Sunday, December 7, 2014

Be still

I recall the feeling of that first teaching offer, and stepping into my classroom, and experiencing that feeling akin to being deity.  I knew exactly what I was going to do and how was I going to do it.  Yes, I had it all figured out.  And then the students came...

I quickly realized I didn’t even come close to having it figured out, and 20 years later, I’m not sure that I’m any closer. Yes, I’ve learned a few skills and had meaningful experiences (wonderful & rock-bottom), but trying to figure it out and be relevant in an evolving world is so difficult. And I don’t think all of the outside noise and push for collaboration helps me process it.  So what one thing can I make time for every day?

Be still.

I recently watched the Ted Talk by Pico Iyer, and an interesting statement stood out to me: It is in stillness that we prepare ourselves for the realities around us.

When do we make time for personal reflection and planning? When do we make time to be still, to cut the outside noise off, and deal with the own noise in our head?  A common encouragement we hear from health professionals is take time to exercise 30 minutes a day for our body.  We know the value of physical fitness for mental, physical and emotional health.  But do we take equal time each day to be process? In this age of constant movement and connectedness, perhaps we would be better if we joined a mental health club to disconnect from the outside and visible segment of our life, and give some daily strengthening to the invisible portion of our mindset. I think it’s okay to be a bit more selfish with a small fragment of our own time, which directly increases our effectiveness in our roles and influence.  It may also help us understand the difference between making a living, and making a life.  These are very different directions, and it is important that we model this difference.  We can’t model behaviors we aren't authentically living.

So spend some time in stillness.  Take time each day to close the door (figuratively and literally) and listen to the voices in your head and figure things out.  The world is changing daily and there is a need to calibrate accordingly.  Then give yourself permission to change for the better, and use your influence to better the world, or at least, your corner of it.  

Saturday, November 22, 2014

When students tell the school's story

One of the opportunities we have as educators is the opportunity to ferociously browse what other schools are doing.  From curriculum to programs, technology to structure, and learning environments to philosophy/mindset, learning from others should be considered a wonderful collaborative obligation.

The best measure of any school’s effectiveness is its students; and I’m talking beyond achievement scores. I’m referring to how the students describe the school with the words and manner in which they express what they think of their school. This past week I was able to attend an event where the story of how one school was doing was expressed beautifully by their students, who were courageous enough to serve as a panel before a crowd of 250 people to express themselves.  Here are a few “from the mouth of babes” key statements that spoke to me.

“I am learning to listen with eyes, ears and heart.”

“We always need a WIG – Wildly Important Goal – to work toward.”

“We let the teachers think they are in charge; but really, we are the ones who are running things.” (I love this one…great indication that the student has taken charge of their learning & future.)

“I’ve learned that goals are easier to achieve when we know the steps to get there.”

“My school isn’t just a school, it’s a place that I can call home.”

And my favorite…
“What I like about my school is that the teachers think I can accomplish anything.”

What I found wonderfully refreshing is that I was learning from students.  I was learning that these statements from elementary students, from grades 2-5, were not just random statements, but guiding and personal compass statements they were applying daily.  Such behaviors generally come as a result related to the last student quote, because there is a teacher that believes in them so much that they too believe in themselves.

I know there are great examples of exemplary schools all around that we can look to.  This specific story comes from what I learned from the students at @WYE_Bulldogs.  I appreciate that their exemplary principal @RomanaDunn14 and the WYE staff have turned the telling of the students’ future story over to who it belongs: the students.  It makes me wonder: what story would your students tell of your school?

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Attractive Poison

Alison Randall recently told the story of stepping out of her front door to pick up the morning paper, and noticed the red mound that had been created by fire ants during the night.  Alison, probably like many of us, learned by painful experience that fire ants were not anything to be trifled with. She went to the garage for some pesticide to apply. The instructions on the label read: "(This pesticide) is highly attractive to fire ants. They will carry it into their mound, feed it to their queen, and the colony will die"  Alison followed the instructions as listed, sprinkling the granules on and around the mound.  A short time later, she noticed a great deal of activity around the mound.  The fire ants were busy collecting the granules in their pincers and sprinting to take them inside their home, not knowing yet the fatal consequences of their choices.

I think about this story and its application to our education arena today.  It seems with each year, education appears to be an easy target for legislation reform.  And while I'm all about improvement, it appears that most efforts are spearheaded by well-funded individuals and groups who have a very limited view of what quality education is and how it should be defined.  It is how we got to our current over-assessment of students and cutting of creative opportunities for students.  It is what has created the overall belief that our schools are failing (a belief that I don't share, btw).  Even in my home state, we are preparing to vote on an education amendment, a piece that has made it on the ballot through the efforts of a well-funded interest group.  Ask any given educator, and chances are high this amendment would be considered a poison; and to the individual voter who doesn't take the time to understand the natural consequences, it may appear to be attractive.

Our schools are wonderful places to create learning opportunities and connect students to their future. They are also bound by the limitations that our society places upon them. Part of our challenge and responsibility as educators, and as leaders within our neighborhoods, is to help our communities understand the directions on the label, and that through their votes and voice, they are our greatest partners by the excellence they insist upon, including not allowing the attractive poisons into our schools. Please join me in advocating what is best for our students.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Acknowledging Dan

Tonight one of my daughters told me that what I did was a good thing, and that she was proud of me. I think it was the circumstances of why she made the statement that was remarkable, and also affirming as a parent that our actions are the greatest model of teaching for our kids.

Our Friday nights generally are as lazy as possible.  Wonderfully exhausted from the learning & work week, the routine is to unwind as soon as possible.  This particular evening, the older two were enjoying their schools Friday Night Lights, and we took the younger two to Qdoba.  As my daughters were yapping away while my overstuffed burrito was falling apart, I noticed a man come in and find a seat in corner.  His clothing and condition were extremely poor; he pulled his stained hoodie off of his head and glanced our way. His face appeared hollow.  He looked around quickly and laid his head down.

I tried to return to my meal, and found myself feigning interest in my girls' conversation.  I noticed my wife glancing toward the man just as I was.  Up to this point, I have become proficient in ignoring the needs of those on a street corner holding up a sign that says "homeless - anything helps - and God Bless."  But I felt something different here.  I looked a bit longer, and noticed his head; it appeared that patches of hair weren't growing, and skin was blotched.  Make whatever judgments, but he simply looked malnourished and neglected.  Then he lifted his head and looked around again.  I think he was just waiting for a worker to ask him to leave.

I went over and asked him if he needed some food, and he said yes.  I asked what he would like, and his answer was anything please.  What struck me as I was talking was the look in his eyes, nearly void of all hope. This person needed food.  Sadly- that was his secondary need.  More important, I felt he needed to be acknowledged.  He needed to know that he was not invisible.

I went to the counter and ordered him some food.  The workers there beginning their conversation about how they were going to get him out of there.  I let them know I was buying food for him, and they wouldn't need to escort him out.  I took his food to him, got him a drink, asked his name, and shared my name.  I invited him to enjoy his meal, and left him with a God Bless.

Driving home is when my daughter told me that was a good thing I did, and that she was proud of me.  She acknowledged me, and my value.  And I how couldn't help but think about Dan, and how often he had been acknowledged, and had he ever been told of his value as a human being.

The Master Shift's photo.


Saturday, October 4, 2014

Maybe it's good to sweat the small stuff...

I’m a Van Halen fan. When I hear a Van Halen song on the radio as I’m driving, I usually grab the seat belt strapped across me, and enter immediately into an air guitar contest.  I’m sure it’s not impressive, but I rock on anyway.  And never would I have thought the artists behind “Ice Cream Man” and “Jamie’s Cryin’” would teach me a lesson about details-

David Lee Roth’s autobiography highlighted how maintaining control over the little things generally translated to the big things going well. When Van Halen was hired to play a show, they provided the promoter with a contract “rider” that outlined specific things the promoter would be responsible for.  From sound and lighting requirements, backstage area, security needs and personal wishes of the band. Specific and trivial alike, it was all in the rider.

Somewhere in middle of the Van Halen rider was the curious stipulation that a bowl M&M candies be backstage for the band, with all of the brown candies removed. If any brown M&M’s were in the bowl, the band could cancel the entire concert at the full expense of the promoter. That meant that because of a single candy, a promoter could lose millions.  Why? In dealing with million-dollar equipment items, pyrotechnics, and large crowds, concerts are a big deal, and with safety in mind of fans and band, the magic in making it work is in the details.  To ensure the promoter had read every single word in the contract, the band created the “no brown M&M's” clause.

This story intrigued me.  Partially because I’m a big-picture person.  I come up with BHAGs (Big Hairy Audacious Goals) based upon the end-in-mind and get to work, generally without taking the time to play architect.  Along the way I come across more obstacles then I had hoped for.  As hope is not a strategy, maybe my approach should include more front-loading with the details, as small as they may be.  Little details manner.  They define you in a big way.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Embracing confusion, ambiguity and wonder

It doesn't take much to make an immense difference in children’s lives…just some kindness, individual attention and acknowledgment, and encouraging them to discover continuously.

In helping kiddos to become perpetual students, the challenge usually falls more with the adults.  My unscientific general observation is that too many adults, even within our beloved education field, have arrived at their final destination, and this influences a false benchmark of what students can become.  I see an embedded belief that as long as the students are not confused and proficient at what we have taught them, that they have arrived too.

Being confused is usually considered to be negative.  What if we taught that it’s okay to be confused? What if we, as adults, embraced this idea that is best exemplified by toddlers: Be aware of wonder and discovery. Fight the natural maturing tendency to accept things as they are, and model that the mark of an “educated” person is to be open-minded, inquisitive, and yes- perplexed.  We should promote that it is desirable to end our understanding and beliefs with question marks.  We should embrace comfort with ambiguity.   Our own learning should be creating school and classroom environments that are designed to lead students to the edge of our perceived limits, then encourage them to go beyond.

Knowledge is marvelous, but wisdom is better.  Wisdom comes from experience, and the most awesome experiences comes from acting upon wonder.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

A bigger truck...

A recent story made smile:  Two men decided it was time to make their fortune by setting up a roadside fruit stand.  They made their plan, and set it in motion by driving out into the field to pick their melons, pay the farmer who grew them a dollar per melon, and drive their truck to their stand where they would sell the melons for a dollar each.  After a few runs, one turned to the other and said, “we really aren’t making much money on this, are we?”  To which the other responded “Maybe we need to get a bigger truck…”

Sometimes we shake our head when others don’t get it…and at times one of those others is me.  What do I wish for when I don’t get it?  The opportunity to get it.  I think this requires two courageous actions.  First, it requires someone to do more than shake their head – the action must be accompanied by their voice.  One that expresses in a courteous yet passionate manner (a kind smack to the back of the head) “Hey…did you ever think about _______?”

The second action is the critical one, and falls solely upon me.  It is the courage to listen (and not be offended).  That’s much more than hearing what is being said.  It’s empathetic listening: listening to understand, and not listening to reply.

Although I’ve been and will continue to be a lifelong educator, the changing of my roles often concerns me.  I was in the classroom for six fantastic years.  Then I got a bigger truck, and served as a building principal for 11 years, and loved that role.  I’m now in a district truck role, entering my 4th year.  With each passing year, I’m a little bit further away from those fantastic years having a direct impact on students.  With the changing positions, my day-to-day contact with students has lessened, and now my work focuses on building leaders who influence the adults that have the most direct impact on students.  Being further away from the students, I believe, increases my chances of not getting it.

A goal this year is to increase my capacity to listen, and by doing so, keeping the focus on the students and those that have the greatest impact upon them.  The good news is that listening does not require a bigger truck…

Sunday, August 24, 2014

A Lesson from the "Red Schoolhouse"

I came across a short story from Mt. Kisco, New York, reported in theReader’s Digest that may provide some insightful guidance for today's "education reform."
“Once upon a time, there was a little red schoolhouse with one big room for 27 children. The teacher sat with an American flag on one side of her and a blackboard on the other. The children sat in rows facing her, the littlest ones in front. The youngest was seven, and she was very little. The biggest was 16, and he was six feet tall. The youngest was smart, and she could read with the other children. The biggest was dumb, but he was strong and could help the teacher carry in wood. In bad weather, he carried the littlest girl across the puddle in front of the schoolhouse. And sometimes she helped him with his reading.
“Then one day the state built a big highway, right past the schoolhouse door. And the State Education Department came by and said, ‘Great things are happening in education. There are special teachers for arithmetic, reading, art and music. If you combine with other schoolhouses, you could have a great big school where your children could have all the advantages. And big yellow buses could carry your children over the new highway right up to the school door.’ So the parents voted to consolidate, and the little red schoolhouse was abandoned.
“At first things went well in the big school. But after a while, the State Education Department said that it wasn’t providing the children with enough meaningful experiences. And some parents complained that the children were not learning to read and write and figure as well as they had in the little red schoolhouse. ‘We will try some new things,’ said the educators. So they tried the ungraded primer, where fast readers were not slowed down by slow readers, and where children who had trouble with numbers did not get moved on to the next grade before they could add 3 and 5. This helped, but not enough.
“‘We will try something more,’ the educators said. ‘We will tear down some walls at the new school, so the children will be working together in one big room. That way, there will be less peer-group competition.’
“Finally, an important educator came along, looked at the school and said, ‘This is good, but it is not good enough. It is too big, and the children are losing their identity. There are not enough interpersonal relationships in the infrastructure. What we really need is a one-room schoolhouse. And since red is a cheerful color, I think we ought to paint it red.’” (From Mt. Kisco, N.Y., Patent Trader, in Reader’s Digest, March 1973, p. 68.)
The educator in this story did not mean that the consolidated school, the grade-level teachers, or the updated curriculums were not advantages. Today we could add technology and a focus on professional development.  The point of the story is that along with the rigorous standards and inspiring innovation in education, the emphasis must still be placed upon needs and relationships, or in other words, making learning personal.  

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

A Listening Walk

Lately I’ve noticed my increasing loss of direction. I used to think I knew exactly what I wanted, and how it would happen.  Now, I doubt more.  Much more.   As I approach what may very well be the median of my life, this can be unsettling.  It may be from the many distractions due to the variety of roles, and my desire for each of those roles to be performed flawlessly, at least in the eyes of others.  But so many roles in a day…a spouse, a parent, an educator, a leader, a friend, a person…how can I reach my goal of becoming the servant leader I desire to be?

Removing myself from the many roles may be what is needed to remind myself of my true compass.  Not permanently, of course, but momentarily, if not for just minutes each day.  And during that brief moment of self-preservation, the best action I can take may be to assume the role of one that listens.  A recent quote I heard was “listen to understand; not to reply.” 

Sure, listening to others may be a part of that.  Empathetic listening, just for the sake of acknowledgment, does wonders to lift the soul of another.  But the listening I’m referring to is setting time apart to withdraw from the noisy, distracting world.  It requires the need to slow down, and in reverence of your simple being, listen less of what you say and more of what you hear.

Discerning an inner guide is not as difficult was we might believe.  And when we take such an opportunity, we become more aligned with our true compass.  The blurred lines become clear, the everyday challenges become opportunities, and our priorities become evidences of our purpose-driven existence.  The search for meaning and understanding turns our tacit beliefs to explicit behaviors.  With this comes a greater understanding of servant leadership.  To serve others and to lead others, we must also serve the need to connect and be lead by our inner voice, our leadership compass.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Deliberately Excellent

I’ve been reflecting on how schools make an incredible, yet often invisible, difference in each of our communities.  In our crazy world, differences between cultures, persuasions and beliefs seem to surface more quickly than they ought to.  The natural tendency becomes for much of society to make obscure and overlook the significant ways that we are alike, especially as adults "grow up" and move further away from the magic of school.

It is in our school years, especially elementary, where critical lessons of respect and civility are continued from the home, and in many cases, first taught. School lessons required us to learn to share, and to demonstrate courtesy in our relationships.  It is in our schools that teachers instill in our hearts a desire to empathize with those who are in trouble or in pain.  It is where we learn some painful lessons that there is nothing so unfair as equal treatment, and there is nothing fair about unequal treatment (it makes sense if you don’t think about it).

“Throughout the march of history, society has made progress when people have lived together in communities, with respect and concern for one another.  These virtues are the hallmark of civilization” (Hinckley, 2001).  I believe schools, as partners with parents/families, are the center of hallmark communities.  Many individuals, thought not enough, have learned to recognize that service within our communities is done by ordinary people who have learned to work in an extraordinary way. It is done by those who apply wisdom from lessons learned.  This gives hope to me, as brilliance is not required to make a difference in this world.  All that is required is a willingness to reach out, make a connection, serve and lead others where they may not have gone without your influence.

Education Leaders generally and humbly consider themselves ordinary people, but are indeed extraordinary as they understand that the learning process is endless. We read, observe, assimilate, and ponder that which we expose our mind to.  We encourage, promote, expect and even insist on the ideals that expectations coupled with success will improve the quality of life and growth mindset for child and adult learners around us.  We have experienced, first-hand, the invigoration that comes from having developed the capacity to evaluate then solve a problem, to wrestle with a seemingly unconquerable challenge and then find a solution (these are often called “Mondays”).

As education leaders and members within our neighborhoods, communities, districts and state, we all have a vision of what we are working toward.  Individually, many of us have personal creed that mirror our professional life.  A term that that I heard recently was "deliberate excellence."  Regardless, or maybe because of our many and varied roles, may we focus upon being deliberately excellent in being a learning leader.