Tag Archives: survival

Celebrate Success (Even When It’s Someone Else’s)

It’s pretty easy to celebrate your own accomplishments.  I mean, you know your journey.  You know what you have been through to carry out the goal.  However, it can be harder to celebrate the success of others.  It got me thinking.

  • Do we not celebrate the success of others because of the competitive world we live in?  Maybe we don’t celebrate because we are fearful that someone else’s success diminishes our own.  Maybe it makes us feel a little safer with our own status.
  • Do we not notice? Let’s face it, it’s a fast pace world we live in. Maybe we get so busy, we just don’t see anything going on with anyone else because we have hyper-focused on our own circumstances.
  • Do we doubt the impact our “congratulations” mean to someone else?  Maybe we think that the other person will question our sincerity or even value our acknowledgement of what they have accomplished.

Recently I had a colleague of a campus that had been through a tremendous challenge to help her campus meet some specified accountability standards.  While I had not directly experienced the steps and measures they had gone through to achieve the goal.  I knew it was certainly arduous.  Her team rallied. They invested.  They learned. They reflected and they grew.  Most importantly, they never gave up.  It was huge accomplishment when they achieved this task they had worked on for years.

As I watched them celebrate, it hit me how important it was that not only they celebrate for themselves, or be acknowledged by superiors, but that they be acknowledged by peers and colleagues.  I didn’t know whether my words would really matter to them, but it just seemed important.  When we live in a world where education is constantly under fire, we must stand together in good times and in bad. It just seems like it’s easier to acknowledge and feel pity for someone’s struggles. We must not compete against each other, but celebrate each educational organization as a part of the great big “whole” of public educators who make a difference for children.  That is why my teacher leaders did a twitter storm of celebration for this campus marrying their hashtag and ours to celebrate their success.

I don’t think it matters if you are a district, a school, or a teacher of a classroom.  As Susan Phillips says “Celebrate the success of others.  High tide floats all ships.” When you are in a battle, you unite your armies, not battle over who is the frontline or the support. Both are critical to winning longterm.  We must recognize that every success of any campus is asuccess for all public educators.  It’s a check in the win column to tell the world what a difference a group of educators can make in the lives of children when they have a common vision and purpose. Congratulations, Central Elementary! You have accomplished great things.  You have shown grit, growth mindset, and grace under fire!  You did it and you make us all look good because of that!

 

 

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.

Leadership: Mastering The Art of Juggling and Clear Feedback

I love metaphors.  I think they are excellent tools in learning to promote higher level thinking and help learning stick.  Metaphors provide something for us to relate to that we already know and understand so that we can connect our new learning in an innovative way. My most recent leadership metaphor came to me when I was participating in a session with the Texas Principal’s Visioning Institute and they asked us to juggle scarves.  First, we had to juggle by ourselves and without any interaction or feedback from anyone else.  Very few in the room were able to juggle the scarves successfully.

juggling-scarves

After we had attempted to teach ourselves, we had the opportunity to work with others and provide feedback and encouragement.  Collaboration increased the rate of success tremendously. What resonated with me as I walked away (besides the fact of how cool it was that I learned to juggle scarves and taught someone else as well) was the power of clear, constructive feedback.

Not long after that, one of my campus leadership teams hit a real roadblock.  We have faced some real challenges this year.  People were exhausted. With Halloween, the Super Moon, and an election season with lots of negativity, not to mention some unexpected situations with students, we hadjuggling-fail stretched our productive coping mechanisms thin and resulted in a heated meeting. I know everyone left feeling frustrated.  As I reflected, I think I was most discouraged that the snowballing anxiety had resulted in angry outbursts that still weren’t necessarily clear about the real issues or root causes.  They were mostly just an expression of exasperation. I was upset with myself that my team had reached this point and I had missed the signs.  How could I have let my team down?  I definitely felt like my leadership juggling was resulting in everything hitting the ground.

The whole experience got me back to thinking about juggling scarves.  Leadership in education is much about juggling scarves.  This is because juggling scarves isn’t like juggling balls.  The motion is entirely different.  Instead of a circular motion, it is more juggling-womanof a crisscross.  Rather than an immediate gravitational force, there are a few seconds of floating.  It requires focus, rhythm, and gentle touch to get the scarves flowing. I think this is how educational leadership works as well.  You are constantly crisscrossing to monitor, check, and keep everything moving.  You have to use a gentle touch, because if you grab, cling, and forget to let go,  you can’t catch the next scarf.   You also have to keep everything at eye level to monitor the progress and make adjustments. Educational leadership has to be intentional, but with a light touch and keen perception.

juggle-quote

A few weeks later, I repeated the experience I had learned with my leadership team.  I added some of my own twists. Not only did they experience learning to juggle in isolation, my twist had to do with the type of feedback when it came to that time. The jugglers were paired with someone who could only give nonverbal feedback. They could use their faces, body language and gestures, but no words.  Some smiled and clapped.  Some looked disinterested.  Others looked angry, and some even grabbed the scarves away to demonstrate in frustration how to do it.

Feedback is just as critical.  When the team gives clear feedback about your strategies, you can use your mental energy to make adjustments and improve the flow.  When you take your eyes of the scarves and try to read someone’s face and decipher nonverbal feedback, your focus has moved off the scarves, and they are more likely to fall to the ground. As leadership teams, we have to give clear, constructive feedback on the process, so we do not get distracted from the goal and all the scarves stay up in the air. However, if the scarves fall, you don’t give up.  You pick the scarves up and start again.  Practice improves the process and the chances for success. Add in a team providing clear, constructive feedback and encouragement, and the probability of achieving the desired outcomes are even more likely.

This is how leadership works. Scarves hit the ground. Practice improves the process and the chances for success. Add in a team providing clear, constructive feedback and encouragement, and the probability of achieving the desired outcomes are even more likely.

I can say I am fortunate to have great educators around me.  They are willing to take risks, make mistakes, and learn together to do what is best for our students. As a result, I do believe that for now, all the scarves are up in the air and moving again!

When Things Get Messy

So I have a couple of blog posts that are in the midst of composition and then October hits. October is traditionally a hard month.  The adrenaline from the beginning of the school year wears off a bit and the demands of what is required to achieve goals for the year is now the reality.  This school year has been an unusually challenging beginning for my campus. It’s not that there were any events we haven’t dealt with before, they just seem to come wave after wave and in multiples! It’s been messy for sure.

Today I saw this:

i-dont-quit

 

I love this. We always have the power to choose our response to adversity. My staff and I have faced some crazy situations this past nine weeks, but I am always impressed by their ability to put children first and approach each challenge with grit and growth mindset.

I once had a superintendent who referred to the profession of education as the “people development business.”  In education, we aren’t creating machines that can be put together by following a blueprint or a set of instructions.  Each child we touch turns out differently and can be unpredictable even when using a similar formula.  Working with little humans can be messy, but it is always worth it because the joy of watching a child learn and evolve to their potential is always exciting.  Besides, it’s when things get “messy” that the real learning occurs, for everyone, not just the children.

What If?

We seem to be at a crossroads in education.  If we go one direction, we will continue to judge schools and their success by a single test without giving consideration to the growth that has occurred. Teachers will feel it necessary to resort to test preparation as that is how they are judged. Our best teachers will avoid the demanding classrooms so as not to put themselves at risk of judgment, mandates, and additional paperwork. Students will be limited in what they learn because what is assessed on a test is only a fraction of what they need to know to be successful in life. Parents will become disillusioned with the progress and those with means will move them to other options. District will put pressure on school leaders and will, in turn, pass this on to teachers with more paperwork and documentation. In the meantime, our society becomes more and more segregated. The ones left behind become angry and the ones who left become fearful of them because they can no longer relate to each other. What if this approach results in more violence in the future than what we see even today?

what-if

But what if we choose a different future?

What if federal and state governments quit trying to define student success with a test? What if they quit trying to quantify complex human development by a test score?  What if they encouraged schools to use these assessments to improve their instruction and meet needs of students, but left the true definitions of school success to the communities where those schools reside? What if special interest groups took “special interest” in our schools and pledged support rather than trying to find out ways to take the public funds that they haven’t yet been able to touch?

What if communities stand behind their schools?  What if when they feel the school is struggling, they step up to help, provide support for students, staff, and families? What if those with criticisms couldn’t sling mud at public education without having direct
knowledge of the situations with which they are passing judgment?  What if wanted to speak about a school and it’s performance, you must first spend time there with the people volunteering?  What if you couldn’t lump schools all together but had to speak specifically about situations in which you had personal experience? What if our media spent as much time talking about all the accomplishments of public schools and didn’t just highlight the isolated negative examples?

What if school administrators don’t have to worry about spending funds to survive, but can use dollars in practices that promote thriving such as professional learning for teachers?  What if they felt free to restructure schedules to provide teachers with ongoing collaboration and professional learning so that they could be sure that teachers were always at the forefront of their profession, masters of the learning standards and best practice in instructional techniques? What if when they saw a teacher in need, they could provide that teacher with the support they needed to grow and improve rather than feeling pressure to get them out?

What if because schools feel supported, teachers feel less stressed and feel they have the time to stop and build strong relationships with students and their families? What if teachers feel they can develop innovative, meaningful lessons that actually apply to the future that our what-if-4-300x175students will live in because they aren’t scared about test outcomes? What if they could collaborate and share without the pressure to hold back so that they could ensure they weren’t the bottom performer?  What if we valued teachers as the creators of all other professions and compensated them as such?

What if parents didn’t abandon schools for homeschooling, private and charter schools in an effort to isolate their children from those with experiences that may be very different from their own?  What if they were adamant to model that when something isn’t what we want it to be, they stick with it and become a part of the solution?

What if we had children from all different backgrounds that learned to value each other and learned to live together without fear and without anger? What if these students were able to learn the skills needed in reading, writing, math along with skills like collaboration, grit, growth mindset, technology, and problem-solving?

What if?

I can say I am fortunate to be a part of a district where our school board fights for local control.  I work in a district where our district leaders don’t point fingers, but rather ask “what can we do to support you?” and give campuses the freedom to do what they need to let-be-what-ifdo to make a difference with their students.  I have parents walking my halls taking care of all students, willing to take part in conversations when they have concerns, rather than resorting to silence and abandonment.  I have teachers that are the epitome of lifelong
learners. They have become masters of state standards and design meaningful learning that is resulting in stronger students with each passing year.  I have students that are learning the value of diversity.  They are learning to work things out together and hold themselves accountable for high levels of learning and growth. My campus has gone from plummeting scores and declining enrollment to scores and enrollment on the rise.  I am one of the fortunate principals who has had the freedom not to be defined by a test and the feel the support of my district and community.

What if all schools had this?

what-if-why-not

Finding the Sweet Spot

“To transform schools successfully, we need to navigate the difficult space between letting go of old strategies and grabbing on to new ones.” Robert John Meehan

This quote struck me this week.  It is true to have a real transformation in schools, we must master this balance of old and new strategies.  This dual mastery is especially critical if we are to escape the constraints of a dysfunctional standardized testing cycle. We must find that optimum point of where critical elements of instruction intersect to have the most effect on student learning -“the sweet spot.”


As I began teaching twenty-five years ago, we ushered in the beginning of the demanding, rigorous, standardized testing era.  The tests at that time were increasingly more complex than anything we had seen before.  They were tied to accountability and a school’s performance on these tests was publicized for the world to see.

No worries.  Teachers were smart.  If the world said these tests were important, we could figure out ways to ensure students were successful.  I remember as a young, fifth-grade math teacher using a strategy that could assist even a struggling reader to determine the correct operation to use to solve the word problem. In reading, we could pinpoint the critical information the students needed to answer the questions, even if they didn’t have the stamina to read the entire lengthy passage.  I don’t think it was that we were trying to shortcut student learning.  We could essentially teach our students to follow a set routine of steps in a strategy, and they could be successful.  We were designing learning according to what society valued.  What was being communicated was that “tests” and “following instructions” were what was important.

authentic-skills

Over time, when have seen the shortfalls of this focus. Society has adjusted their perspective and decided tests based on this limited thinking were not important. We have realized that many students were crippled with no ability to solve a problem when they are not given a specific strategy or procedure.  We unwittingly created dependent students who struggled to approach problems with creativity.  As a result, tests have systematically been recreated to make those strategies from twenty-five years ago almost impossible to use. Words formally used as triggers are now embedded as distractors to see if students understand what they are doing. Tests are now designed to force higher level thinking.  They don’t rely on one set strategy that the teacher can say, “just follow these steps.”  It just won’t work. Regurgitation of facts or actions is essentially useless. To pass the “new generation” of high stakes assessments, our students must be proficient readers, mathematicians, communicators, and creative problem solvers.

Is this a bad thing?  I don’t think so.  Is it needed for our students to prepare for the future they face? Absolutely!  Is it easy? No way.  Essentially, it requires teachers and students to
“unlearn” everything they relied on in the past. Everything that worked and deemed them a success previously is now ineffective to achieve the new bar.

For those teachers in elementary schools today, it’s like being told you have to quit a bad habit, but you will continue to be judged on performance.  I liken it to giving up caffeine. Imagine you have been a heavy coffee or coke drinker.  Now you are giving up all caffeine cold turkey.  You know you need to do this for your health, but you still have to perform at high levels despite the fact that your body might be going through some withdrawal and experiencing caffeine headaches.  Finding that balance of teaching students at authentic levels with high problem-solving and performing triage for gaps between the newer test versions and previous ones take talent, practice, and hard work.

Effectively teaching students at high levels with meaningful, real-life problem-solving while performing triage for gaps between the newer test versions and previous ones doesn’t happen overnight.  Measures that previously determined students, teachers, and schools were high performers have been revised and now deem them lacking.  It is not the people who have changed.  It is the tests.  It is the expectations.  Even businesses learning-testingacknowledge that systematic change takes three to five years. There is often an implementation dip after starting new methods.  I would think that when you add young children to the mix, it can take a little longer. With that, we must be careful not to misinterpret or abuse test results. We are comparing apples to oranges.  These new tests are definitely not like any test you took in school.  It’s not in anyone’s best interest to make assumptions or broad generalizations, especially not the student.

This year is my third year as a principal.  I have been amazed at how fast positive change in instruction is taking hold on my campus.  I am blessed with a team of educators who know why they do what they do.  They understand what we need to do to prepare our students.  They have the grit to persist even when traveling this difficult road.  We are starting to see glimmers of this new way of thinking in our students while putting in extensive work to overcome gaps created by previous approaches.  They live in that sweet spot.

Yesterday, I read a quote from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

 “The function of education is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically. Intelligence plus character – that is the goal of true education.”

These words were written in a paper Dr. King wrote in 1947. Maybe this change in values of education represents the next swing of the teaching pendulum.  Or maybe it has just taken us 70 years to find the sweet spot.

When Exhaustion Comes

Research has shown a typical pattern of feelings of 1st-year teachers.

However, I think that it often reflects the emotions of all educators, but perhaps with less drastic dips. Regardless, around October, the newness and adrenaline rush that gets us through the beginning of the year and September starts to dwindle. We have had time to build relationships with our students and because of that, the demand that we put on ourselves for their success weighs on our hearts. We have had time to assess our students, and we know the reality of the job we face. I have had this conversation more than once this past week…October is hard!

I also had a personal experience with hitting the wall of exhaustion. A four day week filled with teacher observations, data meetings, a homecoming parade, PLC Meetings and a night with three hours sleep left me debilitated.  I felt myself having less and less to give to my students, my teachers, and my parents. My smile was diminishing. It wasn’t good, but I was too tired to do anything to stop it.

Finally, I was able to think of something I heard Dr. Bertice Berry say the week before.  “When you walk with purpose, you collide with destiny.”  As I reflected on the statement, I realized that when we get tired, we somehow lose our ability to focus on our purpose.  We get bogged down in a survival of the moment to moment.  I acknowledged that if I am honest, my exhaustion sets in when I let the unimportant things start taking priority. When I start demanding perfection of myself rather than focusing on growth, I use more energy that leaves me feeling drained.

I know that to counteract problems effectively, we have to develop an intentional plan. This is what I came up with as a strategy to keep my emotional dips as shallow as possible:

  • Always remember your purpose. We enter education to make a difference. Make sure students always drive your priorities. Even when you have to do a “task” that may not feel important, see if you can connect it back to your students, whether it is the time it takes for conferences, lesson planning, or meetings, think about how that intentional time in this activity could make a positive impact on students. If you can’t make this connection, eliminate the task or find a way that you minimize the time that you spend on the assignment.
  • Give yourself permission to go slow and grow. Sometimes we should go a little slower in the beginning to develop the habits our students need so they can go faster later. Time is better spent moving at a slower pace early on than going too fast and wasting that time because you didn’t get the success you want. As the right habits build, you will be able to speed up, and students will also be successful. Breakneck speed with minimal success is exhausting. We can’t run a marathon at a sprinter’s pace. Find the stride that allows you to keep going while also getting you to the finish line at the front of the pack.
  • Find time for you. Educators must give a lot of themselves: to students, to parents, to each other. You can’t fill the cups of others if yours is empty. For me, it’s movies, massages, time spent in silence, inspiring music, and doing things with my family. Know what rejuvenates you and DO IT!
  • Count your successes. Make a list of all the great things you have done already this year that may be part of the reason you are tired. Celebrate the relationship you built with a child, the student’s growth that occurred because of your work with him, the parent that you reassured or that colleague you helped. We have to take a moment to remind ourselves we do make a difference!

I think October will always be hard in comparison to other months, but when we can look back over time and see this feeling is normal and that we always get through, it gives us hope. Jack Canfield says that what we see in our minds and what we think about is what we attract to us. If we see our abilities to overcome struggles when the realities of school set in we will successfully manage our dips because feelings of power and hope keep us from feeling drained. It’s hard work that makes us tired, but it is worth it when we remember our purpose and know that grit and growth mindset will prevail in the end.