Monthly Archives: September 2016

No, Your Child Shouldn’t Attend a Failing School

There is lots of propaganda these days about vouchers and school choice.  A favorite line to stir the masses on the topic is to say how children shouldn’t have to attend failing schools.

I think we have to consider what a failing school in NOT:

  • A Title I school-“Title I” is just a designation that states a certain portion of the school’s population is economically disadvantaged.  Because of this, the school receives additional funds to train teachers and provide additional resources so that students who may have entered school behind because of lack of opportunity.  If a Title I school is considered “school-wide” than even those children who are not economically disadvantaged benefit.  It is actually a huge benefit to attending a Title I school because these teachers are highly skilled in making a difference with all students, not just the students who learn easily. I took my own child to a Title I screen-shot-2016-09-25-at-1-33-31-pmschool rather than his affluent neighborhood school because I knew they would grow him, wherever he started from.  Being economically disadvantaged is not contagious.  You can’t catch it by attending a Title I school.  Children in Title I schools learn the value of diversity and are more likely to learn to know how to function with others who are different than themselves in the real world.
  • A school whose state test scores are below ninety percent –Just because a school appears to have high passing rates doesn’t mean they are a great school. It may simply mean that the students walked into the school with a good amount of skills learned from home. Right now on the Texas accountability test, passing rates are fairly low.  The test has changed to reflect higher-level thinking, and they are gradually building the passing rate as schools make the shift from “strategies” to “thinking.”   The score in and of itself doesn’t show you for sure if a student is performing higher than they were when they arrived.  Sometimes when a student enters school with large gaps, the score may not yet be passing, but it is showing astounding growth.  An overall passing rate doesn’t tell you if a school can make a difference with all students.  
  • A school with diverse ethnicities, cultures, religions, and backgrounds- Our world is changing and becoming more and more diverse.  Groups that were once majority are finding that is no longer the case.  To prepare children for the 21st-century world, they need to develop the skills to value and collaborate with others from all backgrounds, including those that are significantly different from their own.  Students who attend “homogenous” schools are more likely to struggle in college and beyond because the haven’t developed the skill set to work with others besides those who are most like themselves.

Here is what I think a failing school IS:

  • A school that doesn’t put children first – Schools should filter every decision they make through what is best for their students.  If it isn’t making a difference for children in a school, it shouldn’t matter.
  • A school that doesn’t value partnerships with their families –Schools should always be working to invite their parents in, ask their opinions and build relationships so that they can partner in the child’s education. Does your school provide opportunities to be involved other than fundraisers? Does it have a parent involvement policy?  If not, it should.
  • A school that doesn’t grow EVERY student – It’s easy to appear to be a good school if all the students are the same and performing on high levels.  However, if a child walks in the door with lots of skills, a school should be able to grow the student from that point, not rest on their laurels A failing school is one that takes advantage of the fact that students may already be able to perform skills and doesn’t attempt to grow them more.  They may also not be able to grow students that have more difficulty learning.  They resort to labels and excuses of why it is the child that is the problem, rather than accepting the challenge and ensuring learning happens.


  • A school that doesn’t seek to teach problem-solving, higher level thinking, and 21st-century skills necessary to survive in a future that we cannot yet fully define – Our world has changed drastically, just since I was in school.  There are jobs and technology we couldn’t have even dreamed of at the time I was in elementary school.  We have to intentionally think about this world that doesn’t exist.  We have to make sure that our students are proficient readers, writers, and mathematicians, but we also have to make sure they are thinkers, problem-solvers, collaborators, and have skills to persist when things get challenging, while also being willing to grow.  Students can no longer live in a world of “perfection” because learning is messy and they don’t need to waste time memorizing things that they can access easily through technology.
  • A school using technology in learning only to consume information –To often schools have lots of technology available, but they are only using it to access programs that allow for practice of skills or looking up information.  Truly great schools are teaching students the programs that not only allow access to information but applications that allow them to create and demonstrate their understanding of concepts.  Research is showing that this type of creativity is critical for the future.
  • A school driven by high stakes testing and preparation –Too many schools these days are trying to prove their worth through high scores on high stakes tests.  The problem is that these schools are abandoning real learning for test preparation and cartoon5_2_13drills of skills rather than relevant learning grounded in real-life application.  Before you assume a good score means a good school, you may need to look deeper to find out exactly how those scores are being achieved and what may be sacrificed for the performance on a single day.
  • A school that doesn’t function as a learning organization –  A successful school is one where everyone grows and learns: leaders, teachers, students, parents, and community.  Administration and teachers should constantly be learning and evolving to meet the needs of the students and an ever-changing future.  They ways students are learning shouldn’t look like the ways we taught them 20, 10, or even five years ago.  There should be opportunities for parents and the community to participate in the learning as well. If the only learning is that of the students, there is definitely a problem.

Yes, no child should have to attend a failing school.  We just need to be careful to make sure we really know what a “failing school” really is.

Why I Blog-Inner Thoughts of a School Principal

During Cohort 6 for the Texas Principal Visioning Institute, facilitators spoke a great deal about the power of blogging.  I started my journey into blogging a year ago, but having these conversations with other principals the past two days caused me to do a great deal of reflection about why I blog.

I am a very private person. Because of some bullying as a child, I have an intense fear of being judged and tend to become a hermit outside my work life. As a principal, I have learned that to be successful, I must have a public persona.  I must show my vulnerability and allow others to connect with me, but sometimes there just doesn’t seem to be enough minutes in the day.  I hope that by blogging, it allows others to gain insight to me and understand my motivations in a way that builds trust.


My personal benefit is that I found blogging became my outlet for intense emotions, thoughts, and passions for public education that sometimes kept me awake at night.  If I take the time to write and reflect, then it somehow allows me to let some of that go so that I can rest knowing that I still have a record of my thoughts.  Before I began writing, it was like I was trying to hold all of my ideas in my brain and I had to remember every detail. Once I write it down, those thoughts are captured , and my brain can relax.

My final reason for blogging is that there are plenty of people in the world with misconceptions or hellbent on telling the negative side of public education.  I love my job. I am so proud and honored to serve alongside amazing educators.  Working to educate children is my God-given mission.  I believe that a free and appropriate education is the right of every child and the vehicle to a better society.  Yes, there are negative examples of i-think-therefore-i-blogschools and/or teachers, but I believe there are far more positives stories than bad ones.  Educators are the creators of all other professions, and they are the most selfless people I have ever encountered, willing to raise not only their children but the children of others.  If we don’t tell our story, then who will?  No, wait, if we don’t tell our story of greatness, shame on us!

It’s still hard to blog.  Sometimes my brain shuts down. Sometimes, I know I use too many passive voice sentences, and I am fearful I make too many mistakes because I am not an English expert or that I am too wordy. (Yes, that is my fear of judgment rising to the surface again.) I have to remind myself to use my growth mindset, have grit, and be willing to give myself grace just as I ask my staff and students to do so that I can reinforce my own beliefs and thoughts.  However, when I hit publish, I can still become consumed by watching to see how many people actually view my post or the fact that I don’t have many followers, or wondering if people will share my words with others.  I’ve even had times that my blog was lost in the middle of publishing and that just makes me mad and I stop blogging for a while.

I guess in the long run, the best reason for any blogger to blog is for yourself.  People will like you, or not like you.  They will follow you, or not follow you. The will share you, or not share you.  They will comment, or not.  No matter what you will always have how you feel about yourself and your blog at the end of the day. For me, the benefits I get from the release, outweigh any negatives. Besides, if you are wanting to make an impact,  there isn’t even the possibility for your words to have a positive impact on others if you don’t put them out there.


It’s Not a Pep Rally, It’s a Hope Rally

One of the most important things in my school culture is the time that the entire school spends together every Friday morning. I’d love to say I invented the idea of a morning assembly for elementary students, but I didn’t. I actually learned about it from my oldest son’s elementary principal. I remember her presenting it as a way to get students excited about school and ensure they were there on time.

I saw the idea evolve through several schools in that district. I didn’t necessarily buy into the idea at the time. They typically involved things that were usually done on the announcements, but now live and then expanded to student celebrations and a song.

When I came to my new school, one of the most urgent needs was the transformation of our school culture. They had been a campus where each team had a different school shirt, where they had never done anything with the entire school at the same time, and they were desperate to become unified.

I tried to follow the number one rule that they teach you in principal school (don’t change anything the first year!) but what could I do? They wanted this. They needed it! It became our tradition and weekly time together as a whole school. It became Eagle Shuffle.

I have heard our Eagle Shuffle referred to as a pep rally for elementary school. The thing is, I don’t think that is an accurate description. It’s really more of a “hope rally.”  During Eagle Shuffle the purpose is to be together, to celebrate our successes and to saturate our students’ minds with positive feelings about education.  I want them to have so much positive imprinting about school and hope for their future that it carries them all the way through graduation—from college!

Marketing agencies constantly play to children as consumers. They use bright colors, catchy jungles, and fun to sell their cereal, television shows, music, toys, and video games. Can we afford to do any less when it comes to education? I believe we must do the same thing with our students and public education if we hope to keep them as our clientele through 13 years of school. This is our product, and we only have ourselves to blame for poor marketing if nobody is buying it.

 We are teaching our students who to stop and celebrate themselves and each other, we are teaching them about cultural proficiency and how to value one another. We are teaching them about grit and growth mindset and naming examples we have seen. We are teaching them there is always time to stop and sing and cheer. I need to know that when the day comes where they question whether education is worth it, they will remember their days at Degan and Eagle Shuffle and dig deep to find their grit and growth mindset and know that they can always make it a great day because it is always their choice.

A New Vision for Public Education in Texas and Beyond


Eight years ago I was exposed to a new piece of work created by superintendents across Texas who had a greater vision for public education than simple accountability based on high-stakes testing.  At the time, I don’t know if I appreciated the work for all that it was visioning-instituteworth and the enormous thought and innovation that went into this vision. It was kind of like how we sometimes take things for granted, like our freedom in America or breathing. It’s just something you have. The district leadership frequently brought this document to the forefront of our conversations and asked us to reflect on its purpose and relevance for our work.

Then the world changed.  “Freedom”  and “breathing” were no longer a part of our work as leaders.  Every trace of the Texas Visioning Document was erased from the district and the work we did, only to be replaced with conversations driven by student and teacher performance on the state assessment.  It is true that you do not always appreciate what you have until it is gone.  But nowchangingworld, like the freedom of a democratic society or the air needed for survival, I was missing a critical part of my profession. I began a mission to find a district whose work was driven by the principles of the Visioning Document.  I had to find a new source of oxygen for my career. I was thrilled to find so many districts who had not abandoned this work and quickly found a home with like purpose.

Four years later, I have been selected as a principal to represent my district to focus specifically on this document.  I find myself on a new frontier, no longer to serve solely a receptacle for the information being learned from the vision of this text, but as a vehicle to take this information to others.  It is a great responsibility to help spread the mission and vision of a new face of education. This plan allows for ownership, flexibility, and  board-blended-learning-scale-up-presentation-2opportunity for learning “anywhere, anytime, any path, and any pace.” It is our moral imperative to have the grit and growth mindset needed to prepare students for a future that we can probably not accurately perceive, to stand against special interest groups that would promote learning for some, but not all, and to communicate to society about how the future of education needs to change.  While it is somewhat scary facing the uncertainty, it is also exciting and a challenge I gladly accept.


Creating a New Vision for Public Education in Texas

Caution: Sabotage Ahead


You would think progress toward a goal would make the work easier.  However, as I have learned with weight loss, it seems that whenever I get closest to my goal, something inevitably happens and instead of being 10 pounds from my goal, I am once again 20 pounds away.  Some experts say this is because our body has a “set point” and it keeps our bodies in this range.  However, I think that I subconsciously sabotage myself. Maybe I have become so comfortable being at a certain weight, living a certain lifestyle, that I’m not sure if I can “be” this new person, so I unconsciously sabotage myself out of fear.

I think the same thing can be true with professional goals.   Before becoming a principal, I worked at a place for fifteen years where I repeatedly hit a barrier preventing me from caution-aheadsuccessfully achieving my goals.  While I wasn’t comfortable, it had become my norm.  Being in a new role in a new district, I have been able to move past that, but I am definitely in the land of the unknown, professionally.

I think my staff is experiencing the same phenomenon.  There was no one that worked harder with children that this group of educators.  However, no matter how hard they worked, they weren’t getting the results they wanted.  The first couple of years the work was hard, but we didn’t yet see the fruits of our efforts, so that felt “normal.”  However, recently, our flywheel has begun to move.  The work is getting a little easier.  The payoffs are starting to happen.  It just gets better from here, right?

However, as we started this year, there was a huge sense of discombobulation hanging heavy in the air.  I could feel it with myself and with the staff.  I kept asking myself how we could feel more anxious when we have reached a place where we are getting settled in strong habits, and routines and our students are starting to make the gains we desire.  How could we feel unsettled if we know what to expect?  Or did we?

That was a giant realization.  We don’t know what to expect.  We are on the frontier of unchartered territory.  We don’t know what it feels like to have our students make these kinds of gains, and we worry if we can maintain the momentum.  Questions of “what happens if we can’t?” bubble just beneath the surface.

Fear is a powerful thing.  Fear goes immediately to the primitive part of our brain geared for survival, the amygdala.  Because our most important task as living organisms is survival, the amygdala has the ability to “hijack” our brain’s higher order thinking emotional-intelligence-an-essential-mind-skill-set-for-social-workers-11-638functions in order to protect us. Fear turns on the amygdala which urges us to “fight,” take “flight” or “freeze” even if survival is not actually at stake.  However, this prehistoric part of our brain doesn’t discriminate between a saber tooth tiger or a potentially failed goal, and any of those actions sabotage forward momentum and progress. So it is imperative to keep our amygdala in check and stay in our higher thinking brain to move past the fear and continue moving forward.  A challenge isn’t a saber tooth tiger; it is an opportunity to learn, grow and improve.

No one intentionally undermines their progress to an important goal, but it does happen. So how do we keep our amygdala off and prevent self-sabotage?


  • Be aware of your surroundings.  As with any time you are entering a situation with uncertainty or potential danger, you must turn off autopilot and intentionally choose your actions.  If you are on autopilot, that overprotective amygdala may steer you away from the very opportunity you need to push through. Recognize that you may feel uncomfortable, but discomfort is not life-threatening so that you can keep moving forward.
  • Recognize that you will be stepping out of your comfort zone and make a plan. Growth and learning occur outside your comfort zone. Plan for what you will do to increase your comfort as you face the unknown. Let go of things that don’t matter.  Plan for what you will do if things don’t go as planned. Plan for what you will do when things go right! Just be careful when you are making your plan not to over-think.  Over-thinking tends to lead to anxiety and turn that amygdala on as you become overwhelmed with what to choose.  Keep it simple and trust your gut.
  • See what you want, not what you don’t. Our brains are powerful and attract what we think about due to the “Law of Attraction.”  If we want success, we have to create a mental image of the success.  If we think about failure, we are unwittingly willing it to happen.  It can be difficult to have a growth mindset and see yourself being successful in a situation you have never experienced. So find an example of someone being successful in the area you desire, and put yourself in their shoes to imagine accomplishing your goal.
  • Have grit and don’t quit. Even when it gets hard, keep that amygdala turned off. Don’t run and don’t stop.  If you are not growing you are declining (more laws of nature). If you have worked this hard to get this far, you don’t want to lose even a smidge of progress. Even if it doesn’t work out with your first attempt, you will learn information you need to try again, improve, and get closer to your goal.
  • Give yourself some grace.  Too often, our mindset is that we must be perfect.  Trying to be perfect can become an excuse not to try.  Perfection scares us and flips the “amygdala switch” because our brain is smart enough to know perfection is impossible, especially in a first attempt.  

Self-sabotage to keep oneself at their “comfort” set point is normal, but those who are successful in reaching goals, know the strategies needed to push past existing set points to establish a new equilibrium of success. Use of these strategies don’t mean the journey will be without twists and turns, but maybe at least without detours of self-sabotage.  As educators, this becomes especially critical. Not only must we master this skill to ensure we reach our goals of students success in our classroom, but also if we hope to teach these skills of grit, growth mindset and grace to our students so they can navigate their own pathways after they leave us.


“Go Slow to Go Fast”


So a couple of weeks ago, I got a speeding ticket.  I was in a hurry to pass a car, and my lane was ending.  Within a few seconds, there were flashing lights behind me, and I had a ticket to pay.  I pleaded “no contest” and requested deferred adjudication. If I don’t receive another citation within three months, the ticket will be dismissed.  I’m trying really tickethard to be conscientious and stay within the speed limit at all times, but too often, I look down and low and behold, I’m going 10-15 miles over the speed limit again.  Even though I seem to be going with the flow of traffic, the realization that I am speeding sends an immediate sense of panic through me.

The same thing seems to happen in my school. As we have started the school year, “go slow to go fast” has been something coming from my mouth as a leader more and more often.  I remember when my own principal said those words, I would think,

It’s amazing what a little maturity and experience bring for finding a new perspective.  I have definitely learned that like my speeding ticket, going too fast just puts others in danger and can eventually cause things to take more time than you hoped to save because you have to go back and redo all that you did by going fast.

Going slow at the beginning of a school year allows us to teach students exactly what they need to do to be successful and build stability for speeding up in the future.  So often, we assume students know what we want them to do.  If we go slow and teach them the routines we want them to do, we will actually be able to go faster as these routines become habits that our students begin to do automatically.

We must also go slow and monitor the routine, providing corrective feedback to ensure they are doing what we need them to do correctly.  If we allow our students to speed up and do the routine too quickly, they may actually practice incorrectly forming bad habits.  It takes way more time to break a habit and then replace it than it does to do it correctly the first time.

Finally, and most importantly, we have to make sure we are taking the time to build relationships.  I often think of Rita Pierson as she says, “Kids don’t learn from people they don’t like.”  Well, this makes teaching quite complicated. Pierson-Kids-Dont-Learn We can’t command our students to like us, and we don’t want to waste a year of learning.  It is critical to take the time to build relationships with our students.  If we do, we know what makes them tick.  We know how they think and how they learn.  Thus, we can go much more quickly.

The concept of going slow goes with parental relationships, too.  Many of the parents today did not have the schools that we try to create today.  They were often “do I as I say” environments where the value for individuals was scarce.  Parents who experienced “quick to label” judgments of schools that failed to meet their needs are going to filter their views of schools through their own past experiences.  We can’t just complain that parents aren’t wheels_came_off_400_clr_6906supporting us.  We must go to the root cause and build the relationships that allow parents to truly trust us.  When that happens, magically, parents no longer question every school decision.  It takes time up front, but it allows us to go faster in the long run with our parents helping accelerate the process.

“Going slow to go fast” in schools isn’t easy.  Much like my deferred adjudication for my speeding ticket, I look down and sometimes it feels like even though we are trying to go slow, we are somehow going so fast the wheels feel like they are about to come off.  As leaders, we have to recognize this tendency in ourselves, and in those we lead. I think the key is, that when you recognize that feeling, you can’t just keep your foot on the you are in the driver seataccelerator.  You have to make the conscious decision to slow back down. You don’t want to go fast before the vehicle is stable enough to handle it.

In these beginning weeks of school, go slow. Take time.  Find the grit to hold off and build momentum.  Rely on a growth mindset and take the time to create strong habits that improve each day.  But most of all, always have enough grace to give yourself permission to slow down.