Superheroic Leadership Vol. 1 No. 20 – Wrap Up

Superheroic Leadership Vol. I * No. 20

Wrap Up

Superheroic Leadership is a light-hearted examination of what superheroic figures have to teach about leadership and what I have learned from their adventures.


Today marks the final edition of Superheroic Leadership. Hopefully,  you have enjoyed some of the reflections here…  and please revisit any you wish below!

in the fall of 2018, Superheroic Leadership gives way to A Journal of the First Year which will contain stories from my first year as a principal of a high school. 

Teach & Serve III, No. 41 – You Changed My Life

Teach & Serve III, No. 41 – You Changed My Life

May 23, 2018

This is the final edition of Teach & Serve for the 2017-2018 school year.  Teach & Serve IV will begin next fall on 8.8.18

At some point in the journey of their lives your former students recognize what happened and many seek out past instructors to tell them something profound: “you changed my life.”

Late May in schools is rife with many emotions. Teachers and administrators are ready to bid the year farewell and to get to summer vacation. Late May brings with it the promise that an opportunity for rest and recharging is not far away. Certainly there are some obstacles yet to clear what with exams or grading final projects, cleaning out of classrooms and turning in of reports, packing up materials and checking out of buildings.

Though the end is nigh, there are still things to do.

Our students have things to do, too and they normally do not accomplish one of the most critical tasks of the end of the school year. With varying degrees of seriousness and success, they approach their final projects and tests. They clean out their lockers. They sign their yearbooks and they say their goodbyes. But they typically leave out something very important.

Multiple summers down the road, when water has passed under bridges and calendar pages have turned, many former students realize they forgot something back in the spring months of their school days. At some point in the journey of their lives your former students recognize what happened and many seek out past instructors to tell them something profound: “you changed my life.”

It is not entirely fair to expect students living in these late May moments to understand what has occurred in their lives. Some do. Some know the debts of gratitude they owe. Some are able to articulate this to their teachers. But the vast majority have not the breadth of knowledge, the introspection or the reflective capacity to get it.

Not yet.

They have not lived enough life and that is okay. As educators, we know that our students are not finished products. They have more to learn.

And so do we because, in the late May morass, we are just as likely to forget to acknowledge to ourselves that we have, in fact, changed lives.

paintingWorking in schools is not like painting a wall. Teachers do not get to blue tape the edges of their students and fill in the gaps until they are fully colored and vibrant. Teachers do not get to see the results of the hours of preparation and the early mornings and the late nights. Teachers do not know the seeds they are planting as they are dropping them in fertile ground. Teachers do not always know the affect they have until long after they have had it.

At this moment, I know full well that many of your students are not paying attention to you in class, are pushing every button you have, are just as ready to be away from you as you are from them. I know that many of us are just as ready for summer as our charges are. I know that there is much to accomplish and much to do. I know this. But I know something else, too. In late May teachers need this critical perspective and I would like to provide it.

Please allow me to remind all the teachers and coaches and administrators and educational professionals: you have changed lives these last nine months. Please allow me to remind you about something that is profound in our work:

You have changed lives.

Treasure giving that gift, even if those who receive it are not always able to acknowledge that they have.

Teach & Serve III, No. 40 – The Final Thank You of the Year

Teach & Serve III, No. 40 – The Final Thank You of the Year

May 16, 2018

Bottom line at this busy time of year: if you can only steal a moment to thank someone, to show your appreciation for one person on this list, make it yourself.

You deserve it. Know that in your heart. Feel it in your soul. Repeat it in your head.

Any way you look at the present situation, this much is true: there is very little time left in this academic year.

Please allow me to encourage one last practice: say “thank you.”

Find 10 minutes, just 10 for appreciation and gratitude. Go somewhere quiet. Put on your earphones or put in your earbuds. Sit alone. Reflect. Take out a piece of paper or use you iPad or phone and make a list of those to whom you might say, “thank you.”

  • Thank your family and friends, you boyfriends and girlfriends and significant others who support you in this work.
  • Thank those who put you in this school, the administrator or H.R. personnel who hired you.
  • Thank the parents who entrusted their children to you.
  • Thank the students who sat in your classrooms, who played on your fields, acted on your stages, made music in your rehearsal spaces, deliberated in your student councils and mock trials and model UNs.
  • Thank your colleagues, those with whom you’ve journeyed this year, for their guidance, support and love.
  • Finally, and critically, thank yourself.

Give yourself credit for all you have done, for the long work you have begun, for the way you have influenced your students, for the gift you have been to them. Thank yourself for getting near the finish line, for perseverance, for faith. Thank yourself for each time you went on when you thought you could not, for each step you took when you were exhausted, for each time you went the extra mile or five or ten. Thank yourself for being part of this vocation, this incredibly important work.

Bottom line at this busy time of year: if you can only steal a moment to thank someone, to show your appreciation for one person on this list, make it yourself.

You deserve it. Know that in your heart. Feel it in your soul. Repeat it in your head.

You.

Deserve.

Thanks.

Give it to yourself, please.

Superheroic Leadership Vol. 1 No. 19 – Favorite Fictional Teachers

Superheroic Leadership Vol. I * No. 19

Favorite Fictional Teachers

Superheroic Leadership is a light-hearted examination of what superheroic figures have to teach about leadership and what I have learned from their adventures.


During this Teacher Appreciation Week 2018, it seems appropriate that I revisit my personal list of the best fictional teachers.

Here goes!

Obi Wan Kenobi and Yoda are awarded this distinction for their ability to inspire students to come to the truth, their connection to an inspirational greater power, their commitment to teaching (even if they have to sacrifice their lives for it), their wise sayings, their ability to DO and not just teach, their skill with their chosen tools, and their dedication to dealing with even the most complaining and petulant students (i.e. Anakin and Luke Skywalker!)

Ralph Hanley (the Greatest American Hero) is awarded this distinction for his ability to keep his students out of trouble while saving the world, his balancing of the life of a superhero and a teacher, his ability to walk on air, his understanding that one person can make a difference … believe it or not, it’s just him. You know you want to hear it… click HERE for the Mike Post theme song! Oh, and a quick bit of trivia… Ralph Hanley’s name was originally Ralph Hinkley, but that surname was changed after the attempt on President Reagan’s life by John Hinkley, jr.

Ms. Norbury (from Mean Girls) is awarded this distinction for her sweet sarcasm, her being the best of a bad crop of educators, her love of a well-turned phrase, her pusher-ness – she pushes people – and her incredible likeness to Liz Lemon.

Professor Charles Xavier (of The X-Men)is awarded this distinction for his intelligence, his supernatural power to know what people are thinking, his love of the marginalized, his ability to “push” people to do what is best, his living of a full life while differently abled and his beautiful dome.

Laura Roslin (of Battlestar Galatica) is awarded this distinction for her faith in adversity – a quality all good teachers possess, her courage under extreme circumstances, her ability to inspire loyalty and confidence in others, her career track (teacher to Secretary of Education to President of the Colonies – though this last step took the rest of the Cabinet being obliterated by the Cylons and her standing with a fist. So say we all..

Professor Ross Geller (one of our best Friends) is awarded this distinction for his undying commitment to his subject matter, his desire to educate all around him, no matter how much they don’t want to learn, his enthusiasm in all circumstances, his never-say-die attitude (he gets fired from positions and keeps coming back), his thumbing his nose at rules by dating his students, and, never forget that… he’ll be there for us.

Professor Henry Jones, jr. is awarded this distinction for making education exciting, his practical, real world application of his subject matter, his dislike of reptiles, his ability to survive every calamity including nuclear explosions and Shia LaBeouf, his battling evil – like the Nazis, and not his years, but his mileage.

Jane Eyre is awarded this distinction for her courage under fire, her devotion to her studies and her pupils, her overcoming impossible odds, her passionate love, and her fleeing of her relatives.

Mrs. Nelson (you heard Mrs. Nelson Is Missing, right!?!) is awarded this distinction for the fact that she knows how to illustrate to her students to be careful what they wish for… Enough. Said. I hate it when she’s missing…

My favorite is Mr. Glen Holland (from Mr. Holland’s Opus) who is awarded this distinction for surprising himself by finding a life in education, for teaching his students as much about life as about music, for making good choices even in the face of temptation, for reaching out to those in need, for inspiring his students, for finding his compass and being one of mine.

Teach & Serve III, No. 39 – Appreciation

Teach & Serve III, No. 39 – Appreciation

May 9, 2018

To my teachers, professors, colleagues and friends: THANK YOU. You have given me the gift of education and that is a blessing I can never, ever fully repay.

In the midst of Teacher Appreciation Week 2018, I am reminded, with more intentionality than I would typically apply, of the many teachers and educators who have made a difference in my life. During the course of the week, I have been tweeting my appreciation of the impact they have left on me. This post continues and expands on this theme.

The first teacher who made a mark on me was my grandmother, Lucille Kirk. She taught elementary school at Brown Elementary in Denver, Colorado, and she never, ever made teaching seem to me to be a chore. She made it seem an adventure. I have heard from so many of her former students of the life she led and the lives she changed. What a gift she must have been in the classroom. She was surely a gift to me as a grandmother.

I am more grateful than I can express to Mrs. Janet Batman, Ms. Barb Baxter, Mr. Henry Sellers and so many other teachers who took care of and inspired me when I was in kindergarten and elementary school at Parr Elementary School in Arvada, Colorado. These three educators and their colleagues nurtured in me a love of reading, of adventure and of imagination. Drawing through-lines across the map of my life, I can see the seeds they planted becoming the trees from which I now swing and in which I build makeshift houses. I wish I could time travel back to share with them my admiration and love.

At Regis Jesuit High School in Denver, Mr. Ralph Taylor and Mr. Dan Sarlo taught me about analysis and academic rigor. Mr.  John Vowells, SJ and Mrs. Anne Smith awakened a love of theater. Ms. Charlotte Read and my good, good friend, Mr. Michael Buckley introduced me to writing and photography. Mr. Tim Newton (good luck on your retirement!) challenged me to become a better artist (and to draw something – anything – that was not superheroes or Star Wars). Sister Benita Volk engendered in me an undying love of the English language. Dr. Chris Wheatley deconstructed and reconstructed everything I thought about education when I was in his classrooms at The Catholic University of America. These people set me on the course my entire life would take: the course of being an educator.

I wish I could be in a library run by Teri Brannan, my old Parr Elementary classmate. I wish I could observe Sean Gaillard, my best friend from college, as he shepherds the school at which he is principal. I wish I could more often see my sister, Janna Petersen, at work in her library. I miss Angie Mammano, the first teacher I could call “peer” who showed me in my initial years of teaching at Bishop McNamara High School in Forestville, MD, what this life is all about. I remember being amazed by Kim Smith, stunned by the knowledge and humor of John Staud, humbled by the gentle good will of Chris Pramuk, all of whom I worked with early in my career when I came to teach at my alma mater.

I cannot fathom the impact my best friend Jim Broderick King has had on me. He is one of the best teachers I know. I am humbled by those who came into my life as teachers when I was an administrator. Mike Meagher and Barb Bess could both put on clinics in excellent teaching. My friend Ryan Williamson is as passionate about doing right by students as teacher I have ever met. Cameron Turner, a former student of mine, is a better teacher than I will ever be. Leslie Larsen is the most empathetic teacher I have ever encountered. My son, Matthew Sheber Howard, will join this profession in the fall and I could not be any more proud. And my wife, Caroline Howard is simply an unequivocally and immensely gifted educator.

I am humbled to be joining the staff of Mullen High School in Denver in 3 short weeks. In my time there, I have already seen brilliant instruction, compassionate approaches to students, caring teachers and staff and a real commitment to this life and vocation we all share. I am already intimidated by their passion and zeal and I know their students are well cared for and loved. What a wonderful environment to join.

It is true that the work we do with students can be hard. It can be challenging. It can be heart wrenching. It is also true that appreciation for that work is, sometimes, faint and distant. We do not always hear “thank you.” We do not always feel the difference we so clearly make in people’s lives – in our students’ lives.

To my teachers, professors, colleagues and friends: THANK YOU. You have given me the gift of education and that is a blessing I can never, ever fully repay.

I will continue to try to be worthy of it.

EduQuote of the Week: May 7 – 13, 2018

Teacher Appreciation Week

If a doctor, lawyer, or dentist had 40 people in her or his office at one time, all of whom had different needs, and some of whom didn’t want to be there and were causing trouble, and the doctor, lawyer, or dentist, without assistance, had to treat them all with professional excellence for nine months, then she or he might have some conception of the classroom teacher’s job.

– Donald Quinn

Office Door Quotes 2

Teach & Serve III, No. 38 – The Competency Trap

Teach & Serve III, No. 38 – The Competency Trap

May 2, 2018

At a minimum, professionals want to be regarded as at least competent in what they do, right? However, doing well in tasks that we do not desire, especially in roles we do not want to perpetually have, creates the conditions for the Competency Trap.

It is my strong belief that the overwhelming majority of people want to do well in their work. Even when people are assigned duties they would rather not have or take on responsibilities that are not their first choice of roles, they have a desire to excel or, at least, to perform competently in those positions. To be clear, I am not writing about the critical, “Other Duties as Assigned” roles that we all must share. These are necessary parts of the work on which we collaborate. No, I am writing about those “other” things, the extra ones. The ones we do for more money (which we need) or to complete contracts.

In the work we do in schools, we are, more often than we in administration might like to admit, are asked by higher-ups to take on work that we would not seek out on our own. Often this occurs when we are new in our positions or new to our schools.

“Hey, do you want to make a little more money? Will you coordinate the magazine sale?”

“We want to fill out your contract and parking lot supervisor is available. Can you do it?”

“Well, even though you don’t know anything about tennis, we need a JV coach. Will that work for you?”

The answer to questions like this is typically, “Of course! Bring it on!”

At a minimum, professionals want to be regarded as at least competent in what they do, right? However, doing well in tasks that we do not desire, especially in roles we do not want to perpetually have, creates the conditions for the Competency Trap.

The Competency Trap is a two-fold problem. First, those people charged with doing what they do not wish more often than not do great at those roles. Because they are valuable employees who care about the work they do, they accomplish what they are assigned. Most positions like this in schools are cyclic; they are needed each year. The person doing the work can become strongly associated with it. He is the Blood Drive person. She is the Bake Sale Coordinator. Look at what a good job she does. Once we are associated with work we do competently and well it can be difficult to change roles or to leave the work behind even if we wish to.

The second problem lies with administration. Again, the positions we are considering here are not the most desirable or prestigious in our schools. When administrators fill them, they are likely check off the box, happily. That is done. Move on to the next issue. When those doing the work do it well, why would an administrator consider a change? When people meet or exceed expectation and, at the end of the day or the term, when they have done a good job in the role, it becomes difficult to reassign the work. And if can feel unnecessary, even when the person doing the work requests a change.

This, then, is the Competency Trap, and the responsibility for getting out of it falls almost entirely on the administrator or supervisor. We want people to complete good work in the roles they take on, certainly. We do not wish to create a disincentive for good work. When we assign roles and lock people into them without periodic review in which they are the most important participants, the Competency Trap can be in play. We must allow people to express how they are connecting with what they are doing and how valuable (and valued) they feel in the work. If we do not, problems and frustrations will, inevitably, arise.

There are jobs in our schools that are not entirely appealing, but the work must be done. Some of it may feel like drudgery. Some of it may not challenge. We may get placed into positions we would not choose for ourselves for all kinds of reasons. That is the nature of our shared enterprise and that is fine. But, when administration does not pay attention to those in less desirable positions and when people feel stuck in these kinds of jobs and these duties become inextricably linked to their professional personas, the Competency Trap has sprung, and leaders must break out of it for the good of those they lead.

Teach & Serve III, No. 36 – Look Up In The Sky

Teach & Serve III, No. 36 – Look Up In The Sky

April 18, 2018

The question, then, must be why? Why has Superman remained part of American (and world) consciousness for all these years? Why do we still look up in the sky?

When I was in the first grade, the day before school picture day, I ran into a brick wall – not a metaphor, I, literally, ran headlong into the corner of our house, smashing open my head on solid brick. My father took me to get stitches – seven of them as I recall – and, on the way home, changed my life.

My father was forever changing my life.

He bought me my first two comic books.

Thanks, Dad. Tens of thousands of issues later, I am pot-committed as a comic collector. More important than that, I have become more than an aficionado of comic book collecting and consider myself something of an expert on the study of comic books as an American literary art form.

You read that right: comic books are a form a literature.

The two comics Dad bought me that day featured two of the most famous American literary characters (in any list, they would have to be listed in the top ten): Batman and Superman. In case you’re wondering, I still have the issues – Batman Family #10 and Superman Family #181.

Superman is the longest running, continually published character in American literary history. Let that sink in for a moment. No other creation of any American writer or artist has been in continual publication as long as Superman has. That is something. That is special. That is powerful.

Superman is one of the most recognizable characters in the world, any quick search will convince one of that. And, today, the comic book in which he first appeared reaches its astounding 1000th issue. That is not a typo. Superman’s Action Comics hits number 1000 today.

Superman has not simply appeared in Action Comics, of course. He has starred in his eponymous title and in many, many others. He has starred in a newspaper strip, in radio and television and movies. He has been featured in video games and music and cartoons. He is all but ubiquitous.

The question, then, must be why? Why has Superman remained part of American (and world) consciousness for all these years? Why do we still look up in the sky?

One could discuss Superman as a myth or as the genesis of the superhero or as a stand in for Moses or Jesus Christ. These reasons could be posited as causes for his longevity and I would not argue with them. But I have another.

Superman endures because what he stands for endures. Superman fights a never-ending battle. It is a battle of absolutes. There is good. There is evil. Good people resist evil. They resist temptation. They resist taking the easy way out. Superman stands for all that has been good, is good and can be good again in humanity. Superman, as he beautifully says in the majestic and (in my not-so-humble opinion) misunderstood 2013 film Man of Steel, stands for hope.

He would have made a wonderful educator, this Superman, this hero who fights a never-ending battle, who does not give up, who is a champion of truth. He would have been an amazing teacher, a role model who has endless reserves, who rallies in the face of injustice, who empowers those around him. He would have been a inspiration in a classroom.

Oh, wait. He very much is.

Superman, as I have written about before and in my accompanying blog Superheroic Leadership, inspired me. He inspired me to read. He inspired me, “in his guise as Clark Kent” to write. He inspired me to lead.

Clearly, I am not alone.

1000 issues. 80 years. A massive and recognizable presence in the world.

I guess that is why they call him Superman.

I know this: my life would be much, much different without him.

EduQuote of the Week: April 16 – 22, 2018

Superman Week

For a lot of people, Superman is and has always been America’s hero. He stands for what we believe is the best within us: limitless strength tempered by compassion, that can bear adversity and emerge stronger on the other side. He stands for what we all feel we would like to be able to stand for, when standing is hardest.

– J. Michael Straczynski

Teach & Serve II, No. 30 – Leadering: Identifying Weaknesses before Celebrating Strengths

Teach & Serve II, No. 30 – Leadering: Identifying Weaknesses before Celebrating Strengths

March 1, 2017

A leadering step is identifying and embracing one’s weaknesses along with relying on one’s strengths. Good leaders comprehend their limitations. They know their difficulties. They recognize their weaknesses.

Over the course of the next few weeks, Teach & Serve will be discussing “leadering” activities.  In essence, these are the critical steps, as I see them, that individuals take as they become leaders. These are the universal gates through which they pass. These are their shared signposts they come across. These are the things leaders do as they go about “leadering?”

  1. Knowing Oneself
  2. IDENTIFYING WEAKNESSES BEFORE CELEBRATING STRENGTHS
  3. Honing Communication Skills
  4. Exercising Authority Appropriately
  5. Achieving Balance and Blend
  6. Humbling Oneself
  7. Letting Go

I have conducted many, many interviews during my years in education. Likely, I have been on the interviewer side of the desk more times than I can remember. As I became more facile with the task, I would enter the interview with a series of questions I knew I wanted to ask. No matter if I was part of an interviewing committee or solo, I would be sure to get certain questions answered.

One of these had to do with the perceived strengths and weaknesses of a candidate.

What I do not clearly remember is in what order I asked about these characteristics. If I had to guess, I suspect I asked first about strengths and then followed up with a query about weaknesses. Why put the candidate on the defensive with a challenging question?

A leadering technique, however, should be knowing one’s weaknesses just as well – better, even – than one’s strengths.

Do not misunderstand. Leaders must know their own strengths and realizing them throughout the leadership journey is a principal part of growing into leadership. But it is also an easy part. We like our strengths. We play to them. We are comfortable operating from our strengths. We have been celebrated for these qualities time and again.

A leadering step is identifying and embracing one’s weaknesses along with relying on one’s strengths. Good leaders comprehend their limitations. They know their difficulties. They recognize their weaknesses.

As we look for leadership positions, as we realize we may be called to them, we should search out opportunities to address our weaknesses. We can look to overcome them. We can look to find ways to lessen them. We can seek help in dealing with them. What we cannot do as leaders is avoid them. They will surface. It is inevitable that they do. Our leadering should involve us naming our weaknesses and working through them. Our leadering should call us to embrace them.

I chose the word “embrace” carefully for surely our weaknesses say as much about us as our strengths.

Often our leadering activities – working in groups, serving on task forces, building teams – provide wonderful opportunities for us to recognize our weaknesses and to strategize ways to compensate for them. These are chances we must take to know ourselves (see last week!) and to know our weaknesses. It is in knowing them that we can minimize them.

We all have weaknesses. What leaders chose to do with them, how they choose to acknowledge and work with them, indicates much about who they are as leaders.