The Trio That Serves as My Totem

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:Share EverythingPlay FairPut things back where you found them.Clean up your own mess.Say you're sorry when you hurt somebody. Take a nap every afternoon.Be aware of wonder. Hold hands anWhile 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?Storytellers Creed

Thankful to my mentors as they remind me about unity

“Focus on your primary”

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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?