Time is Valuable, So is Feedback

We’re three weeks into the 2020-2021 school year and with all we’ve had to do to ensure a successful start to what could be dubbed The Great Remote Learning Experiment, it feels like we’ve been going for three months straight!  I can’t even begin to explain the level of absolute awe that I have for the high degree of work that I’ve seen in the Gifford community, it’s astonishing!!  The amount of time, energy, and effort that has gone into the beginning of this school year is unparalleled by any school year before.  As a teaching community you’ve continuously gone above and beyond to meet the needs of our students.  I’m beyond thankful and I know that the vast majority of our students and their families feel the same way!!

At the beginning of this school year I said three things that I continue to believe as true but are, perhaps, more important than ever in this moment.  First off, I said that this school year was going to feel like your first year as a teacher in a lot of ways.  I think for many of us that has held true.  If you need a reminder of the advice you gave yourselves back before the year started, have a look here.  Secondly, I believe in the power of teamwork.  Many of you have found your teams to be the most important resource available.  That can and should continue to be the case, working together you can lighten the load for everyone and enhance the work that you do for your students.  Finally, I believe in the value of time, which is really what I want to address today.

From the outset I said I’m going to work hard to protect and honor your time. I’ve worked to free up as much time as possible for you to meet with your teams and plan your lessons.  I’ve worked to streamline my communication to reduce redundancy and wasted time.  However, there have been areas where I could’ve been better and thanks to feedback I’ve received along the way I believe I’ve made steps to improve in some of those areas.  All of that being said I know I still have work to do, to not only protect your time, but in other ways too.

In order to continue growing as a leader I am always seeking feedback.  Either informally, or in this case formally, I strive to understand how I can better serve you and our students.  So, in order to better understand your needs I would like to ask you to answer this anonymous and short survey (see below) to provide me with feedback.  *One quick note about this being anonymous: there will be an optional space to write notes and if you leave me a very specific comment that requires follow up, then I strongly recommend you add your name so I know who to help!

Everything I’ve seen this school year has me very excited to continue learning and growing alongside each and everyone of you.  I appreciate your feedback thus far and look forward to hearing more!!

What do we want all students to know and be able to do?

Last week I mentioned that I would be in class this weekend for my PhD program. In one of those classes I had an experience that really hit home when I started thinking about how we deliver lessons to our students.  Throughout the weekend I had two different classes, one of those is being taught by an experienced professor who was added as the result of a teacher change very recently.  She was open and honest with us about that fact and acknowledged that the slides, information, and assignments she was using came from the previous teachers of this course.  While she is experienced, transparent, and very well-intentioned, it was disappointingly obvious that she wasn’t well-prepared to engage us as learners this past weekend.  

As I reflected on this disappointment, I began to think about our students and how they are experiencing learning.  I’m thankful to know that so many of you are going above and beyond to adapt, modify, or altogether replace some of the “stock” lessons that are provided to you by whichever curriculum tools you are drawing on.  The worst thing we can do for our students is to regularly assume that they fit into whatever box the developer of that curriculum tool had in mind when they created it!  

You know your students, or at least you’re getting to know them, and as professionals you have the opportunity to ensure that their needs are being met on a regular basis.  I’m not suggesting that you (or my professor) should go back and completely rewrite curriculum.  However, it is crucial that as educators we remain mindful of the fact that our students are not all the same.  Your class isn’t the same as a class in another state, city, or even RUSD school.  In all reality, your class isn’t even the same as the one nextdoor to you.  So, whether you’re planning, teaching, or reflecting on a lesson, it is important to remember that you have the professional privilege (responsibility even) to adapt, adjust, and modify as needed. 

I believe that as educators we must be deeply familiar with the four critical questions made popular by Rick DuFour:

  1. What do we want all students to know and be able to do?
  2. How will we know if they learn it?
  3. How will we respond when some students do not learn?
  4. How will we extend the learning for students who are already proficient?

When you can honestly answer these four questions in a clear and detailed fashion, then you will know you’ve gotten to the point of truly knowing and understanding the best way to reach your students.  Unfortunately, it was painfully obvious throughout the course of my weekend of classes that our professor wasn’t even able to answer question number one.  No matter how experienced, well-intentioned, and transparent she was with us, she was still essentially a substitute teacher reading slides.  

We have to start with question number one.  If we can’t clearly articulate what we want all students to know and be able to do then we are just wasting time.  As you meet with your teams to plan and prepare your lessons, start with question number one.  Every lesson should have an objective, it should be tied to a standard (Superhero!), and you should have a plan for how you’re going to ensure that the objective is reached in each and every lesson.

Now, with all of that being said, everyone is going to have a bad day or a bad lesson (that’s totally fine!!)  Unfortunately for me, my professor had a bad lesson that lasted all weekend and one weekend is about 25% of our instructional time for the semester…yikes!  Give yourself permission to take risks, try new things, have lessons that don’t work out, and make mistakes.  Work with your teams, seek support from coaches, APs, me, and others.  Work smarter, not harder!  Above all, start with question one! 

Assuming Positive Intent

You did it!  You made it through the first week of remote learning and survived!  I couldn’t be more impressed with the sheer persistence, determination, and patience of our staff as a whole.  Through technical issues, confused students (and parents), and tremendous amounts of trepidation about this new format for learning, we made it through!  Overall we’ve received praise and celebrations from our community.  I spoke to one person who has been working with three students at home who said, “We’re just so thankful, I can’t even imagine how much work this is for the teachers!”  So for all the squeaky wheels that you heard from last week, please know that there are a lot more people who are thankful and supportive of all that you’re doing to help our students be successful!!

Remember a couple weeks ago when I asked you to share your advice for your first-year teacher-self?  A lot of you said things like, “One day at a time”, “Don’t give up, you’ve got this”, and “It’s okay not to know”.  All of those bits of advice are perhaps even more crucial as we continue into the second week of the school year, have a look back if you need some inspiration.  As the initial adrenaline rush starts to wane and we begin to settle into a new routine, I wanted to share my advice that I would give myself as a first year teacher…I realized that I asked you to share but I didn’t share mine 🙂

The advice I would offer myself is something I learned well into my career and it’s something that I fall back on constantly, both in my professional life and outside of school.  “Assume positive intent”, was the advice given to me by my mentor when I first became an administrator.  When he first told me this I was skeptical, which is why he taught me this lesson in the first place!  See, I was so “good” at looking at everything “critically” that I became skeptical about everyone and everything.

I started off this school year by asking you to think positively.  One of the best strategies I know for helping to do that is to assume positive intent.  I find that when I approach a difficult situation or conversation by remembering that the other side is just as well intentioned as I am, I have more patience and am better able to empathize with their perspective. On the other hand, if I forget to assume positive intent, then I have a hard time listening critically and I often get too upset to have a calm conversation.  By assuming positive intent, I know that I am going into a conversation with an open mind and an open heart.  Being willing to give the other side the benefit of the doubt allows me to better understand their perspective and, eventually, reach a common understanding about how we can move forward together. 

I had to remember to assume positive intent a lot last week.  Every time I got an email or phone call from an angry parent it would’ve been very easy to get defensive, be angry that they’re not appreciating all the hard work we’re putting in, or just write them off as a constant complainer.  However, doing that wouldn’t have been fair to that parent.  Every complaint is rooted in that parent’s desire to see what they believe to be the best for their child.  They are advocating for their child, wanting the best for them.  It’s important to remember that, at the end of the day, these parents want what is best for their children!! (Note: Just because they have positive intentions for their child doesn’t mean they are right about the methods or arguments they’re making…but remembering that they are advocating for their child usually helps me stay calm!)

By assuming positive intent in any conversation, you are giving the other side the respect that you want them to be giving you.  There are, of course, people who don’t always have positive intentions but those occasions are so rare that we have to realize they are the exception rather than the rule.  By starting with a default of “positive intent” we will get a lot further in our conversations as well as our mental health!  

Whether it is a conversation with a parent, a colleague, or a stranger, assume positive intent and you’ll be off to a good start.  

Advice to a First Year Teacher

Last week we got started off on a positive note, diving into professional learning and preparing for the upcoming school year with our teams and colleagues.  When we came together (at a safe distance) to start off our time together as a building team, I asked you to think about your first year as a teacher.  For many of us that was some time ago, for others it is this year!  I wanted you to draw back to that feeling of being a first year teacher and remember all that came with it.  I also wanted you to see how far you’ve come and take a minute to think about, not only the reason you became an educator in the first place but, why you have remained in education through all the ups and downs.  

I shared Taylor Mali performing one of his poems, What Teachers Make, as it is one of the memories I have from my first year as a teacher.  That message helped remind me, throughout my early years as an educator, about why I became a teacher.  It was my coaching background that led me to a career as an educator but it was the impact I was able to make on kids’ lives that kept me going each and every day, no matter who the kids were or where I worked.

In many ways this year, the 2020-2021 school year, is going to feel like the first year teaching for most, if not all, of us.  What we are about to attempt has never been attempted on such a wide scale before.  Yet, despite the challenges that we’ve already experienced and those still to come, everyone brought a positive attitude and approach to the beginning of the year.  I asked you to think about the advice you would give yourself as a first year teacher because I wanted you to remember that advice and keep it fresh in your mind as we start this school year.  Below, I’ve documented all of the wisdom shared by our staff from last week, please have a look and be inspired.  There is A LOT of great advice here…

You won’t do this alone, use your team and help your team!

One day at a time.

Never give up being the teacher who makes a difference in the life of a child.  Be the inspiration for them to become the best people they can be.  Always remember to be kind – especially to yourself!

Never give up and do your best at everything you do.They’re just as nervous on the first day as you.  

Don’t be afraid to have fun!

Continue to apply all you know and continue to help others.  Your teammates become more than teammates, they become your friends, your family at school.

Take it day by day.  Don’t stress if your plans don’t get done.

Every day is a new day…heck, every lesson is a new day!

It’s okay not to know.

Be patient, slow down.  Show the kids you can laugh at yourself.

Above anything else, connect with kids…all the rest will come.

Build relationships, do crazy stuff, the more hands on the better.  Take it one day at a time.  You got this!

Self care helps to balance out the work life.

Learn how to be flexible and as long as you’re doing this for the kids everything will work itself out.

Become besties with the secretaries, engineers, and food service.

You can do great things with literally nothing.  Your creative self will thrive and you will make a difference.

It starts out tough and there are times you will cry.  You will learn and students will know you made a difference for them.  They will even request to have you for their children.

Remain calm, everything happens for a reason and things always work out for the best (even if it seems like it’s the end of the world).

You don’t have all the answers and that’s okay, you’ll figure it out anyway!

You will make it happen.  Don’t stress too much about the details.

Your hardest days will be some of your best days for your students!  Never give up on them, they see you and appreciate you no matter how they treat you.

Never give up!

Be flexible, lean on those around you, be proud for making it.  Never forget why you wanted to teach!

Plan more than you think you will need.

It will be hard and you may cry tears of frustration but more happy tears, hang in there.

It’s overwhelming, but you can do it.  Take little steps at a time.

Never, ever, give up and push through those hard times.  Also, always make sure your colleagues are okay, because they need you as much as you need them!

Be patient and build relationships.

Help your students become independent learners, they won’t always have you to motivate them and support them.

Relax! Making connections is the most important thing, everything else will eventually fall into place!

Ask questions.  You won’t be successful unless you do.

I am better at teaching than I think I am and I really am making a difference, even though I might not seem that way at the time.  Relax, breathe, trust, and keep going.

Be kinder to yourself.

Ask questions, work with your team, and do your best – it’s good enough.

Wear comfortable shoes.  The weirder, the better.

Don’t take on too much right away.  Get comfortable with the school and the kids first.

It is okay for things not to look the way you think they should look.  Build a community with your teaching peers.

Take one day at a time!  Sometimes you will feel that you aren’t getting through, but you are!

Your students appreciate you even when they don’t show it.

Close your door and do what’s best for your kids, only listen to the positive people.

Don’t sweat the small things, be consistent, and find enjoyment in what you do every single day.

It’s okay to not get through all the lessons, it’s not about how many lessons you taught, it’s about how the kids feel when in your class.

The excitement and the no-boundaries attitude will ebb and flow.  Embrace the suck at each phase and continue to work to grow the voices of your students.

For every hard moment, there will be a hundred great ones.  The students that are the most challenging are the ones that need you the most.  Above all else, trust in yourself to do what is right by your kids.

Join a math education organization…the people there will help soooooo much.

You were right.  Being a teacher is what you are and always will be.  You will help children belong and feel loved.

YOU can DO this!!  It’s O.K.!! Keep going!  And…donuts help the cause!

Stay positive and keep looking forward!  You are making a difference!

You got this!  Remember they are just as nervous as you!  Be silly and fun because that’s what they will remember.

Try new things!

Have fun with it…don’t try to be perfect…relax…give kids time to speak each day about what they did or what’s new in their lives!

When you get overwhelmed remember you don’t have to do everything all at one time.  Focus on one or two things at a time. Stay positive!

Breathe.  Build strong relationships with family and you will see greater success than you could ever imagine.

Don’t be so hard on yourself! Breathe! Everything will be okay.  You are not a bad teacher!

It will get better, each year will be different, and it will have ups and downs just like life.

Take a deep breath.  Fake it til you make it.

Breathe…

Be patient.

Find your Marigold.

You will care more and love more than you thought you would or could but that’s okay…you have to.  They are worth it!

You are going to learn a LOT!

Be real. Honor your mistakes and grow from them. Don’t be afraid to lean on those around you.

Education will take a while to return to “normal” but be patient and understand that all good things take time.

Hang in there, ask for help, it gets better!

Don’t be shy about seeking help!

Reach out to parents to support right away.

Trust yourself, ask for help, and know the kids appreciate you, even when they don’t show it.

You can do this! I know it will be tough but at the end of the day it will so be worth it!

Don’t give up; even on the most difficult days.  Always ask for help.

Tomorrow is a fresh day and the kids do not know if your lesson failed.

Breathe. Ask for help. Do the work in the beginning and it will pay off later on.  Be patient.  It will get tough at times.  Never give up!!  You are making a difference.

Hang in there, things will be rough but know you are tough and will get through it.

Remain calm, build relationships first, don’t ever give up on ‘that’ student.

It won’t always be that hard.

It’ll all work out.

You will get better at this.

Be patient with yourself and with the children. We all have different home lives and learn differently.  Embrace those differences and make the best of every day.

Focus on the needs of your students and families first.  When they see you are here to support them, they will in turn support you and your job will be that much easier.

Don’t ever give up.  The kids that are the hardest on you, need the most love.

Take time to stop and enjoy the moments that matter.  Allow yourself to take praise and acknowledge that you work hard and you do your best!

Stay calm and focus on making relationships with the students.

Starting Off on a Positive Note

Ever since January I’ve been keeping a close eye on this whole pandemic craziness.  As you likely know by now, I lived and worked overseas for 10 years.  During that time I spent three years in Italy and four years in China, coincidentally two of the hardest hit countries early on in the Covid-19 outbreak.  Additionally, during my time overseas I built a pretty wide-spanning network of colleagues and friends who also worked in international schools.  I share all of that to help give context to the idea of why I’ve been watching this so closely for so long.

A couple months ago, before Gifford and before our baby was born (back when I had time to do things like this), I got in touch with one of my most trusted international friends to talk about how her school handled re-entry.  My friend works in Munich, Germany at a very good international school.  At the end of last spring, the pandemic had subsided enough in Germany that their school decided to bring students back to the building for the last few weeks of the school year.  That is what we talked a lot about when we connected via FaceTime this summer, what it was like coming back.

My friend had three pieces of advice that she said were the keys to successfully coming back to school.  I’m going to share the first two with you briefly but then go a little deeper into the third because I see it as the most important for our current context.  

First off, and forgive me if you’ve heard this before, people need to wear their masks correctly at all times while maintaining physical distance from others. Second, you’ve heard this one too, wash your hands.  For a successful re-entry, we need to have a safe re-entry!  These two pieces of advice can’t be stressed enough but the third piece of advice was the one that has had me thinking ever since.

While the first two pieces of advice are easy to accomplish with little effort, this third piece takes a concerted effort and won’t come naturally for some.  Normally, at the beginning of the school year this isn’t something I would feel the need to share as everyone is typically very excited for a fresh start, new students, and an organized classroom.  However, with all of the craziness, it’s easy to get caught up sometimes.

Her third piece of advice: Always, always, maintain a positive attitude…especially for our students!  It would be a lot easier to just join the crowd, voice your displeasures, and sound off about how terrible everything is right now, right?  Well, yes it would be easier, a lot easier.  In fact, it’s a lot of people’s natural tendency to start with the negative. However, it’s significantly harder to move from a negative mindset to a positive one…so why not start at the positive in the first place?!

I’m, generally speaking, a pretty positive person.  However, during this pandemic, I’ve found that it is really easy to slip from a positive perspective to complaining and being negative very quickly.  I recently went back and watched one of my favorite TedTalks.  It’s not the most popular TEdTalk in history (it does have over 5m views though) but I think it is really valuable and I come back to it occasionally because I love the message and strategies she shares (especially in the last few minutes).  I find this video valuable for helping me center myself and start in a positive mindset each day, I’m sharing it with you today because I hope you’ll find it valuable too.  The more positive we remain as a community the further we will go together! (I like how her husband holds her accountable, perhaps this is something you can do with your teammates as needed.)

Alison Ledgerwood shared her research and one “simple trick to improve positive thinking” in her TedTalk at UC Davis. If you can find 10 minutes today, definitely watch this.  If you don’t have 10 minutes, try watching it at 1.5x speed and it will only take you 7 minutes or so 🙂 It’s WELL worth your time, I promise.  We can all use a reminder of the importance of positivity and it doesn’t come easily, as Alison reminds us “you have to work to see the upside!”

Oh, and keep smiling, even under your mask…people can still tell!!! 

Education MUST Lead the Way

I wish we were in person to have this conversation because that’s what it really needs to be, a conversation. Written-word is difficult in these circumstances because the words that I write may be interpreted differently when they are read versus if I said them out loud. Additionally, in person you’d be able to question, challenge, and engage with me in real time…in writing that can’t happen. Also, this could get a little long…

Regardless, I’m going to muster the courage to share my thoughts in writing with you because I believe it is important that we engage in conversation one way or another.  I hope my writing today will inspire you to think more, learn more, have more conversations, and possibly push your thinking forward. This is my current thinking…

As an educator I’ve believed in the need for a revolution in education for a long time now. Generally speaking, the way we teach and approach education is antiquated. Any “new” initiatives are largely old educational philosophies repackaged with updated technology and, essentially, perpetuate a cyclical educational system that has largely failed us over and over again. 

A personal example of that cycle: I joined Teach For America (TFA) 15 years ago. TFA was founded in 1990, 30 years ago, with the intention of helping to close the achievement gap in America. To be fair to my next statement, TFA was never going to be THE answer to the achievement gap, I know that. According to TFA’s website, “with nearly 62,000 alumni and corps members in over 50 regions around the country, our network now includes more than 15,000 alumni teachers; 4,700 school principals, assistant principals, and deans; more than 500 school system leaders; over 1000 policy and advocacy leaders; nearly 300 elected leaders; and more than 250 social entrepreneurs.” Despite this immense impact and hundreds of millions of dollars spent by TFA alone (not to mention all the other initiatives) over the last 30 years, the achievement gap has not significantly improved at all.

That example may seem disheartening, and it should be in many ways. Personally, I make myself feel a little better by looking back at the data from my two years as a TFA corps member and recognizing that I did help my students “catch up” a bit during the time that they were in my classroom. However, no matter how much I pat myself on the back and make myself feel better, nothing has changed systemically…and that is a big problem. So I go back now to the idea of a revolution in education…what have we (as educators) done over the last 30+ years to really improve what we’re doing? What have we done to address the problems in education on a large scale?

I know educators care and we certainly work hard, I don’t know if there is a harder working profession out there! It’s almost impossible to care more than we care about our students and their success. Yet here we are, 30 years later with no progress…what do we do?

I know what many of you are thinking…it’s not our fault, we’re doing all that we can!!  Well, maybe you’re right, kind of.  I’ve been down that road, I’ve thought that way and passed the blame to society. Guess what, society passes it right back and here we sit; no change, no progress, no matter how much we want to think otherwise.  Everyone is to blame, society, governmental systems, educational systems, and, well, pretty much everyone except the students!

So what a perfect time in our nation’s history to step back and rethink it all. The whole system. Covid-19 is changing the way education thinks about itself, forced reflection and possibly (hopefully!) some revolutionary change in the ways that we approach the inequity in our educational system. Beyond education though we’re having another conversation about the way things need to change in our society, let’s combine them all!

Many of the failings of the educational system can be traced back to the systemic racism in America. We need to face this racism head on and start addressing it at the core. I believe that the educational system is one of the pieces of that core (poverty and historical racism are two other major parts). As a society we need to find ways to address all three of these pieces through having conversations, listening to each other, learning from one another, demanding change from our elected officials, voting for change, and participating wherever we can have an impact. I don’t have all the answers and there are certainly a lot more ways to address societal change but I’m mostly focused on the educational changes right now.

As educators, our voice is loudest in the educational system. Don’t get me wrong, we still have a major role to play in the other areas, but it is in education where we can have the biggest impact. I could go on for pages and pages but I’m going to try to wrap this up with some challenges for you as educators:

  1. Learn about racism: Learn about the history of race in this country. Learn about how your race impacts your life. Learn about how other races are impacted by their race. Learn about how your race impacts other races. Learn about the role of race in the classroom. Learn about the drivers of the systemic racism that corrupts our current society. Here is a wonderful place to start if you’re not sure where to begin (Don’t get overwhelmed, pick something manageable and start there, digest that, then come back for more. Also, despite the title…anyone can learn from the information on this page!!)
  2. Use what you’ve learned: Your voice grows as you become educated and informed. You may not always have the right answer but it’s not always about the answers…ask questions, lots of them!  Question your elected officials, question your public school system, and most of all question yourself. Ask your government what they are doing to combat systemic racism in your city/state/country, ask your school board what they are doing to make your school district equally accessible for ALL students, ask yourself all of these questions and more!
  3. Have conversations: This should probably be first on the list but I think people feel more comfortable having conversations after a while (those other things can start immediately). Start by talking about racism with your family and friends. Talk with people you trust and who know you. Be open, let down your guard, and be honest. Share your thoughts, listen to theirs, and keep an open mind – be ready to change your beliefs and opinions. Changing your opinions doesn’t mean you’re weak or stupid, or that you were wrong before and that you’re right now…it only means that you’ve changed your mind, it’s okay to do that!
  4. Expand your conversational circle: The vast majority of us, no matter who we are, have friends and family who have very similar lives and experiences to ours. So, while having those conversations close to home is a good starting point, eventually (and it’s okay if this takes a while) the best way to learn more is to expand your circle and have conversations out of your comfort zone. Key note here: These MUST be conversations – honest, authentic, open-minded conversations – if you don’t feel like you’re ready for that, then please don’t take this step yet! 

Lastly, thank you. Thank you to everyone who has read my messages and commented, shared resources with me, or had a conversation in the hallway or on Twitter. All of the positive feedback and encouragement continues to provide me with the motivation and courage to put my thoughts and beliefs “out there”. 

If you’ve appreciated, even slightly, my thoughts throughout the year(s), then please take this final message of the school year to heart and really dedicate yourself to helping make the changes necessary to improve this country (world). We, despite all of the craziness, are lucky to live in the country that we do and enjoy the many freedoms that we enjoy. While it has become evident that some enjoy those freedoms much more than others, there are many countries in the world where no one enjoys such freedoms as we do. Now is the time we can come together and make sure ALL people in this country enjoy ALL of our freedoms equally!!  

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!