Tag Archives: learning

This I Believe

When I was growing up, I wanted to be a leader for the wrong reasons. I wanted to be a leader because I thought that was the person in charge. Then, with maturity and many failed leadership experiences, I began to see the heavy burden that comes with the leadership role. Leadership even became something I avoided for a while. This is because I came to believe leadership is not about power, but all about service. Service to people, service to the community, service to a greater cause.

This I believe…

Leadership is about knowing the people you aspire to lead and being willing to make the sacrifices necessary for their success. It is about filling their cups, taking their burden, celebrating them whenever possible, and having a deep enough relationship with them that you can tell them things they need to hear to improve without damaging the connection.

Leadership is about recognizing that bad leadership will motivate people to be different, while good leadership will motivate people to be more. Leaders must show grace even when none is given in return. Walking the walk, inspiring hope, constant reflection and always considering the “what ifs” for improving the human condition for those they serve are the traits of a good leader.

Leadership is about having a continually developing a vision of where your organization needs to go to make the world a better place, and having the skills to continually learn and grow to adjust and correct the course to get there. It really is never about the destination. Rather, it is always about the journey and the experiences that shape us along the way.

Leadership is about modeling risk-taking. Sometimes risk-taking results in failures. But part of that modeling is getting back up, learning from mistakes, and starting again with a new perspective. Even more important is recognizing that sometimes you have big wins when big risks pay off. But even then, you don’t stop. You celebrate the moment and then form your next plan…you keep learning….you keep growing…you keep getting better rather than settling for good enough.

Leadership is about developing the capacity of others. True leaders recognize that the most important missions are too big for any one person. Therefore they teach and model and release responsibility so that a legacy exists long beyond the leader’s time. Leaders recognize when the required path is uncomfortable or hard but build on the strengths of those they lead to accomplishing the task despite the challenges. Leaders grow leaders, so the vision expands and has a greater impact of good.

Leadership is about being humble and giving all the credit to those you serve when things go right, but a true leader is willing to be accountable when things go wrong. This type of leader continually reflects on what they may have done to set others up for success so it can be repeated, but also considers the deficits in their actions that caused the failure and is willing to adjust their actions so that it doesn’t happen again.

Leadership can be exhausting. It can be thankless and focal point of blame when things don’t go right. Sometimes it would simply be easier to say, “This is how it’s going to be done because I said so.” Sometimes you want to close your door, or say “Not now.” You want to say, “What about me?” Sometimes, it can even be, “I give up.” Then I remember this is not leadership and start again.

This I believe, when done right, leadership cultivates others who are willing to serve and inspire others and this is how you make the world better.

Thank you to N2 Learning for this experience that helped define who I am as a leader, my partner in the experience Donna, my district administrators for this amazing opportunity, my constant support and mentor Sherry, for my incredible Degan Community who make me want to be better every day.

This I Believe 

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.

Why I Won’t Have a STAAR Pep Rally at My School

Pep Rallies before a standardized test have become a common occurrence in schools. A campus principal’s email can be flooded with people who want to get paid to be a part of these “pep rallies”.   I have been a part of this practice in the past, but since becoming a principal, I have been against this type of practice.  Why, because a ” STAAR Pep Rally” makes the important thing the test.  It sends the message to those people outside education that “the test” is what is important.  I am here to say a standardized test is the LEAST important thing that happens during a school year.

A test is what happens on one single day to measure all the learning that takes place in the course of a school year.  For it to be an accurate measure, all the variables for that would have to be absolutely perfect.  Students would have to have a great night’s’ sleep,  a well-balanced breakfast, a supportive emotional environment before school, and all the supports they need to be successful.

Let’s face it.  Some students have trauma at home. Many don’t have basic needs met.   They don’t always have the nutrition they need.  They may not get adequate sleep. Even our students with disabilities don’t have access to all their IEP interventions because of the rules of the test.  The variables are not the best case scenario for some kids.  How in the world could we expect the test to accurately reflect all they have mastered?

Here is what I am willing to rally over:  students, teachers, grit, growth mindset and all they have accomplished over the ENTIRE year.  At my school, we do this every Friday. Today, on the eve of our standardized test, my students did come to the cafeteria to meet with me.  The rest of the building lined the hallway to applaud their hard work and let them know we stand with them. It was not a STAAR Pep Rally.  It was a celebration of people who work hard to grow in their learning. It was caring about the people enough to let them know they were loved, supported, prepared, and in control of their destiny.

When students arrived, I shared with them my story of having to retake the GRE to get into graduate school to work on my doctorate.  As I sat down to take this test, I felt angry and frustrated.  I felt like there were some words that no one used, so impossibly worded questions, and I just felt there was no way that that test could accurately encompass who I was as a principal or a learner.  It hit me that this was how some of my students felt.

I told my students that there was no way that tomorrow’s test could define them either.  There was no way that this test could fully share with legislators or the public how much they had learned this past year. What I did tell these students was that they were in control, that they had the power to control their destiny. I shared with my fifth graders that sometimes, working hard at a test can give you a benefit.  That while my test couldn’t define me, it could gain me access to a program I wanted to be a part of to improve my life.

For them, working hard to “show what they know” could prevent them from retaking this test in a few weeks, but it would be their choice.  I told my fourth graders that while they weren’t facing a retest, the evidence does show that every time they pass a test like this,  it increases their chances of passing the next one.  No matter what, I told them they were in control.  I wanted them to know they were prepared and had everything they needed.  If they wanted it, they could achieve it.

I think that is what it is all about:  empowering students to know that they have control over their education.  The focus should never be on a test, but the people taking the test and continual reminders that even as children, they get to choose, they get to decide how to define themselves.

 We put tremendous pressure on students to “pass.”  The truth is our actions should support our beliefs.  At my campus we don’t have a test pep rally, we have a “hope rally” every single week where we celebrate teachers, students, and the power of education together as a campus.  While today I did bring students down to meet with me before they take their test tomorrow, it was never about the test.  It was ALWAYS about the people.  Whatever happens, tomorrow doesn’t really change anything.  Don’t get me wrong.  I want all of my students to do well because I know it makes their life easier in the long wrong. However, I know what my students have learned, how they have grown, and how much they have overcome and it far exceeds the constraints of a multiple choice test!

Ground Zero

“The point closest to where an explosion occurs” is the definition of ground zero.  It might not be what one would consider a way to define a school, but in today’s world where there is a newly coined phrase of “Complex Prolonged Traumatic Stress Disorder” (CPTSD) for our students, it appears to be an accurate analogy.

Recently, I heard an amazing keynote by Dr. Jeff Duncan-Adrade.  He shared with us about this concept that children today are often growing up in situations where they are experiencing prolonged traumatic stress.  While a reasonable amount of stress is normal and healthy, prolonged stress becomes toxic and damaging to the body of an adult, much less the developing body and brain of a child.  He referred to studies that show that children with prolonged stress, especially those from poverty, often experience symptoms similar to that of soldiers returning from combat.

While the thought of this comparison was completely overwhelming, I also experienced a bit of relief in terminology to explain phenomena that I deal with almost daily.  It is as if I am battling unknown demons in some of my students. I use every weapon I have in hopes of freeing them from invisible oppressors that consume their thoughts and actions to liberate their minds to create room to learn. Having family in the military and serving as first responders, this is not a statement that I take lightly.  However when you look, many children these days, coupled with their underdeveloped coping mechanisms, it is easier to understand why schools are facing more and more students with trauma-induced symptoms.

In a recent battle, I received a call from a substitute in the building.  She was concerned that a student was being defiant and disrupting the learning of others.  I was surprised to find it was a student who had struggled in the previous year, but settled down into learning and had put forth some fantastic effort this year.

As I entered the classroom, all of the students were seated and working except the one.  He was walking around the classroom bouncing a ball.  When I entered, I motioned for him to come to me and held out my hand for the ball.  Luckily, he handed the ball to me and came voluntarily.  During the next 45 minutes,  he sat and rocked in my office.  I could see in his eyes that he had withdrawn deep into the depths of his mind.

I knew that to get him back, I had to get him using words.  After some time to rock in silence, I began asking some questions. Initially, our conversation involved me asking questions and him staring past me.  Gradually this evolved into nodding, then repeating sentences when given two choices.  Eventually, we collaborated to find a solution that allowed him to do some of his learning in another classroom.  I was so proud of him being willing to accept doing some work in another class even though he knew the work would be more difficult and require more effort on his part.

I was so relieved that we had found a solution and that learning for everyone could resume.  Unfortunately, later that day, this same student was escorted to the office. Someone had contacted a different administrator and reported that “he wasn’t where he was supposed to be.”  It had been such a busy day, I hadn’t had a chance to let my assistant principal know the situation, and now the student had been given a consequence for doing what he and I had arranged.

This incident is where the physical conflict began. Kicking.  Hitting. Trying to leave the building.  All communication lost once again.  The student felt betrayed, and he was no longer going to listen to anyone much less speak with them. As I sat with this student, I couldn’t help but reflect on the words of the keynote from the week before.  Kids in crisis expect you to give up on them.  They expect you to disappoint them.  That is what they have known.  I did the only thing I could think of at this point.  I apologized.

Now this student looked at me like I was crazy as I explained to him why I was sorry and how miscommunication had resulted in him getting in trouble even though he was doing what he had agreed to do. I asked him to forgive me, and he looked at me with an even more perplexed expression.  I explained that when someone does wrong and hurts someone, even if they didn’t mean to, the person who did the wrong must apologize.  But the next step is the person who was hurt to forgive them.  I asked again if he would forgive me and he responded “yes.”  My student was back.

I think the reason this story is critical is because we have to acknowledge what schools face. Stories like these are more and more common with children today. I wouldn’t take back the time spent on this incident because I believe valuable lessons were learned by all.  Students who witnessed our interactions saw adults show compassion to a child in crisis.  The child in crisis felt the unconditional support of adults who were not going to give up on him no matter what.  He saw me, the principal, take accountability for my own actions and seek to make the situation right. De-escalation was achieved without casualties.

As a result of this incident, I thought even more about why schools and communities may be facing increased numbers of these incidents. Children in crisis are occurring in all types of schools, public and private, highly affluent and high poverty, inner-city, suburban and rural. Personally, I think it has a great deal to do with the fact that even though our country has been considered a “great melting pot” of diversity, it has historically been composed of homogenous communities.  As groups came to this country, they settled with their families and people who shared the same backgrounds, values, and cultures. Children raised with the support of extended families were well grounded in community expectations.  Children attended schools where the other kids were likely raised very similarly to themselves and taught by teachers with by teachers with ideas much like their parents.

As we entered the digital age, everything changed. Families spread out across the country connected only by technology. Neighborhoods became more like “tossed salad” with people from different cultures maintaining their original values rather than “melting” together. Families raising children in isolation put high demands on parents.  Children today live in a Rated R world, exposed to adult language, violence, and adult situations, not just on television and video games, but in the face-to-face interactions in the world. In addition to stresses of today’s world with poverty, work demands, increases of traumatic illnesses, our children no longer have a “world of innocence” and are faced with incredible stress at a very young age that is carried into schools with them every day.

While schools may be “ground zero” for some of the social explosions going on in the world around us, I would propose that schools have the potential to become a community’s “Epicenter of Hope.”  Public education is an excellent source to bring a diverse community together. Rather than watering down individual cultures, they can promote value for each others’ differences.  We can teach our children how to appreciate each other and treat each one another with respect. Schools can provide support to families who need someone to stand in partnership with them in raising their children in the absence of extended family.  We can connect families in crisis with resources and model support rather than judgment.

At the same time, we also have to acknowledge that creating a culture of support takes time.  Rather than launching additional attacks against teachers, our legislators, media, and the general public need to provide backup to educators on the front line. Providing quality learning in the midst of some of the mental battles our students face can tick valuable instructional minutes off the clock while we ensure we meet students’ most basic needs to prepare them for learning. Satisfying these needs is something that we must do if we want to prevent further deterioration of our society.  Unfortunately, success in filling these voids is not measured on state or federal accountability systems, even though it must occur before the things that are measured can take place. Teachers need more tools and training to fight the enemies our children face. The battle for our children’s future is real and it will take everyone together to achieve victory.

Below are some good resources for Educators:

How to Help a Traumatized Child in the Classroom

Child Trauma Toolkit for Educators

Keep Calm and Conflict On

I often hear people, especially educators, say “I avoid conflict”. I think this is probably because so many educators typically have a personality of working very hard to do things “right” and please other.  conflictYuckSo many see conflict as negative. However, I think avoiding conflict and seeing it as something bad is antithesis of learning. Merriam Webster defines conflict as a struggle between opposing ideas.   As educators, we should embrace conflict more than most. After all, what is learning besides a mental opposing conflict that requires us to resolve new knowledge with what we have always known? Education is no longer a world of homogenous students complying with our attempts to pour in information. Because it is now about engagement of students from all different backgrounds and cultures who must buy into the learning we are trying to instill, we must all be skilled in helping our students resolve current views with new concepts for knowledge to become a part of their schema.


I will never forget in my interview for my current principal job. After arriving, I had forty-five minutes to prepare a presentation to a room of more than twenty parents, school staff members and district level administrators on my vision for the school.  When the time passed, I began by presenting my vision and then answering at least twenty questions that meaningfully connected with each of these different groups. When finished, the superintendent who sat in silence examining my responses and the reactions of the group asked his question. I took a breath as he spoke, “What is cognitive dissonance and how do you know if your staff is doing it? How do you help them embrace it?” –Wait, what? I felt like I needed a dictionary or some visual supports. Where were the accommodations? Was this really the question? To buy me some time to think about this and not having a long pregnant pause and hopefully hide any look of utter confusion on my face, I asked him to repeat the question. As he asked the question again, I was able to put together “brain” and “unrest”. LEARNING! Cognitive dissonance is nothing more than conflict within your brain as you learn something new.conflict brings order Putting “conflict” in a context of being something positive and helping us grow and evolve definitely helps us see this struggle in a more positive light and this is what drove my response. To effectively teach learners, we must be learners ourselves. I guess I hit the mark, I got the job!

I love what Jack Canfield has to say about accepting one hundred percent accountability for your life. Often, if we are unhappy about something, it is because we aren’t taking action to change it. I would add that it is probably because we are avoiding the discomfort of conflict. We would rather keep our circumstances as they are than “confront” the issue at hand. We use excuses to say that we don’t want to make the other person uncomfortable, but actually, it is really more about that we don’t know how to discuss the situation with the other person in a way without feeling that someone must win and someone must lose. It’s really that we don’t want to experience the discomfort. Think about it, when people reach the end of their rope, they have no trouble raining the conflict down on someone else. Stephen Covey’s fourth habit for highly effective people discusses seeking the Win/Win:

“Think Win-Win isn’t about being nice, nor is it a quick-fix technique. It is a character-based code for human interaction and collaboration.

Most of us learn to base our self-worth on comparisons and competition. We think about succeeding in terms of someone else failing–that is, if I win, you lose; or if you win, I lose. Life becomes a zero-sum game. There is only so much pie to go around, and if you get a big piece, there is less for me; it’s not fair, and I’m going to make sure you don’t get anymore. We all play the game, but how much fun is it really?

Win-win sees life as a cooperative arena, not a competitive one. Win-win is a frame of mind and heart that constantly seeks mutual benefit in all human interactions. Win-win means agreements or solutions are mutually beneficial and satisfying. We both get to eat the pie, and it tastes pretty darn good!

A person or organization that approaches conflicts with a win-win attitude possesses three vital character traits:

Integrity: sticking with your true feelings, values, and commitments
Maturity: expressing your ideas and feelings with courage and consideration for the ideas and feelings of others
Abundance Mentality: believing there is plenty for everyone
Many people think in terms of either/or: either you’re nice or you’re tough. Win-win requires that you be both. It is a balancing act between courage and consideration. To go for win-win, you not only have to be empathic, but you also have to be confident. You not only have to be considerate and sensitive, you also have to be brave. To do that–to achieve that balance between courage and consideration–is the essence of real maturity and is fundamental to win-win.”

A former superintendent said that in education we don’t create products, we develop people. I believe a master of conflict knows and cares about the people they are responsible for developing enough that they want to help people to be better. I think about my sons. There is no way I wouldn’t tell my one of my children something that they needed to hear, even if it was uncomfortable. If my youngest, who just hasn’t yet become socially aware, forgets to wear deodorant, I’m going to tell him. I don’t do this to hurt his feelings, and I’m certainly going to make him aware in a kind way, but I’d rather he hear it from me than a peer.

As leaders, we have to have the same approach. We have to care about developing our teachers more than we care about our own comfort. We must be kind, sensitive, and make sure that our purpose in bringing about the tough conversation is driven by what is best for students and the individual. conflict inevitableLetting things go unsaid isn’t good for anyone and does more to harm the relationship in the long run if resentment builds up. I think I can say that I’ve probably had more these types of conversations with more of my staff than not. I also think that in most instances, the relationships have become stronger. Being willing to go to a deep level shows real commitment to the other person. I think the key is that if people know that your intentions are just and that your end result is to help them win, not lose, they may initially feel uncomfortable or defensive, but then ultimately appreciate that you cared enough to tell them what they needed to hear, not just what they wanted to hear.


I appreciate those people who are willing to tell me what I need to hear as well. As a leader, it does me no good if everyone blindly agrees to every idea or initiative. I like for people to speak up and speak their mind. It’s funny sometimes to watch the looks of horror around the room by the compliant. While the one speaking up may not always do it with grace or initially seeking the win/win, I alway try to recognize the individual for helping the group consider the unintended consequences of our action. So often, taking time to resolve the opposing views makes the situation go so much better in the long run. You can plan for the negatives rather than be blindsided by them in the middle of implementation.

When teams have productive conflict, it helps them to grow.  Conflict helps the team:

  • Expose new ideas
  • Identify situations that are no longer best practice
  • Allow everyone’s ideas to be heard
  • Encourage innovation
  • Eliminate a build up of resentment
  • Embrace diversity

However, sometimes we need to teach our teams how to have productive conflict peaceconflict.  We cannot just assume that everyone can effectively manage conflict in productive ways.  Having conversations and discussions about conflict help everyone reveal their attitudes and fears about conflict while also discussing how it can be a positive force in team building.

Conflict is not bad. It shouldn’t be avoided. Conflict is the root of all learning and helps us to make our situations better if we rally our grit, desire to grow, and always seek the win/win by extending grace to others. Embrace the struggle to learn and improve so that you can “Keep Calm and Conflict On”!