Teach & Serve IV, No. 37 | Secrets, Secrets

Teach & Serve IV, No. 37

Secrets, Secrets

April 17, 2019

If you say or write the word “confidential” without asking, each-and-every-time, “whose interest am I protecting by walling off this knowledge?” you are doing it wrong.

There is power in knowing something other people do not know. There is magic in holding onto a secret, in deciding when to tell, and who to tell. There is a draw to being in the know, in the loop, in the inner circle.

We have all felt it, right? At one point or another, we have had those moments when we found something out before most others did or when we heard the story prior to it getting out.

What is it about being in on the secret that is so enticing?

In school settings, there are hundreds of examples – daily – of things that not everyone needs to know. There are situations with students that should not be revealed. There are personnel issues that should not be broadly discussed. There are decisions that should not be shared too soon. In school settings, there are good reasons to maintain confidentiality – some of them legal, some of them moral and some of them valid.

But not all.

Beware of the word “confidential.” Use it sparingly. Use it wisely. Use it only when you must use it.  If you say or write the word “confidential” without asking, each-and-every-time, “whose interest am I protecting by walling off this knowledge?” you are doing it wrong.

Schools work best when knowledge is shared. That is kind of what they are there for, right? Schools work best when everyone knows as much as they possibly can know. How many times are we going to have to be confronted by stories of school personnel that had knowledge of warning signs about students that they did not share until tragedy struck? How many times are we going to see reports of colleagues suspecting something was not quite right with a co-worker and they did not tell anyway until it was too late? How many times before we get it?

When I was a dean of students and, later, an assistant principal and a now a principal, there were and are many things I did not and do not broadly share. Further, there were and are things that I was and am constrained to not share at all, by law and by valid concerns about confidentiality. There were and are things I did not and do not share because of potential damage of all kinds.

Yes, there are things that should not and cannot be shared.

But these things are few. And these things are far between.

When the default position of a teacher or administrator when confronted by sensitive information is to hold all those cards as closely to the vest as possible, to prize secrets and horde them, to equate knowledge of what is going on in people’s lives with power, something is very, very wrong.

The work of an educational professional is not to work to keep things secret, the work is to bring things to light and understanding.

Those teachers and administrators that get a charge from knowing more than everyone else have forgotten that and they are doing something foolish and potentially dangerous – foolish because, at some point, keeping secrets for no reason undercuts rather than strengthens moral authority and dangerous because, inevitably, things go wrong, and things get out. Those teachers and administrators that repeat – as a mantra – “I can’t tell you that. It’s confidential.” are not doing themselves or anyone else any favors.

Teachers and administrators, here is the thing: what must be, by law, confidential, must be confidential. Period. If it is illegal to share, do not share. If you do not know the law, learn it.

When you know what actually must be kept confidential, file it and share everything else.

Liberally.

Share as much knowledge about students as possible. Share as much about staff as appropriate. Share as much about the state of the school as you can. Create an environment where sharing is the default position.

Beware the word “confidential” and only use it when you must.

Teach & Serve IV, No. 36 | Good Schools | Great Schools

Teach & Serve IV, No. 36

Good Schools | Great Schools

April 10, 2019

I imagine Great Schools that passionately posit hard questions. I imagine Great Schools that redefine themselves as a matter of course. I imagine Great Schools that encourage creative dissent.

It has been a few years since I first wrote on this topic. It seems a good one to revisit periodically.

Since the first day a grizzled, experienced and very, very veteran high school administrator shared with me his Good School/Great School Paradigm I have been fascinated by it, taken with it and convinced of its pure truth. Pulling me aside during an accreditation visit on which we were both visiting team members, this wise administrator for whom I did not work told me he believed that Good Schools are destined to remain Good Schools because they think they are great. He said that Great Schools are great because they ask themselves: “what can we do to be better?”

I am in love with this conclusion and I think it is absolutely spot on. The idea that Great Schools are consistently, constantly and consciously about improvement, about getting better, about changing is such a challenging, life renewing and exciting concept.

I imagine Great Schools that passionately posit hard questions. I imagine Great Schools that redefine themselves as a matter of course. I imagine Great Schools that encourage creative dissent.

But, here is the rub. Here is the problem with being great. It takes work. It takes bravery. It takes consistent drive from leadership that is not afraid to have questions asked – and answered – about the health and life of the school.

Great requires energy and dynamism.

No educational leader sets out to have a good school. Likewise, no leader decides it is acceptable for her school to be lifeless. Rather, leadership builds staffs primarily upon very good hires. Leadership institutes solid programs fostering good curriculum, good teaching and good discipline. Markers of success (enrollment, retention, standardized test scores, etc.) are met. The conclusion, then, is this all works. We know what we are doing. Why change? And then ways of doing things become locked in because we have  had success doing things this way and, really, is not this the way we have always done things? Should we not keep doing them this way? Why mess with success?

Why?

Because good hires become tenured. Good hires become tired. Good hires become mediocre when they are not challenged. Leadership becomes insular when it is not pressed. Energy wanes.

Good Schools are like the teacher you had when you were in high school: he was engaging and energetic when you were in his classroom 15 or 20 years ago; he is still doing the exact same things and still being praised for doing so. “Everyone loves his class!” People say. “He really knows his stuff!” People rave.

But is anyone asking why he is still using the overheads he made during his first year of teaching instead of his digital projector, instead of connecting students to materials on their devices, instead of anything new? Is anyone asking why he has not gone to any significant professional development in years? Is anyone asking why he insists on keeping the traditional text he has always used instead of moving to an electronic one?

No. He’s good so he is all good.

Good Schools are just like this and, unless they start missing those markers of success, what is the motivation to change?

Good Schools often have good facilities, good teachers, good kids, good grades, good enrollment, good, good, good… what they do not have is life. Good Schools do not change. They do not want to. Because they do not change, they are locked into what they are, locked into what they do.

Locked in.

They are stuck in a place and a time and cannot even see the rest of the world passing them by because, of course, they are good. How do they know? They have told themselves they are. They have convinced themselves (because they have the high numbers and the nice facilities and the good kids and the credentialed teachers) that they are great.

But they are not great. They are dead, and they do not look to come back to life.

And they can stay dead and stagnant for a very, very long time. They can – and will – stay dead and stagnant until they are forced to change. They will actively protect their stagnation because their leadership has let them down. Their leadership has discouraged hard questions, resisted redefinition, and shut out creative dissent.

They are Good. And they are dead. Until there is a sea change, they will never, ever be Great.

“Good Schools think they’re great. Great Schools ask: ‘what can we do to be better?’”

What can we do, indeed?

 

Teach & Serve IV, No. 35 | Dying is Easy; Living Is Harder

Teach & Serve IV, No. 35

Dying is Easy; Living Is Harder

April 3, 2019

Before we die on any hill – we should consider what living on the hill would mean.

There are moments in our careers which we believe force us to take stands. There are incidents that challenge us – our morality, our convictions, our constitutions. There are crucible moments which, when we recognize them, inspire us and galvanize us. When we confront these incidents, we can feel like this is the time, this is our time, this is when we say who we are and command respect from those around us. These are the moments when we can think we must define who we are.

These are the proverbial hills on which we choose to proverbially die.

And there are surely times when dying on hills is the absolute right thing to do.

Often when we die on a hill, we do so in spectacular fashion. Dying on a hill is frequently associated with burning bridges, with sowing salt in the land, with backing ourselves into certain and absolute corners. Dying for our causes is a last move. There is no coming back from it.

But we ought to be careful. When we are engaged so vitally as to die on a hill, our blinders can pop up.

Before we die on any hill – we should consider what living on the hill would mean.

Living on the hill, fighting the battle, continuing engagement, winning detractors to our side, these things are difficult. They are draining. They require humility and perseverance. But, in these circumstances, when we have determined that the issue at hand is so critical, dying for it seems the right thing to do. It is that important. We are willing to die for it.

Should we not, then, be equally willing to live for it?  

Dying for something is a powerful statement, but it is also a final one. You do not get to influence change and debate when you are dead.

In the brilliant Lin-Manuel Miranda musical Hamilton, George Washington tells Alexander Hamilton “dying is easy, son, living is harder.”

No doubt.

Teach & Serve IV, No. 34 | Our Burgeoning Toolbox

Teach & Serve IV, No. 34

Our Burgeoning Toolbox

March 27, 2019

Educators are many, many things but (and after over a quarter century in the field, I know this for certain) the good ones are builders.

Toolbox with tools. Skrewdriver, hammer, handsaw and wrench. 3d

Fair warning: I am an English teacher. I embrace metaphor.

For four years, I had the immense honor of working in a “district-level” position serving a network of Catholic schools. I worked from home and had an office in Washington, DC right near the White House. I got to travel the country (and out of it on one occasion) in association with this work and I was most privileged to be in the job. It was a terrific four years.

Part of my responsibilities was instructing in and, later, coordination of seminars, the curriculum of which was designed to assist educational professionals in recognizing and realizing their leadership in their schools. It was the intention of the program to provide people with a balance of the theoretical and the practical over the course of their time with us. The theoretical ranged from best leadership practice to self-reflection to deep dives in current research about topics such as gender in schools and the dynamics of change. The practical portions of the program, the faculty of these seminars summed up in one phrase:

We want you to build your toolbox.

Educators are many, many things but (and after over a quarter century in the field, I know this for certain) the good ones are builders. In order to build – to build our curriculum, to build our programs, to build up our students – we must have the right tools. We must have a toolbox and we should be putting new tools into it each-and-every year we remain in the profession.

Over the course of my instruction in these seminars, we would tell the participants to put the tools – the practical ways of proceeding to which we were introducing them – into their tool box. We would note that we wanted to accumulate more tools each session of the seminar. At some point I said “here’s another tool for your burgeoning toolbox.”

The participants in that session never let me live the term “burgeoning toolbox” down.

Thinking back, I believe “burgeoning toolbox” is an exact right metaphor for what we were doing (it must be, because I said it!) because it implies something very important about educational professionals: we should always be learning. We should always be growing. We should always be on the look out for the next tool which can make them a more effective educator and a better professional.

And, yes, our toolboxes should ever be burgeoning.

Be aware of the next tool you can use, the next tool that works in your context. Listen for it. Learn it. Grab it. Put it in your toolbox.

You can never have too many good tools to use.

 

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.

 

A Journal of the First Year | Fifteen


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

7 | March | 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 found myself in a hospital bed last week.

That is surprisingly hard to write.

I found myself laid up for a night in a hospital, dehydrated, heaving and incredibly uncomfortable suffering from side effects brought on by a bout with shingles.

First truth: shingles are FOR REAL. They are just as much fun as you might have heard. They are painful and debilitating and they are not messing around.

Second truth: I need to practice what I preach.

I have tried to tell the staff and faculty and Mullen High School that they should take time when they need time, that they should not come to school when they are feeling unwell, that they should take care of themselves.

I have now become a poster child for the phrase “physician, heal thyself” because just what the heck have I been doing these weeks and months? Have I been ignoring the warning signs that could have kept me well? Have I been a “do as I say not as I do” kind of leader? That’s a kind of leader I really don’t respect very much.

I don’t know. I truly do not.

What I do know or, at least, what I have realized again and a new is that I need to take care of myself so I can take care of others. There’s a reason we are told to put the oxygen mask over our own nose and mouth before assisting those nears us and, in order to serve this faculty and staff better, I must pay more attention to that.

I am not sure why it is so easy (some might argue too easy) for me to be gracious to people when they need time off, to allow them to take a day or two for themselves but, when it comes to myself, I feel a foolish sense of pride being the first in the parking lot before dawn on any given morning or that same feeling when I look back and think “I didn’t miss a day of work this trimester.”

If it means I miss three days to a week with a trip to the emergency room thrown in for good measure, who cares?

I need to care about that kind of thing less. Much less.

This has been a hard and most unpleasant lesson.

But it is one for which I am grateful.




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.

 

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.