The Ultimate Jigsaw Puzzle

This weekend I decided to start my second jigsaw puzzle of the quarantine and realized just how similar the whole process was to implementing a new initiative at school, from the planning stage onward the parallels just kept popping up.

I started with the problem…any well-founded initiative isn’t born out of thin air, it is developed as a response to a problem or even as a proactive solution to a potential problem.  In this case, the problem was that I was bored! It was Sunday afternoon and the golf match that I’d been desperately waiting for weeks to watch was delayed by terrible rain in Florida, I needed something to keep me busy while I waited!  

Next I needed to analyze the data. This is a collaborative process, data are collected and then analyzed by a team to identify focus areas and potential paths for moving forward. Being that this was a collaborative step, I called in my wife. First off, we had multiple options.  What size are these puzzles, will they fit our table?  How many pieces can we handle? How much time will she dedicate to helping me with this project? And perhaps most importantly, how long will my wife tolerate this table being covered in a puzzle? With the data collected and analyzed we were ready with a plan.

At this point I’d imagine most people are rolling their eyes at me…I get it, I’m probably taking this analogy a little too far but this is the process and these steps are truly (loosely) connected to the steps taken as a school goes through their regular processes which lead to an initiative. Here’s where it really begins to take shape…

When I start a puzzle there’s always a process.  First we sort pieces.  The border pieces need to be identified and separated, these will form the general parameters for our initiative and show guide us along the journey. While we’re in this early stage of setting up the general parameters we’re also getting to know the lay of the land much better. As we sort pieces we start seeing patterns that we may not have noticed earlier; different color trends, certain repetitive shapes, and we can even see areas that are going to be particularly troublesome down the road. In these early stages it’s really important that all of the collaborators are (literally) at the table, helping sort through the planning process and early first steps as we wrap our heads around the work ahead of us.

As we get to know our puzzle better we start making adjustments (any pieces with light blue should go in this pile, all pieces with words on them over here, etc) and we make revisions to our plan. At last, it’s time to start putting pieces together and build the frame. With this particular puzzle we got the frame finished (or so we thought) and then looked down to see five flat-edged pieces still loose on the table, how could that be?  Just like with any initiative we had to step back and re-evaluate our progress. We began to see where we thought we had put the right pieces together but really had missed a key connection. The process of stepping back and evaluating your progress is essential and will keep any initiative from heading in the wrong direction, maintaining that zoomed-out view is oftentimes difficult but very important!

To spare you all of the details we moved forward from here. Collaborating occasionally and each taking breaks from time to time to gain perspective (and get distracted by the golf that had now started!) We each worked independently on different sections and would occasionally see the link that would bring our sections together, always a great feeling of accomplishment to see the separate parts of an initiative come together smoothly. Over the course of the next day or so we would walk away and come back to the puzzle. At one point I started looking at the sections my wife had started and really got on a roll, it seemed that the fresh eyes helped me to see things she hadn’t (another great idea when working on an initiative!) Which brings us to Monday night…

The puzzle isn’t done yet (it’s 1008 pieces!!) but we’ve done a lot of the heavy lifting. We’ve set it aside for now and cleared off our table. As with most initiatives there are other things happening that required our attention. We have a plan for restarting this puzzle but this is a stage with many initiatives that can get dangerous. All too often projects get started, the early momentum carries them for a while, and then they fizzle out. Ensuring that all team members are committed to the plan, remain engaged and focused, and setting a strict deadline are all essential to the success of completing any initiative.

When it comes to a puzzle there is an endpoint, the pieces all fit together and you can celebrate before taking it apart (or framing it if you’re really into the final product). However, with an important school initiative there really is no endpoint. Initiatives are a cycle, a process, that continues on into the future. The results of the first stage of the initiative lead to a review plan, which in turn may lead to future modifications. They keep going, they are (sometimes) never ending. School initiatives in a lot of ways are the ultimate jigsaw puzzles, they require great team work, tremendous focus, lots of communication, and ongoing attention. 

Quarantine-Style Commencement Lessons

It’s graduation season and a lot of high school and college graduates have been stuck with the unfortunate experience of missing out on their chance to walk the stage and celebrate together. That culminating experience is a rite of passage, an indication that all of your hard work for the last number of years was worth it. Let’s be honest though, how much do you really remember from your commencement ceremonies? For me the strongest memories are of the friends I celebrated with and receiving my diploma. All of those well-planned speeches, with amazingly inspirational words of wisdom, who remembers any of that stuff?  

Luckily for us there is the internet!! After hearing President Obama’s virtual commencement speech this past weekend I went back and listened to one of my favorite commencement speeches.  I’ve watched and listened to a lot of these over the years, Ellen’s might just be the best. It’s short, it’s funny, and it has a great message.

Ellen DeGeneres (Tulane, 2009): If for no other reason, you should watch this because Ellen is funny and you’ll laugh (which is especially good these days). Aside from that though, Ellen manages to inspire us with great stories. My favorite part of her speech is: “It was so important for me to lose everything because I found out what the most important thing is, is to be true to yourself. Ultimately, that’s what’s gotten me to this place. I don’t live in fear, I’m free; I have no secrets and I know I’ll always be OK, because no matter what, I know who I am.” 

Be true to yourself, don’t compromise who you are because someone else says that you should be different. “Live your life with integrity.” In times of uncertainty, we can only be sure of who we are and what we stand for. Look inside yourself, reaffirm what it is you believe, and stand for what is right. I’ve realized, after rewatching this yesterday, that I’ve been doing this a lot lately. I’ve been questioning myself, who I am, what I stand for, and what is most important to me. I’ve shared my professional life as an open book for the last seven-plus years via my blog and twitter. I’ve learned and grown over this time, my philosophies and priorities have changed, but at the end of the day I’ve worked hard to know myself as an educator. Whether through the many forms of feedback I seek or through self-reflection, I’m constantly evaluating who I am and what I stand for, so that I can be true to myself.  Thank you Ellen for the reminder!

I mentioned President Obama’s virtual commencement speech from this past Saturday, it too is worth a listen (it’s even shorter than Ellen’s). Speaking to the high school Class of 2020, President Obama spoke about the current pandemic situation. He discussed the sad reality of the impact that this pandemic will have on everyone, especially those who were already struggling the most. He also reminded us that we’ve got a long way to go as leaders, “It’s also pulled the curtain back on another hard truth, something that we all have to eventually accept once our childhood comes to an end. All those adults that you used to think were in charge and knew what they were doing? Turns out that they don’t have all the answers. A lot of them aren’t even asking the right questions. So, if the world’s going to get better, it’s going to be up to you.”

I particularly like the second to last sentence of this quote, “A lot of them aren’t even asking the right questions.”  As an educational leader I realize that I don’t have all the answers, in fact I pride myself on not always needing to have the answer…it’s something I’ve worked on a lot throughout my career. Early on as a leader, I thought I always had to solve the problem right away and if I didn’t have the answer, I was a failure…boy was I wrong! I’ve learned that asking the right questions is much more important than having any of the answers. Having “an answer” is nice but all too often, the first answer is rarely the “best answer”. Asking the right questions helps reveal potential pitfalls, blindspots, and inefficiencies. Problem solving is never straight forward, it takes conversations, iterations, revisions, and ultimately lots of questions to get to a “best answer.” It takes courage to slow down, ask more questions, and be okay with not having an answer all the time. Be courageous, what questions will you ask?

Whether you can remember your commencement speakers as though they were yesterday or whether you’re like me and have absolutely no clue what was said during your graduation ceremonies (to be fair I haven’t walked the stage in over 20 years as I skipped both of my college graduations…I’ve promised my mom I’ll walk for my PhD), take a few minutes, we all know you’ve got the time right now, to listen to the speeches above and think about how you can apply the lessons those speakers are trying to impart upon the graduates.

Learn about yourself and seek the right questions to ask (and then ask them!) 

Why I’m an Educator: My Mom

I am one of three kids, all of us educators. Everyone assumes our parents must have been educators too (they’re not!) because, really, how do you end up with three educators from a family of non-educators?!?! As many times as I’ve had to respond to those who make that assumption over the years, I’ve had a lot of opportunities to reflect on it…how did we all end up following the same path?  I’ve realized the answer is: Mom.

I would guess many of you can identify someone (or more than one) very influential in your life who ultimately led you to where you are today as a professional. My mother was the one who showed me, without me even realizing it, what it took to be a successful educator. She showed me what it meant to care deeply, unconditionally, and yet uniquely. I learned the importance of making commitments, following through on them, always giving my best effort, and finding balance in my life. Finally, while this was something I didn’t realize I’d learned until I’d reached adulthood, she showed me what it meant to give all of yourself to help others. My mother has been an educator since the day I was born (and probably before that!) and I have been one of the fortunate recipients of her teachings.

As the mother of three very different, independent, and strong-willed children, my mom had her work cut out for her! However, no matter the challenges we threw at her (and continue to throw at her) she has never once wavered in her unconditional and unending love for each of us and, now, our families. I know, mothers are supposed to love their children unconditionally forever and ever, so what’s the big deal? Like I said, each of us kids are very different from each other. Our mother, however, found a way to make sure that each of us received the love we needed, in the way(s) that we needed it, always. Throughout my career as an educator I’ve taken this lesson of unconditional, yet unique love and applied it to how I build relationships with  my students. Each student comes to us with a different educational experience, different life experience, and different approach to school. Students aren’t mass produced, they aren’t made with a mold or cookie cutter, they are all unique and need to be cared for as individuals.

Despite sacrificing balance in her own life while we were growing up, my mother always made sure that any commitment we made, we kept. We were fortunate, we had lots of opportunities that many kids don’t. Additionally, we were never allowed to waste those that we chose to pursue. If we wanted to play a sport, we never missed a practice or a game. If it was the piano or saxophone, I had to pound those keys and honk that horn for my required 20 minutes each and every day (until the lessons/school year was finished) no matter how desperately I wanted to give up. As an educator, I’ve needed to draw on my sense of commitment, hard work, and balance not only for myself but also as skills to pass on to my students. It’s easy to get overextended as an educator and for students it’s very easy to lose focus and let effort wane. I’m thankful that I learned the importance of both commitment and balance from my mother, finding that happy medium has been crucial to my success as an educator.

While growing up I never saw it; how much my mom sacrificed to make sure that our entire family had everything we ever needed. As I reached the point in my life where I could look back and appreciate it, I could see just how much my mother gave to make sure we were successful in life. This willingness to give, without promise of anything in return, has been something I’ve learned to appreciate and value the further I’ve gone in education. As educators it is rare that we ever receive the credit or thanks that we deserve. Sure, we may get nice gifts on holidays or during Teacher Appreciation Week, but we are often undervalued and overlooked as professionals. This sacrifice, this sense of giving of ourselves unconditionally, is something that I never could’ve learned if not for my mother. In fact, without this lesson I’m 100% convinced that I never would’ve become an educator. ALL educators have this trait, we’ve all learned to internalize it somehow…for me, it came from my mother.

I’m incredibly fortunate. My mother, this amazing superhero of a person, continues to teach these lessons to this day; whether to me and my sisters, her four (almost five) grandkids, or her friends and colleagues. For all of you mothers out there…thank you!!!  For all of you educators who teach these lessons to your students…thank you!!! To my mother…THANK YOU!!

Lessons from The Last Dance

Not surprisingly The Last Dance documentary about the 1997-98 Chicago Bulls season has set records for viewership all over the country. In a time with no live sports and people penned up in their houses, a basketball team from 22 years ago has captivated the sports world! Despite living a world that is completely different from the one (22 years ago) that we see in the documentary, there is still a lot to learn from this series. (Warning: There will be some spoilers if you haven’t watched the series or followed NBA history very closely…honestly though, I don’t think what you’ll read here will ruin anything for you…so read on!!)

The first four episodes of this series included a lot of flashbacks, perhaps most notably to the two playoff series against the Detroit Pistons, or Bad Boys as they came to be known.  As a basketball fan I was certainly aware of the Bad Boys and the rivalry they had with the Bulls but I didn’t know nearly as much as was shared in this documentary. Even more so, I didn’t know about the way the Bulls responded to the results of those two series.  

After the first season that the Bulls lost to the Detroit Pistons (1988-89 season) in the playoffs not much changed. The Bulls went back to Chicago, took the summer off and came back ready to try again the next season. They actually got closer too, they almost beat the Pistons in the 1989-90 playoffs but ended up losing in game seven of the Eastern Conference Finals. This, however, is when things changed for the Bulls…and where the lessons begin for us.

The Bulls went home and got right to work. They took a hard look in the mirror and made some realizations about themselves and what they needed to do to be better. Specifically, they looked at their areas of weakness and what they needed to become the best. Once they identified those growth areas, they set out to improve on them and increase their chances for success. Not only did they look for areas of growth but they also focused their strengths and looked at how they could improve even more in those areas.

The differences between these two off-seasons couldn’t have been more stark. In the first example, they went home and came back hoping to get better as they worked throughout the season. In the second, they didn’t leave anything to chance. They set to work right away, striving to guarantee enough growth to overcome their main obstacle in the next season. 

This second example, when the Bulls went straight to the weight room and the gym during the off season, is how I believe educators truly grow as professionals. During the school year we’re like the Bulls in season, our practice time is limited because it’s game time!  We’ve got lessons to plan, kids to teach, and classrooms to run…we don’t have lots of extra time (or energy) to sit back and read about new ideas, take courses, or integrate new strategies into our daily routine. That, however, is exactly what we have in the summertime. Now, I know that might sound crazy (especially after the way this year is ending) but consider this your hard look in the mirror. If you really want to make leaps as an educator, the summertime is when you have the opportunity to make that growth. 

Just as in basketball, we have different levels of growth to focus on as educators. We have our individual growth, what we can do to make ourselves better educators. Then we have team growth, how do we work with our PLC or at the school level to become a better team? As we near the end of the school year and begin looking toward that nice long break until the end of August, it’s time to start thinking about how we can grow as individuals and as a team. I don’t want anyone to think I’m suggesting you work every single day to grow over the summer, because I’m not saying that at all! However, I am suggesting that you should plan to dedicate some portion of time and energy this summer to thinking about how you’re going to grow as an educator. Perhaps it’s dedicated collaborative time with your team, a conference to attend, a course online, or specific professional books to read. Take a look in the mirror, think about where you want to grow, set a goal, and create a plan for achieving that goal!!

If working to improve in the off season was good enough for Michael Jordan, I think it’s good enough for all of us as well!  

It’s Time to Start Thinking in “What if?”

It’s been six weeks since everything changed but as I sit here writing this, you could probably convince me that it was six months ago!  We weren’t ready for this and very few of us could’ve ever seen something like this coming.  And that’s how life goes…things happen that we never would expect, we have to face them, and we have to find a way to move forward.  It’s that ability to move forward that separates us, it’s our ability to adapt. 

I’ve been re-watching many of my favorite TED Talks lately and I came across this one last week, it struck a chord with me.  I realized that what we’re all experiencing right now, as unprecedented as it is, isn’t really anything new.  In her short but powerful TED Talk, Natalie Fratto tells briefly about a fateful meeting in the year 2000.  I won’t ruin it for you, but the meeting was a defining decision point for one of the participants.  The decision was rather simple, stick to the old ways and keep trying the same old things or look forward to a changing future and adapt to thrive in the evolving world.

These sort of decision points happen in our lives all the time.  They happen to us as individuals, they happen to us as countries, they happen to us in all manner of ways.  What we’re experiencing right now is one of those decision points, on a global scale.  The interesting thing is that while we all face the same global challenge, we’re all going to experience it differently.  We’re going to make different decisions than our neighbors, colleagues, and even family members.  We’re all going to adapt in different ways.  There is no map to follow, these are uncharted waters.  It’s time to start asking some “what if…” questions:

What if school is required to continue online to begin next school year?

What if school starts but it’s not as “normal”?

What if school does start normally but we still don’t have a vaccine?

What if we flip a switch and everything goes back to “normal”? How will what we’ve experienced change things?

For many of us, these might not be questions we’re ready to face right now.  That’s okay, you don’t have to answer them immediately.  However, at some point, we’re all going to have to face some version of one of these “what if” questions (and many more unrelated to school).  How we adapt and change for the benefit of our students is going to be a defining moment in their education.  If you’re stressed out by these scenarios it could be that you’re focusing too much on the negative aspects of change…look at these as opportunities.  What if you were able to rewrite the playbook?  What if you could start fresh in a completely new environment?  What if you could take all of the best practices you know now and apply them in a different context?

What if…

 

When Fiction Becomes Reality: Groundhog’s Day

While we were away for Spring Break last week, Governor Evers announced the extension of our Safer at Home Order through May 26 which included the closure of school buildings for the remainder of the school year.  It was a sad moment for those of us who were holding out even the smallest bits of hope for a return to face-to-face instruction. This announcement, however, provides us with confirmation of what many suspected would eventually happen.  As hard as it might be to accept this new reality, I have found solace in the fact that we no longer have to speculate about different options for the remainder of the year. It’s time for us to look at the next eight weeks and make solid plans for how we’re going to approach teaching, learning, and the process of moving forward as a community.  

All of this has made me think about the movie Groundhog’s Day. Bill Murray’s character, Phil Connors, gets stuck in a time-loop that forces him to repeat the same day, over and over again. For a lot of us, I imagine we’re feeling a very similar feeling. I went back and watched that movie over Spring Break, had a lot of good laughs, and connected with the stages of emotion that Bill Murray’s character went through.. As Phil goes through the realization process, he is at first confused by what was happening, I imagine many of us were feeling the same way back on March 13. Next, he gets into a bit of a routine of indulgence and taking advantage of his situation (Tiger King binge anyone?) which is then followed by a period of anger and fear. Finally, Phil accepts the reality of his situation and begins to learn to enjoy it and make himself a better person. He learns to play piano, speak foreign languages, and even carve ice sculptures.  We’ve all gone through, or are currently going through, some of these very same stages that Phil Connors went through in the movie: denial, confusion, anger, fear, and hopefully acceptance. So what do we do once we’ve reached that acceptance stage?

I realize that as we’ve all gone through these stages we’ve processed things differently.  I want to go back and reiterate a few great recommendations I’ve seen/heard along the way. I’d love to hear back from you, sharing your different ideas, thoughts, or examples of how you’ve done some of these (or other) things already…please share!!

  1. Create Routine:  This was advice from the very beginning.  However, if you’re anything like me, this was ridiculously hard in the beginning (even five weeks in I’m struggling with it!) The uncertainty of our situation made this tough.  Hopefully, now that we have a better idea of what the next eight weeks will look like we can create better routines.
  2. Focus on what you can control:  Phil Connors had to learn this the hard way but eventually got there. We are only in control of so much in our lives, that’s where we should focus. Take precautions to stay healthy, find time to exercise, do what you need to ensure mental health, and help those you love.  It’s very easy to get stressed about outside factors, but by focusing on those things that we can change we are able to gain a sense of having things under control.
  3. Be patient, be flexible:  As we return to our online learning experiment, be ready for things to be challenging. Remember that all home situations are not created equal. People all around the world are learning to handle online learning at the same time, some more successfully than others. Be prepared to answer the same question multiple times, have technical difficulties, and feel resistance. Everyone is handling this challenge in different ways, no one has THE answers, it’s okay to give an answer and then later say, “whoops, that wasn’t the best answer…here’s a better  option.” 
  4. Offer and ask for support:  There are going to be times when you are the one offering and providing support to those around you, whether to students, family, or community members.  Then there are going to be times when you need the support…that is okay!!!  No one, I repeat, no one, is finding this easy or enjoyable.  No one should have to handle this alone either!  We’re all going to need support from someone, or many someones, to get through this!  #WeGotThis #WereInThisTogether

We’re five weeks into this Safer at Home Order already but, weirdly, in a lot of ways it doesn’t feel like it’s been five weeks. When I think about the progression for us as a district from the last time we saw our students in person until today, we’re only just now in a place to really hit the ground running. Prior to Spring Break there were only a couple days where we could be confident that all/most of our students had devices and access to our online learning opportunities. As we return from this week off, it will be important to re-engage our students and their families, welcoming them back to the fold and building some routines for regular contact and learning opportunities. Enjoy the re-entry this week and tell your students I say “hi” when you talk to them, I’m thinking about all of you every day and miss our interactions!!  Hang in there!

 

Expanding Your PLN: Quarantine Edition

There is no doubt that these last three weeks have been difficult on everyone for a million different reasons.  One of the reasons I’ve struggled is because I miss all the relationships and positive interactions with staff and students.  It brings me joy to high-five students, answer their (sometimes) silly questions, and make positive phone calls home.  I’m also missing the ability to walk into classrooms and look, listen, and learn. The opportunity to enter a classroom and watch as students participate in the experience of learning is beyond amazing!  Lastly, I’m missing the conversations; conversations in the hallway, in my office, on the playground, or in the classroom. I’m missing the chance to talk with passionate educators, in-person, and discuss the ways that we can make the educational experience better for our students.  Quarantine is no place for an extroverted, relationship-focused educator!  

Fortunately, over the years, I’ve built up a strong professional learning network (pln) that I’ve been able to rely on over the course of the last three weeks for ideas, conversations, and inspiration.  In fact, when I first started teaching, I was thrust into a network of teachers that spanned the country. During the summer before my first year as a teacher, I spent time learning and practicing with hundreds soon-to-be teachers from all over the country at Teach For America’s Summer Institute.  I worked closely with corps members who would later teach in Atlanta, Miami, New Mexico, and other regional locations. In addition to those teachers, there were almost 200 new TFA corps members in Houston (where I was working). Throughout the school year we met for monthly, one-day conferences to learn, grow, and share ideas together – it was inspiring and set the tone for how I understood collaboration to look in education.

I’ll spare you the details of how I continued to grow my professional learning network but suffice it to say, TFA set a precedent for me and I valued the experience of collaborating with so many people that I was determined to find a way to re-create this situation while traveling the world.  This all comes back to today, three weeks into a “Safer at Home” order, and a time where collaborating in-person is not only difficult, but against the recommendations of our government. I couldn’t be more thankful to have a strong Twitter-based PLN to rely on for inspiration, motivation, and support.  Whether directly or indirectly, I’ve been able to turn to my PLN to provide me with what I’ve been missing in terms of connections throughout this quarantine.  

I’ve alluded to my affinity for Twitter in the past but today I want to encourage you to take the leap and give Edu-Twitter a try.  See, if you’re not familiar with Twitter it can be VERY intimidating. I get it; it’s kind of like going to see the Smithsonian Institute – there’s so much to see that you don’t know where to begin, it gets exhausting, you get tired, and you move on.  So think of Edu-Twitter as the education-focused “wing” of Twitter. Sure, there’s a lot of other stuff to see on Twitter (A LOT) but I’m offering to give you a personalized tour of the good stuff! Check out this infographic that shows Seven Degrees of Connectedness and think about where you fall.  If you’re not yet at Stage 1 then I’d like to strongly urge you to come and begin the journey of getting connected.  If you’re already connected but want to join the conversation you’re absolutely invited as well!

If you’re open to the idea of giving Edu-Twitter a try, let me know. I’d be more than happy to get on Google Meets or Zoom with you and walk you through the process of setting up an account, finding some good people to follow, and show you the basics of how to proceed. (Even better, if there was a group of people interested, we could make it a regular collaborative time!)  Imagine all of the wonderful ideas and inspirations you’ve been able to gain just from collaborating with your KTEC colleagues, now multiple that as many times as you’d like (2x, 5x, 10x, 100x…) As I shared last week, we’re in the midst of the largest social-experiment EVER – what will you learn during this time?