Educational Leadership

Mettle and Heart

Much is said in education today about grit. We know more and more about the need to help build resilient children, so they can persevere through struggles of all kinds. Whether social emotional or academic, life is not always easy for the students in our schools. Some have suffered trauma that is almost unimaginable. Some work harder than we will ever know to complete their homework and come to class ready to learn.

It takes grit, resilience, mettle, and not just for our students.

Every day the teachers in our schools are doing almost unimaginable work to help our students be successful. Whether social emotional or academic support, they go above and beyond to meet the needs. This job is not for the faint of heart.

I watch with amazement as teachers sit beside students trying to solve complex problems, prompting and questioning until that magical lightbulb moment.

I watch as teachers give high fives and hugs and tie shoes and zip jackets. I watch as they ask about the soccer game or the dance recital, as they celebrate with students after the musical or the basketball game.

And I watch as they worry about the student who needs a new coat or who might not get any gifts at Christmas.

Yesterday I saw post after post about the families who were adopted and the gifts and meals that were handed out by teachers and administrators and counselors and community members who come together every year to help through an incredible community organization called Project Wee Care.

I was once again amazed by the heart of our teachers.

I caught part of an old movie this weekend, The Guardian. It’s about rescue swimmers in the Coast Guard. After a particularly harrowing experience, the young trainee asks the experienced teacher how he decides who to save. The answer has struck me over the years as a decent motto for the work we do.

“I swim as fast as I can, as hard as I can, for as long as I can. And the sea takes the rest.”

I read a message last week from someone who implied that because we cannot do enough, we should do nothing at all. No one I know in this profession believes that. Everyone I work with in our schools and in our districts believes that each and every child deserves our best effort, and each and every child we can help was worth the work.

This is not easy. It can feel overwhelming. It takes grit, mettle. But it is the most important work I can imagine. And in this holiday season, I am grateful for the teachers who put their hearts on the line each and every day to do whatever it takes to help. You make a difference in the lives of children.

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!

“It’s from my School!”

It’s back-to-school week, and we had an amazing motivational speaker during our fall workshop. He was funny; he was emotional; he was inspiring.  He challenged us to be innovative. He challenged us to see the joy in the eyes of every child when they come into school, and he challenged us to be sure that we do not squelch that joy. Children are, by nature, learners. It is our job to fuel that fire, not to put that fire out. It was a solid message. It struck a chord. It was good stuff.

But in the midst of his message, a family movie from Hunter’s childhood came to mind. We’ve watched it over and over and over again in our family. It’s a classic. We have always looked to it as evidence of her sass and her spunk. But suddenly, sitting in that auditorium, the video came to mind and everything about it changed. I saw a different lesson.

First, let me apologize for the quality of this video. Clearly I should not be the videographer in the family.  But I’m glad we have it.

Take a listen…

Now, like I said, we used to focus on that moment when she says, “I did not want this book.”  We used to laugh as I tried to convince her that she should say thank you to the person who had given her the gift. But here’s what I saw this week. My child who has been read to every day of her life is less than excited by the prospect of a book.  My child who has an English teacher for a mother “did not want that book.”  Until…she saw the connection to school.  There is a moment, it’s my favorite moment, when her face lights up.  “Mom, it’s, it’s from my school.”  And everything changes!

School has that power.  Teachers have that power.  You have that power.  Engaging lessons, exciting content, and powerful relationships matter.  We can light a fire!

My nephew starts kindergarten in our district tomorrow.  My wish for him is an experience that make his face light up when he realizes, “it’s from my school.”  I am grateful for all of the teachers and teacher leaders, the librarians, the administrators, and the many other school staff who lit that fire for my children.  Thank you!

Our challenge this week is to do it all over again.  Have an amazing first week of school!

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!

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.

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!

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.

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.

 

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.

50 Years from Now

256px-Bumblebee_Transformer_-_Flickr_-_andrewbasterfieldMy family laughs at me every time the movie Transformers is on TV.  Almost without fail, I jump into the story at the exact same moment…the point of inspiring motivation and life-changing wisdom. Do you see now why they laugh at me?  I may be the only person in history who has ever described Transformers as life-changing, but it is.

There is a scene early on when the first Transformer reveals himself as Bumblebee, an alien robot.  (And with that, the rest of you start laughing at me as well.  A movie about alien robots shares life-changing wisdom?)  But when Bumblebee invites the young heroes into his car, leading to unknown adventure and considerable risk, one of the main character hesitates.  The other one utters the words that I’ve been saying to myself ever since…

“50 years from now when you’re looking back on your life, don’t you want to say you had the guts to get into the car?”

Life is full of choices, chances to try something new.  These opportunities can also be filled with risk.  It is not easy to take a leap and jump into something unknown.  It is not easy to take a chance and know that you could fail, but nothing amazing was ever achieved without risk.

From our earliest years, we have to make choices about what adventures we will tackle and which ones we will let go.  Auditioning for the school play is a risk.  Trying out for the football team is a risk.  Taking an Advanced Placement course is a risk.  But those risks are necessary to create the best possible life.

Say yes!

I am a terrible bowler, but I always have a good time when I play.  I am not a runner, but I’ve finished three half-marathons. Stand directly under the frozen, powerful waterfall at Smith Falls on the Niobrara? Every time!

When people are asked about their greatest regret, they almost always list the things they didn’t do.  At the end of our lives, it is not what we tried and failed to do that haunts us, it is the times we failed to try.

Embracing this attitude is essential not just for the day-to-day things, but it is key to living the best possible version of your life.  Taking risks is necessary in order to find success.  Go back and get the degree.  Apply for the job that seems beyond your reach. Volunteer to be the one who fills in at a meeting or on a committee.

Every day there is a chance to say yes.  “Want to go to lunch?”  “I have an extra ticket to the game, want to come?” “We need someone to lead this project, are you interested?”  A good meal, a new relationship, a powerful experience might be the result.

Something we learn as we get older is that things will not always work out when we say yes.  There is a winner and a loser in all epic battles.  We only have one President.  We only have one state champion.  We only have one gold medalist. But without the risk of failing, we cannot succeed.

“50 years from now when you’re looking back on your life, don’t you want to say you had the guts to get into the car?”

 

We Choose

ATTITUDE (1)

I have a confession to make.  I did not walk my own talk this week.  I was guilty of the one thing that drives me the most crazy about my job.

I spent a full day in professional development growing my skills as a leader and a learner.  I ended up taking over ten pages of notes, and I came home with many good ideas for my work.  It was a great day!  I will absolutely be better for having been part of it.  But, full disclosure, I had been dreading it all week.  In fact, I shared with a friend as we were driving there that I was sure it was going to be boring.  I seriously thought about skipping it.

What was I thinking?  I know better.  I get out of things what I put into them.  I choose my attitude.  Imagine how much more I would’ve gotten out of it had I been fully and positively engaged right from the start.

It can be tempting to play the victim in staff meetings, in staff development, in the staff lounge.  We sometimes complain about what is being done to us without taking any responsibility for our own attitude and our own level of engagement.  We are in charge of our own learning.

I know there have been times when I was in a session that wasn’t as interesting or as relevant as I needed it to be.  When I had the right attitude, I was still able to learn something.  I know there have been times when I planned and facilitated staff development that wasn’t as interesting or relevant as others needed it to be.  Thankfully, when that happens, there are dedicated, positive professionals who learn things anyway and who come to me to help make it better the next time.

I am on Facebook.  I see the memes about teachers and staff development.  I try hard to just laugh at them and move on, appreciating the humor.  But deep down inside, they make me sad.  They make me want to reach through the computer and have a meaningful conversation about personal accountability for growth and attitude.  They make me want to ask people what attitude they hope students have everyday when they step into the classroom.  And they remind me that my job is to make all learning opportunities (for students and for staff) meaningful.

I am definitely not making excuses for staff development that is neither relevant nor engaging.  I work everyday to help us all get better at that.  We need to differentiate learning, so it makes the most sense for the learner.  I am suggesting though that we should all take responsibility for our own attitude.

Take advantage of every opportunity to get better at what you do or to grow as a human being.  Listen to the message, participate in the conversation, seek meaning.  If the activity or the topic isn’t relevant and engaging, get involved.  The leaders I know are excited when teachers want to participate in planning professional development.  Offer your input, share your opinions, but also be willing to step up and make it better.

 

 

140 Characters

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I enjoy Twitter chats.  Two in particular are part of my weekly routine. I appreciate connecting online with other educators, hearing their ideas, and sharing my own.  Twitter has provided a connection for me, and it is immediate, ongoing, free professional development.

This week something important happened in one of those chats.  People were pushing back on ideas, challenging responses.  It was not negative.  It was not mean-spirited.  It was a wonderful, meaningful discussion.  I have struggled some with the concept of ideas in 140 characters.  How can we hope to see the whole picture, appreciate the nuances in situations, and reach for the full meaning of things in 140 characters?

Of course we cannot.  We can ask questions.  We can share resources.  We can scratch the surface.  We can ignite a desire to learn more.  And we can inspire.  There is power in 140 characters.

There is power too though in reaching for more.  There is power in not just “liking” or “sharing” or “quoting” an idea.  There is power in questioning and challenging things.  It’s not about being argumentative.  It’s about seeking the best ideas.  The strongest teams are made up of well-intentioned people with different perspectives and ideas.  The strongest leaders know this and create safe environments where people can openly discuss the complexities of a situation.

I learned a new word this week that perfectly summarizes what I’ve been wrestling with since starting the blog.  Listicle.  More than a list, less than an article.  Social media is full of them.  I’ve written many of them myself.  Three things to boost engagement.  Four characteristics of an engaging leader.

I usually shoot for about 500 words each week, long enough to share my thoughts and short enough that people might actually read it.  It can be a challenge though to get to the depth of what I want to share in 500 words.

I am not weighing in to politics here. I don’t want to go there with this blog, but I thought the following quote was relevant to my struggle between sharing concise ideas and not neglecting the bigger, deeper picture.

In one of my favorite monologues from Aaron Sorkin in The West Wing (“Red Mass”), one of the characters speaks eloquently about the importance of reaching for the deeper meaning.  The opponent in a presidential campaign has been quoting poets and philosophers in quick one-liners.   His frustration is that one-liners cannot get at the full meaning of these important thinkers.

When the President’s got an embassy surrounded in Haiti, or a keyhole photograph of a heavy water reactor, or any of the fifty life-and-death matters that walk across his desk every day, I don’t know if he’s thinking about Immanuel Kant or not. I doubt it, but if he does, I am comforted at least in my certainty that he is doing his best to reach for all of it and not just the McNuggets. 

I just opened Facebook and saw a graphic with three things to do at the start of every day.  They were positive, powerful strategies, and I copied the picture and will refer to it.  We can make tremendous impact in 140 characters.  But we should also find ways to reach for the deeper understandings.

Lead Where You Are

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I have a friend who retired after a long career as a middle school social studies teacher.  She was one of those people who taught us all what it means to engage students.  Her classroom looked different every day.  One day the desks were in a huge circle to facilitate a whole class discussion, and the next they were arranged like the legislature to reenact a debate about the Bill of Rights.  She used formative assessment before we knew what that term meant.  And she taught me as much as anyone about good instruction.

I have another friend who has a gift for connecting with students.  Almost weekly a former student would come back to see her to tell her how much she meant to them.  During passing period, the students would hang out in her room to talk.  Before and after school there were always kids in her room for extra help.  While they were dissecting sentences or talking about The Outsiders, they would almost always also be telling her about their soccer games or dance recitals, their babysitting jobs and their trips over winter break.  She built relationships, and she taught me as much as anyone about the importance of connecting with students.

Neither of those friends had “official” leadership titles.  They were not department heads or assistant principals.  They were not curriculum facilitators or district administrators.  But make no mistake, they were two of the most influential leaders in my life.

The President came to Omaha a week and a half ago.  Before addressing a crowd at Baxter Arena, he stopped at the home of a high school English teacher.  She had written him a letter, and she had made an impact on his thoughts and his feelings.  A high school English teacher in Omaha, Nebraska had provided leadership to the leader of the free world.

Leadership is not a title.

Everyday we have the opportunity to impact the lives of our family, our friends, and our co-workers.  We can model positivity and strong work ethic.  We can do our jobs well, and we can treat each other with kindness and compassion.  In education we can build relationships with students from whatever seat on the bus we sit.

Every one of those interactions may serve as an example for others.  And every time we have the opportunity to witness those things, we can learn and grow and become better people.

We are all leaders.  We all share the responsibility for teaching our children, and we all share the responsibility for making our world a better place.

I get to watch the leaders in our district work every day.  They are kind and caring, smart and insightful, strategic and student-focused.    They are administrators and teachers, parents and students, and I am proud to be among them.

Leadership is not a title.  Lead from where you are!

 

 

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.

 

Who You Are Matters

Everything you have ever wanted, is sitting on the other side of fear.

Leadership is not easy.

There is risk and vulnerability in taking on the challenge of leading…in your classroom, in your department, in your building.  Anyone who has ever led a project or a group of people knows this.

Stepping into a more “official” leadership position requires a willingness to risk judgement, disapproval, and failure.  It is daunting, and it is immeasurably gratifying.

I had the opportunity to hear Dr. Shane Lopez (@hopemonger) speak eloquently this week about creating hope for students.  What resonated with me though was what he shared about creating hope for the staff members in our care.  There is research from Gallup around hope that helps identify what we need from our leaders.

Who we are matters!

People want a leader they can trust.  You will almost always hear the word “integrity” used when describing the leaders people most admire.  It is comforting to know that the person you are following, the person making decisions that impact you daily, has a strong moral compass.  We want leaders who are also good people.

We need to trust that our leaders are honest and ethical.  In education we also want people who are good role models.

There is something reassuring about knowing that if you say you will do something , you will.  The best leaders have amazing follow-through.  We trust that they will make good plans and see those plans through to fruition.

People want a leader who creates stability.  Who you are today is who you will be tomorrow.  Who you are with me is who you will be with others.  The core beliefs of our organization will be the same from day to day, year to year.

Leading frequently requires difficult decisions and conversations.  It is important to create a safe environment where you can tackle those challenges while building and maintaining positive relationships.  A stable leader does this.

People want a leader who is compassionate.  Dr. Lopez went so far as to call this love.  Engaging communities feel like a family.  The staff celebrates together.  The staff mourns together.  The staff shows up for each other.

This was an emotional week for many reasons.  There were some exciting celebrations, some scary family challenges,  and a difficult anniversary.  Such is life.  The real world rarely stops interfering as we try to teach or lead or live.  Compassionate leaders recognize that we are all traveling a sometimes fun, sometimes challenging path.  They listen to our stories.  They ask about our families.  They respect that we have good days and bad days, and they make the bad days easier.

Our schools are our work families.  It should not take a crisis for us to tell each other how we feel.  We do not say “I love you” enough in this world.

Finally, people want a leader who creates hope.  Gallup defines hope as “the belief that the future will be better than the present, along with the belief that you have the power to make it so”.   In education, what more could we want?  We teach to touch the future!

As a leader (and we are all leading in some area of our life), who we are matters.  Seek to be someone that others would want to follow.

Collective Experiences


 

Together We Are Better

 

 

 

 

 

Several times this week I was reminded of the power of the collective.  Alone we can do great things, but together we can do so much more.  The best leaders aren’t those who strive to be the smartest person in room; they are the ones who make connections, build relationships, and leverage the strengths of others to find the best next step.

Connect Personally

On Christmas Eve there was quite a snowstorm here in Omaha.  It was beautiful.  Social media was filled with stunning pictures of our unexpected White Christmas.  After almost 8 inches fell in my neighborhood, we all emerged to shovel the driveways in time to get out for our celebrations.  I bundled up and turned up the playlist on my phone ready to dig in and get the work done.  But I had to turn off the music. There were neighbors everywhere- two doors down, across the street- our block was filled with people chatting and waving and helping each other clear sidewalks.

Every time I got tired, someone new was there to say hello or wave at me from down the block.  It energized me.  I didn’t need my playlist because the neighborhood was making music of its own.  It was such a fun collective experience.  And together we did the work faster.

Connect Professionally

The day before I was in a meeting at work where I was again reminded that together we are better.  Our superintendent was pushing a group of us to think about things in new and different ways.  People were sharing unique perspectives.  People were challenging conventional wisdom.  People were offering creative ideas.  It was one of those conversations about things at the 10,000 foot level that inspires you and makes you love your job.  The issues we face are significant.  The work we do is important.  The answers to how best to move forward are complex.  Individually we will not find the best solution, but together we will be better.

Connect Globally

Technology has connected us in ways we could not have imagined just a few years ago.  In the past, our professional network was limited to those people with whom we were in regular contact.  Now we can connect with not only the other people in our district and our community, we can connect with people from all over the world.

Together we are better.  As this year draws to a close, I encourage you to build new relationships and make new connections.  Reach out to your neighbors.  Stop in and talk to your co-workers.  Follow educators and others on Twitter (find me @hcphipps).

Our collective experiences make the world a better place!

 

Everyone Has a Story

Everyone Has a Story (1)I spent a powerful evening with some friends this week.  We were collaborating on a service project and working really hard.  But we passed the time by sharing stories from our lives.  We talked about the joys and the sorrows, the ups and the downs.  It made the time go quickly, and I feel like I know them so much better than I did before.

I care about them.  I want good things for them.  I hope that was true before I learned more of their stories, but I have to believe that those feelings are deeper now.

In my life there have been moments of great joy and moments of incredible pain.  I have achieved and succeeded and failed miserably.  I have celebrated miracles and mourned losses.  So have you.

We all have a story.

It has been my experience that once you know someone’s story, it becomes almost impossible not to treat them more compassionately.  It is one of the fastest paths to kindness.  A co-worker may annoy you with their peculiar habits or their negative comments, but when you learn even some of their story, you are more understanding.  It is easier to show someone grace in their worst moments when you know some of the story of their life.

Listen to people’s stories.  Ask them about their childhood.  Open the door to a conversation.  Then be present and learn about who they are and what they have been through. It will change how you treat them.

imageAnd be willing to tell your story.

Everyone’s life can be hard sometimes. Illness, injury, and disappointment are all a part of it. They define us as much as the good times.  We need to tell our stories, all of our stories.

I am not suggesting we wallow in despair.  In fact, I am suggesting quite the opposite.  Positivity is the trait I value most.  There is nothing more inspiring than hearing someone who you know to be optimistic and positive talk of a challenge or a disappointment or a truly devastating loss.  They model that we will all experience those things and can still be happy.  How we tell our stories says a great deal about who we are.

Tell your happy stories.  Tell your sad stories.  Tell the stories that make you look good.  Tell the stories that make you look ridiculous.  We all have them.

I do not want to over speak, but our stories have the power to change our world.  Countries, cultures, religions have stories too.  When we seek to know them, we are more understanding.  We treat each other better.

image“Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about.”  Never underestimate the power of learning even part of someone’s story.

Are you building political capital?

Capitol

“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.

A Better Night’s Sleep, Guaranteed

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The clock on the dresser reads 2:00 am.  Its blue glow reminds me that morning is getting closer, and I have still not slept.  My mind will not stop turning over the parent phone call I had yesterday at work and the follow-up meeting that will happen in the morning.  Did I say the right things?  What will they do tomorrow?

Worst case scenario.  I go there too frequently.  I imagine an outcome that is far worse than anything I’ve experienced.  I can’t explain it, but I know it is not healthy.

Last week I saw the new Tom Hanks/Steven Spielberg movie Bridge of Spies.  A Russian spy is arrested, and the intrigue commences.  Several times in the movie the man is in dire straits.  Tom Hanks, as his lawyer, observes each time that he doesn’t look worried.  He responds, “Would it help?”

Would it help?  A powerful question.  Life is short.  It is a waste of time to spend any of it on things that will not help…help us, help our family and friends, help the world.  Worry is one of those things that does not ever help.  It is always a waste of precious time.

Looking Back

Leaders are confronted with difficult situations on a daily basis.  It is tempting to rehash each phone call, each meeting, each decision.  Rarely will those moments go exactly the way you hoped.  There is almost always something you could have said or done differently.

Reflection is critical for growth.  It is important to think through how those moments were handled and the eventual results.  There will be new challenges tomorrow, and effective leaders learn and grow.

But worrying about what has passed does not help you grow,  In fact, it stifles growth.  If I am frozen by regret or constantly questioning decisions I have made, I cannot be effective in the new moment.  No one can change the past.  Moving forward is one path to serenity.

Looking Forward

I love anticipation.  The two weeks before a trip are often as much fun as the actual trip.  But inevitably I will think about things that could go wrong, and worrying about something in the future is also wasted time.  Your flights may be delayed, or your hotel may disappoint.  The airline may lose your luggage, or the weather may be horrible.  Or…everything may be perfect.  You could worry, but would it help?   No!

The same can be said of the difficult phone calls, meetings, and events that a leader anticipates at work the next day.  Plan well.  Consider possible reactions and ramifications.  Be strategic.  Then let it go.

There have been any number of difficult situations I have navigated as a leader.  Some were small.  Some were large and quite public.  In neither case did the situation get better because I worried about it.  Worrying takes my sense of calm and sometimes robs me of rational thought.  It keeps me awake at night, and it causes anxiety.  And in no case did it help.  In fact, it hurts.  Now you are going into that situation tired and nervous.

For me, exercise helps.  A long walk clears my head.  Time with friends, movies, and television help distract me.  Reading a good book or writing a blog works too.

The key is to recognize when you are worrying and take steps to stop.  There may be times when professional help is needed.  Get it.  Many times though, self-awareness is the most important step.  Recognize it.  Address it.  And get a better night’s sleep.

The How Matters

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I’m in the middle of one of the busiest times in my work year.  While others in education are starting to slow down, our department fires up.  We offer professional development for teachers and administrators, and the first couple weeks of summer are one of our biggest times.

All of these classes, sessions, institutes, and meetings have given me the chance to see some of our best leaders in action.  I work with amazing people.  And while the content has been fantastic, it is the interpersonal relations that have given me the most on which to reflect.

I think sometimes we make things more complicated than they really are.  When you have the chance to reach large numbers of people at once and to use that time to build or enhance relationships with those people, take it!  These opportunities to interact informally, in a non-evaluative setting, can change the dynamics when we are doing our work.  This is the chance to get know the people, not just their work.

Be Likable

People respond to leaders who are charming and charismatic.  Make eye contact whenever possible.  Say hello in a way that makes others feel like you know them.  You do not have to remember every name in order to make people feel known.  (Although knowing someone’s name is a powerful way of connecting.)  Give high fives.  Smile.

Listen

People do their best thinking when they believe what they say matters.  We need fully engaged people who seek to understand issues deeply and who are willing to share their best ideas.  Effective leaders listen.  Effective leaders have an ability to make others believe that they have a voice in decisions, big and small.  When people feel like they have influence on the vision and the execution of the work, they are able to do their best.  Listen.  Really listen.  Be willing to be influenced.

Connect

People need to belong.  I have been reminded of this time and time again.  Children need it.  Adults need it.  Effective leaders find ways to connect with people and make them feel like they belong.  They know when there is a big event in someone’s life.  And they find time to show up.

Embrace Positivity

One of my favorite motivational reads is Jon Gordon’s book The Energy Bus.  It is about the importance of finding, maintaining, and generating positivity our lives.  Effective leaders design positive environments where people can thrive.   Our superintendent speaks beautifully about getting back to zero in our work and our lives.  He acknowledges that our work is hard.  But the best among us find ways to do what’s hard and to do what’s necessary while staying positive…or getting back to it as quickly as possible.

I’ve spent time this year reflecting and trying to isolate just exactly what it is that makes a leader effective.  Of course there are countless skills and abilities that go into the equation, but it starts with being personable.  I know people can point to leaders who have been effective while being anything but likable, but I think that’s the harder path.  To motivate and inspire others, start by being amiable.

When my husband read this draft, he said “Haven’t you said all of this before?”  Yes, yes I have.  What I think I’ve reflected on most this year is that WHAT we are doing is incredibly important.  But HOW we are doing it matters as much.

Why I Hope to Someday Be Called an “Educational Troublemaker”

We lost an important voice in education this week.  A mind willing to challenge the status quo, and a man who loved the art of debate.  In fact, just last Monday in a blog post, he was, as he described it on Twitter, engaging in a nice dialogue about teaching students to read.  He disagreed with the ideas in a new book, and he was sharing a counter-argument.  He was engaging in a positive and professional debate which, again as he put it on Twitter, “needs to happen more often”.

In education “celebrity” looks different than it does in Hollywood.  We do not measure success by movie tickets sold or by magazine covers.  Our “celebrities” are those special few who have impacted our work with children by helping us know better how to reach them.  By all measures in the world of education, Grant Wiggins was a success.  And our world will be less because of his loss.

Grant Wiggins pioneered the idea that we should begin with the end in mind.  With Jay McTighe, he published Understanding By Design in the 1990s forever changing the way we all think about lesson design.  No, I take that back, Grant Wiggins would be the last one to say “forever changing” because he would want us to continue exploring alternative methods and challenging the way we are doing it now.

My thoughts about Grant Wiggins, and my reflections this week, are focused on his ability to think differently and his willingness to disagree with the way it has always been done.  Too often we are quick to agree, and too often we are upset when someone disagrees with us.  I would imagine it is not an overstatement to say that the most significant advances in any area of study come from someone being willing to propose that there may be a different reality from that which we currently understand.

Grant Wiggins described himself on his Twitter profile as a “professional educational troublemaker”.  He celebrated that label. So do I.  We need people who challenge our thinking.  We need people who say, “Yes, that is how we do it now, but what if there is a better way.”

I know if I were being honest that there have been plenty of times when I wished others would just agree with me and be done with it.  But that is short-sighted.  Work is made better and ideas are more meaningful when there are multiple view-points.

There is a difference between disagreeing and being disagreeable.  A “nice dialogue” based in fact and supported by research between well-meaning and well-informed people is the ideal way to move our collective understanding forward.  It is spirited, but it is not mean.  Grant Wiggins could challenge your idea and have you thanking him for the discussion.  What a gift!

There is a well-done summary of the recent debate on teaching students to read in a Washington Post piece by Valerie Strauss.  Much will be written in the coming weeks about the impact Grant Wiggins had on our profession, but for me, his lasting legacy is that of “educational troublemaker”.  I can only hope to be remembered in that way!

Don’t Pick Up the Rope

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“I need you to put your phone away and participate in the lesson.”

“I’m texting my mom.  You can’t make me stop talking to my mom”

“Give me the phone.”

“No, you can’t take my phone.  My mom needs to tell me something.”

“I can take your phone.  Hand it to me right now.”

“No.”

“Yes.”

“My mom said I don’t have to give anyone at school my phone.”

“Your mom’s not here.  Our rules are clear.  Give me the phone.”

One thing I know from experience is that a middle schooler can play this game all day.  In fact, sometimes they want nothing more than to engage in this kind of debate with a teacher.  A colleague of mine has great advice for staff members in this situation.  Don’t pick up the rope.

An exchange like this can quickly become a tug-of-war, a fight for power and control.  But it is impossible to play tug-of-war if you do not pick up the rope.

I am not advocating allowing defiant and insubordinate behavior in your classroom.  I am simply suggesting that engaging in an extended debate with a frustrated student generally just results in a frustrated adult.  The more frustrated we become, the less likely we are to resolve the issue well.

Time is an underestimated tool in the behavior management toolbox.  Walking away and not engaging a student is a short-term way to disengage and allow for the possibility that the student will respond appropriately.  If they do respond appropriately, you can decide later what follow-up is needed.  It may be as simple as a conversation, or it may be a classroom or office consequence.

If the student does not choose to respond after redirection, again, don’t pick up the rope.  Each behavior issue is unique.  Some can be ignored until a later time and then addressed.  Others are more severe and require an immediate response.  In those cases, remove the student from the room, or if necessary, remove the other students from the room.

I am not saying this is easy.  I am not saying I have been able to walk this talk every time I have found myself working with a student.  As a teacher, there were plenty of times I picked up the rope.  As an administrator in charge of discipline, I picked up the rope as well.  And almost every time, I made the situation worse.  Cooler heads really do prevail.  When I was able to ask a student to sit or read or work for a while in a supervised location away from other students, and away from me, we were usually able to come back later and talk more calmly.  Sometimes they needed the time to cool off.  Sometimes I did.

The end of the school year can be tough for classroom management.  Students are getting excited for summer.  So are the adults!  When tensions rise, my advice is to not pick up the rope.

Show Up

I woke up yesterday with a terrible headache…so bad it would be more accurate to say that the headache woke me up several times.  But it was a big day for my daughter.  She had been working with a committee all year to organize the volunteers for a large autism society fundraiser, and the event was yesterday.  It was important to her that we were there.  I took some medication, ate breakfast, rested for a bit, then got up and got ready.

When we left the event, I had a beautiful email waiting from a friend and colleague.  She has recently suffered a loss, and she was thanking some people for being there to offer support.

The morning was a powerful reminder of something I learned long ago and was just discussing with a friend.  At times the most important thing we do is show up.

Gallup research explains that engagement improves when someone at work “seems to care about me as a person”.  Our lives are important.  Our celebrations, our losses, and our big moments matter.  When the people with whom we work ask about our children and grandchildren, wish us good luck on the graduation party we are hosting, or offer a hug after a hard loss, we connect.  It increases that sense of belonging.

Attending the visitation or funeral of a loved one is a concrete example of showing up.

Attending someone’s retirement reception is another.

Pay attention to what people share.  The big events are not usually a secret.  Ask people what they are doing over the weekend. And really listen.  When someone extends an invitation, go.

I have a good friend at work who has made these events a priority.  She speaks beautifully of the impact others made on her when she lost her father.  Not only does she show up, she reaches out and invites me along.  I have learned so much from what she has modeled.

Now, I would never suggest that you attend events when you are sick, and I am not promoting the guilt that comes with having to miss one of these events because your schedule does not permit it.  Real life requires balance.  There are things we miss because one person can only be one place at a time.  There are things we miss because sometimes no matter how hard you try, you cannot fit one more thing into your day.  And of course there are things we miss because the healthier option (either physically or mentally) is to rest.

I am simply suggesting that there times when what people need most is for us to just show up!

Whose wings are you seeing?

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“What of my future self is in me right now?”  (Radiolab- Season 12- Episode 4- Black Box)

Did you know that if you peeled back the skin of a caterpillar, you’d see all of the elements of a butterfly already formed and waiting to emerge?   A colleague of mine attended a staff development session recently in which an important question was posed:  “Who saw your wings before you did?”

As you might imagine, this question generated considerable conversation.  Mentors take many forms, but we can almost all identify key people who came into our lives and saw something in us that we had not yet seen in ourselves.

I would never have imagined the professional journey I have taken without the encouragement of family, friends and colleagues who believed in me.  My parents raised me to believe that there was nothing I should not try…that I had within me the capacity to achieve great things.   My husband supported me through degree after degree, always reassuring me when I was in doubt.

Leadership within and beyond the classroom would not have been possible without the wisdom of the mentors who led by example and reached out to give me opportunities to grow.  One in particular changed the trajectory of my life. There are no words to thank him adequately.  He saw my wings before I could have imagined I had them.  All of this has been fun, but I’ve had to reflect on what I have done to be that same mentor for others.  Whose wings have I seen?  What have I been doing to reach out to others and to help them see their gifts, their strengths, their possibilities?

Look

Look carefully at the people in your life.  Identify someone who might need encouragement to take on a new challenge. Reach out.  Sometimes all it takes is for someone to let you know they believe in you.  Our schools are filled with talented, passionate people who may need inspiration to take on leadership roles.

Listen

Listen to the people with whom you spend time.  It can be easy to work or even to live with people without really listening to their ideas, their thoughts, their dreams.  Sometimes all it takes is for someone to listen to inspire you to take action.  Effective leaders are approachable.  No matter how brief the interaction, be present, really listen.

Learn

Learn what the people in your life do well.  Spend time exploring the strengths of your team.  No one set of skills leads to success, and it frequently takes a mentor to help you see how your unique combination of strengths can be leveraged to make you the most effective.

There is a powerful, affirming feeling that comes from being mentored.  Few experience success without a series of people who made it possible.  A grounded leader though is focused not on themselves but on the people they can nurture.

So whose wings are you seeing?

Serve

SERVE

Image Source: Serve by elycefeliz CCBY

Today I had someone share with me that last week was “tough in the trenches”. 

In the trenches?

I understood the expression.  I knew what he meant, but once again it felt like us versus them.  “Us” are in the trenches.  “Them” are safe somewhere else doing things to us.

I am troubled by the analogy.  Trench warfare is about digging in and holding your ground.  Leadership is about getting out of the trench, facing the challenge, and moving forward.  Let’s get out of the metaphorical trench.

As a classroom teacher, I know that I felt like I was on the frontline or whatever other military reference I might have constructed to explain that I was the one in the room with the students.  And I was right.   But as an assistant principal, I was also on the frontline with students and with parents and with teachers in any number of very difficult situations.  Then as a principal, I was the public face for every news story, radio show, and Facebook post when someone disagreed with a decision.  And I was the private voice for every difficult final decision at the building level.

I’ve had an opportunity to reflect this week on what it means to be a servant leader.  What does it mean to serve?

I’m going to suggest something that might be unpopular.  I’m going to suggest that servant leadership is about putting needs of the organization above yourself.  This is not easy because it can sometimes mean making a change or taking on a challenge not of your own choosing.  

This is the time of year when principals are having conversations about teachers moving grade levels or changing teams or courses.  There is something so comforting about starting a new year in a familiar classroom with familiar teammates and a familiar curriculum.  Making a significant change is hard.  But every year in almost every school at least some people are asked to try something new.  While there are some people who love change, most people find it uncomfortable.

It’s hard, but change can be rejuvenating.  Developing new skills, cultivating new relationships, and establishing new routines can breathe new life into your work.  And sometimes, it’s what’s best for the organization.

I’ve learned the power of servant leadership from my colleagues over the years.  As a classroom teacher, I was always inspired by the people who tried new grade levels or new subjects when asked.  I’ve learned from administrators who’ve changed buildings or positions.  And I’ve learned from those who led the sometimes very difficult conversations about organizational change.

Servant leadership is about putting the needs of others and of the organization in front of your own needs.

“When people ask me what they should do to lead, I say lead where you are.  Influence the people around you.  Start there.  Love.  Serve.  Care.”  Jon Gordon

 

Don’t Take Yourself Too Seriously

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I stumbled this week.  I was presenting a report to our Board of Education.  It was an important project over two years in the making, and when the moment came, I flubbed it.  Now it could have been much worse, but I certainly provided the comic relief in a pretty serious meeting.

I had prepared for that moment for months.  I had written my comments weeks earlier.  I ran through what I was going to say over and over.  I didn’t sleep much the night before, but I thought I was ready for anything.

And then, when the moment came, I tripped up.  I got too excited and jumped right over protocols (and the Board of Education) and into my speech.  Everyone laughed.

I had a decision to make at that point, and thankfully the other people in the room showed me the right thing to do.

“That was awesome.”

“You rock.”

When I was done, my text messages were supportive and fun.  The lesson from my colleagues was clear.  “Don’t take yourself too seriously.”

Leaders are so often in serious situations.  Real, difficult, serious situations.  The opportunity to lighten the mood is not always evident. It would often times not be appropriate.  But when  the moment does present itself- run with it!  Life is short and too often hard.  If there is an opportunity to see the funny side, take it.  Take it especially if it means poking fun at yourself.  Moments like that can teach you humility.  People need to know…you need to know…that you are human, that you err, and that you recognize your mistakes and can give yourself grace.

I think it is important to note here that laughing at other people is never okay.  In my case, the room was filled with friends.  Everyone was clearly laughing with me and not at me.  Humor is essential to effective leadership.  Humor at your own expense can ease tensions and build relationships.  But humor at someone else’s expense will almost always damage relationships.

I wish that I had been nothing but poised and professional in my meeting.  I wish that it had gone the way I played it out in my head all those times. But it didn’t, so the options were clear: stress and worry about it, beat myself up about it, or laugh and move on.  Humor isn’t always the appropriate response, but whenever it is possible, don’t take yourself too seriously.

Be Awesome Anyway

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School years have natural ebbs and flows, and the two weeks before Spring Break can sometimes be difficult days.  Anyone who works with children knows the phenomenon of the week before the week before a break.  (Yes, you read that correctly.)  Right before a break, everyone exhales and sees the light at the end of the tunnel.  But that week before, the anticipation and stress peak.  It can be a rough time in schools.  My advice…be awesome anyway!

“If there are two paths, I want to be on the one that leads to awesome.”  Almost 35 million people have watched Kid President’s Pep Talk video on YouTube.  Why?  What message inspires that kind of following, and what can we as educational leaders learn from it?

Leadership is complex, but there is one characteristic that seems to inspire people universally.  Positivity!  People want to be motivated by their leader.  They want to feel like they can be better, achieve more, succeed.  Energy is contagious, and you can choose to spread negativity, or you can choose to spread positivity.

Effective leaders have insight, emotional intelligence, and gravitas.  When they are interacting with others, they show exceptional interpersonal skills.  In times of crisis, they display almost relentless positivity.

Leadership is difficult.  In schools it is about leading instructional change, making difficult and divisive budget decisions, disciplining students.  Many situations have two opposing sides. The pace is frenetic, and the stress is palpable.  Yes, leadership is difficult.

But when the moment is challenging, when people are angry, when the circumstances are frightening, people need a leader who is none of those things.  Leadership is difficult, but the best leaders have a way of maintaining their positivity.  A colleague who works with new administrators in our district describes his style as that of a duck.  Below the water, he is paddling fast and furious, but above the water, where people can see, he is positive, calm, and smooth.

Our Superintendent describes it as “getting back to zero”.  Regardless of the stress of the moment, effective leaders get themselves back to a positive place quickly.

Never would I assert that successful leadership could be broken down simply into any one thing.  We are all different as leaders, and our differences should be celebrated.  But if we could all start by being positive, I believe we could create a culture that allows for growth.

Regardless of the current circumstances, take Kid President’s advice. Be awesome!

The Great Behavior Divide

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Third hour was long.  The students were particularly rowdy.  ‘Must be a full moon.’  Only half of the students handed in homework, and several forgot their books.  But the tide turned when the lesson got going.  It was engaging and relevant, and the students responded.  Things were going well when Bobby threw his pencil across the room and hit another student.  This was absolutely the last straw.  He had been pulling things like this for days.  Done.  I sent him to the office.  In my thirteen years of teaching, I can count on one hand the number of students I sent to the office.  You can bet I wanted him punished.

Cut to three years later.  Another Bobby was sent to the office.  I honestly can’t remember what he did.  But this time I was the assistant principal in charge of discipline, and I was smack in the middle of the great behavior divide.

Anyone teaching or working in school administration will know the divide to which I refer.  A student makes a bad choice.  The teacher sends her to the office.  The teacher, understandably so, feels frustrated and wants punishment.  The administrator, understandably so, wants to teach and build or maintain a relationship with the student.

So the administrator has the student sit quietly for a bit, maybe reflect on or process what happened in the classroom.  Then there is a conversation.  “What happened?”  “Why?”  Ideally several things happen:

1.  Any unmet needs are resolved.  Is the student hungry?  Tired?  Worried about something happening at home?

2.  Any medical or chemical issues are addressed.  Is the student sick?  Under the influence?  Off prescribed medications?

3.  Does the student have an honest understanding of what happened? Is there more to the story from his perspective?  Do you need to talk to other students?

After an investigation, the administrator assigns a consequence in line with the Code of Conduct.  The hope is that the consequence teaches behavior.  The hope is that the investigation and the conversation about the consequence work to establish a trusting relationship with the student…and the student’s parents.  The hope is that with each interaction, the administrator builds rapport and influence with the student.  When that happens, there is a much greater likelihood that in the future the student might make different choices.

Unfortunately this whole process can sometimes frustrate the teacher who sent the student to the office.  Believe me, I understand.  Like I said, when I sent Bobby to the office, I wanted him punished.  I didn’t want him to have a relationship-building conversation.  I didn’t want him getting a pop-tart because he was hungry.  I wanted him punished.

Discipline in schools should not be about punishment.  As difficult it can be in the moment, discipline in schools should be about teaching.

As school leaders, some of the most important professional development we need to provide is to talk about behavior and discipline.  I do think it is possible to avoid the great behavior divide.  It takes time and transparent conversations.  It takes an understanding of the shared vision for the school and the community.   It is important for teachers and administrators to be on the same page.

Like I’ve said before, we’re all in this together.