Teach & Serve II, No. 28 – Leadering

Teach & Serve II, No. 28 – Leadering

February 15, 2017

If you are a leader, reflecting on the steps which got you there is a good exercise. If you want to become a leader, considering the leadering activities that will get you there is just as healthy a pursuit.

Adulting: How to Become a Grown-up in 468 Easy(ish) Steps is a book by Kelly Williams Brown that was published in 2013 which quickly became something of a hit. The book details steps (468 of them!) a young person takes on the way to becoming and adult and the term “adulting” refers to those steps.

“Hey, you rented your first apartment! You are adulting!” and so forth.

The idea of traversing rites of passage on the way from youth to adulthood was nothing new, but Williams Brown plugged into the culture zeitgeist with the “adulting” term. I heard and continue to hear my own children use it among themselves and their friends as they take on more responsibility, endure more adult situations and discover what it means to grow older.

It is a pretty cool concept which got me thinking about the rites of passage people undertake on their journeys to be leaders. This is an excellent time for me to consider this as I am spending the week with a group of committed and talented educators, working with them in a program called Seminars in Ignatian Leadership. The program is designed to challenge participants to see themselves as leaders, to hone their definitions of leadership, to learn tools to utilize in their leadership and to help them become reflective as they take on new roles of leadership. All of this is informed and inspired by the founder of the Jesuits, St. Ignatius Loyola, an excellent leader to emulate.

What, then, are some steps individuals take as they become leaders? Are their universal gates through which they pass? Are their shared signposts they come across? Just how do leaders go about “leadering?”

As many books have been written on this topic as have been written about the progress from childhood to adulthood, and I’m not writing a book here, just a blog post (or eight). None of what I discuss here is particularly revolutionary, nor is any of it incredibly original. These points spin out of the research, writings and speeches of people like Parker Palmer, Janet Hagberg, Simon Sinek, DeWitt Jones, Ed Catmull and others. Each has her or his own way to consider leadering activities and there are many ways to consider this topic. However, in my humble opinion, the following “leadering” steps are shared by most of those who become excellent leaders.

  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

Each of these topics deserves, I think, something of an in-depth explanation and, rather than turning this post into a novella, I’ll take them on individually over the next seven weeks.

If you are a leader, reflecting on the steps which got you there is a good exercise. If you want to become a leader, considering the leadering activities that will get you there is just as healthy a pursuit.

Leadering is a pursuit we should celebrate in our schools. Our current leadership (of which many of us are a part) will not be in place forever. Are we looking internally for our next collection of leaders – those people who know our culture and know or systems? Or is it important to look outside our institution for new voices and new perspectives. In either instance, we want to identify leaders who are ready to lead, leaders who have already completed their share of leadering.

Those leaders who have intentionally gone about leadering may well step into positions more ready to succeed than those who have not leadered.

Give me leaders who understand leadering.

EduQuote of the Week: February 13 – 19, 2017

Hate is too great a burden to bear. It injures the hater more than it injures the hated.

Coretta Scott King

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Teach & Serve II, No. 27 – You Never Can Tell

Teach & Serve II, No. 27 – You Never Can Tell

February 8, 2017

A leader is challenged by something new, something for which no one planned. The leader looks at the team and says “we’re doing this.”

Do yourself a favor: take 9 minutes and watch the video below. Here is a true story: Bruce Springsteen and the E Street band were performing in Germany a few years back and Springsteen notices a sign propped up on someone’s cooler bag. He asks for the sign to be passed up to the stage and on it is written “You Never Can Tell” the title of a Chuck Berry song (likely better known today as a cut from the Pulp Fiction soundtrack, and the song Uma Thurman and John Travolta famously Batuzi-ed to). Springsteen, and his audience, know the tradition: fans bring signs to concerts in the hopes the band will take requests and play one or two of these. Typically, this does not happen. Bands are locked in to their playlists, but we are talking about Bruce Springsteen here. After noting that he has not played this song in years, like since he was 16, Springsteen engages in trial-and-error that goes on for almost five minutes trying to find an appropriate key for himself and the band. He mocks himself, laughs, jokes with the band and then… well, again, do yourself a favor and take a look.

You’ve got 9 minutes to spare.

I’ll wait for you.

Wow, right? I mean, just WOW! The band has not played this song together. They have not practiced it. Their lead singer has not sung it in years and they pull it off. No, they not only pull it off, they nail it. And, look at them, they have a GREAT time doing it.

I am not sure why this video showed up in my Facebook feed this week, but, I am so glad it did. I am a guitarist (not a good one, mind you) and I get revved up by good, driving beats, I get charged up by good music and I simply love it when Springsteen notes “maybe I’m a little over ambitious, give me a capo.” The E Street Band, while they trust the Boss, look at him like he might be pulling them into a big mistake in front of a gigantic crowd. But they go along with him. And then Springsteen pulls the crowd in, asking them for their help. Suddenly it’s “Here we go! ONE! TWO!” and the song rocks.

I love this video, not just for the fun of it, the joy of it. I love it because of what is going on here. A leader is challenged by something new, something for which no one planned. The leader looks at the team and says “we’re doing this.”

How often do we as leaders shy away from this kind of opportunity? And why do we do so? When we are confronted with new and changing dynamics, when things for which we did not plan come up on-the-fly, instinct often tells us to shut them down, delay them, put them aside. There may well be good reason for this in some instances. However, if we have assembled talented teams we trust, people in whom we can put our faith and who have put their faith in us, should we not, at least sometimes, take on new challenges as they present themselves? Should we not trust ourselves, trust the team, trust the energy that can be created when something spontaneous happens?

Yes, there are risks involved. Perhaps our team looks at us as if we have slipped a groove. Maybe this opportunity hits in real time in front of a live audience – students, parents, our colleagues – and the stakes feel high.

And, perhaps, our style of leadership just has not allowed for the possibility of responding in this manner, of letting loose, of feeling a crest of energy rising and tapping into it.

If that is the case, that is unfortunate, because, as most classroom teachers who have had a lesson go left when they thought it would go right would remind us, what we have not planned for can often result in a tremendous class and vivid, teachable moments. What we have not planned for can be exciting and fun and memorable.

There are times our egos do not allow us to act spontaneously because we are paralyzed by how we might look if things do not go well. We are concerned about a loss of cache with our community. We are worried that we have to know the answer to the problem before we have started to work the equation and, in this, we sometimes lose the chance for magic to happen.

As leaders, we can be locked down in our approach, tied up in our procedures. We can face new challenges by putting them down, setting them aside, pushing them off. We can be intimidated by the moment and back away from it.

You never can tell what might happen if you let go and give it a shot. You never can tell what might occur if you and your team trust one another, put ego aside and say “let’s give this a shot, we trust each other and we are going to see what we can do together.” You never can tell what results from a leader who looks at her colleagues and empowers them to move as a group in a new direction.

You never can tell.

EduQuote of the Week: February 6 – 12, 2017

Have a vision. Be demanding.

General Colin Powell

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Teach & Serve II, No. 26 – Expectations Change. Get Used to It.

Teach & Serve II, No. 26 – Expectations Change. Get Used to It.

February 1, 2017

If we are not changing, looking for new ways to do things, for new ways to interact, to teach, to lead, then we are not suited for work in schools.

There are all kinds of adages about change I won’t bother to quote as I begin those most simple and, perhaps, the most brief of any Teach & Serve I have written to date. We know that that things change, that people change. As educators and institutional leaders, are we not all about change?

Students come to us as one thing, they leave another hopefully positively influenced by their time with us. We anticipate and expect them to change. In fact, if they were not changing, something would be horribly wrong with how we have structured our environment.

We anticipate changes in curriculum and the tools we use to teach (if we do not anticipate changes here, we should get out of the game). We know that curriculum and the tools used to deliver it will change. We (hopefully!) embrace this idea. Get ahead of it. Are inspired by it.

But when expectations of us change, how do we react? When we are confronted with the reality that those for whom we are responsible seem to have new expectations of what we will do, how we will teach, the manner in which we lead, how do we respond? Do we face such changes with the same enthusiasm we apply to the ones mentioned earlier or do we have a reaction which suggests, “hey, you knew this about me – you knew this is who I am and how I do things”?

Look, expectations of teachers have changed and will continue to do so. Expectations of administrators have, likewise, changed and will continue to do so. If you believe who you are when you started this work is who you will be ten, fifteen, twenty years into it or ten, fifteen, twenty years from now, I seriously encourage you to think again.

If we are not changing, looking for new ways to do things, for new ways to interact, to teach, to lead, then we are not suited for work in schools.

We are surrounded by change. Why should we be exempt?

Expectations of us change. Get used to it.

EduQuote of the Week: January 30 – February 5, 2017

Teaching is more than imparting knowledge, it is inspiring change. Learning is more than absorbing facts, it is acquiring understanding.

William Arthur Ward

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Teach & Serve II, No. 25 – Conjunction Junction

Teach & Serve II, No. 25 – Conjunction Junction

January 25, 2017

Author’s note: as a former teacher at an all boys school, writing a post wherein I used the word “but” over-and-over again did, in fact, make me smirk… go ahead and chuckle, but there’s hopefully a point here!

In my position, I have the wonderful opportunity to spend time with educators from all over the country. I get to speak to them, resource with them, program for them. I am involved in professional development and visioning with my organization – the Jesuit Schools Network – and part of what we do is hold gatherings for “job level” groups, assistant principals, athletic directors, deans of students and so forth. We also do some direct instruction of adults and spend much time in conversation about how to impart leadership lessons which are valuable and tested.  I work with an amazingly skilled and talent group of people whose blessing it is to work with a broader amazingly skilled and talented group of people!

I keep and electronic journal and write down words, phrases, thoughts and sentences that these people have shared or I have thought about in conversation with them. Sometimes, I know who said what and I try to give credit where it’s due. Often times, I don’t. I look about at a note or image and think “who was smart enough to say this?” I am typically sure those instances that arrest my attention did not originate with me.

Such is the topic of today’s Teach & Serve. I do not know where I heard it, but the thought should be shared.

Educational leaders should be very aware of their use of the word “but” and consider employing the word “and” instead.

But is exclusionary. But represents a break apart. But stops momentum. But suggests conflict.

And is inclusive. And represents joining together. And building momentum. And suggests teamwork.

I really like the simplicity of this concept and I’ve been thinking about pivoting from “but” to “and” in my own personal work. I have tried to catch the times I have been tempted to use “but” and discern where I might better respond with “and.”

We can pay attention to our words, both spoken and written. We can look at what we say and write and how our words indicate who we are. We can listen and analyze.

I want to use “but” sparingly. I want to use “and” liberally.

Because I want to be an “and” guy. I want to be inclusive and communal. I want to build momentum and a better team.

What educational leader does not want to do these things?

EduQuote of the Week: January 23 – 29, 2017

Every child deserves a champion – an adult who will never give up on them, who understands the power of connection and insists that they become the best that they can possibly be.

Rita Pierson

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Teach & Serve II, No. 24 – My Father Didn’t Like School

Teach & Serve II, No. 24 – My Father Didn’t Like School

January 18, 2017

My father, who professed a dislike of school and who I never heard anyone call “teacher” was one of the greatest teachers I ever had. He should have written a book about education. If he had, it would been titled Lessons about Teaching from a Guy Who Didn’t Like School.

A version of this post originally appeared in Teach & Serve, Vol 1

I have come to understand a very human tendency to idealize  people who are gone from our lives. We are often nostalgic for those we’ve lost to death. When those we love pass from our lives, we have a tendency to romanticize them – who they were, what they stood for and what they said.

Though I try to guard against this temptation when I think of my father, I am sure that a bit of idealization sneaks in when I write about him. How could it not? I loved him.

Dad, if you asked him to comment, would have said terrible things about school. He may have even said terrible things about teachers. No, strike “may have.” Dad did say terrible things about his schooling, about some of his teachers, about education overall and those things may even have been true.


Dad’s High School Graduation Photo

Dad attended the same Jesuit high school I did and he told great stories about having gone there, including priests throwing students, desk-and-all, through closed classroom doors, pitching in high school baseball games after having had a beer or two behind the dugout and the undated, signed notes my grandmother would give him of the “Please excuse Mickey from class…” and a number of other anecdotes equally entertaining and hard to believe.

Dad could tell stories.

Dad could also give advice, when asked, so, like a typical son I never really asked him his advice about teaching when I entered the profession. Dad was not a teacher, did not seem to have adored his educational life and it never occurred to me to ask him what he actually thought about education.

Looking back on who he was and how he lived and, granted, romanticizing and idealizing him a bit, I think I can discern what he may have told me had I asked him.

Dad never took himself too seriously.


Though he was involved in a serious profession and found himself, in his work as a deacon in the Catholic Church, dealing with people in challenging times of life, he never let the moments get the best of him. He also never let himself think he was any better than anyone else. I remember him telling the story of when, during a baptism he was performing, he continually referred to the child – let’s call the baby “Chris” – as a boy when, in fact, she was a girl. “It’s a girl, dummy!” the baby’s grandmother finally corrected him during the ceremony. Dad smiled and laughed. He apologized and went on with the baptism. Dad loved to tell that story.

Teachers and administrators need a healthy dose of self-deprecation. If we take ourselves too seriously, the work can become burdensome. We are public figures whose mistakes are going to be critiqued and scrutinized. If educators live and die with every challenging moment, the work can take a deeper emotional toll. Educators are well served by stepping back and smiling at themselves. Often.

Dad was very decisive. There may have been a lot of internal debate going on with my father and, surely, he and my mom talked about big decisions in their lives before they made them, but, professionally and personally, Dad struck me as very decisive and, once he had made a decision, he did not spend too much time looking back.

Educators are called upon to make decisions minute-by-minute. While not all of these decisions are filled with import, many need to be made with confidence. This does not necessarily imply that decisions must all be made quickly, but, once decisions are made, dwelling on and second guessing them as a matter of course can be very draining.

Dad had a great sense of humor. He could make fun of almost anything and could be highly irreverent. I have too many examples of this to name, but, trust me, Dad was very, very funny. It was one of his defining traits.

Teachers and administrators who cannot laugh and who do not have a sense of humor can certainly do the job. They can do it at a high level, even. But I have found that those who do not have a sense of humor simply do not enjoy the work as much as those who do. If you are not going to enjoy being in a school, the other rewards of the vocation may not be enough for you.

Dad connected with people. When Dad died, I spoke in the eulogy about his “guys.” Dad had many, many “guys,” people whose lives and his had intertwined over the course of his work with the Church and simply because of the man he was. There was a great number of people who called Dad “friend” and a lot more whose lives had been touched by him and, surely, who had touched his life in turn.

Much like not having a well-developed sense of humor, it is possible for educators – teachers and administrators – to do the work without connecting with students and with parents and with colleagues. It is possible to do the work. I am just not sure how well the work is done by people who do not enjoy connecting with others. Actually, I am pretty sure that those people do not do the work nearly as well. Teachers and administrators must connect. It is part of the job description.

Dad had a terrific sense of justice. I suppose having a strong sense of justice was part of Dad’s job description as a deacon. He could sense an imbalance of power or a bad situation readily and reacted strongly to these types of scenarios. He was motivated by those who had been abused by any system, was inspired by David vs. Goliath stories, and he championed those who had less. He never stopped fighting in this area. He also, from the pulpit, did not shy away from talking about issues of justice, even when such homilies made people uncomfortable.

Educators are called to not only be fair and just, they are called to highlight injustice around them. They are called to act in a just manner and to point out to developing young minds the injustice that exists in the world. Further, they are compelled to help students understand that they can be part of changing unjust systems. If we are not about this as we teach, we are simply doing a disservice to students.

Dad was a great storyteller and loved to listen to others’ stories. I miss a lot about being able to talk with and listen to my Dad. I try to emulate much of what he was in my own life. Dad was a terrific storyteller and could command any room. He told wonderfully engaging and funny stories. He also loved to listen to others telling stories and would often ask for the same story to be told over-and-over again. He would want to hear about the same moment, the same incident, the same funny anecdote. And, when he listened, his reactions and smile and attention validated the storyteller and made that person feel very special.

Should educators not tell great stories? Beyond delivering content and inspiring skills in our students, should we not also be able to tell them great stories about our subject matter and convey or love of it? Should we not also listen to those around us at least as much as we speak to them?

My father, who professed a dislike of school and who I never heard anyone call “teacher” was one of the greatest teachers I ever had. He should have written a book about education. If he had, it would been titled Lessons about Teaching from a Guy Who Didn’t Like School.

I would have bought that book.

EduQuote of the Week: January 16 – 22, 2017

The function of education is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically. Intelligence plus character – that is the true goal of education.

Martin Luther King, jr

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