Education

It’s Our Job to Make Them Drink

It happened again this week.  Someone who was watching an amazing teacher doing incredible things in a classroom used my least favorite expression.  “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.”

I understand the intent.  For generations people have thrown this around to explain all manner of things…food not eaten, advice not taken, lessons not learned.  The idea is simple. We can provide even the best of something, but we cannot force anyone to consume it.  We cannot force a toddler to eat her food.  We cannot force a newlywed to heed the advice of his grandfather who has been married fifty years.  And we cannot force a student sitting in a classroom to learn.

I disagree.

No, we cannot make a horse drink water.  But we can certainly make the walk intriguing, and we can certainly make the water enticing.  The best teachers do it everyday.

They make the walk long.  They spend enough time to build background and provide the necessary scaffolding to help every student succeed.  They know that every child is in a different place with every lesson.  They assess what students know and fill in the gaps before they ever get to the activity.

They make the horse thirsty.  They understand that motivation and self efficacy are keys to the success of every lesson.  They supply the why for each activity.  They help students want to learn.  And they use the long walk to build a strong relationship, the most important thing our best teachers do.

And then they make the water irresistible.  They design engaging lessons that are impossible for students to resist.  They find stories and music and movie clips and speakers and field trips and projects that address multiple learning styles and allow each child to learn.

Our job as educators is not simply to design aligned curriculum and research-based instructional models.  Our job as educators is not simply to provide materials and experiences.  Our job as educators is not simply to provide a quality lesson and hope our students learn.  Our job as educators is to ensure, to guarantee as our mission so boldly states, that students learn.

It’s our job to make them drink.

I have been in many classrooms in the last month, and I have seen teacher after teacher doing this hard work.  It is happening everyday in our schools.  It is not easy, but it is our life’s work.  And I cannot imagine a more important job.

Monday

Tomorrow is Monday.

Mondays bring to mind Facebook posts full of anxiety and worry and dread.  Mondays inspire angry cat posters and memes.  Do a Google search.  They’ll make you laugh, but I think they miss the mark.

Mondays are not fully appreciated, not fully embraced for the gift that they are.  Mondays are a fresh start.  Mondays are a new beginning.  And tomorrow is our ultimate Monday.  Tomorrow is the day all teachers report back to work in our district.  It is day one.  It is a fresh start, a new beginning.  It is one of the things I enjoy the most about my work.

Every year I have the same feeling as we start a new school year.  I think it is the same feeling I had as a child.  I love school.  I love the sharpened pencils and the college rule notebooks and the locker shelves.  I love Open House and Curriculum Night and the first football game of the year.  But most of all I love the opportunity.  I love the opportunity to meet new people and make new friends, the chance to learn and grow, and the challenge to do more and be more than we have been before.  We get a fresh start every year.  Every child, every adult, every one of us gets to start anew on Monday.  Every Monday.

Last year was amazing, but I did not handle every situation and every conversation as well as I would have liked.  Probably no one did.  I am grateful that I get to try again.  I am grateful that no matter what challenges or obstacles I have faced in the past, I get to learn from them and start again.  I am grateful that the people in my life are understanding and accepting.  They teach me; they show me grace; and they inspire me every day to be a better person.  And that is what I want for our staff and for our students.

I know that not every child loves school.  I know that for some of them the anxiety is real and the fear is not a joke.  It is our mission, our purpose, to do what we can for those who need us the most.  And I feel blessed to be surrounded by dedicated professionals who have made that their life’s work.

Now don’t get me wrong.  Summer was amazing.  Weekends are amazing.  Time to recharge and reconnect is vital.  But we work in the greatest profession in the world, and tomorrow is day one.  Monday.  And I for one am ready!

Houston, We Have a Problem

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Don’t worry, this is not a post about problems.  We have enough discourse right now about problems.  This is a post about solutions.  As I was re-watching the movie Apollo 13 this week, I was reminded of one of the most important rules in life.

We are never in this alone.

It would be so easy to see the heroes of the Apollo 13 mission as Commander Jim Lovell, Command Module Pilot Jack Swigert, and Lunar Module Pilot Fred Haise.  And of course they are heroes.  They accomplished what few people before or after have ever done.  They braved a new world at great personal risk.  And when things went wrong, as they so often do in life, they stayed level-headed, they relied on their training, and they used their knowledge, skills, and experience to make it home safely.  But they did not do it alone.

Gene Kranz was the Lead Flight Director.  His job was to coordinate the efforts from the ground.  Countless men and women worked around the clock to find the right answers, the best solutions, to problems no one had ever encountered before. Their efforts were no less heroic than those of the men in the capsule.

While there was no doubt some poetic license taken in the retelling of the story, Ken Mattingly, who was replaced on the mission for medical reasons just days before the launch, also worked the problem from the ground.  His efforts were no less heroic than those of the men in the capsule.

And there was Marilyn Lovell, Jim’s wife, and the family, friends, and co-workers of the crew.  So many people who were either working to find solutions or working to support those most directly involved in the crisis.

We are never in this alone.  This is true in space travel, in education, in life.

Our teachers work day after day to find the best solutions for the children in our schools. They are heroic.  They design engaging lessons.  They work hard to be sure there is a solid objective for the lesson and appropriate instructional strategies.  They use data and research-based ideas.  But more, they get to know their students on a personal level.  They connect with children and parents to build a safe space for learning.  And when things go wrong, when a lesson doesn’t work or technology is glitchy (yes, thats the technical term) or when a student is hungry, they find solutions.  They stay level-headed, they rely on their training, and they use their knowledge, skills, and experience to solve the problem.  And they do not do it alone.

There are paraprofessionals alongside them in class.  There are secretaries and food service workers and custodians supporting the building.  There are administrators working systematically to design the best schools and to connect with students and parents daily.

And then there’s us.  Those of us who no longer work in a building with students.  I have to admit, it is a weird feeling.  We all got into this to help students.  We all got into this to make a difference for a child.  As I watched Apollo 13, I found myself affirmed in the idea that the work of those of us on the ground crew, those of us not in the classroom every day, is still serving children.  Our work is still focused on meeting the needs of the students, the parents, the teachers, the schools.

And we are not alone in this either. Our school boards, our legislators, our judicial system are all hard at work to meet the needs of the people.  Everyone got into this to make a difference.

I guess I am just saying that you matter!  Whether you are the one in the capsule, the one on the stage, the one in the spotlight, or the one whose name is unknown doing quiet, important work behind the scenes.  None of us are in this alone.  And we all matter!

Count Your Blessings

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“When I’m worried and cannot sleep, I count my blessings instead of sheep.”  Irving Berlin-  White Christmas

In a week when we focus on gratitude, are you feeling grateful for what you do?

I work in education.   It is hard, important work.  This week I’ve been reflecting on why I do what I do.  I’ve been remembering the teachers who did for me what I hope I have done and now help others do for students.  Influence is such a powerful thing, and education is a profession with enormous influence.

So many teachers had an influence on me and taught me lessons that helped shape who I am.

In elementary school, Mrs. Landon gave me independence and individual opportunities to learn.  She “differentiated instruction” for me and for Amy and for Charlie and for Randy before anyone knew the term.  The four of us read and wrote and acted and researched many times on our own.  She allowed us the freedom to work ahead and to learn at our own pace. She empowered us with projects and leadership roles.  She taught us something important…

You are special.

In junior high (middle school wasn’t a thing yet), Mr. Reynolds did the same for all of his students.  He was an amazing teacher.  He acted out Civil War battles and made learning fun. And he was about the “whole child” before anyone knew the term.  He could relate to every student.  He allowed us all to tell our stories, and he supported us all in whatever we needed.  Over Spring Break, he took us to Washington D.C.  We watched as he stayed on the bus when we got to the Vietnam Memorial.  His experiences in the war were still too fresh.  He helped us understand that everyone has a story, and he taught us something important…

Everyone is special.

In high school, Mr. DiMauro challenged us.  He set the bar so high academically that many times I thought I’d never reach it.  But he found ways in class to “scaffold the learning” before anyone knew the expression.  He taught us Beowulf in Old English and somehow we were able to understand it.  Day after day he set impossible learning goals, and day after day he helped us meet them.  He taught us something important…

You can do hard things.

In college Mr. Blanke gave me a job as the Box Office Manager, but he did so much more than that.  He empowered me to run things and make decisions.  He gave me paperwork and office work, but he also gave me real work.  He let me design processes and change the way things were done.  He confided in me.  He processed with me.  He relied on me.  And he taught me something important…

You are needed.

Life is not always easy.  I have had real challenges and obstacles in my job, in my health, and in my life.  And every time I was able to meet the challenge and overcome.  I am grateful for the people who helped teach me the lessons that made me who I am today.

Working in education (or in business or in marketing or in food service or in anything) is not always easy. There can be hard days and weeks when you question why you do what you do.

When you have those days or weeks, remember, you chose this job.  You chose it for a reason…a positive, important, life-changing reason.  Reflect on the people who had influence on you, and reflect on the students, staff, and parents you can influence.  Be grateful for the opportunity.

You are special. You are needed.

Now go do what’s hard!

 

The Long Road

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I saw a former student this week.  He is one of those of those kids I will never forget.  There were three of them actually- Joe and Dalton and Jack.  They are forever connected in my memory.  Fun and full of life, they made each day an adventure.  I was on a half team that year, so I taught both English and reading and had a study hall.  Some of those students had me three times day- that was a lot of Mrs. Phipps.

Those three came back to visit sometimes when they were in high school and on one of those visits taught me one of my harshest lessons as teacher.  In an attempt to save precious instructional time, I would list each assignment on the board along with the last name of any students who did not have it turned in.  It made it faster and easier for me to remind them what they still needed to hand in.  Great system.  Well the boys came back to visit and there happened to be no assignments on the board.  They asked, “What happened to the Wall of Shame?”

So that happened.  Something I thought was a great system to save instructional time was actually a shaming experience for my students about whom I cared deeply.  Of course it was.  Seems so obvious now.

The road to Master Teacher is long and filled with moment after moment of hard-learned lessons. While I am not in the classroom anymore, I feel like I am still learning more and more about best instructional practices.

I regret the times I used word finds in class.  I regret the time my students spent making stuffed pigs and pig cakes as final projects for A Day No Pigs Would Day.  I regret the countless days spent typing “final copies” in the computer lab.  I want that instructional time back to do close reading and make actual meaning of language and vocabulary.  I want that time back to turn student loose on research questions of their own design about Shakers and agriculture and the Depression and family life.

When we know better, we do better.

Education is a reflective profession.  We are charged with a challenging, ever-changing job that matters deeply.  Our systems and our structures need to allow for data-based decisions, collaboration, common planning, Professional Learning Communities, and time for reflection.  Our leaders need the vision to make time where there seemingly is none.  Our teachers need the tools to plan, teach, reflect, change.  Our schools need the culture and climate to encourage risk and reflection.

As I look back on a lifetime in education, I really should not regret those lessons that failed, those projects that lacked purpose, or those systems that defeated my real purpose.  I learned so much from each of them.  When I knew better, I did better. I was blessed to have students who were honest about what worked and what didn’t.  I was lucky enough to work with colleagues who mentored me and who showed me a better way.  We learned together.  And I was privileged to have leaders who allowed me take risks and to fail at times in order to learn and to grow.

As the beginning of the year honeymoon comes to an end, and the real day-to-day work takes shape, I wish you all a year of risk and reflection.  I am overwhelmed everyday by the masterful work happening in classrooms all over our districts.  Our students are in good and caring hands!

First Days

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This week as I made my way around the district on the first day of school, I was reminded that our experiences on first days are pretty similar.  Whether it was the first day of kindergarten, the first day of middle school, or the first day of high school, the pictures on Facebook looked the same….students smiling nervously, parents beaming with pride, and school staff excited for the beginning of another year.  The human experience is the human experience.  Starting an adventure in a new place is exciting. For our students, for our parents, and for our colleagues, finding a sense of belonging and establishing relationships in that new place is scary and hard and really important. Regardless of what’s new, we all tend to ask ourselves the same questions.

“What should I wear?”

This question feels oh so middle school, but it’s not.  I had tons of kindergarteners gushing as they showed me their new outfits on the first day.  And I know the high schoolers and their friends talked about what they were wearing for pictures at Orientation.  Will this help me fit in?  Will this help me stand-out?  Am I over-dressed?  Under-dressed?  Believe it or not, even as adults, we ask ourselves (and our friends) these same questions.  We all struggle with the simultaneous desire to fit in and to stand out.

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It is easy to dismiss this as a superficial question, but we have all worried about this at some point in our lives.  Belonging is a powerful human need.  Friendship and relationships are cornerstones of our well-being.  This is true for five year olds,  eleven year olds, fourteen year olds, and adults.  People need a tribe, a community.

This is one of the most powerful ways we can work to make the world a better place.  There are tangible things each of us can do to help others feel accepted.  Children instinctively know this.  They are more likely to talk to someone they do not know, to invite others over to play with them on the playground, or to call someone a friend almost immediately.   We lose some of that as we age.  My hope for the first days of a new school year is that we all, students, staff, community, reach out to others and make people feel welcome.

And a beautiful side effect of focusing on helping others feel accepted is that it takes our minds off our own need to belong.

“Will I like them?”

I believe we are happier when we are surrounded by people we like, people who lift us up and make us better.  In school this can look like spending your time with others who share your academic, athletic, or extra-curricular interests.  We know that students who are involved in activities have higher GPAs and are more successful academically in school.  I don’t have to “like” you to learn from you and to get better because of you, but it’s sure more fun if I do.  Building a network of people you like is important.  At work this looks like finding colleagues who are also friends.

Our world gets better when we are accepting of each other.

This is my challenge to you for the new year.  Find ways to help others feel like they belong.  Focus on being inclusive.  Focus on reaching out to someone who is new at school or at work and asking them to join you.  Focus on the well-being of others.  You’ll be amazed at how much that helps your own well-being.

Our People are Our Everything

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I’ve been in a job transition for the last 7 months. It’s been fun and challenging and rewarding and complicated.  I transitioned with someone who has a long history of excellence and who had a giving heart every step of the way. But I am ready to be through transition and into the work.

I’ve learned a bit about transition in the last six years.  I’ve learned how to identify the big rocks in a job and how to build comprehensive lists to stay on top of things.  I’ve learned how to network with the people who can help me grow and be successful.  And I’ve learned that reflecting on my vision is essential.

But the most important thing I’ve learned from transitions, from life really, is that your team is your everything.  It is the people in your life, and your relationships with those people, who make or break your success.  Relationships are everything.

I am blessed to work with a group of people who make me better, and I always have been.  In each of the schools I called home, I was surrounded by smart, caring, hard-working people who put students first and challenged each other to do our best work.  At the district level, I am surrounded by people who think at high levels, question the status quo, and keep kids first.  They have helped me and supported me in ways I cannot adequately define in words. I am lucky to have each of them in my life.

For the past few weeks, I have been able to connect with my new team.  We have talked about who we want to be and how we can support students, teachers, administrators, and each other.  It has been exciting.  We’ve gotten to know each other a little better, and we’ve had the chance to talk about how we are the same and how we are different.

Another thing I have learned about teams is that it is the differences, not the similarities, that often make the strongest teams.  I am not like some of the people I work with everyday.  And I am grateful for that.  Where I am weak, they are strong.  We balance each other.  A little rule-follower, a little rule-breaker.  A little systems thinker, a little constant dreamer.  A little big picture, a little in the weeds.  The strongest teams have a little of it all, and they are better for it.

Leadership is about sharing a vision that all of those people can rally around.  Leadership is about setting the path, equipping everyone with the needed resources and support to be successful, and allowing each person to use their strengths. How are you serving as a leader with your team?

People have asked me what my hopes are for this new year in this new role.  I hope to be competent.  I hope to maintain the structures and systems that have made our division strong and to challenge the status quo so we get even better.  I hope to work collaboratively to establish our vision for teaching and learning.  And most importantly, I hope to build a team.

Our people are our everything.  As we start a new year, surround yourself with people who challenge you, push you, support you, and make you happy.

Say Goodbye

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I contend that if you want to know which teachers have the best relationships with students, watch classrooms on the first day of school and the last day of school.  There is an energy, an excitement on those days that is palpable.  This week the best teachers are sending notes home to parents, taking pictures with their students, and putting closure on the school year.  They are asking students to write letters to themselves that they will mail years later, and they are showing videos they’ve been building all year.

Closure matters.

May is also banquet season.  There are scholarship dinners, award and recognition nights, and retirement celebrations.  There is chicken and iced tea and cake and dessert.  There are certificates and medals and crystal apples and clocks.  It’s a busy time of year and one that is not always fully appreciated.  At a time that can already be stressful in schools, adding after school events and evening activities can feel like a burden instead of a gift.  But this is one of the most important times of our year.

Closure matters.

As a middle school teacher, I would read my students the same book on the last day of school every year.  And years later if they’d invite me to their graduation, I would give them a copy of the book.  It was a tradition.  We would tell the stories from the school year and laugh and cry and write in everybody’s yearbook.  It was emotionally draining, and I looked forward to it every year.

Closure matters.

After a long season of baseball or track, after a year of competing in show choir or debate, teams celebrate with an awards banquet or a recognition night.  Records are acknowledged, and trophies are presented.  Parents take pictures and coaches make speeches.  It is usually a very long night, and it is also a night that will be remembered for the rest of their lives.

I was having a conversation with some friends this week about retirement.  We were imaging what we will want when we retire. A party?  A lunch?  Slipping quietly out the back door without any fanfare?  We all have our opinions, but I imagine when the time actually comes, we may feel differently.

Retiring from a job, ending a sports season, or leaving elementary school is emotional, especially if you have had a positive experience.  Endings can be hard.  Rituals like letters home, awards banquets, and retirement parties can help.  They give people a chance to celebrate the experience and in some ways to grieve the loss.

Allowing for opportunities to reflect and reminisce is important.  People need the chance to relive the highlights and to retell their stories.  As a school leader, be intentional about planning these events for students and staff.

May is always an emotional month in education.  We are saying goodbye to our students who have become part of us, and we are saying goodbye to colleagues who have become like family.  I hope that you take every opportunity to celebrate this time of year and to say goodbye.  Closure matters.

Own Your Power

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I believe that there are certain fundamental truths in the world. I believe that having a relationship with someone is more powerful that having authority over them.  I believe that doing the right thing for the sake of doing the right thing is the most important thing we can do with our lives.  I believe that being a good person is more important than being a powerful person.  The people who I respect the most in this world are humble and kind to quote Tim McGraw.  They are also, in many cases, leaders at the highest level.  You can be both humble and powerful.  I see it everyday.

There is an inner struggle when you assume a leadership role, a battle between who you are and what you are required to do.  There are any number of decisions you have to make as a leader that have the potential to frustrate or upset others.  There are issues that divide people.  When your focus is on creating a positive culture and developing relationships, those issues can create fear.  How will your work impact that culture and those relationships?

But you cannot lead unless you own your power.

Strong leaders take the time to build the knowledge and skills necessary to run the team, the organization, or the company.  They start first by developing themselves.  They are lifelong learners who push themselves and challenge themselves to grow.  They have built relationships, and they seek out the people with whom they need to cultivate new relationships.  So when they do step into the role, they are ready to lead. And the organization needs them to lead.

But you cannot lead unless you own your power.

The best leaders are good people who are willing to do what is necessary to move the organization forward.  They have moved past the fear that others might not like them.  They are willing to make decisions and to own the consequences.  They share the credit, and they take the blame.  And people respond well to them.  We want strong leaders who are knowledgeable and decisive.  We want leaders who will take responsibility and have the difficult conversations.  The best leaders do not necessarily enjoy conflict, but they do not shy away from it.

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I am a leader.  I am blessed to be in a position where I get to voice my opinion, influence decisions, and help determine the vision for our district.  There are so many people in our schools and communities who assume leadership roles, big and small, every day.  To do our jobs well, we have to be willing to own our power.

When you are coaching the football team or the baseball team, own the decisions you make about playing time.  When parents question the length of your practice or the position you assigned their child, stand up for your choices.  Don’t hesitate when you are explaining those decisions to players or parents.  You know the skills and the talents of your players.

When you are serving as Troop Leader or President of the Neighborhood Association, be decisive.  Own the choices you make.  You are in that role for a reason.  You do not have to fear explaining the decisions you’ve made.  You are the leader.

And when you assume a job as a school leader, do it with confidence. You have prepared, and you will continue to learn. There will be any number of things about which you are not self-assured.  Do them anyway.  People need leaders who are willing to lead.

There is  nothing shameful in owning your power, the best leaders do it with ease.  You can, and should, be humble and kind.  And you can, and should, own your power as a leader.

 

Keeping the First Things First

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I work in education.  It is without question the most rewarding, engaging, and important work I can imagine.  We are entrusted with the care and teaching of people’s children. We show them facts and figures.  We empower them to think and learn things on their own.  And we shape what they believe and who they will become.  It is an awesome responsibility, and it is an enormous joy.

In classrooms, our focus should be on helping students develop the knowledge, skills, and character traits necessary to be the best versions of themselves.

In schools, our focus should be on empowering teachers and supporting students and families in order to meet the needs of everyone as they enter the classroom.

In districts, our focus should be on providing the resources and support necessary to ensure that each student has a successful school experience.

Steven Covey says it like this: Put first things first.

My roles in education have changed over the years.  I was a middle school teacher for thirteen years.  In that time, it was not always easy to put the first things first.  I set challenging objectives, designed engaging lessons and developed authentic and meaningful assessments.  I got to know my students on a personal level and tried to establish relationships.  But without fail, every year, there were things that got in the way of what I knew should be the first things.  Some of my students didn’t have enough to eat.  Some of my students had anxiety or depression or just that painful funk that often accompanies middle school.  Some of my students would misbehave and make it hard for everyone to focus on the lesson.  There were metaphorical fires to put out at times.  And in those times it was hard to put the first things first.

As a building administrator, those issues seemed to grow.  A disagreement between students in the neighborhood at night would spill over into first hour English class and end up in my office.  Those students who didn’t have enough to eat would stop in my office to grab a pop-tart on the way to class.  Sometimes a student who just needed to cry would take up several hours of the day.  I knew that my first job was to be the instructional leader in our school.  I knew that I should be in classrooms watching lessons and providing feedback, but it was not always as easy as I wished it would be.

As a district administrator, I know that putting first things first means being present in our schools and at activities.  I know it means being in classrooms watching lessons and ensuring that our curriculum is sound, our instruction is effective, and our assessment is driving instruction.  But there are still those metaphorical fires that get in the way. Staffing issues, discipline issues, and other emergencies (that many times are actual emergencies) get in the way of me keeping the first things first.

So what to do about it?

I’m not sure I have the answer, but I know that we need to give ourselves and each other grace when what we perceive to be the most important thing that someone should be doing doesn’t get done.  We need to recognize that there may be any number of things happening in our classrooms, in our schools, and in our district that are a more immediate need than what we shared as a necessary task.  We need to accept that our most pressing issue may be minor in the work that others are doing at a given time.  Sometimes putting the first things first means taking care of a hungry student, a frustrated parent, or a building principal who is asking for help

And then we need to refocus our attention, reflect on how we are spending our time, and design systems that support our work and allow for both the emergencies and the deeper leadership that guarantees all students succeed.

Nobody said this was going to easy.  But it is definitely worth it.

Imagine Something of Everyone

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I was overcome with pride this week as I watched elementary students working during Genius Hour in one of our schools.  Those boys and girls are passionate about saving endangered species and Mine Craft and teaching dogs tricks.  They lit up when they talked about what they were researching and what they cared most about right now.  And I watched their teachers empower each and every one of them.

Then I got online and found a video that some of our high school students made called Mean Tweets about cyber-bullying. It is remarkable.  They are taking tangible, powerful action to address a very real concern for young people.  They saw a problem, and they took steps to address it.  And I watched as their superintendent and their teachers and their administrators shared the video on social media, empowering them even further.

“Sometimes it’s the very people who no one imagines anything of who do the things that no one imagines.” Alan Turing

When I first heard this quote, I was sure it would end up in a blog.  I was sure it would be a retelling of the many people who have accomplished great things despite this or that.  I thought it would be about the people who overcame great challenges to rise in their fields or achieve great success.  But in the end, as I rolled the quote around and around in my head, it is not about that at all.  Because in the end, I do not agree with the quote.

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Deeper examination of the people who have achieved great things in spite of overwhelming obstacles will always reveal someone who believed in them.  There was a parent who told them that they were smart.  There was a friend who read their stories or looked at their drawings and appreciated them.  There was a teacher.  So many times there was a teacher.  Someone looked at them and saw what I like to call the sparkle, that inner glow that shines when they dance or run or sing or solve math problems.  Someone told them that they sparkle, and that someone ignited a flame…even if it was just once in passing long ago and the flame stayed hidden deep down inside.

I cannot, will not, live in a world where there are people that no one imagines anything of. I cannot, will not, allow anyone to go through life with no one believing in them.  I want to imagine something of EVERYONE.  I want us all to imagine something of everyone.

In my profession, this is not a nice to have trait, it is a have to have trait.

Every day children walk into our schools and spend their days with people who should imagine something of them.  Teachers are entrusted with the care and nurturing of minds and hearts and souls.  It is our job to see the sparkle, to know our students so well that we can help identify their passions and encourage them.  It is our job to do this for EVERY student in our classrooms, even the ones who are angry or quiet or difficult to like at times.  In fact, it is our job to find it most in those students.  We have the opportunity, the gift, to be the person who imagined something of the next great artist, the doctor who cures cancer, the President.  It is our job to imagine something of these future parents, neighbors, colleagues.

Reflect on the people who saw something in you.  Thank them.

Then look around for the people whose sparkle you should be seeing.  Reach out to them. Encourage them.  Nurture that sparkle.  Do not allow a single person to go through life with no one imaging something of them.

Imagine something of everyone.

 

Are you building political capital?

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“I am not political.  My focus is on my school and my district.  I am not at all interested in playing the games that are involved in politics.”  As a classroom teacher, and even early in my administrative career, I said this countless times.  And with it came the implication that politics were somehow ‘beneath me’.

I know better now.

It is naive to think that you are not political.  We are all political, or we should be.

“All education decisions are political decisions,” Roger Breed, former Nebraska Commissioner of Education.   There are almost always two sides to an issue, and there are almost always critical stakeholders on both sides.  Effective leaders understand this, and they seek to build relationships and understand the political climate and issues at a local, state, and national level.

Education policies, budget policies, civil rights policies all impact the classroom.  Ignorance of the process and of the issues being legislated is not noble, it is damaging.  Information is power, and relationships provide an opportunity to have a voice in the process.  Effective leaders understand this.

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In 2001, I was in the classroom, and we had a new principal.  We also had a reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act – No Child Left Behind.  While leadership at the district-level across the nation shifted focus, many building leaders and classroom teachers paid little attention until they were directly impacted.  This was not the case in my building.  Our principal was aware and informed, and he made sure that we were as well.  He modeled the importance of engagement in educational policy at the nation level.  This was my first experience with anything like that, and it made me feel empowered.  It planted a seed that has grown over the years.

I am political now.  I have so much to learn, but I am trying.  I am lucky to be surrounded by leaders with the knowledge and skills to teach me, and I am soaking it up like a sponge.

Relationships matter.  Always.  They are the foundation of everything we do.  The relationship a teacher has with a student or a parent allows them to motivate and engage students.  The same is true in politics.  The relationship a leader has with the people in the organization, other leaders, and the community is critical for success.  You invest in people, and the sometimes difficult work of creating policy gets easier.

How will you spend your political capital?

Leading in the public or private sector, in government, education, or business, is challenging and frequently involves making decisions on issues about which there are diverse opinions.  Knowing your people, understanding your culture, and anticipating areas of conflict are essential to navigate those issues effectively.  Not every issue is right for every time or every organization.  Leadership is making the difficult decisions…and knowing when it is not the right time.

It was easier when I believed I was not political.  I could bury my head in the sand to some extent and plead ignorance about local, state, and national issues…or worse, espouse an opinion about something on which I was not informed.  But who wants their leader to be ignorant?

Seek mentors who understand the political process and learn from them.

Build relationships with stakeholders at all levels.  You’d be amazed at who is willing to talk to you if you just ask.  I once had a meeting with a member of Arne Duncan’s team because I was going to be in Washington DC and sent a tweet to the Secretary.  Ask.

Read everything you can get your hands on about local, state, and national politics, especially in the areas related to education.  Read both sides of the issue.  Be open to being influenced.  I joked with a friend that his mind was poisoned this week after a day spent with the opposition, but it is essential to listen openly to the opposition.  Likely the right answer in matters of policy lies somewhere in the middle of the opposing views.

Politics and leadership go hand-in-hand.  This was a lesson that took me longer to learn than I am proud to admit.  I have so far to go, but I am on the journey.

You are causing ripples, intended or not

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It was a rough week for our school.  Teachers were negative and impatient.  Students were edgy and misbehaving.  Parents were irritated.  We didn’t teach like we usually do, and we probably didn’t inspire anyone.  And it was my fault.

It was a rough week for me.  I was sick, and I was overwhelmed by personal issues and professional frustrations.  My stress level was high, and there is no doubt that my emotions had an impact on our whole school.  Todd Whitaker says it like this, “when the principal sneezes, the school catches a cold.”

I can remember that week clearly.  Even now, years later, I feel guilty about it.  As leaders we have to accept that our emotions will impact everyone else working in our organization.  We set the tone.  The superintendent sets the tone for the district.  The principal sets the tone for the school.  The teacher sets the tone for the classroom.  It is an awesome responsibility, and one for which I’m not sure I was always adequately prepared.

Susan Scott talks about the need to be aware of our emotional wake.  Like a boat in calm water, you are causing ripples whether intended or not. Every interaction, every conversation, every look leaves an impression on the other person.  It is unavoidable.  There will be times when we have to make unpopular decisions and have difficult conversations.  It will leave a wake.  It is unavoidable.  But we need to be mindful that even informal, casual interactions leave an impression.

It’s not really fair that the culture and climate of our schools are tied so closely to our emotions, but they are.  The more aware of this fact a leader can be, the more successful they will be in addressing it.  Our superintendent calls it “getting back to zero”.  When something happens that impacts your positivity, recognize it, and get back to zero as quickly as possible.  Don’t rehash the negative.  Don’t relive the event. It happened.  Move on.  Your emotions, your attitude, your wake is impacting others.  It is a reality you accepted when you chose to become a leader…in your classroom, in your school, in your district.

Positivity is not always easy.  There are times when real, significant issues occur in our lives.  There are times when we need to seek help and find comfort and wisdom from others.  Seek it.  Find it.  Get better and move on.

When things in the organization aren’t going well, start by looking in the mirror.  Could you be having an unintended impact?  Have you been sneezing?

The October Letter

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Fall is my favorite season.  Decorating the house for Halloween, curling up with a book in comfy clothes, and burning Yankee Candles bring me joy.  I love October.  But in schools across our district, October is a busy month.

I was walking the hallways of our school late one afternoon, returning to my office from a meeting.  As I passed a classroom, I heard a teacher crying.  Our conversation was long, and she shared all of the stress she was feeling: papers to grade, lesson plans to write, conferences to prepare.  She felt overwhelmed, and she was sure that everybody was feeling like this was the most stressful year they’d ever had.

Someday I will write a whole blog on the dangers of indefinite pronouns (like “everybody”) and superlatives (like “most stressful”), but for now, I’ll concede that after some probing, we agreed that people were feeling swamped.

As our admin team processed how we might support the teacher (and the rest of the staff), we decided to make our weekly grade level meeting about fun.  We crafted a fantastically motivating letter reassuring the staff that things would get better, and we shared positive quotes about the impact they were having on students.  It was good stuff.

We did a “save as”, called it The October Letter, and then discovered that we, in fact, had created an October Letter the year before.  Seriously!  There was a letter on our server with the same title and eerily similar content.  Apparently we had forgotten that our school was feeling the same way exactly a year earlier.

When we reflected on the school year, it made total sense.  We had been working for almost 12 weeks with only one day of vacation.  We had kicked off a new year, gone through an entire grading period, moved past the honeymoon phase and into the reality of our students’ many, many needs.  People were worn out.  And just when they were at their most tired, we asked them to be “on” for two nights of conferences and a day of professional development. It’s no wonder there were some tears.

School years have cycles.  Every school is unique.  In our school, October was the low.  Once we became aware of it, we could plan for it rather than reacting to it.  Effective leaders have emotional intelligence.  They recognize that the social and emotional health of students and staff is as important as effective instruction.

Plan Ahead

Get good at looking ahead and assessing when things may be too much for staff.  Plan systematically to roll things out over time.

Recognize the Signs

Pay attention to the climate in your building.  Ask and listen, so you can address issues as they arise.

Go Quiet

There is a time to push and a time to sit back.  Effective leaders recognize each of those times.

October is a gift.  Enjoy it!  The sunsets are glorious, and the weather is still nice enough to go for walks to enjoy them.

And if your school year cycle means you’re feeling some stress, take notice.  Get yourself back into balance by inserting fun where you can.  Look around, who needs a zip-lock bag of candy corn?  We can each chose to lead from our seat on the bus.

I’m Ready to Break Some Rules

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I am a rule follower.  I always have been.  I was the kid in class with her hand up.  I was the one on Safety Patrol in elementary school.  I like knowing the rules, and I find comfort in following them.  I was never the “ask forgiveness not permission” person.

As a new principal, I shared my non-negotiables with our staff.  Rule following was on the list. People need to know the core values of their leader.  In education there is safety in having well-defined policies and procedures to follow.  A strong instructional model, a guaranteed viable curriculum, and a quality assessment system guide our work.  A consistent Code of Conduct and procedures for everything from field trips to facility use provide consistency.  Following them ensures equity in opportunities for children.  I know that.  I believe that.

But more and more lately, I’ve been wanting to break the rules.

We take our greatest leaps when we challenge the status quo.  There is power in examining what we are doing…and then changing it when appropriate.

I think I might be ready to rebel.  I think I might be ready to take some risks.

As a profession, we’ve been asking questions about what our most successful teachers, administrators and schools are doing.  How are they meeting the unique needs of their students? In some cases, they are breaking the rules.  In some cases, they are deviating from the standard, prescribed process.  And it’s working.

So if that’s the case, where is the line?  How do we ensure fair and equal opportunities for all students and still create an environment where people can take the risks necessary to meet the needs of each child?

Discuss openly and honestly

I want our leaders to feel safe in talking about what they are doing.  I want to ensure a culture where we can disagree and challenge each other in positive ways.

Listen

I want to get better at listening.  I want to go into these conversations without an agenda and be willing to learn.

Share what’s working

I want educators to be collaborative and not competitive.  I want our profession to be about finding what works for all kids.  I want an educational climate that focuses on sharing, so we all get better.

Trust

I want people to focus less on accountability and more on trust.  I will never stop holding myself and others accountable because our work is too important not too, but I want my default to be trust in others’ good intentions.

Risk

And finally, I want to start taking more risks.  I want to challenge more.  I want to push the boundaries more.  I think it will make me better.

Following the rules has worked out pretty well for me.  I’m not sure I’m ready to cast them all to the wind and run amok.  But with age (and maturity?) comes the recognition that challenging the status quo is a good thing.

I think I might finally be ready to break some rules!

Keeping Connected to the Classroom

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I have the best job in the world!  (Everyone in education says they have the best job in the world, and we all really mean it.)  After 13 years in the classroom and 9 years as a building level administrator, I am currently working in our district office.  My job is staff development and instructional improvement.  I get to spend my time talking about effective instructional practices.  It is an amazing gift!

This week I spent two hours with a colleague doing walk through observations in one of our high schools.  We are implementing a new instructional model, and this was my opportunity to walk my talk.  I have spent the last year facilitating staff development for our administrators about this new model.  Now I need to spend time in classrooms watching the model in action.  I need to spend time with the administrators who are actually using the model with teachers.  It was wonderful.

There is an energy in a school.  I miss it.  Engaging lessons in the classroom, excited students in the hallway during passing period, and people building relationships at every turn.  It was fun to be back talking about good teaching with a great administrator.

And then it happened.

We got back to the office and were debriefing our experience when another administrator in the building popped in to let us know there was a discipline issue being addressed across the hall.  And there it was…the real world.

We ask our administrators to do so much.  There are hundreds of tasks that need their constant attention.  Safety and security, technology, parent concerns, student issues…the list could go on and on.  We need them to manage the building, but we also need them to be instructional leaders.  Finding that balance is not easy.

Walk through observations, reflective conversations, and meaningful feedback are all critical to improving instruction.  We know this!  But finding the time to do those things effectively can be a struggle.

Today was a good reminder for me that the real world sometimes gets in the way.  As someone who is not currently serving in a building level role, there are things I need to remember.

Listen and Seek to Understand

I need to listen openly to the experiences of the people who are implementing things in the building.  They have the practical experiences and a more realistic understanding of what is actually happening.  I may think I know, but I am not the one doing it. We need to have a relationship that allows for honest and direct conversations.  Time is precious; there is never enough of it.  When we can carve out time to talk, everyone needs to be willing to share openly.

Empower Others

No amount of planning on my part can replace effective implementation by the leaders in the building.  My role is to empower leaders to be both visionary and systematic.  I can only make things happen by developing capacity in others.

Offer Grace

While instructional improvement is certainly not all I do, it is the big rock in my world.  But what is a big rock for me may be a pebble in the moment of what they are dealing with in the building.  It is critical for me to remember that my piece is only one piece of what they are being asked to do.  If something gets dropped or a detail gets neglected, my first instinct should be to offer grace.  I have no idea what student issue that administrator has been tackling.

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not letting building administrators off the hook here either.  This same real world exists for our classroom teachers too.

We ask our teachers to do so much.  Administrators have to remember that their perceptions will never be as accurate as the teachers’ actual experiences in the classroom.

And finally, I’m not letting classroom teachers off the hook either.  We ask our student to do so much.

This real world exists for us all.  Listening and actually hearing the experience others are having is a powerful first step.

A Letter to My Daughter

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Educators often think of graduation as the measure of our success.  It’s the moment we’ve been working for since that first day our students arrived at Kindergarten Round-up.

But I think we are wrong.  I think this week is actually that moment.  My social media feeds are full of pictures of teary-eyed parents and nervous young adults unpacking cars, hauling mini-fridges, and sporting new college gear.

I think the measure of our success really starts this week.  As our children head off to college, we get to find out if they are, in fact, “college and career ready”.

When we watch the seniors cross the stage at graduation, we hope that we have prepared them to be successful in whatever their next steps may be.  This week, as we send them off to Basic Trainings and Freshman Orientations, to first days at new jobs or to dorm rooms and apartments, we get to find out if we succeeded.

For you, my daughter, I think we did.

There are so many things I want for my kids.  Sometimes when I say “my kids”, I really mean my students.  But this week, I am talking about you and your sister.

So what do I hope for you?

I hope you are creative and collaborative.

I hope you are willing to take risks.

I hope you persevere when things get hard because there will be times when things get hard.

Mostly though, I hope you enjoy your life.

I want you to celebrate who you are and not devote time to comparing yourself to others.  Comparison is so often a source of frustration and disappointment.  It’s what we do to ourselves that makes us feel like less.  There will always be someone smarter, someone cuter, someone wealthier.  But there will never be another you.  The only person you ever need to compare yourself to is the you from the day before.

Reflect.  Learn.  Grow.

I want you to avoid judging other people.  That’s what we do that makes others feel like less.  There are few things you can be that are more important than being kind.  “We are how we treat each other and nothing more.” (Alternate Routes)

Content matters.  It’s important that you can write well and that you can make meaning of what you read.  You have number sense, and you understand our history.  All of that matters.  But without the rest of it, without the life skills, you would not be able to become who I know you are destined to be.

I am so proud of who you are right now.  I always have been.  I always will be.  I have faith that you are college and career ready. I am grateful for all of the teachers and administrators and family members and friends who helped shape you.  But mostly this week I am just grateful for you.

This is a hard week for all of us who are sending our babies off to college…maybe harder than when we started you on this journey in kindergarten.  But it is also a celebration.  This week we measure our success!

The Struggle is the Best Part

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This feels good.  Sitting at the computer, looking out at the surprisingly still green grass and the blooming flowers in my backyard.  Typing a new blog for a new year.  This feels good!

Don’t get me wrong, summer has been amazing.  Taking time to rest and sharpen the saw is important.  I have traveled and read and napped.  I have relaxed, and I have reflected.  I feel energized.  In fact, my favorite thing about our profession is the school year cycle.  Each year we get the chance to plan, to implement, to reflect, and to redesign. We get to start anew, and I for one am grateful for that chance.

This past week we welcomed our new teachers, and tomorrow we will welcome back our returning teachers.  I know some of you still have summer left, but we are all closing in on those first days for staff and students.  The excitement is palpable.  What is your hope for those teachers this year?  What is your hope for students?

For me this time of year is about energy.  It is about sharing a vision and generating the energy to make that vision come to life.  We get the unique opportunity to start over each year.  It is a gift not to be taken lightly.  Use this time well.

In our District, we have been focusing on college and career readiness skills.  Are we doing all we can to be sure our students have not just the content but the life skills necessary to be successful in this century?  Our superintendent asked our new teachers to not just teach but to model grit and perseverance for their students.  Easier said than done.

My sister is an amazing mother.  Already so much better at things than I was when I had a 3-year-old.  I am learning from her all the time.  This summer I learned something about creating this grit and perseverance…and about modeling it.

Like I said, her son is three.  And he is curious.  She recently posted the following video on Facebook.  Of course (because he is adorable), she got plenty of comments on how cute and clever he is.  My first thoughts though were different.  I thought, ‘He is going to break those blinds.’  I am sure that if that were my child, and I was the one holding the camera, I’d have told him to stop because he might damage the blinds.  I am sure that I would have gone over, taken the cords from him, and just showed him.  And while he might have learned how to open the blinds (the content), he would not have learned to stick with something until you figure it out (the life skill).  My sister is an excellent teacher.

My hope for this new school year is that our new teachers, and our returning teachers as well, are willing to risk damaging the blinds.  A neat and tidy and quiet classroom might look great from the outside, but it is usually the messier, louder work that results in the greatest learning.

Good luck to you all as you kick off your new school year.  Enjoy the gift of a new start.