Tag Archives: goal setting

No Excuses (Especially on Saturday)

Two years ago, my campus learned about No Excuses University. It happened accidentally when a visitor to our campus said, “Oh, you’re an NEU Campus.” I had no idea what it the world NEU was, so I looked it up. Basically, it is the implementation of best practices for instruction, combined with a passion for the learning of all students. It is a fierce commitment to adults not making excuses about why a child cannot succeed in school, but rather doing whatever it takes to overcome barriers and ensure that all children (no matter their background, ethnicity, socio-economic status, or disability) are proficient or advanced in Reading, Writing, and Mathematics so that they can go to college if they choose.

In trying to be aligned to this belief, my campus has looked at the students who we believed were not quite ready to hit that “proficient or advanced” expectation and created what we call NEU Saturday. This is a time where selected students come to school on Saturday for two hours so that they have a little extra time to learn. I need to be clear. This has absolutely NOTHING to do with our state assessment. My commitment is not to a test, but to these children’s being prepared for their future. If we do that right, they’ll be fine on a test, but the test isn’t the driving force.

I love this! Learning isn’t about worksheets! It’s about relationships, relevance to life, and things that can connect with the learner!
Because we aren’t bound by constraints of tutoring for a test, we serve all grades. YES, all grades, pre-kindergarten through fifth grade. They come and a band of teachers welcome these children with open arms and celebrate the child’s commitment to his education. So many of my students are still learning that things don’t just happen to them, but through the choices they make, they have the power to change the direction of their lives. I tell each one of the students that they are the “chosen” ones. That their teachers specifically chose them to come to this special time because of the grit, growth mindset and commitment to no excuses they make every day.

We feed them a full breakfast. While I know it is big talk in Washington D.C. that breakfast doesn’t make a difference in education, that is just plain malarky. When people are hungry, they can’t think about anything, but their stomach growling and “hangry” is a reality. Many of my children rely on the food from school as their primary source of nutrition. It’s just a sack breakfast with cereal or a muffin, string cheese, juice, and milk, but knowing my students are getting one extra meal over the weekend makes a huge difference.

Then for the next two hours, I have an incredible staff that pours into these children. They talk with them, hug them, and provide them with meaningful learning. They do cool activities with Versa-tiles, read, and play games with higher-level thinking and strategy. There’s not one test prep material. Only opportunities for the students to think, discuss and problem solve in meaningful situations. The best part is that these students say this is the best day of the week and and ask to come back on Sunday, too!

There’s lots of criticism about public schools and their effectiveness. I haven’t seen that. Public education is the heart of our society’s future. It takes ensuring that all children have access to a quality education to ensure they have the tools to become productive citizens in the future. It is when we take off the constraints off and allow educators to do what they love and teach that this happens. They do whatever it takes because this is why we get into teaching: to see all children succeed. No excuses.

Unchartered Waters

I have certainly been blessed in my career.  I have had some amazing professional opportunities that have prepared me for the campus leadership position I hold now.  Even though I changed positions on a regular basis, I gained some extensive knowledge in from a variety of aspects in education.  I am tremendously grateful for the districts I have served and their immersion into the Visioning Document to guide my leadership principles.  I am most blessed to serve an amazing campus with precious children, supportive families, a great community, and an incredible staff of committed educators who are willing to be risk-takers and do whatever it takes to do what is right for our students.

In year four of my principalship, I am fortunate to see much of the initial five-year vision I set upon my arrival coming to fruition.  Our students are becoming strong readers, writers, thinkers, and problem-solvers.  We have re-established relationships with our parents and are beginning to have some connections with our community at large. We have received recognition for strong practices of  transformation. We have gone from a campus with declining results, to a campus on the verge of an explosion of greatness.

I should feel great, right?  However, in the past few months, my major emotion has been that of anxiety.

Don’t get me wrong. I have great pride in my students and staff.  It is because of my deep commitment to them that I have anxiety of how to proceed as we accomplish the last of these goals.  My passion for being the very best for them has created my stress.  I started my leadership journey with a clear vision.  The path has been very clear and the results have come.  My worry rises from as we see our initial destination in view I am plagued with the questions:  “What next? Where do we go from here?”

That’s what happens when you create a learning organization.  You create people with a growth mindset who are intent on getting better every day.  My work as a part of the Principal’s Visioning Institute has resulted  in my own deep self-reflection.  I absolutely believe in the Visioning Document. It has framed our initial transformation.  But I have reached the point where I am standing on the horizon looking at an unclear path.  My past “self” would have said I’ve done what I’m good at, time to move on.  But that is not what I want for my future “self”.  I have more goals, higher vision, than just what has been accomplished so far.  I’ve just not been at this stage of transformation and simply “rinsing and repeating” will not help us to continue to up our game.

Part of my anxiety that because I have such great people, I am fearful of not having a clear plan.  These wonderful educators have worked so tirelessly to achieve our goals thus far, I want to continue to ensure their success.  However, since I am headed into unchartered territory, it is hard to know what to expect.  I just don’t want to lead them down the wrong path. I want to make sure we are prepared with the right tools and that my navigation equipment is state of the art.

These past two days at the Principal’s Visioning Institute have been much needed to face my leadership fears.  I’ve been more quiet than usual, but soaking up every word and putting into my current context to prepare for the next stage of our journey.  It has helped me to see that while I may not be familiar with the next stage of my journey, others around me are and they are ready to help.  I have a great map with the Visioning Document and its related tools.  I have a fleet of other leaders navigating the same course of redesigning education to meet the needs of 21st-Century Learners. Most importantly, I have a fantastic, fearless crew of educators at my side. Any perils of the unknown we face, we will face together.

Ultimately, these past two days, I have realized that it’s okay for leaders to be unsure, but you can’t dwell there.  You have to find your tools, your supports, and make a plan, even if

it’s unfamiliar. You can still see the horizon.  It’s just time to start planning for the next stop in my campus’ journey. It’s time to harness my grit, my growth mindset, and God’s grace

and move forward because a current destination that is currently great won’t remain great as time moves on.  It’s all about the journey, not the destination. It’s time to set sail. Our next port is waiting.

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.


Time to Teach

My campus had some great conversations this past week with one of my leaderships teams and our grade level PLCs.  We talked about the tremendous impact student goal conferences are having this year on student achievement. During each of our PLCs, we spend part of our time specifically discussing any student who is not demonstrating growth. We don’t just discuss our most struggling students. During this time, we brainstorm interventions and strategies for any student whose growth has become stagnant.  As a result, we are seeing student scores increase an average of thirty to forty percentage points from last year on the same assessment. Honestly, I don’t believe I’ve seen growth as we are currently seeing in my entire career. Even with all the celebration, there was concern that student conferencing and goal setting takes a great deal of time away from instruction. This got me thinking. Is it really time away from teaching?

During this time, we brainstorm interventions and strategies for any student whose growth has become stagnant.  As a result, we are seeing student scores increase an average of thirty to forty percentage points from last year on the same assessment. Honestly, I don’t believe I’ve seen growth as we are currently seeing in my entire career. However, even with all the celebration, there was concern that student conferencing and goal setting takes a great deal of time away from instruction. This got me thinking. Is it really time away from teaching?


Think about it! It’s not just people who perform poorly at tasks that get individual “tutoring”. Talented dancers take additional “privates”. World-class athletes have “form” coaches. Musicians take private lessons. Heck, I even have a “Principal Coach” that I speak with on a regular basis. Individualized feedback to help one improve is the very best and most meaningful type of teaching and learning. Because it is individualized, growth can occur more quickly.

When you spend time with a student, looking at results and helping them set goals for the future, you are teaching them to be reflective. That one-on-one conversation you are having with the students to discuss where they are, where they need to be, and how they goal settingcan get there is causing students to think about their learning and figure out how to improve. When you discuss with a student who hasn’t grown and tell them that “it is okay, sometimes we don’t grow, but what are we going to do now?” it helps them develop resiliency.  You ARE teaching! You are teaching them how to become a better learner. You are teaching them how to solve the most meaningful problem–how to overcome and address their own needs. You are teaching them the life skills necessary to exist in a future world that we don’t know how it will look when they grow up!

There is an epidemic of college-aged students who are floundering.  These students were “standardized” in school as we taught them how to “do as I do” and “perfection is the key”. I can’t help but believe this is due to a generation being raised with standardized testing and teaching students strategies to follow our lead rather than how to think it's a dream until you write it downindependently. These students have been brought up believing “less than perfect” is a failure and failure is abhorred.  It’s the fixed mindset of “If I can’t do it perfectly the first time, I must not be able to do it at all” and anything not mastered the first time is quickly abandoned by students with no grit.

Last year we tried to implement student goal setting folders. It was a disaster.  We made them too complicated.  They were too detailed to manage effectively, and the practice was quickly abandoned.  I didn’t resist, because I couldn’t see that the time spent was resulting in any student gains. This year, we simplified.  We kept our plan focused, and the payoff is huge. The most important thing is that we didn’t give up.

I am proud of the work we do on my campus to teach our students the skills they need to be resilient through challenges! They have grit.  They have growth mindsets. There is no argument to the fact that this type of teaching does take time, but if you think about how you use that time with each child to specifically meet their needs, you probably spent time more wisely in conferencing and goal setting than any content lesson you would teach that week. I do not think there is anything more powerful than one-on-one conversations with students specifically geared toward their needs. It IS teaching! It is teaching people not just content, and as educators, we should always have enough time for that!

Declining Resiliency In College Students