Staying on Track in Uncertain Times

We are living in some very uncertain times right now, like nothing any of us have ever experienced.  Covid-19 has become the most discussed topic anywhere; every table in every restaurant, in every classroom of every school, around the coffee pot in every office and on every news network, website or podcast.  Even the sports world, a place where many people go for an escape has completely shut down. The NBA, NHL, MLB, PGA and NCAA have all completely suspended action, not to mention all the overseas leagues and events. And now school is closed for the next three weeks. So what do we do now? 

Let me start by saying, I don’t have all the answers…sorry!  However, I’ve got some ideas about what we can be doing during this and other times of uncertainty.  I’ve been watching the Covid-19 outbreak closely. As you may know, I lived in China for four years and Italy for three years.  I still have many friends who live and work in those places and I’ve been in touch with many of them over the last two months. Based on some of the conversations I’ve had with them, as well as what I’ve learned through my own research, I’d like to share some thoughts.  Please keep in mind, I’m not a medical professional so I’m not going to go too deep into any medical measures…these are just my thoughts!

We don’t know what is going to happen in the coming weeks.  Everything may continue on as usual or not, it is a time of uncertainty.  If we end up in a situation where our lives are thrown into complete turmoil, it’s easy to get off track.  

Here are 10 things I’ve learned by watching, listening and talking with friends and former colleagues that may help you to stay on track:

  1. Stock up, but you probably don’t need to panic:  The run on toilet paper started months ago with a rumor in China.  The rumor was that they were going to stop manufacturing TP in favor of making more masks, it was a rumor and didn’t happen.  People in China who panicked and bought tons of TP are starting to see it mold over and cause other problems…plus, how much TP do you need?!  Similarly, consider how many cleaning wipes, hand sanitizer or other important items you purchase. Buy what you need for you and your family; if other people don’t have these supplies then we won’t be able to slow the spread of any disease.  We all need supplies…don’t be greedy!  
  2. Create routine:  We thrive on routines.  Keep waking up at a normal(ish) time.  Set yourself a to-do list that includes chores, required professional duties, ways to relax and other things you want to achieve.  If you have kids, this is even more important for them…routine, routine, routine!
  3. Exercise:  Find a way to build exercise into your routine.  Go outside for a walk or find a yoga routine on youtube and do it in your living room.  Pretty much everything I’ve seen recommends avoiding the gym, you never know who touched those weights, machines or exercise mats before you got there…sorry!  
  4. Focus on what you can control:  There’s lots of uncertainty which can easily lead to fear.  Try to keep the majority of your focus and energy on those things that you can control.  Ensure that you and your family are doing everything you can to stay safe and healthy, both physically and mentally.  
  5. Mindfulness:  Speaking of mental health, take this opportunity to explore some mindfulness apps.  One of the most common things I’ve heard from those who’ve been at this for a while is that being home for so long is very difficult mentally.  Many schools are recommending daily mindfulness for students and I’m recommending it for you! I tried Headspace a few years ago (I wrote about it too) and really liked it, the app has changed a bit since I first tried it but you can still explore for free before deciding if you’d like to purchase.  There are also lots of other free options out there!
  6. Be creative and active:  It’s almost time to get those gardens started for the year, maybe start by potting some plants.  While you’re at it, grab some paint and decorate the pots too! Also, there are lots of painting tutorials online, get yourself some blank canvases and cheap paints and let the creativity flow.  If painting isn’t your thing, look to Pinterest for inspiration!! Once the craziness dies down in the grocery stores you should still be able to find most everything you need to try a new recipe or two.  Search online for “easy dinner recipes” or “top recipes of 2019”…maybe you’ll find your new favorite dish.
  7. Do the things you’ve been putting off:  Have you done your taxes? Maybe you’re like me and you have a pile of clothes that need some buttons sewed on or stitching fixed.  Perhaps it’s time to pack away your winter clothes and get the summer gear ready. Find some tasks that need to get done anyway and check them off your list…my wife and I have already made a “Covid-19 To-Do List”.
  8. Read and listen wisely:  There is a lot of “information” floating around in the “news” and on social media.  Take care to carefully consider the source when you’re collecting information. I’ve relied heavily on NPR lately as I trust their reporting but I never rely on just one source.  
  9. Find ways to stay connected to others:  Facetime is a great tool and talking on the phone is a lost art, don’t be afraid to revive it.  Going for a walk in the park with your healthy friend/sibling/children would be a great way to connect and get out of the house.  Be smart about who and where you’re socializing but don’t completely cut yourself off from the world. 
  10. Find fun away from the screen:  Look for ways to have fun that don’t involve that evil blue light.  I’d be insane to think people aren’t going to binge a few shows during this time but there are other things too.  Read the books you have in your house before you buy new ones on your Kindle, then donate them once you’ve finished.  Dust off those old board games and decks of cards instead of playing those games on your phone. Play Spoons with your kids, draw on the sidewalk with chalk or try some origami.    

No one knows what to expect for the next few weeks, let alone beyond that.  Take this time as an opportunity but also make sure that you’re doing what you need to take care of yourself.  If you or someone you know is struggling, then please reach out and find support. The number one thing I’ve heard from my friends and former colleagues who are going through this experience is that it is hard.  I don’t want to be a fear monger but I think it is important that we are informed. Hopefully, as a community and as a Country, we are able to move past Covid-19 quickly and safely but there’s no reason we shouldn’t start with our eyes open.

I hope these ideas give you a starting point as you ponder the next three weeks and beyond.  Please don’t hesitate to reach out to me at any point, for anything!

A Team Built for March Madness

It’s finally March, by far my favorite month of the year…it’s March Madness!!  For those of you who aren’t sure about what that means, it’s the end of the college basketball season and tournament time!  As the season finishes there are league tournaments and then the NCAA Tournament to determine the National Champion. For basketball fans it doesn’t get any better than this, the unpredictability of the tournaments creates a sense of ‘madness’ and hence the name…it’s awesome!  What does that have to do with education though??

Over the weekend I watched as my Wisconsin Badgers won a share of the Big Ten Championship and after a season of so much adversity I was very surprised by their resolve.  However, the more I think about it the more I realize that I shouldn’t have been surprised. This program has shown this sort of resolve and determination before, just a few years ago in fact.  Back in 2015 the Badgers played in the championship game (they lost unfortunately) and lost a lot of players to graduation and leaving to play in the NBA. The next season started off poorly, they lost to teams they had no business losing to and looked bad.  Then, out of the blue, right in the middle of the season their legendary coach, Bo Ryan, decided to retire. He left a team that was already struggling to his long-time assistant coach, Greg Gard, and said ‘good luck’. It was a recipe for disaster in almost everyone’s eyes.

Except there was one person in particular who believed that success was still possible…the new head coach.  The team that started out by losing most of its early games, won 11 of their last 12 regular season games and finished tied for third in the Big Ten…simply amazing!  So how did they do it?

It all started with their new coach, Greg Gard.  He went back to basics, he literally went back to the foundation.  Stories came out about how Coach Gard brought bricks into the locker room.  Each player took one and wrote a word or phrase about what they could do to help the team.  Words like “selfless”, “heart”, and “leader” were shared. These bricks were then placed in the locker room, a sign of the foundation that this team would stand on for their renewed effort for the season ahead.  The idea was that you can’t build anything with just one brick and if you try to build with missing pieces then your results won’t stand. Basketball is a team game and the brick foundation is as true an analogy as any…no one can do it alone, we all need to work together.

There’s an African proverb that we’ve all heard, “It takes a village to raise a child.”  I think the brick foundation analogy works well with that African proverb. Together we can achieve our goals, as a grade level team, as a campus, and as a school…team work is the key to achieving our biggest goals. 

We have an amazing team here at KTEC.  The amount of experience, knowledge, and energy that we’ve pulled together to guide our students toward success is absolutely astonishing.  Every student at this school can benefit from the collective effort of the amazing faculty and staff. To ensure this success we need to come together to form an indestructible team.  

I know many of you work closely with your grade level teams and other colleagues, we have another opportunity this Friday.  It’s a busy and stressful time of year for all of us. Take care of yourself, find your balance, and ensure that your teammates are cared for as well.  Success for the remainder of the year lies in us coming together as the dynamic and talented team that we are. It’s never too late to stop and reevaluate the foundation…what word would you write on your brick?

Me and My BHAG

I started my career as a teacher in Houston, Texas where I had been placed after being accepted into Teach For America.  I didn’t know much about teaching and would learn A LOT during the six week, high intensity Summer Institute. We were on campus at an elementary school for 10 hours a day either taking professional development classes, writing lesson plans, or teaching summer school classes.  It was probably the most intense six weeks of my life. I’m sure that most everything I learned about teaching during Summer Institute has been forgotten but one thing has always held strong in my memory, the BHAG.  

The BHAG, or Big, Hairy, Ambitious Goal, was the cornerstone of my efforts as a Teach For America corps member.  TFA corps members are usually placed into schools where students operating below grade-level standards are the norm.  In fact, in my first class I had just over 10% (6/58) of my students who were on or above grade-level at the beginning of the school year.  So when I sat down to set my goals for the year, I had to think Big, Hairy and Ambitious! I’d assume that most people would have been happy to have all of their students achieve one year of growth, especially as a first year teacher.  However, I knew that wasn’t going to cut it. If I settled for one year of growth then I would only be sending 10% of my students to 7th grade prepared for success, I had to shoot higher.  

One year of growth is great but it should be the absolute minimum that we are willing to accept, for ALL of our students.  When we’re considering a class of students who are going to be with us for an entire school year, we can’t look at them and say, “I hope to have 80% of them achieve one year of growth.”  If we are okay with that, then the other thing we are saying is, “I’m okay if 20% of my students fall behind this year.” When I was facing a reality that 90% of my students were already operating below grade-level standards, I had to be aggressive and think big.  My BHAG for my first year as a teacher was that my students would grow, on average, two grade levels in reading during their 6th grade year. Guess what, probably to no one’s surprise, my students and I didn’t meet that goal. In my first year, my students grew by an average of 1.56 (I’ll never forget that number) grade levels, and I was crushed.  

It took me most of the summer to get over the fact that I hadn’t met my goal. Fortunately, I had a wonderful Teach For America mentor who coached me regularly.  At our beginning of the year meeting heading into my second year she celebrated me and showed me the real reason why we set BHAGs. See, while my class didn’t average two grade levels of growth in Reading they did, collectively, become a lot more prepared for 7th grade.  Almost 75% of my students were leaving 6th grade on level, up from just over 10% at the beginning of the year. We had made significant progress toward closing the gap in reading for these children. The Big, Hairy, Ambitious Goal I had set helped us shoot for the stars, we may not have reached the stars but we landed on the moon!  

Goals are meant to motivate us and give us a target that we can shoot for every day.  Setting a BHAG ensures that we’re always going to have a target in front of us. In fact, there’s a very interesting Hidden Brain podcast episode that explains how goals that we don’t quite achieve are actually just as, and maybe more, motivating as goals we do achieve.  So, it should be no surprise that the next school year I was right back at it, setting the same BHAG…and missing again (1.83 years growth).  I never did achieve that BHAG, I always fell somewhere between my first and second year results, but I strived for it every year that I taught.  It drove my practice as an educator and gave me purpose when my motivation was lacking. I was fortunate to learn early that not meeting goals was okay as long as the goals I was setting were Big, Hairy, and Ambitious!  

What are your BHAGs for your students?


Inspired by the Girl Scouts: Leaving a Place Better Than You Found It

Girl Scout cookies arrived last week and I’ve never seen such a mix of emotions from people.  I’ve heard, “this is my favorite time of year, it’s better than Christmas!” On the other hand, I’ve heard things like, “ugh, I’ve got 300 boxes of Girl Scout cookies in my garage right now and can’t even get the car in there, this is the worst time of year!”  Personally, I like the latter group because they’re the ones who show up with boxes of cookies to share every time you see them!!  

All this thinking about the Girl Scouts reminded me of something I learned from a former student a few years back.  She was telling me about the badges she was trying to earn and she was explaining the “Girl Scout Way” badge, if I recall she was in the Brownies at the time.  The part that made me the happiest was when she explained to me that one of the requirements for this badge was to demonstrate a mastery of the understanding that “Girl Scouts leave a place better than they found it.”  

I couldn’t have been more excited when she explained this to me; it has long been a value of mine that I’ve tried to model and foster in all of my school communities over the years.  It’s quite a simple thing to do really. If you’re walking in the park/hallway/your neighborhood (anywhere really) and you see some trash, pick it up. If you borrow someone’s classroom, you put the chairs back the way you found them and tidy up.  If your friend loans you their car for the day, you fill it up with gas and maybe even get it washed. This value is all about demonstrating concern for the greater good of the community. If we can just do a little bit to help make something better, and we all commit to that, then the world will be a much better place in general.

My examples above were all physical examples, things you can do to improve places or items.  However, this value of “leave a place better than you found it” holds true to emotional or intellectual spaces as well.  Are people at the party better off after you’ve been there? Did you add value to the conversations, make people laugh, or offer a good piece of advice to a friend?  What about at school? Did you contribute positively to your collaborative team meeting? Were you able to help a colleague today or pay a compliment to someone who usually goes unrecognized?  The concept of leaving a place better than you found it takes many forms, if the whole world would just follow this model we’d all be a lot better off!

Last week I talked about the power of kindness, I guess this is a specific extension of that concept.  The Girls Scouts inspired me this week. I’ve been inspired to eat a lot of cookies (I like the peanut butter sandwiches the best!)  I’ve also been inspired to renew my focus on leaving a place better than I find it, as well as spreading the message.  

I’d like to encourage you to share this message with your students, encourage them to embrace this value, and then let them see you modeling it too!  

Building Community One Act of Kindness at a Time

Today is National Random Acts of Kindness Day and I’ll be honest, I don’t love the term “random act of kindness”.  Now, to be sure, I think it is awesome when someone spontaneously demonstrates kindness through a spur of the moment act.  However, I guess it’s the random part of that phrase that I don’t like.  Random means that something happens without conscious thought.  Maybe it just sounds like semantics but hear me out…

Let’s start with some examples of “random acts of kindness” that I found when I searched for ideas for Random Act of Kindness Day:

  1. Pay for the coffee of the person behind you in line at Starbucks.
  2. Write a note telling someone how much you appreciate them.
  3. Donate blood.
  4. Write a letter to a deployed member of the military through Operation Gratitude.
  5. As a class, take time to write letters to the custodians to thank them for their work AND leave the classroom spotless to make their job easier.

Don’t get me wrong, these are awesome acts of kindness!!  However, they aren’t random, they are calculated and take time and effort.  To me, a random act of kindness is something that happens on the spur of the moment, is (mostly) uncalculated, and (usually) is a small act that demonstrates someone’s care and respect.  Here are some examples of what I see as true Random Acts of Kindness:

  1. Help someone carry their groceries to their car.
  2. Hold the door for one or more people coming behind you.
  3. Pick up a piece of trash that happens to be in your path.
  4. Compliment someone genuinely (bonus for doing this with a stranger).
  5. Help someone pay for something they may not have enough cash to cover.

Okay, so you’re all thinking, “What happened to Bret, did he wake up on the wrong side of the bed today or what, who cares if it’s random or not?!?”  I guess what I’m really trying to say here is that to me, the word “random” cheapens the act of kindness.  We should really be talking about kindness as something that is conscious, intentional, and common. Kindness shouldn’t be reserved for a special day and it shouldn’t just be random.  As educators we have a lot of power here, in the way that we talk about kindness with our students and in our community.  Kindness is a VERY powerful thing!! It should be intentional, it should be conscious, and it should be prioritized!

Want to know how powerful?  Watch this video:  It’s only 2:15 long and does an excellent job of explaining the Science of Kindness.

I don’t care if you call it random or not (you can ignore that rant if you’d like), the important parts are the acts of kindness themselves.  We need more of them, we need to be teaching and encouraging them with our students, and all of this will make everyone happier.  

 I’ll leave you with this thought:  If kindness really has the power described in the video above, what might happen if all of our students were to become focused on acts of kindness and making people feel happy?


“Education isn’t a monologue, it’s a conversation.”

This weekend we had tickets to see The Lion King, the Broadway production, in Milwaukee. My wife had seen it before and told me how amazing all the technical aspects were but I wasn’t able to appreciate it until I’d seen it myself.  The way they brought the savannah of Africa to the stage was one of the most impressive things I’ve seen in a long time.  

Knowing the story so well from seeing the movie(s) so many times, it was fun to be able to focus on the amazing combination of engineering and creativity that went into the production of this show.  Making a movie based solely on talking/singing animals is one thing, but turning it into a theatrical performance where all of the animals are played by humans took some serious creativity! Beyond the creativity there was a lot of brilliant engineering that went into creating a show that was not only true to the original story but also “believable” enough so as to engage the audience.

As I contemplated this wonderful combination of technical work and creative juices, I thought back to a Ted talk done by Sir Ken Robinson.  It was recorded over ten years ago now but he discussed his thoughts about how the system of education that exists today is effectively designed to suffocate creativity.  It had been a while since I’d watched it, so I went back to look for it when I came across a new presentation by him. What is most interesting (depressing) to me about this new presentation is that the main idea hasn’t changed, we still have a lot to do to fix education.

In his new talk, Sir Ken Robinson discusses the important ways that education should impact those it intends to serve, the students.  He talks about how education inevitably has impacts on the economic, cultural, and social levels for our students. The last area that he says education should help our students is personally.  Sir Ken Robinson says, “Education should enable young people to engage with the world within them as well as the world around them.” 

How do we develop agile classrooms where there is “a community of learners being facilitated by an expert teacher” and where “dynamic encounters” happen with the guidance of knowledgeable mentors?

Sir Ken Robinson’s thoughts on education and the revolution that is needed within education should be heard by everyone.  Have a listen here and then I’d LOVE to hear your thoughts at any time: in the hallway, after school, in an email, or however you’d like to share.  This isn’t homework but I very much enjoy thinking about how we can be better for our students, if you’ve got any thoughts you’d like to share please do so!  

“Education isn’t a monologue, it’s a conversation.” – Sir Ken Robinson


Be a Champion, Know Your Why

Why?  Why do you do what you do?  Why did you begin in the first place?  Why do you continue?

I wrote last week about looking in the mirror instead of out the window.  The most important question we can ask ourselves when we look in that mirror is, “why?”  Beginning with understanding our why is the most important thing we can do.  Whether we are talking about our work with our students, going on a diet, or making the decision to buy a house…we have to start by asking, “why?”

I’m going to keep it short this week and want to share a couple videos with you.  First off is Simon Sinek, a marketing consultant, author, and motivational speaker.  His Ted talk, with almost 50 million views, will help you understand the science (don’t let the word science scare you, this is very interesting!) behind the importance of starting with the why.  As Simon says, “People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.”  Everyone knows that you work with students every day to help them learn, but can you articulate (honestly) why?

Then, take a few minutes to get inspired about the work you do and continue thinking about your why with Rita Pierson’s Ted Talk.  Mrs. Pierson is an educator of 40 years, and wonderful storyteller, who knows her why and is incredibly inspirational.  If you’ve seen this before, that’s fine, watch it again as you can never see it too often!


Moving From Windows to Mirrors

If you’re looking out the window for the answers, you’re looking in the wrong place.  Instead, look in the mirror.

The most important work we do as educators is helping our students learn and grow.  However, in order for us to be better for our students and continue to help support their growth we need to make sure that we are giving ourselves the best chance to learn and grow along the way.  When we think about our students’ learning and the challenges we face helping them grow, it is easy to blame outside factors when things aren’t going the right way. Maybe it’s the parents, a lack of effort by the students, a background of trauma, or even a full moon.  Any of these reasons are convenient excuses, and they may well play a factor, but we should look at ourselves first.  

Back in December I wrote about reflection and suggested taking the time to think about the past calendar year and allow yourself the time to identify goals for 2020.  I hope you went through that process and have gotten yourself off to a good start in the new year, this would be a great time to stop and check-in with those goals and make adjustments as needed!  

As we begin the second semester of the school year we’ve come to another natural time for reflection.  When you look back at the first semester and consider the challenges you’ve overcome and those that you continue to face, try to identify the main obstacles.  Our natural tendency as human beings is to look outward, through the window, at external causes and blame those obstacles for the challenges we face. However, what if we started by looking in the mirror and examining how we could improve?  

I strive to improve myself each day, in at least some small way.  Without taking the time to look in the mirror and reflect I would never be able to meet that goal.  I have bigger, long-term goals as well as more bite-sized, short-term goals that help me stay focused on the present while keeping an eye on the future.  This, however, isn’t easy work. I frequently rely on mentors, colleagues, friends, and family to help me achieve my goals. Sometimes I seek specific advice from these people but many times I just need someone to hold the mirror for me, so to speak, and give me honest feedback.  Going through the process of reflecting, learning, and growing is not easy but the opportunity to be better every day is something that energizes me and makes all of the challenge worth it in the end.  

We’re at the mid-year point here at school.  Whether you are being formally observed this school year or not I want you all to know that I’m more than happy to help hold the mirror up for you as you go through this reflection process, please don’t hesitate to ask!!

Showing Gratitude, Feeling Good

Last week I mentioned that we were relatively lucky to have such good custodians and support both during the day and after school.  I suggested that it is important to let them know how much we appreciate their efforts. I’ve been thinking about that message since I wrote it; it’s important that we let everyone, not just the custodians, know how much we appreciate them!

The power of gratitude shouldn’t be underestimated.  Whether you’re the recipient or the person showing gratitude, the effects are undeniable.  In either case you feel better about yourself and you become, overall, more positive in your life.  There’s a lot of awesome research happening around the power of gratitude and it shows, time and time again, that showing gratitude is one of the healthiest things we can do!  

The Greater Good Science Center, out of UC Berkeley, is a definite go-to for me when it comes to social-emotional or mental health conversations.  One article that I love was written almost ten years ago but is still supported by today’s research. I like this article because the author shares some of the physical, psychological, and social benefits of showing gratitude.  I’ll keep it short this week because I want to encourage you to take a look at this article (and watch the embedded videos if you have time) and then consider ways that you can incorporate more gratitude into your life. 

Make Your Layups: Why some feedback just isn’t effective

Do you ever, when you’re not at school, catch yourself still in school mode?  Maybe you’ve told a kid who was running in Target to slow down or you’ve used your teacher look with complete strangers at a restaurant.  It happens, we have a hard time shutting it off. This weekend I caught myself slipping into school mode and thinking about the level of feedback I was witnessing.

When I was in high school I started working as a basketball referee to make money.  I’ve always enjoyed basketball as a player and coach. Now that I’m too out of shape and too busy for those parts of the game, I stay connected by periodically reffing a few games.  This past weekend I worked four games of sixth grade girls basketball and found myself doing mini observations of the coaches, mostly about their feedback styles.  

At this level of basketball there is still a wide range of skill levels on the court at the same time, some players have clearly been playing and practicing for a long time and others have obviously just begun playing this year.  Being around basketball for so long I often feel like I’ve seen everything, but observing the coaches of these sixth grade teams through the lens of an educator proved very interesting.

Coaches who focus on their team and giving them feedback about their goals (versus yelling at me, the referee, the whole game) often see their teams improve tremendously over the course of a season and find success in the win column.  There are other coaches, however, who seem to be giving great feedback but not winning many games or seeing much improvement. This weekend I realized where the disconnect was most likely happening for one of these coaches.

I started to listen more carefully to one particular coach’s feedback for his team, it was full of the typical basketball jargon but when I really paid attention to his feedback I realized that it was focused on the wrong things.  Saying to someone “make your layups” or “stop dribbling the ball off your foot” doesn’t help them improve. In fact, this level of feedback probably hurts their growth by increasing their frustration level. They know the desired result, they are supposed to make the baskets and dribbling the ball off their foot is bad (duh!), telling them to do those things doesn’t help them improve at all. By focusing on the process instead of the result, the player can actually use the feedback to improve their skill set.  The quality of feedback provided is the true differentiator between successful feedback and wasted feedback.

As I drove home, I started thinking about how my coaching observations connected to the work we do every day with our kids.  The way that we give feedback and the quality of that feedback matter, a lot. Focusing on growth and helping students figure out what comes next in their learning process is a very important piece of helping them find success.  In the short term, not every student is at the same level, so they shouldn’t all have the same end goal. Each student is different and many will achieve their long term goals by following different paths. Providing students with quality feedback allows them to see their next steps clearly as you guide them through their learning.   Improving the ways that we give feedback as teachers is crucial to the growth and success of our students.  

Guiding our students in the learning process requires constant feedback and since we’re giving it so often we should always be thinking about how we can make it as effective as possible.  Solution Tree has a great “White Paper” about this subject that is a quick, easy read and can even serve as a sort of checklist for anyone thinking about giving effective feedback to their students.  Have a look here, it does a much better job than I’ll ever be able to do of explaining feedback, it’s importance, and how to ensure your feedback is effective.