I was happy to support or be available as they wished.  I was specific enough to keep repeating the 4 caveats yet vague enough to make some restless.  And I was okay with that.

That was in late November.  In May and early June we took turns presenting our #GeniusHour projects.  What emerged has exceeded my expectations.  The topics ranged from learning a new language, to a DIY project; others focused on starting a blog while another was writing a novel with his son.  Two projects centered on relationships with one focused on just adults and the other on adults and students.  Finally, one teammate shared her journey from an inactive lifestyle to completing the Texas Ironman Triathlon.

And as we debriefed each presentation the common challenges of being a learner surfaced.  The uncomfortable feeling of starting something you weren’t certain you would understand or be good at.  The idea of learning taking longer or shorter than expected.  The focus on the outcome as opposed to the minutiae.  They had all reengaged as learners.  They also spoke about what it could look like in the classroom and how they might better support both teachers and students.

Prepared to be wrong

This #GeniusHour work that we embarked on will lead much of what we do in August with our entire team.  It wasn’t perfect – two members of my team chose not to participate.  And I had to come to terms with that as being okay.  They may not have felt safe or merely weren’t ready to reenter that space.  The remaining ten that did will share their learning with smaller groups on campus.  We will support our teachers in becoming a learner again.  Maybe their topic will center on an idea for their classroom or maybe it will be more personal.  Frankly, I don’t think the topic matters at all.  It’s the process that will count more.  It’s the experience that will stick with them as they move through the school year.

I didn’t know how it would go with my team, and I don’t know how it will go trying to scale it up with 185 teachers.  However I was certain that we needed a fresh challenge to jump start our work, and I’m counting on that same energy to launch our faculty forward as well.  If we don’t try then we’ll never know.

In my best case outcome, I see teachers embracing this challenge.  And I see them more able to empathize with the challenges of learning.  Each teacher will see that different learning styles exist, and that timelines and modes of sharing can enhance and empower the content they hold so dear.  Additionally, their students will no longer see themselves as the only ones taking a risk.  It’s increasing humanity on campus.  Genuine vulnerability in an intimate way.  Maybe it will help a student persevere a bit more, give it a go one more time.  We will see.

How have you recently engaged as a learner? How could you facilitate a #GeniusHour with the people that work alongside you?