Leadership

They Even Have Jumper Cables


Paralyzing.  That’s how someone this week described the potential feeling of all there is to do as a building principal.  She is not paralyzed, but she knows the danger in ever trying to think about it all at once.

There is instructional leadership.  Math and reading small groups, data-driven decision-making, Professional Learning Communities.

There is parent and community engagement, social emotional learning, mental health supports.

There are Halloween parties and after school clubs and volleyball games and pep rallies.

There is student discipline, and there are student celebrations.

And then I was driving home from work this week, and I noticed one of our principals out in the parking lot helping to jump-start a car.  They even have jumper cables.

The role of building leader is enormous.  It can feel overwhelming if you let it.  The same could be said of most leadership roles.

So how are the great ones doing it?

A mentor shared an axiom with me this week. If you chase two rabbits, both will escape.  Prioritizing is essential in effective leadership.  The best leaders avoid feeling paralyzed by staying focused on a few key things.  Asking some important questions can help.

  • What should I be focusing on today, this week, this semester?
  • How will I keep the first things first?
  • Who can help me?

That last question is sometimes the hardest.  Delegating and asking for help does not come naturally to many people.  The same mentor once told me that if someone else can be doing something, they probably should be doing it.  Building leadership is a big job.  Surrounding yourself with talented and engaged people helps but only if you let them.  One of the most powerful things you can do as a principal or a leader of any kind is to recognize and develop the leadership skills in others.  Collaboration and shared decision-making is not only good for your climate and culture, it lightens your load.  The best leaders are not trying to do it all by themselves.

None of this is to say that other people in our schools and in your organizations are not also doing overwhelming work.  I’ll do a whole blog on what we ask our teachers to do everyday.  They are heroes, truly amazing!

But this week I have been overwhelmed by all of the things our principals are doing.  They are anything but paralyzed, and our students are all the better for their efforts.  I just wanted to say thank you!

The Org Chart

If you have ever worked for someone, and most of us have, you are likely familiar with the concept of an “organizational chart.”  It defines who reports to whom.  I could write an entire blog about how important it is for an organization to define who is taking responsibility for what.  Clearly defined goals and objectives, concrete action steps, and accountability are essential for success.  An idea is just an idea unless someone takes ownership for making it happen.

Assuming a leadership role, climbing higher on the org chart, is exhilarating.  You may have a stronger voice in decisions.  You may have more autonomy.

One thing I have learned over the years though from leaders I admire most is how narrow in scope the organizational chart really is.  It is about accountability and supervision.  It is about departmentalization and line of succession.  It is not in any way, shape or form about kindness or respect or doing what needs to be done in the moment.

The best leaders at every level are willing to roll up their sleeves and do the work.  Principals are wiping off cafeteria tables at lunch and sweeping the floor between basketball games.  Servant leadership is a term thrown around frequently today.  True servant leaders are the ones who embrace every opportunity to serve the organization and the people within it.  Do you walk by the paper on the floor in the hallway?  Is picking it up someone else’s job?

The best leaders are kind and caring and respectful to everyone in the organization at every level.  They know the CEO’s name, and they know the name of every person on the custodial night crew.  Character is defined by what you do for and how you treat people who can do nothing to advance your career.  Do you truly demonstrate respect for everyone?

Leading is hard work, and the higher you are on the org chart, the more you have to be willing to accept responsibility.

But the organizational chart has nothing to do with how you treat people or how others treat you.  The best leaders understand that!

Move On

Leadership is not for the faint of heart.  Day in and day out there are decisions that need to be made that impact the entire organization.  Many are small.  Some are big.  Many are easy.  Some are not.

It can be tempting to question yourself, to second guess your decision.  But honestly, there is not time for that.  The next decision awaits.

Reflection is important.  Learning from what happens is important.  The best leaders want to learn and grow.  I’d never advocate not paying attention to cause and effect.  I’d never advocate that we not reflect on our decisions and on their consequences.  But I’ve seen too many people lose their serenity obsessing about what they should have done.

You did what you did.  You made the best decision you knew to make in a given situation with the given information.  Move on.

When my daughter was young, she had a tendency to get what we called “stuck in the moment.”  (Imagine our joy when U2 released a song of the same name, and we could sing it to her in the car on trips.) She had trouble letting go of a disappointment or a frustration.  It could be a big issue or a very small issue, but for her it held on and robbed her of the joy in the next moment.  We talked about it a lot, and I think as a family we all learned over time to let go of things.

No, leadership is not for the faint of heart.  People will second guess you.  There’s never a shortage of armchair quarterbacks.  People will judge you.  There’s never a shortage of people who are sure they could do better.

But leaders are the ones who said, “Okay, I’ll make the decision.”  And there are not a lot of people willing to step into that seat.

Listen and learn.  Reflect.  But in the end, make the best decision you can and move on.

Nurture the Relationship

Every interaction you have matters!  Every interaction you have builds or damages the relationship.

Schools have not traditionally thought of themselves as organizations with customers or brands.  But of course we are.  Today more than ever we are the topic of conversation in the neighborhood, on Facebook, on Twitter.  Our students, our staff, our parents, and our community have a broad platform from which to share their experiences in our schools.  We are telling our stories, and they are telling our stories.

Each time we answer the phone or greet someone at the door of our school, we make an impression.  Each time we say hello in the drop-off lane or greet a student by name in the hallway, we make an impression.  We nurture the relationship, or we damage the relationship.

We know that we are able to do more positive things for our students when we have positive relationships with them.  The same is true for our staff and for our families.  Are we focusing enough on building those relationships?

It’s a busy time.  As we roll into October, it gets even busier.  Fall sports are in full swing.  Parent teacher conferences are right around the corner.  The end of the quarter means assessment and grading and report cards.  It can get overwhelming.

I know that for me, the busier I get, the more likely I am to rush my interactions with people.  I get focused on my tasks and forget my relationships.  I am setting a goal for October to stay focused on people, to nurture the relationship in all of my interactions.  I hope you’ll join me.

Grace Under Pressure

We’ve had a bit of a week in Husker Nation.  After what can only be described as a series of disappointing games after a series of disappointing seasons, the Athletic Director has been fired.  Speculation is rampant as to the fate of the football coach.  As I watched the game this week, I could not help thinking how challenging it must be for everyone involved to play under that kind of pressure.

Stress and scrutiny lead to careless mistakes.  Anxiety leads to anxiety  leads to anxiety.  Most people are not at their best under pressure.

But some are.  And that can make all the difference.

Leadership is not easy. Many times in an organization there are hard choices and difficult tasks.  Leaders are willing to tackle those challenges without fear or hesitation.  The best leaders actually get better under pressure.

In difficult times, people look to their leaders for confidence and courage.  They rely on their leaders to be positive and decisive.  Grace under pressure is not a luxury for leaders; it is a necessity.

When times are tough, strong leaders are calm and consistent.  I’ve seen this first hand time and time again. The more challenging the obstacle, the more poised the leader.  I’ve been lucky to work for leaders who model this, and I am blessed to work with a leadership team who exemplify this.

Busy, difficult times call for positive and disciplined leadership.  As you lead this week, in your classrooms, your schools, your organizations, remember that others are looking to you.  You can be the reassuring presence that calms the waters and keeps people focused on the job at hand.

The Alphabet Game

Our favorite game on road trips is the alphabet game.  You can pass hours and hours playing.  The rules are simple: the first person to spot all 26 letters of the alphabet, in order, on signs or buildings or anything really outside of your own car, wins.  The games plays out in almost the same way every time.  You fly along from A to E and then pause for a few minutes on F.  You jump back in at G until you get stuck at J.  Q is the worst.  You cross your fingers and hope for a Dairy Queen or an Antique Shoppe.  You hit a bit of a snag at X, and the game almost always comes down to who spots the Pizza Hut first.

Some letters just aren’t used very often.

That doesn’t make them less important.

This week a friend asked me which letter of the alphabet is used the most.  It’s E.  Which is used the least?  Depending on the source, it varies between Q, Z, X, and J.  Does that make them less important?  Of course not.  One could argue it makes them more important.

We don’t have to use something often for it to have great value…emergency brakes, fire extinguishers, carbon monoxide detectors.  We hope we don’t have to use them often, but they are essential for our well being.

I think the same is true in life.

Many times the people who say the most, who are seen the most, are the ones who get the most attention.

It’s football season.  I’ve been watching my share of high school and college games.  I am fascinated by the kickers.  Not a lot of glamour in that role.  Not a lot of time on the field.  But how many games have we already seen this year that were decided in the final seconds by a field goal?  The kicker is an essential role on any team.  Just because we do not call on player as often does not make then any less valuable.

Are you investing enough time in your special teams?

A game can be won or lost in a single play.  Every person, every position matters.  The last letter of the alphabet is as valuable as the first.

Every person on the team, in the cast, on the staff, in the community, plays a vital role.  At times you may be called on to take the lead.  You may be the person on the stage, the one who is used the most.  Other times you will play a supporting role.  You will be seen less.  At those times, your work is no less important.

Good leaders know this.  Good coaches, good administrators, good teachers know this.  The best leaders work to build relationships and develop skills in everyone on their team.  And the best team members do their best work at all times, not just when they are the star.  This week, whether you feel like the E or you feel like the Z, do your best to do your best!

School Zones 

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I drive past an elementary school every day on my way to work.  It sits on a very busy, four lane road.  For whatever reason, I hit the spot everyday this week when the school zone lights were flashing.  The traffic is supposed to slow down from its usual 45 miles per hour.  And what I noticed was that even in the rush hour craziness, people really were slowing down. There is a moment of realization when you see the five, six, seven years olds, this week bundled in coats and hats and mittens, hurrying down the sidewalk.  A realization that no meeting, no conference call, no presentation is worth the danger you pose if you are not safe.  There is nothing you need to do that is as important as their safety.  And people, for the most part, slowed down.

It’s not easy.  Life is fast-paced.  We go, go, go all the time.  But that go is not always good.  It does not always result in our best choices, our best work.

A friend reminded me this week of the importance of slowing down.  I was moving too fast, doing too much, making mistakes.  She said, “Slow down.”  And she was right.  It is important, especially in our craziest moments, to slow down.  Pause.  Take a deep breath.

I can multi-task with the best of them.  I move quickly.  I am fast on my feet.  But that is not always a good thing.  Time for reflection and time to really evaluate the situation is essential in order to make the best decisions.

What helps you slow down?

For me it’s always been movies and TV shows.  I lose myself in a great episode of The West Wing.  I refocus after two hours in a movie theatre.  Taking some time to play with the kittens, listen to music, or walk on the treadmill helps me slow down.

We are entering some of the busiest months of the school year.  We’re living in two school years, finishing the work of this year and planning for the work of the next.  It is exciting and energizing and exhausting.  It can be easy to move too fast, do too much, make mistakes.

Find what works to still your mind.  Pause and reflect and take some time to slow down.  Realize that work will always be busy.  There will always be too much going on in your life. But none of that is more important than your peace of mind.

Comfortably Uncomfortable 

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I felt safe in my classroom.  I knew I was a good teacher.  I had spent years and years improving my skill.  Then one day we got a new principal who challenged my thinking and my understanding of what it meant to be an instructional leader.  He encouraged me to go back to school, to learn new skills, and to try a new job.  I was nervous, but it was an exciting nervous.

That uncomfortable feeling you get when you try something new is exhilarating.

I was asked recently to describe my most important mentors, those people who really made an impact on who I am and what I do.  It was a fun conversation.  I love reflecting on the many people who have taken the time to nurture me, to teach me, to challenge me. The people who have made the most significant impact on my life did not allow me to stay safe.  They pushed me and challenged me to grow.

The best coaches listen and seek to understand you.  They take the time to learn who you are and what you believe.  They know your strengths and your abilities.

The best coaches support and encourage you.  They are there for you when you need them the most.  They give of their time and their attention, and they make sure you know that you matter.

The best coaches help you organize your thoughts and set priorities.  They encourage you to develop action plans to achieve more than you ever knew was possible.

And they challenge you.  The best coaches do not simply accept what you say or what you believe.  They are willing to engage in debate and discussion and push your thinking.

The best coaches, the best mentors, help you feel comfortably uncomfortable.  It is in that space where you are forced to think about things in a new way, to try something you have never done before, where you grow the most.  Loving, caring support is valuable,  but the best mentors, the ones who make the most lasting impact, move you beyond who you are to who you were meant to be.

This week seek to identify those people in your life who have been willing to challenge you.  Thank them!

And watch for the people in your life for whom you could be doing the same!

 

 

 

 

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!

The Person Right in Front of You

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I am an Optimist.  Saturday night was a big night for Omaha-area Optimists.  We had our largest community fundraiser, the Summer Bash for Childhood Cancer.  It is an amazing event, and our club sponsored a table.  But I wasn’t there. I had the opportunity to go to a concert with some friends, and it was a terrific night.  I had some mixed emotions though.  I knew the Summer Bash was going to be amazing.  The table was full of fun people with whom I really enjoy spending time.  I know I would have enjoyed seeing the fruits of our labor and celebrating the work of the last year with my fellow Optimists.  I also knew though that I would have a great time at the concert.  I needed to get my head right before the evening started.

Life is full of moments like this.  We make one choice over another.  We camp instead of flying somewhere in our downtime.  We miss a chance to have lunch with people because we’ve already committed to a meeting.  We choose to spend our summer vacation with family instead of taking that cruise with friends.  It’s just not possible to be in two places at once.

So how do we honor the moment?  How do we appreciate each event, each meeting, each person in a way that makes the most of our time and theirs?

Think for a second about the people in your life you enjoy the most, the people who make you feel the happiest. I am going to guess that there is something powerful that each of those people have in common.  I am going to guess that each of those people make you feel special.  I bet when you sit down to have a meal with those people, they ask about your life and they really listen to what you say.  I bet when you are meeting with those people, you feel like the topic at hand is the most important thing they’ve dealt with all day.  I bet you feel like you matter to them.

Those people know something that not everyone has figured out.  They live their lives in a way that not everyone does.  They take each and every opportunity to focus on the person right in front of them.  They are not concerned with the meeting that’s coming up, the lunch that they are missing, or the event that they chose to miss.  They are fully engaged in the moment, and they are fully engaged with the person right in front of them.

A friend shared some advice he’s been given about how to interact with people in meetings.  It really resonated with me.  For you, that is but one of many meetings you’ll have that day.  But for that person, it is the only meeting they’ll have with you that day.  When they leave it, how will you have made them feel?

In education, this is unbelievably important.  The building secretary signs many people into the school each day, but each of those people is only welcomed into the school once.  A teacher interacts with many students each day, but each of those students may only interact with the teacher once that day.  The principal deals with many parents and staff members throughout the day, but each of those people may only deal with the principal once.

How do you want people to remember that interaction?

I am writing this as much for myself as anyone else this week.  I am blessed with an amazing job full of meetings and opportunities to work with students, parents, and staff.  I am blessed with family and friends who genuinely want to spend time with me.  Am I staying fully engaged in the moment?  Am I staying fully engaged with the person right in front of me?  Not as often as I should be, but you can bet I’m trying to get better about this!

Awe

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It’s almost here.  The first day of school.  In a few days our kindergarteners will step into the building for their very first day of school ever.  And our seniors will step into the building for their very last first day of school ever.  There is something truly magical about this time of year.  It is a gift!

In fact, everything about this profession is a gift.  I am in awe of it.

We kicked off the new year with a welcome back celebration last week.  Our superintendent (@jsutfin) and Eric Sheninger (@E_Sheninger) spent the day inspiring us to celebrate our successes and to be better than we are now.   We are entrusted with an awesome responsibility.  And we were encouraged to focus on the awe.

I had no trouble doing that last week.

Everywhere I look in our schools, I find reasons to be in awe.

I am in awe of the teachers who build knowledge, instill curiosity, and create thinkers.  They meet each student where they are, find ways to engage them, and motivate them to be better than they ever knew they could be.  They meet needs as simple as tying shoes and as complex as making a child feel accepted.  I am in awe of the teachers who spend their evenings at soccer games for students who invited them, their weekends at Dance Team car washes, and their early mornings on the field at Marching Band practice.  They make home visits, call moms and dads to share successes, and pick just the right moment to tell a child how proud they are.

I am in awe of the administrators who build relationships with students, even when it is not easy, advocate for the resources their teachers need, and manage to lead in the midst of extreme challenges.  They buy toasters and pop-tarts for students who are hungry, show up at graduation years after struggling with a child through middle school, and sit with families in the hospital during some of their darkest days.  I am in awe of their deep dedication and willingness to do whatever it takes.

I am in awe of the willingness of educators to put their hearts out there over and over, every time, for every child.  This is not always easy.  Our students sometimes make poor choices, in some cases ones that have devastating consequences.  But in every case there is someone, a teacher, a principal, who cares about them and supports them through all of it.

I have watched teachers unpack boxes, refill school supplies, hang bulletin boards, fire up iPads, and launch new apps. I have watched administrators greet families at Orientation and facilitate engaging and meaningful professional development. I have watched these staff members work and learn and grow in the last week.  And I was in awe of them.

And I am certain too that they heard the message to inspire awe in their students.

How do we create a sense of wonder in our students?

How do we expose our students to things that will amaze them?

How do we challenge our students to take risks, to step outside of their comfort zones, and to push themselves beyond their fears in order to become the best versions of themselves?

Awe is complex.  It is an abundance of amazement that can almost overwhelm you. Embrace every moment of the first days of school.  Be in awe!  It’s so worth it.

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.

For the sake of the relationship…


IGNORE and AVOID

In my district, we have a belief that “people are our greatest resource.” I agree completely.  People are what it’s all about.  Our success, our satisfaction, and our happiness are defined by the relationships we build with other people,  Whether a lifelong friend, a family member, or someone we’ve just met, relationships matter.

This is hardly the first time I’ve written about the power of relationships.  For me, they are everything.  And I spend quite a bit of time reflecting on how best to develop and maintain positive relationships in my life.

So the focus of this blog may seem strange.  The idea I share today may seem contrary to what I have always said is best practice in working with other people.  But I’ve come to believe this is some of the most important advice I’ve ever gotten.

Ignore and avoid.

I like to talk.  Communication is in my top five Gallup strengths.  I believe there is enormous benefit in open, transparent, ongoing conversations.  I believe the quickest way to resolve an issue is to address it directly.

As a leader, I tend to confront issues head-on.  I believe a Fierce conversation has great power.  So why would I suggest that anyone ever ignore or avoid anything?  I have actually taught classes on the importance of having the conversations you know you need to have.

Well, because people are flawed.  They have bad days.  They say things they don’t mean, and they use harsh tones when they are hungry, angry, lonely, tired, or sad.  Even the most positive, thoughtful person can lash out when they are frustrated.  I’ve done it myself plenty of times.  And when you reach out to try to help, they will sometimes just get more angry.

In those moments, we have a choice.  We can choose to be offended by it, or we can choose to ignore it.  We can choose to confront it, or we can choose to avoid it.  For much of my life, I have gotten offended and chosen to confront.  Rarely, in those moments of agitation on my part, did I made the situation any better.

In many of those cases, it would have served our relationship more to simply let the situation pass.

In one of those moments recently, when I was frustrated and angry for how I felt I was being treated, a friend suggested I should ignore and avoid.  His recommendation was that I should move past what was said and recognize that it was not typical for the person who said it.  He helped me see that fixating on my emotions surrounding the issue and over-thinking how to address it was not doing me any good.

Now, I would never, ever advocate that you allow people to treat you rudely or accept ongoing inappropriate behavior.  I am not suggesting that we ignore bullying or avoid the conversations we know we need to have.  Letting a small issue grow because you are afraid of the conversation is never healthy.

I am simply saying that when a friend or family member who is normally a positive person has a bad day, it is okay to just ignore it.

And when you are the one who acts inappropriately, because we all do at times, apologize.  Someone may be ignoring and avoiding you to not further damage your relationship.

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.

 

Hugs, Hive Fives, and Hope

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There is no greater purpose than to make life better for someone else. Time spent in service to others is time well spent.  In education we are blessed with the opportunity to do this every day.  It is the greatest job in the world!

I had one of those moments recently that all educators have.  I saw a former student and was reminded of the impact that we have on the young people in our care.  In a brief encounter, she hugged me no less than five times.  Our connection is deep.  Middle school was not an easy time in her life.  She struggled with behavior; she wrestled with friendship issues; and she lost a parent.  We spent countless hours together in my office working through issues.

We all have those stories.  It’s a natural consequence of our profession.  But we could all have more of those stories if we were more intentional about our interactions with each other.

Life can be hard.  Growing up is not easy.  The day to day work of making friends, doing schoolwork, finding a seat in the cafeteria or on the bus, it’s hard.  Then throw in making or not making the team or the cast or the choir.  And some of our students are dealing with so much more, issues that no one should have to experience, poverty, illness, death.

But we have the daily opportunity to help make life better for them.  What makes the difference?  A person makes the difference.  You make the difference.

As a teacher, get to know the children in your class.

As an administrator, get to know them too.

I truly believe that while all of our students are unique, they also all share a few similar needs.

Everyone wants to be known, to be seen and appreciated for who they really are.

I call it sparkle.  Our students each have a sparkle.  You can see it in their eyes when they talk about their passion.  You can see it in their work when they are doing what they love most.  Do you see it when they sparkle?

And they want to be encouraged.  Something as simple as a hug or a high five can make the difference in someone’s day.

As we start another week, look for opportunities to find the sparkle in your students.  Know them. Encourage them.  Care about them.  You could be the hope they need to make their day, their life, a little better.