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

Office Door Quotes 2

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.

Teach & Serve II, No. 23 – Is It Time to Go?

Teach & Serve II, No. 23 – Is It Time to Go?

January 11, 2017

As educational leaders, we can easily and readily overlook the signs that it is time for us to go. We can avoid the signals. We can hold on for dear life. And we do not always know we are doing this.

The Denver Broncos lost their head coach last week. Gary Kubiak was an NFL head coach for 10 years, the last 2 with the Broncos. He was very successful and he won last year’s Super Bowl, Super Bowl 50 (no one can take that away from Denver Bronco fans!). By all accounts, Kubiak was not fired. He chose to step down. He had been dealing with health issues and those concerns seemed paramount in his mind when he said “I just can’t do it the way I want to do it anymore.”

I found this both sad and noble, sad because Kubiak is a coach for whom one can root – a good guy by all accounts in a sport that needs them – noble because here is a man walking away from millions of dollars, a man who was all but at the top of his profession, a man who could have continued the work.

But he knew it was time to go. He recognized the signs. He acted.

I found myself thinking of… myself. I have changed positions in education: teacher-to-department chair-to-dean of students-to-assistant principal-to principal-to-assistant principal-to-educational consultant (for lack of a better term) and I noted that, in all but one of those scenarios, I was promoted or removed. In only instance did I say “yes, it’s time now.” In only one did I realize my time in the position I had had run its course. That’s a mistake in my leadership journey and does not illustrate the kind of reflection I would like to have in my professional life.

However, I am very much not alone.

As educational leaders, we can easily and readily overlook the signs that it is time for us to go. We can avoid the signals. We can hold on for dear life. And we do not always know we are doing this.

At some point in our leadership journeys, we have seen other leaders become this, become those who cannot see that they are well past the point of effectiveness, that the needle has tipped in the wrong direction. We see them, we point them out and we think “I’ll never be that.”

Yet most of us are in danger of becoming what we beheld.

Leaders who settle into routine and let it drive their work, year-after-year, are in danger. Leaders who lose control of what they lead are in danger. Leaders who hear themselves say “well, they are never happy” or “you can’t please everyone” are in danger. Leaders who find the work more tiring than energizing are in danger.

Who wants to be the coach who hangs on too long? Who sets out to be the player that cannot play anymore and everyone around her knows it but her? Who wants to be the actor still trying to play the lead when it is no longer becoming? Who wants to be the author who writes poor work after poor work, not realizing it was time to retire the pen years before?

Who wants to be the principal or administrator who stays at the school too long, whose effectiveness is gone, who does not innovate, who hangs on for dear life.

No one sets out to be this person, this “leader.”

We must (a term I typically avoid using but it is accurate here) have mentors we trust who can tell us the truth. We must have friends we rely on who can reflect how we are doing. We must have faith to listen to those around us. At the end of the day, all of us as leaders should periodically ask ourselves “do I still have it? Am I still up for the job? Am I what I want to be as a leader? Am I growing?”

If the answer to any of these questions is “no,” we’ve got a lot of thinking to do…

… and it should start with thinking about another position in our institution or elsewhere.

EduQuote of the Week: January 9 – 15, 2017

If you are planning for a year, sow rice; if you are planning for a decade, plant trees; if you are planning for a lifetime, educate people.

Chinese Proverb

Office Door Quotes 2

EduQuote of the Week: January 2 – 8, 2017

If you don’t play hard, they won’t let you in the huddle.

Gary Kubiak

Office Door Quotes 2

EduQuote of the Week: December 26, 2016 – January 1, 2017

The goal of education is the advancement of knowledge and dissemination of the truth.

John F. Kennedy

Office Door Quotes 2

Teach & Serve II, No. 20 – The Gift of Our Work

Teach & Serve II, No. 20 – The Gift of Our Work

December 21, 2016

Our work reaches beyond us. It reaches through time. It reaches into the future.

This post will be published on the Wednesday prior to Christmas. Most likely, most teachers and administrators are done with their work today. Schools are about to shut down for Christmas – as much as schools ever shut down – and faculty, staff and students have time to spend with family and friends, away from the work for a few days, perhaps even a few weeks.

On many desks and in many inboxes this time of year, teachers and administrators find all manner of remembrances – cards and notes and gifts, tokens of affection and appreciation. Typically, these trinkets and notes do not fully express the gratitude of the students we serve. They are lovely to receive. They are not always reflective of the appreciation our communities feel for us.

But, while It is an appropriate time of year for students to thank us, it is an equally appropriate time of year for us to be thankful.

As many of us finish our last minute tasks, our baking and decorating and preparing, this is a great time of year to think about another great gift we in education are given: the gift of doing work that influences the future.

Our work reaches beyond us. It reaches through time. It reaches into the future.

We most often do not see ready results. While some of us have been in this work for an extended period of time and we have been able to watch some of the seeds we have planted grow in the lives our students lead after they have left us, we are typically immersed in the day-to-day, the checklist of the moment, the class to come, the next paper to grade.

It is challenging, then, to remember that our reach exceeds our grasp, ever and always. The work we do influences the world to come. It shapes society. It changes the world.

Changes. The. World.

That’s a gift worth receiving. It’s a gift worth sharing.

Teach & Serve II, No. 19 – Optimism Is a Choice

Teach & Serve II, No. 19 – Optimism Is a Choice

December 14, 2016

If we, as teachers and leaders, do not project optimism about the work, do not project positivism about the road ahead, do not push ourselves to be our best selves, who else will?

The days are short. The nights are long. For the last few weeks, many of us have been up before the sun breaks the velvet cover of night, have been on the road with the first slivers of light shine and have still been at our desks or in our classrooms as darkness begins to fall. The push to Christmas Break can be a challenging one and, though the promise at the end of the push is days off, celebrations of hope with family and friends and a few moments of re-creation, the payoff of these days can seem distant.

So can our own hope and optimism. It can be difficult to maintain a joyous and optimistic outlook when we are as drained as the teachers and students with whom we are journeying. It can be especially difficult this time of year.

Let’s look, then, at the other times of the year – the times when we are not at the end of the semester, the times when we are not buried by our fatigue, the length of the semester, the culmination of days without breaks. On the typical day during the typical week, as teachers and administrators, how conscious are we of maintaining our optimism and our joy? Do we make an effort to project an optimistic and outlook? Do we challenge ourselves to be the most positive person in the room?

We should. We really, really should.

If we, as teachers and leaders, do not project optimism about the work, do not project positivism about the road ahead, do not push ourselves to be our best selves, who else will?

I pose that question wanting you to reflect on it. If we are not positive, who else will be?

As leaders, are we not, in a very real way, responsible for the spirit of our work? Are we not responsible for trying to positively influence the mood of the school? Are we not responsible for how the place feels?

Optimism is a choice and it is a significant one.

As leaders, one of our goals should be to be the person our students and staffs point to and say “she’s so positive. He looks at everything optimistically. I feel better when I am with her.” We should be the “life of the party.” We should be the foundation around which people gather. We should develop the habit of looking on the bright side, of seeing the glass as half full, of always seeking out new and better possibilities. If we inculcate this mindset during the good times, the typical times, the normal times, how much easier will it be for us to be positive when we’re tired, when we’re low, when we are at the end of semesters?

We should be optimistic.

If we are not, can we truly expect others to be?

Teach & Serve II, No. 18 – Disagreement and Dialogue

Teach & Serve II, No. 18 – Disagreement and Dialogue

December 7, 2016

It’s just so much easier to only consult yourself and it feels good. You are the leader. You have all the answers. Cue the swelling violins.

Picture the scene if you will: it’s towards the end of a long day at the end of a long week at the end of a long month. An extended break lies minutes away, if you can just get out of your classroom or your office. You have a few things to do, but the end is near. You can feel it. You can sense it.

You want it.

As you reach to unplug your device and switch off your light, someone is in your space. This person just wants a few minutes. Just a few.

You’re a good teacher. You’re a good leader. You settle back in.

“What’s up?” You ask.

“I really disagree with that decision you made.” You are told.

What happens next?

Does our body language stiffen? Do our eyes roll? Do we get defensive? Do we evade?

What happens next has a lot to say about what kind of leader you are.

Far too often when decisions are questioned, leaders tend to immediately defend. Leaders tend to immediately explain. Leaders tend to immediately justify.

disagreeIt makes sense (assuming decisions are thought out, thought through and thought about) to defend them. They have been arrived at with consideration. They have been put in place. They have been enacted. Why are they being questioned? It makes sense that we are ready to explain when our decisions are challenged. But is that the right course?

What if we asked questions, instead? What if our approach to disagreement invited dialogue? What if we validated the question of our decision by validating the person asking the question?

“What part of this don’t you like?” we might ask. “Why is this troubling?” we might ask. “What else should we consider?” we might ask.

Often, we don’t ask these questions. We are sometimes more invested in the decision than in the people it affects. We are sometimes worried about what engaging on questions like these says about us as strong leaders. We are sometimes too stubborn to listen.

We should listen. We should engage. We should be less invested.

Hey, some decisions must be made, made quickly and adhered to, but not all. On those decisions where we can talk, where these is give and take, we’d be well advised to do some giving, to encourage some taking. Our leadership is stronger when we can be questioned. Our decisions better when they can be explained.

Those we lead will trust us and our decisions more when we talk through them and engage in healthy dialogue and disagreement about them. They will trust us more when we trust them and illustrate that trust by our openness to this kind of talk.

Imagine if we modeled this. Imagine in our mode of engagement with disagreement became the standard way our schools operated. Imagine what it would be like if constructive conversation was the result of question and if disagreement was not feared and avoided. We know that avoiding small disagreements is the first ingredient in the recipe to create larger ones…

Clearly, the above scene is a set up. You’re tired. You’re looking to leave. You’re ready for a break. However, if we can present our best selves when we are not at our best, how much better can we be when we are? If we are practiced at respecting disagreement and encouraging dialogue as a matter of course, it should not matter if we are at the end of the day or the beginning, at the end of the semester or the start.

When we encourage healthy dissent and constructive dialogue, we shape a collaborative environment. That’s the kind of environment we should desire to build.