A Journal of the First Year | Fourteen


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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. 26 | Creative Space/Creative Time

Teach & Serve IV, No. 26

Creative Space/Creative Time

January 30, 2019

I do another kind of dreaming, too. I dream about the professional life I want to lead. I dream about the leader I wish to be. I dream about what I might look like five, ten and fifteen years from now (God willing!).

Do you take time to dream?

I remember, not that long ago, that I had a pretty rich – if ultimately fleeting – fantasy life. When I was taking out the trash and something fell from the can, I would often pick it up and fire it in, pretending the clock was winding down and I was attempting the buzzer-beating, game-winning last shot of Game Seven of the NBA Finals. Every time I was at bat as a kid on the playground, it was a World Series moment. When I was playing my guitar at a coffee house or in front of any crowd, I was performing in Madison Square Garden.

Dreaming is kind of fun and, to be honest, I slip into these dreams still every now and again.

I do another kind of dreaming, too. I dream about the professional life I want to lead. I dream about the leader I wish to be. I dream about what I might look like five, ten and fifteen years from now (God willing!).

It seems to me a very important part of our work as educators, taking time to dream, to dream about ourselves and our institutions, to dream about who we can be, to dream about what we can do to get better and how we can improve.

Surely, we ask our students to dream about themselves. We want them to vision a potential future and what that future holds for them.

Should we not do the same thing ourselves?

Leaders who do no dream never conceive of or realize what they might become.

Schools that do not dream cannot ever reach heights previously unimagined because there is no one imagining them.

Give your schools and the people within them a chance to dream. Give them time and space to do it. Make dreaming part of the operating system of your institution.

You will be amazed by the results. The results will not be dreams. They will be new realities.

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

I would like to suggest that arrogance and good leadership are… incompatible. They… don’t mix

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

If, however, and this is more common than we might want to acknowledge, a leader is simply tired or has lost interest or feels some functions of leadership simply are not as important to him or her, not as critical, then problems arise. 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.

 

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.

 

A Journal of the First Year | Eleven

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(L) 1994      (R) 2018


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…  


10 | January | 2019


This past Sunday evening marked the last day of Christmas Break.

I had plans – significant plans – going into the Break. Beyond all that is associated with Christmas, the rituals of shopping and church and family and friends that I love, I had a few other goals. With the downtime from the day-to-day activities, I was going to work ahead on a few projects. I was going to finish editing the draft of a novel I completed earlier this year. I was going to do some around the house stuff.

Good plans.

I didn’t get to all of them. In fact, I didn’t get to many of them.

And so I found myself, on Sunday night a few hours after the “bedtime” I had set as a goal organizing my t-shirt drawer.

True story.

As I turned off the light Sunday night, I tossed and turned as the dawn of the first day of school 2019 approached. I couldn’t sleep. As I lay there in the dark, I wondered worried that I wasn’t more excited and energized about going back to school. Haven’t I loved the job? (I have) Didn’t I love the place? (I love it) Didn’t I enjoy my co-workers (I enjoy them immensely)

As I returned to school Monday and the faculty and staff filtered in for a day of professional development and meetings, the energy came rushing back like cool, clear water. The enthusiasm returned. The excitement for the work.

My feelings Sunday night were not about not loving Mullen High School and the students and faculty and staff there; they were about me loving home and time I got to spend with my wife and my children. And my feelings of excitement and feeling, in just over six months, at home, at school are not about me not loving being at home home.

One of the things I’ve tried to keep in the forefront of my mind in this first year as principal is wellness and the blending of my personal and professional lives. I’ve tried to enable the staff and faculty here to consider what is a healthy approach to wellness in their lives.

I think that is what I was feeling Sunday night and what I felt Monday morning. I was going to be missing the downtime and embrace of home, sure, but that loss was mitigated by the enjoyment of the work I am lucky enough to do.

It’s a blend and it’s a blessing.

And I am so happy to be back!

Teach & Serve IV, No. 22 | Got to Begin Again – The Fresh Start Effect

Teach & Serve IV, No. 22

Got to Begin Again – The Fresh Start Effect

January 2, 2019

We have this opportunity – this fresh start. We can be mindful of it and all it suggests and all it could mean. We can embrace it with positivity and make it the beginning of something powerful and new.

In the approach to this school year, I wrote about Temporal Landmarks, a concept I first discovered upon reading Daniel H. Pink’s When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing which I highly recommend. As we in the academic game see the end of Christmas Break coming and the resumption of the school year on the horizon, it is a very good time to analyze another point from Pink’s book: the Fresh Start Effect.

In his analysis of when people do things and when they have the most success doing them, Pink discovered that when we do things matters just as much as what we do. As we in education know, there are many, many whens. Pink recommends being conscious of the phenomenon of fresh starts. “Some days stand out,” he writes “when we want to open up a new ledger on ourselves and use them to construct better beginnings.”

Could there be a better lens through which to view the end of our holidays and the start of the next months of companionship with our colleagues and students?

I do not think so.

Let us begin this next part of our year opening the pages of a new ledger. We can do this. We can begin again and not just because the calendar forces us.

But because we want to.

We have this opportunity – this fresh start. We can be mindful of it and all it suggests and all it could mean. We can embrace it with positivity and make it the beginning of something powerful and new. What happened before break, happened. We cannot change it. We cannot go back and re-write it. Most of it was good and life affirming for us and our students. Those parts that were not are in the past. Let us move on from them and let them go.

Let us make a fresh start.

Let us begin again.