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. As 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. Accepting that JFK was right and our learning is critical toward our leadership, how can you commit to be active now?
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! While 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.
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
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. Christmas 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. Which of your traditions best reflect you?
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?
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. Here’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. Sometimes 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?
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?
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.
There’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.
Remembering 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?
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?
In high school I loved to write fiction. In college I continued but it was harder. I realized that it was work – that for it to be quality it took lots of time, effort, reflection, and perseverance. It’s not easy to commit to all of that so I stopped. Yet as I reflect on my learning from #ISTE2017, and especially the opening night keynote from Jad Abumrad, the creator of the Radiolab Podcast (Check it out here) , I realize that when I gave up on the process, I cut myself off from many other opportunities. And I realized that my desire for it to be better wasn’t a detriment. Rather it was the challenge I needed; the push that each of us need when we try something new, as we strive to find our voice.
More than 20 years since college, I now find my desire to identify and develop my voice stronger. Whether it is with this blog or my latest LEARN project where I started a podcast focused on seniors at my high school, I more fully understand that I need to stick with the process of continuing to work. It’s not great yet and I’m okay with that.
Additionally, during the same keynote, Jad shared with us a great piece by Ira Glass where he speaks about the Taste Gap. I’ve included a link to the 2 minute video here: The Taste Gap. This spoke to me in a powerful way in that it reminded me of the fact that the work must continue. And that being aware that it’s not good enough yet is important as that is what will keep you working. Imagine that – the very idea that may seemingly stop us from continuing to create is instead exactly what we need to persevere. The idea that we think it’s not good is the fuel we need for the journey. Personally, I t was not uncommon for me to reach the point of it not being what I wanted it to be, and the conclusion I reliably drew was that it just couldn’t be any more that that. Yet ISTE & Jad showed me there was more value to be had by simply “fighting through it.”
So as I recover from the end of the school year and refresh through my learning at my initial ISTE conference, I find my brain throbbing like the overworked muscle it is. Thinking and working at another level leave me both exhausted and motivated. I am excited about engaging again in my own learning through both blogging & podcasting. Neither is where I want them yet; I get that. Yet ISTE helped me understand the power in the process & that you must keep plugging along.
What are you struggling with right now in terms of your creativity? Where does your Taste Gap currently reside?