Two Family Holiday Traditions That Influence My Leadership

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

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

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

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

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

Movie Popcorn Can Bring Inspiration

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

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

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

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

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

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

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?

 

Who Doesn’t Like a Lollipop?

Working on a High School campus has been my good fortune for more than fifteen years.  And in about a month I will graduate my 7th class of seniors as a HS principal.  And thus May is often filled with reflection and nostalgia and opportunities to try and be wise.  Those chances can be inspiring and they can be daunting.  And maybe even paralyzing.  However, while I often welcome these last few weeks with a myriad of emotions, I also want to be sure that seniors make the most of their remaining days together.  The closure associated with High School graduation is powerful.  I don’t want them to miss that.

During the senior class meeting a couple weeks ago, I decided to challenge our seniors and how they might want to make the most of their remaining 28 days on campus.  We talked about how a school works best when there is a strong student culture.  Similar to working with adults, I have learned that paying attention to student culture is equally important.

And after stumbling through some words of inspiration, focusing on the type of legacy they might want to leave behind, I showed them the Lollipop TED Talk by Drew Dudley.  You can access the six minute video just below.  It’s focused on everyday leadership.

I believe this video is the perfect message to send seniors as they plan to embark on that next adventure.  Leadership exists in small moments shared between ordinary people on a day like most any other day.  The mistake we commit is that we too often focus on those large moments.  And while those certainly can include instances of true leadership, I would join Drew Dudley in his call to action that we recognize the more tiny and simple acts.

National Teacher Appreciation Week is beginning and thus this concept can easily translate to acts of recognition and gratitude.  The point is that we allow ourselves to be in the moment with another person and then not miss the chance to simply say thank you.  Perhaps it is a hand-written note.  Or maybe it’s a group of people enjoying an ice cream sandwich together.  Or maybe it’s the exchange of a simple lollipop.

lollipop

My takeaway for you would be that it doesn’t matter if it is adult to adult, or adult to student.  Let’s commit this week, this month, and this year to not miss the lollipop moments that surround us.  Who will you offer a lollipop to this week?