Teach & Serve IV, No. 33 | Where Are Your Feet?

Teach & Serve IV, No. 33

Where Are Your Feet?

March 20, 2019

Where do we center ourselves in our work? From where do we draw balance and power? From where do we operate? Where do we walk and with whom?

Awhile back, I heard a leader I respect very much speaking about being present to the educational communities we serve. He posed a question that was brilliant in its simplicity:

“Where are your feet?”

What an excellent metaphor for us.

Where do we center ourselves in our work? From where do we draw balance and power? From where do we operate? Where do we walk and with whom?

I suggest that if are feet are out the door at the earliest opportunity each day, if they are planted firmly in faculty rooms and main offices, if they are in places that keep us away from the groups we should be serving and with whom we should be walking, we ought to re-assess our path.

Where are your feet?

Consider that. It is a simple and great question.

 

Teach & Serve IV, No. 32 | The Learning Portion of High School

Teach & Serve IV, No. 32

The Learning Portion of High School

March 13, 2019

The time to work with our students, to learn with them, to help them become critical thinkers, to set them up for the next year, the next school, the next steps in their lives is too critical to give up.

Last year, the movie Lady Bird, written and directed by Greta Gerwig, was nominated for multiple Academy Awards and was touted as one of the best films of the year. A loving look at the life of one high schooler growing up in Sacramento, California, the movie played out as a very realistic take on the adolescent life and included many, many quotable lines.

One of my favorites was spoken by Lady Bird, the title character. As she is speaking with one of her teachers, she delivers this bon mot: “I think we’re done with the learning portion of high school.”

Lady Bird is in the last months of her senior year and her quote epitomizes that all-too common malady: the senior slide. It is a great line but here is the problem: too many of us believe it.

Too many of us give into the notion that the learning portion of high school wraps up before the seniors actually walk across whatever stage they will stroll in their caps and gowns. Further, many of us believe that the learning portion of any given year winds down sometime in the spring, weeks before the end of the school year, and we give ourselves and our students latitude to down shift, to stop working hard, to slip into vacation.

I get it.

We are tired at the end of the year. So are the students. We are ready for break and we can see it coming. We need the down time.

I get it.

But the days and hours are so precious. The time to work with our students, to learn with them, to help them become critical thinkers, to set them up for the next year, the next school, the next steps in their lives is too critical to give up.

Should we adjust our strategies as the end of the term approaches? Absolutely. Should we abandon the work of education in the final weeks of the term and give in to our lesser natures? Absolutely not.

While “we’re done with the learning portion of high school” is a great line, it is just that: a great line. As educational professionals, hopefully we hold ourselves and our students and staffs to a bit higher standard.

We should.

 

Teach & Serve IV, No. 31 | The Power of “I Don’t Know”

Teach & Serve IV, No. 31

The Power of “I Don’t Know”

March 6, 2019

Excellent leaders know much.

But they do not have to know everything.

I am unsure when it was decided that a leader had to be the smartest person in any room, had to have each-and-every fact at her command, had to know more than everyone else. I do not know when that became “a thing.”

In less accomplished leaders with whom I have worked, I have observed that there is an inverse proportion of expressed knowledge and actual skill . Those leaders I considered not terrific were often the ones who had to be the keepers of all knowledge. They were the ones who purported to be the authorities on every subject.

In my opinion, that is not a good look for a leader.

Leaders who acknowledge when they do not know something and who ask for help are doing more than acting from a place of humility, they are empowering others who know more than they do. They are opening dialogue. They are leaving space for creativity. They are, in their admission of needing assistance, illustrating that everyone need not be perfect and that a they are part of a team wherein each person’s knowledge and opinion is valued.

There is a lot of power in admitting “I don’t know.”

Do not misunderstand: educational leaders should be lifelong learners and should strive to continue amassing knowledge of how their school functions, of the latest educational trends, of the people with whom they work. Excellent leaders know much.

But they do not have to know everything.

 

Teach & Serve IV, No. 30 | I Know Two Things…

Teach & Serve IV, No. 30

I Know Two Things…

February 27, 2019

I know two things: Some meetings are good; some meetings are bad, and the responsibility falls on the organizer of the meeting.

In the Barry Levinson film Wag the Dog, the wonderful William H. Macy has a number of bon mots which he delivers perfectly. Perhaps the best of these is this:  “I know two things: There is no difference between good flan and bad flan and there is no war.”

For the context of the comment, do watch the movie. It is a very good satire of media and politics and features a great cast.

I mention this quote because it reminds me I also know two things: Some meetings are good; some meetings are bad, and the responsibility falls on the organizer of the meeting.

I have written previously about meetings and their importance and I am very much in support of holding any and every meeting that needs to happen. However, the success or failure of a meeting rests, largely, upon the manner in which it is executed.

Good meetings do not just happen. They have to be planned for and they need to be run. Therefore, good meetings have chairs (not always the formal leader of the school or the department, etc.) who prepare in advance and pull the meeting together. They run the process during the meeting. They ensure all things that must happen after the meeting are handled.

In my experience, meetings go far better when participants are supplied agenda for the meeting which they must attend. It actually shocks me when I am asked to go to meeting with no agenda. In fact, I have said to those with whom I work that, except in some case of standing meetings, if I invite them to a meeting without an agenda, they should refuse to come. I am not kidding about this. Effective meetings have agenda, and those agenda are published and distributed to participants well in advance of said meeting.

The agenda lists the topics to be addressed, for sure, and also lists the people who will be engaged in each topic. Further, the agenda indicates what action will be taken in the meeting concerning each topic. Is this a topic for discussion? For decision? For brainstorming? Why is it on the agenda in the first place? Also, solid agenda list what outcome is anticipated for each issue and the amount of time allotted to them.

Finally, the meeting has published start and end times. The end time is the most critical. Good meetings end when they are scheduled to end. If items must be pushed to the next meeting, so be it. People have schedules to which they need to attend. Meetings that do not end when they are supposed to infringe on schedules and force difficult choices on participants: are they to be late to their next port-of-call or will they lose out on what happens in the portion of the meeting they miss? Putting people in position to make that kind of choice is avoided by a well-run meeting.

Once the meeting has concluded, minutes of the proceedings should be distributed as widely as possible. Everyone in the meeting should receive them and it may well be appropriate to share them with the broader community. Minutes should accurately reflect what has been said in the meeting and, likely, cannot be compiled in real time by the chair of the meeting but by a recorder. Memorializing what has been taken up in a meeting is an important part of the total process of running a good one.

Certainly, one must be flexible when creating agenda and when running a meeting. There will be exceptions to each-and-every item listed above. But, when people know in advance what they are doing in a meeting, what will be discussed, what role they play and when the meeting will wrap up and these things are adhered to more often than not, they are far more likely to come to meetings in a positive frame of mind.

I know two things: Some meetings are good; some meetings are bad, and the responsibility falls on the organizer of the meeting.

 

A Journal of the First Year | Fourteen


This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is image.png

21 | February | 2019


It is my intention to share some reflections on the highs, the lows, the excitement, the routine, the successes, the failures and everything in between which I experience the course of the next 10 – 12 months, my first months as a full-time principal of a high school.  Writing this journal will help me grow. Reading it may make you laugh… 


I have spent the last few days thinking about mentors. I have had a great many in my life – mentors who I trust and attempt to emulate and mentors who I pay attention to because they do things so differently than I that I rarely seek to accord myself as they do. This is a kind of mentorship, too.

And, as I have settled into my role as principal of Mullen High School,  I have to admit that I am a mentor for others, that some look to me in that role. This is an interesting realization and one that I actually grapple with quite a bit.

Frankly, I have been thinking about one mentor specifically, one who changed my life in ways incalculable. One I have known for over 30 years. One of the kindest, most gentle, most affirming people I’ll ever encounter. One who shared with me his love of education in the best way imaginable: he simply lived it honestly and authentically. I have had cause to think about the impact he has made in my life in sharp relief this week because he shared with me and with my best friend (another mentor of the kind we rarely consider – the peer mentor who challenges, cajoles and loves) that he – our mentor – does not have much time life on this earth.

To say that the news shocks and wounds is an understatement and I am still processing it, still considering a world without him. I am not ready yet to acknowledge and absorb this.

But what I have been able to do this week is to consider all that he has represented in my life. All that he has done. All that he continues to do. 

In ways big and small, I can point to how he changed me, changed my path, changed my existence. This is not hyperbole. This is fact. He encouraged an early interest in writing when I was a high school student. He shared with me his love of education. His dry wit has become a part of me. His compassion a standard to attempt to reach. His peacefulness and unflappability a seemingly unattainable height. His love of others a beacon.

In football, pundits talk about coaching trees, those coaches who were influenced by other, mentor coaches and who have gone on to lead teams of their own. It would take more than two hands to count the teachers and administrators that my mentor has launched. And, by extension, it would take a supercomputer to number all the students and staff and teachers those people have touched through the years.

What a gift.

That he has made me who I am is without question. And any good I do serving the faculty and staff with whom I walk is a testament to him. Utterly.

 

Teach & Serve IV, No. 29 | If You Don’t Want to Know, Don’t (But You Should Want to Know)

Teach & Serve IV, No. 29

If You Don’t Want to Know, Don’t Ask (But You Should Want to Know)

February 20, 2019

When we solicit feedback and our staff knows we will receive it openly, we have created rapport and trust.

A few years back, I was at the end of a program that I believed had come off very successfully. The participants in the professional development I had been a part of planning and offering and teaching seemed pleased and happy and I was feeling most gratified. In a capping conversation with the group, I proceeded to ask them what had worked, what they had liked and what they would take away.

Wow. They loved it. They had great things to say about the time we had spent together and the content of the program. They enjoyed the teaching and the pacing.

Feeling confident, I asked what they did not like about what we had done, assuming they would, given their positive feedback to this point, have a very difficult time thinking of anything that was not pitch perfect.

I am guessing you know where this is going.

Not only could they generate a few items (and there truly were only a few) that did not work for them, they noted one of my most favorite parts of the program and one of the pieces to which I was the most committed as one that was the least effective.

Though I attempted to hide my surprise at this element being called out as poorly pitched and poorly received, I am certain they noted my reaction because they rapidly ameliorated their complaints and the conversation ended.

This was a good lesson for me.

If you are going to ask a question, be ready to hear the answers.

I believe it is so very important to ask for feedback, both positive and negative (or constructive if that seems a more neutral term), on all aspects of our leadership and of the programs and professional development we put in front of our staffs. Without it, how do we grow?

Though the feedback for the program I have mentioned was not what I expected, I know that considering all aspects of what we were doing – all the  intended impacts and resulting impacts we could note (even as they related to my favorite part of the professional development) – made the overall program better.

And I learned something else: these teachers felt comfortable giving me this feedback. They felt they could share something with me that might be hard for me to hear. This, too, was an important take away. When we solicit feedback and our staff knows we will receive it openly, we have created rapport and trust.

If you don’t want to know, you shouldn’t ask. But if you don’t ask, you will never know.

Excellent leaders want to know. This is why they ask.

 

Teach & Serve IV, No. 28 | Do Not Play Chess, or Checkers for that Matter

Teach & Serve IV, No. 28

Do Not Play Chess, or Checkers for that Matter

February 13, 2019

Looking back, very little … maneuvering ever worked.

In the past, I have spent many hours (too many hours, frankly) trying to plot out my professional destiny.  These designs have sometimes been small in scope – determining how to get noticed in a faculty meeting or how to be appointed to an after-school duty I found desirable or how to get to teach the classes I want to teach or the department chair role I wanted. I often angled for these sorts of things, hoping that, if I did the right things, said the right words, acted in the right ways with the right people, I could influence outcomes in subtle and, sometimes, not so subtle ways.

I often schemed in a more grandiose fashion.

All too frequently, I attempted to play the long game, to play chess (three-dimensional chess at that!) while I thought everyone around me was playing checkers. I tried to line up the pieces in positions that would lead to being recognized and promoted, to being asked to chair think tanks and processes and committees, to being singled out as a great leader.

Looking back, very little of that maneuvering ever worked.

The reality is, I spent more time trying to find the jobs that would get me to level up in my job than simply doing a good job at my job, which is what wins us recognition in the first place.

Here’s the thing: you can try to play chess with your co-workers and bosses and colleagues all you want and you can assume they are just playing checkers. You can convince yourself that you are putting yourself in the best positions possible and you are winning the game. You can tell yourself you are smarter than the room and you are the master manipulator. Hey, go ahead and tell yourself you are winning.

Most likely, however, those around you are not even playing the game and your only opponent is yourself.

On reflection, that seems to me I spent an awful lot of wasted time – time I could have used getting better, sooner learning more about myself and being more genuine in my work and my leadership.

Game over.

Let the real work begin.

 

Teach & Serve IV, No. 27 | Integration

Teach & Serve IV, No. 27

Integration

February 6, 2019

Great leaders are not one person in school and another at home. Great leaders can be counted on to be consistent, to be authentic and to be integrated.

How much of one’s personal life should an educational leader bring into the context of running a school? How much should a leader share and make known to the faculty and staff she serves? How much does that faculty and staff have to know to work well with a leader?

I have worked with many people and for many people who have an ability that I do not come by naturally, that is to say they readily separate their personal lives, their “baggage,” and their stories and experiences from their professional ones. There are people for whom I have worked of whom I have known very little outside of school. I have not known their families, their interests, their desires and their concerns. I have not known their hobbies and how they spend their time after 4:00pm and before 7:30am.

And perhaps I have not needed to.

Here’s the thing: we who work together do not need to know everything about each other. This is true.

But this is likewise true: the most effective authentic and genuine leaders do integrate their personal lives fully into their professional ones. They do allow themselves to be known by the people they serve. They do open up about the hours before 7:30 and after 4:00 (as if those are truly the hours any educational leader worth his salt actually works!). They do find ways to let people in.

No, not everyone is entitled to know everyone else’s business. Yes, there are some things even the best leaders keep to themselves. But good leaders understand that good leadership flows from their being the best and truest versions of themselves.

How can someone be the best version of herself if she is holding things back, if she is not integrating both her personal and professional lives? That impulse denies too much of oneself and makes leadership harder and less authentic than it need be.

Great leaders are not one person in school and another at home. Great leaders can be counted on to be consistent, to be authentic and to be integrated.

Teach & Serve IV, No. 25 | Climate Control

Teach & Serve IV, No. 25

Climate Control

January 23, 2019

Climate control in a school is just as important as it is in a home.

I will not buy another house that does not have air conditioning. This is a first world demand, to be sure, but it is a very real one for me. After living in homes with air conditioning and without, I have reached this conclusion: when the family next moves, we will have air conditioning as one of our primary requirements in a new home. We have grown used to it. We feel it necessary. We do not wish to do without it.

It seems to me that people are more comfortable being able to set out temperature where we want it and we are more productive when we feel comfortable. We want some control over temperature and the technology exists. We will continue to use it. 

Climate control in a school is just as important as it is in a home.

We do better work as a staff when the school climate is not too hot, not too cold. We do better work when climate is predictable, when it is managed, when it does not vary wildly. We do better work when we can count on our environment.

Clearly, I am not simply writing about the physical temperature of our buildings. I am writing about how we feel when we are there. Do we primarily feel comfortable? Do we primarily feel safe? Do we primarily feel things are in control?

Leaders who wish to help those they serve feel comfortable and safe must attend to climate control. It is very much the responsibility of the leader to ensure the climate is acceptable and right for the community.

Leaders who are successful create welcoming environments physically in terms of keeping their schools clean and painted and fresh. They also create welcoming environments by establishing what is acceptable in terms of conversation and behavior. They build their teams based upon respect and knowledge of the individual. They serve their staffs by valuing them.

They create healthy climates.

People do their best work in climates that are intentionally managed, that are not left to chance. Good leaders know that climate control is another part of the job and a very important one at that.

Teach & Serve IV, No. 24 | Hard to Recapture…

Teach & Serve IV, No. 24

Hard to Recapture…

January 16, 2019

Effective leaders understand that, once their leadership starts to wane, it is quite difficult to recapture.

When a leader, for whatever reason, stops doing the good and hard work, the respect of the community can (and usually does) drop precipitously. Once a leader has seceded leadership by ceasing to perform the functions of good leadership, effective leadership is almost impossible to recapture.  The respect of those being led, once lost, is very, very hard to get back. Therefore, a leader must be very aware of and solicitous to the functions of the work of leadership.

The reasons a leader may stop fulfilling the responsibilities of her or his leadership are many. And the reasons do matter. For example, if a leader has issues in her or his personal life that are impacting performance and shares those, as appropriate, with the school community she or he serves, those communities are, typically, very forgiving and understanding. If the leader is confronted by professional circumstance that limits effectiveness and, likewise, can be honest and open about both the pressures and how they will be overcome, a community can understand that and determine its response. But this is not always the case. Often leaders simply stop leading.

This is more common than we might want to acknowledge. Often, when a leader is simply tired or has lost interest or feels some functions of leadership simply are not as important to him or her, perhaps not as critical as they may once have been, she or he begins to cross things off the list of good leadership. He or she starts to let things go. Perhaps the thought is no one will notice. Perhaps the thought it the school can run itself. Perhaps the thought is all the good work done before this point will carry the institution forward on momentum alone.

Perhaps. But I doubt it.

In a school, faculty and staff notice these shifts. They know when things are being done differently or not being done at all. They may confront the leader about them. They may not. Either way, the damage is done, and the damage can be very hard to come back from for the leader.

Effective leaders understand that, once their leadership starts to wane, it is quite difficult to recapture. The difficult (and, ultimately, highly rewarding) work of leadership is constant. Excellent leaders embrace the privilege it is to serve.