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


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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.

 

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.