Teach & Serve III, No. 5 – Embrace the Expectations of Leadership

Teach & Serve III, No. 5

Embrace the Expectations of Leadership

September 6, 2017

Give me leaders who understand this, leaders who know that the buck (and everything else) does stop with them. Give me leaders who say: “I get it. I will take it.”

Let us begin this blog with a statement which, I admit, may or may not be true: It is harder now than ever to lead a school.

Again, I admit, there may have been moments in the past, long before my blip on the timeline of the educational game, when school leaders and teachers had it harder than they do currently, but it sure seems like school leaders and teachers deal with an awful lot right now.

School leaders seem to be held accountable for so much. They are held accountable for school culture, for the manner in which their students use social media, for the behavior of the people on their staffs, for the content of the textbooks (digital or otherwise) used in their curricula, for graduation rates, for college and career placements for whether no not students get invited to other students’ parties, for what kids do after dances and proms, for how students might procure alcohol and other materials at school events, for… well, you get the picture.

While some of the above issues may appear more critical than others, please note this: I did not fabricate any of them. All of the above have been issues brought to me or to my colleagues in their work. And the list could be much, much, longer. Some of these issues are, obviously, realistic. They are the things school leaders can and should address. They are things that ought to be on the leader’s proverbial plate. Some of them, however, are unrealistic to the point of being absurd. And, yet, they find their way to the teacher or school leader’s door.

All of this kind of makes you wonder why someone would choose school leadership as a vocation. I cannot answer that musing. I can say this: great teachers and great school leaders embrace the expectations of their position. It is not that they love every moment, or that they agree with the fact that all of these issues (and more) should come to their office doors. No. It is that they understand that these issues – any issues which occur that involve their staffs, their students, their families – are part and parcel to their work. Great leaders do not avoid this kind of responsibility. They take it on. They lean into it. They embrace it.

Schools are complex structures. Those structures involve hundreds (or thousands) of people. Those people, whether they know it or not, rely on great leadership.

Give me leaders who understand this, leaders who know that the buck (and everything else) does stop with them. Give me leaders who say: “I get it. I will take it.”

Give me leaders who embrace the expectations, realistic or not, of those they lead.

Teach & Serve III, No. 4 – Optimism Can Be a Choice… and It Should Be

Teach & Serve III, No. 4

Optimism Can Be a Choice… and It Should Be

August 30, 2017

Our work is with kids. Our work is for the future. What could be better – or inspire more optimism – than that?

 

We work with kids.

Let us never forget that we work with kids.

I know that seems like a ridiculous directive, remembering we work with kids, but in the midst of the booting up duties at the beginning of the school year, as we set up our LMS’s and our electronic grade books, as we go from meeting-to-meeting and review policies and procedures, the fact that we do all this to get to the good part – the working with kids part – can be lost in the haze.

We should not lose sight of this.

Whether we are teachers or administrators, our work is with students, with kids.

And kids are exciting and excitable. And they are young (at least they are younger than we are). And they are looking at us. All. The. Time.

It is all too easy at the start of the year to be weighed down by the pressure of the work, by the immensity of all the we needs must do and all that we are asked and directed to do. It is all too easy to set high goals for ourselves – and setting those high goals is, of course, critical! – but to see those goals as barriers to cross not benchmarks to achieve. It is all too easy to come into the year tired. Worn out. Pessimistic about the months ahead.

Guard against pessimism.

Remember, the students are watching us. All. The. Time.

In a society that rains pessimism down on them, would it not be refreshing – for them – if they did not receive the same from us? Would it not be wonderful for them to receive from us the reverse?

Optimism is a choice and choosing it over pessimism is a choice that we can and should make over-and-over again.

Our work is with kids. Our work is for the future. What could be better – or inspire more optimism – than that?

It is our choice to give into the morass of pessimism and our choice to embrace the freedom of optimism.

Which would you rather bring to your classroom and context this year?

EduQuote of the Week: August 28 – September 3, 2017

Kirby at 100

There are people that I didn’t like, but I saw them suffer and it changed me. I promised myself that I would never tell a lie, never hurt another human being, and I would try to make the world as positive as I could.

– Jack “King” Kirby

Office Door Quotes 2

Teach & Serve III, No. 3 – From Small Beginnings Come Great Things

Teach & Serve III, No. 3

From Small Beginnings Come Great Things

August 23, 2017

The beginning of school years is a time to think big, to dream big, to reach out and make goals and stare bravely into the limitless sky.

In Cleveland, OH in the mid 1930’s, two young men, sons of Jewish immigrants to the United States, dreamed they would collaborate on a newspaper comic strip that would be distributed far-and-wide, that would be popular and that would make them financially secure.

 

In Chicago, IL in the early 1970’s, a young woman found confidence in herself as she danced in the chorus of a production of West Side Story, found pride in herself listening to the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, jr and found strength to think big as she looked to the Space Race and dreamed of being an astronaut.

In Pakistan in the mid 2010’s, a young woman wanted something very simple: she wanted to learn and she wanted other girls like her to be able to learn as well. She dreamed of a country and a world that would support her, would shelter her and would teach her.

What are the dreams of the young people sitting in our classrooms as we begin this school year? What are the dreams the adults on our teaching staffs, in our faculty rooms and offices and in our classrooms have at the beginning of this year? What are the dreams that you have for your work at your school? What are your hopes? Your aspirations? Your desires?

The beginning of school years is a time to think big, to dream big, to reach out and make goals and stare bravely into the limitless sky. It is an exciting time to be an educational leader and, when we can rise above the detail work that goes into getting any new year off the ground, we ought to take the time to think about what we want to accomplish, what we want to do and what we want to become. We ought to take time to think about how we can nurture those around us, how we can foster their dreams, how we can empower.

The temptation might be to think too big, to bite off more than we can chew. It is the fall. We are excited. We are energized. We are thinking big!

Perhaps it is enough to know that the dreams that surround us, the sparks in our students and our colleagues, the impulses that arise in our communities – precisely at this time of year – may simply be seeds that, if fed and watered and encouraged, will eventually blossom into good and great things.

When Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster wrote and drew and drafted the character that eventually became Superman, they did not start with the idea fully formed. Rather they had a series of concepts, they discussed them, they encouraged each other. They made history.

When Mae Jamison developed her talent and unleashed her confidence, when she embraced the challenges she faced and grasped the stars becoming the first African American woman to go into space, she altered society’s perceptions. She made history.

When Malala Yousafzai advocated for her own education, she was beaten. Then she advocated for the education of all young women. She was tortured. Then she gained world-wide notoriety and her cause gained overwhelming support. She got her education. She got it for her sisters. She made history.

These ideas started small. They were dreams. They were personal.

They changed the world.

Imagine what might be happening in the minds and hearts of those with whom you work. Imagine the potential in your students and your colleagues especially right now, in these early stages of the school year. Imagine the collective small dreams that might break big if given the chance.

And give that chance. Give every chance.

Help change the world.

After all, that is our business in education, is it not?

Teach & Serve III, No. 2 – Playlist 2017-2018

Teach & Serve III, No. 2

Playlist 2017-2018

August 16, 2017

… time to put together the mixtape that will be the soundtrack for the upcoming nine months, the backbeat of the days and weeks and months ahead.

It’s that time of year again: time to put together the mixtape that will be the soundtrack for the upcoming nine months, the backbeat of the days and weeks and months ahead.

In Teach & Serve Volume I a couple years back, I wrote about #OneSong, stealing the idea from my good friend and esteemed educator Sean Gaillard. The playlist is more than one song… it’s a concept album for an entire school year.

How do songs make my playlist? They land there for one of two reasons.

First, I like how they make me feel. In the fall as the year begins, I am searching for energy, excitement and enthusiasm. You won’t find too many ballads on the playlist, but you may find some instrumentals.

Second, the lyrics resonate with me, move me, inspire me and send me a message.

I listen to the playlist all year, adding to it, deleting from, adapting it like any good teacher should do.

Here’s this year’s edition:

What are you listening to this fall?

EduQuote of the Week: August 14 – 20, 2017

Do everything possible so that liberty is victorious over oppression, justice over injustice, love over hate.

– Ignacio Ellacuira, SJ

Office Door Quotes 2

Teach & Serve III, No. 1 – Teach Boldly, Again!

Teach & Serve III, No. 1

Teach Boldly, Again!

August 9, 2017

Teachers, your students want to be engaged. Inspire them. Be bold.

The beginning of the beginning is ramping up in schools all over the country. If you’re reading this, you’re likely a teacher or administrator knee deep in preparation, cross checking lists of all that needs doing in these opening days and preparing for these early moments of 2016-2017 as best you can.

May I please make a suggestion? No matter what you do in these initial days, no matter the pressure you feel, the demands you take on, the time crunch you suffer, no matter what you do in these days, do it with as much positivity as you can. Go about your work with energy. Greet students and colleagues and families with smiles. Celebrate the beginning of the year. Be bold in your embrace of all the possibilities it brings.

Let boldness be your home base this year.

Teach boldly. Administrate boldly. Coach and direct boldly.

Let that be your rallying cry: teach boldly.

Students respond to boldness. Colleagues are searching for it. We hear that schools should inspire. They should challenge. They should dare. How do these things happen if we ourselves are not bold in our individual rooms and days and works?

Shouldn’t we want to be bold? Wouldn’t we rather be bold than be… well, what’s the alternative? Timid? Reticent? Fearful?

Those aren’t the descriptors for which our work in education calls. None of them are even close.

Be Bold. Be resolute. Be heroic.

Teachers, your students want to be engaged. Inspire them. Be bold.

Your colleagues want to hear what you have to say. Engage them. Be bold.

Administrators, your staffs want to be led. Animate them. Be bold.

Make this year a year for boldness, for courage, for fearlessness.

Your students, colleagues and staffs need this from you. They hurry from class-to-class, assignment-to-assignment, meeting-to-meeting and running that gauntlet is both daunting and draining. When they come to you, when it’s your class, your assignment, your meeting, you can give them what they’ve come to expect, most often a kind of dull proficiency. You can give them reserved professionalism. You can give them cautious platitudes. They won’t be shocked if you do. They’ve seen this before; they know how to respond.

But you have the opportunity, the responsibility to do more and be more. You can animate. You can inspire. You can engage. While they may not know it, your students, colleagues and staffs are thirsting for this. They are thirsty for boldness.

Teach boldly. At the end of the day – at that end of the year – teaching boldly may be the only kind of teaching that truly matters.

Teach & Serve II, No. 40 – Parenting, Leadership and Ministry

Teach & Serve II, No. 40 – Parenting, Leadership and Ministry

May 10, 2017

The great educational leaders, whether they are parents or not, are great ministers. They are ministering to those with whom they journey and they believe (they know) that ministry is a great gift – to they themselves far more than it is gift to those they lead or teach.

Later this week, one of my sons turns 20 years old. My eldest son crossed this threshold a few months back. My daughter will turn 19 years old this fall. I have been in the parenting business for two decades now. If you add the ages of my kids together, that is a collective 59 years of parenting. If one has that kind of experience in a particular task, one should be pretty good at it, right?

I will leave judgements of my proficiency at parenting to my children.

I have been involved in education for the past 25 years, longer than I have been a parent. I believe I have been a good teacher and a good administrator. I think I am good in my current role as well. I also like to believe that I was fairly good at teaching in those 5 years prior to my actually becoming a parent.

I will leave judgements of my proficiency at teaching to my first students.

I do believe this: I became a better teacher the moment I had children. I have no doubt of this.

My children… not children anymore.

I do not contend that those who do not have children are not able to be wonderful teachers and administrators. That would be a ridiculous stance. Many of us can point to tremendous educators who have no children. Some would make the argument that the Venn Diagram overlap of working in education and being a parent is a very big overlap and I would not debate that conclusion, either.

Early on in my career in education, I realized that the work for me was not just work. It was vocation but it was my experience as a parent taught me that my work in education was more than even vocation, it was ministry.

I have written before that great teachers and leaders see their work in education as their vocation. The great ones always do. The extrinsic rewards to the work are not enough to keep someone coming back for me. The intrinsic ones, the ones that come from embracing one’s vocation, are.

Exceptional teachers and educational leaders regard their work as their ministry.

It was parenting that helped me realize this. There is a great line from the wonderful movie Parenthood. Jason Robards’ character, a family patriarch who was not a great father in his time comes to this realization: “it’s not like parenting ends when the kid is 18 or 21 or 41 or 61, it never, never ends… there is no end zone. You never get to spike the ball and do your touchdown dance.” I had no idea what this meant.

Until I had kids.

I had little idea what my ministry in education could be.

Until I had kids.

Again, I am not suggesting the realizations I had upon some reflection on being a parent are specific to parents. They are not. What I am saying is that, watching my children grow, feeling my love for them and my responsibility to them only expanding over time, I understand my commitment to and my ministry in education in a way I never could have when I was 22 and sitting in my first classroom.

The great educational leaders, whether they are parents or not, are great ministers. They are ministering to those with whom they journey and they believe (they know) that ministry is a great gift – to they themselves far more than it is gift to those they lead or teach.

Having children and seeing them become young adults helped me see this. How blessed I am.

Teach & Serve II, No. 38 – Intention and Purpose Rooted in “Why”

Teach & Serve II, No. 38 – Intention and Purpose Rooted in “Why”

April 26, 2017

If we know why we are doing what we are doing, we can move ahead with intention. We can move ahead with shared purpose. We can move ahead with common understanding.

I have written in past posts about knowing the “why” of our shared work in education. Simon Sinek, the motivational speaker and marketing expert writes eloquently and convincingly in his books Start with Why and Leaders Eat Last about how important knowing why we do what we do really is. He contends that many companies and leaders – for our purposes, schools and teachers and administrators – do not take the time to uncover why they do what they do. He contends that most begin with the “what,” not the “why.”

It is easy to agree with his point.

When we think about the task we face as teachers and administrators, the what is ever in our view. What do we do? We lead our staffs so our teachers can teach our students so our students can learn (skills, knowledge, critical thinking, values) so our students can master so our students can grow so our students can graduate… The what is our meat and potatoes. Being successful at the what keeps our doors open, our retention rates up, students in our desk, money in our budgets. We cannot undervalue the what.

But we can overvalue it or, perhaps, we can get the order of operations wrong.

All too often, leaders look at tasks – at the what – and do not ask the question of why they are asking their constituents to do what they are asking them to do. The what is typically obvious. It is typically tangible. The why? Not so much.

When I was a young teacher at a Jesuit high school, the staff had gathered for a faculty meeting and one of the subjects of the meeting was a discussion of the ways in which we could increase enrollment at the school. We talked and brainstormed and suggested and argued about the topic. In the back of the room, one of my colleagues quietly sat with his hand raised and the principal, who was conducting the conversation, seemed to avoid calling on him and did not for quite a while. Finally, he did.

“Um,” my friend said graciously, “should we be talking about getting smaller instead of getting larger?”

Pin. Drop.

It was such a bizarre question and so far out of left field in the context of the conversation the principal was holding that the principal did not even know how to address it. He blew right by the question and called on someone else. I am not sure I would have handled the situation any differently.

True story.

My colleague’s question dealt with why. My principal’s conversation was all about what.

If we know why we are doing what we are doing, we can move ahead with intention. We can move ahead with shared purpose. We can move ahead with common understanding.

And we can be special as we do.

You do not believe me? Take a look at comedian Michael Jr. as he discusses knowing your why. Take a look and get a sense of why you do what you do.

Teach & Serve II, No. 37 – Dissenting Opinions

Teach & Serve II, No. 37 – Dissenting Opinions

April 19, 2017

Giving voice to dissenting opinions is not a sign of weak leadership; it is a sign of great strength.

Good leaders determine what to do based on each individual case, weighing the opinions of others as appropriate, considering precedent if necessary, proceeding confidently into each new area. Good leaders make decisions because decision making is part of the work. They do not shy away from this duty even if they understand a decision may cause dissent.

With that in mind, here is the great leadership insight for today. Get ready. It is profound and powerful.

Are you sitting down as you read? We do not want anyone falling to the floor passing out from the sheer brilliance of what is about to come.

Here it is:

People disagree with their leaders.

Thank you, and good day.

Still here? Okay, a few more words, then, on this topic of disagreement and dissent.

Leaders who are just passable in their roles make determinations. Leaders who are simply proficient make decisions. Leaders who are solid and visionary lead their institutions where they may or may not want to go.

Leaders of all skill levels decide directions, accelerate agendas, pursue paths.

No matter the course chosen, there will be those led who disagree. Sometimes, they will disagree quietly. Often, they will dissent vocally.

How a leader responds to dissent defines leadership.

Be wary of leaders (perhaps of yourself as leader) if the goal of decision making is to not offend. Likewise, be aware of leaders (again, this could be you) who make decisions relishing the idea that choices will offend. Look to follow leaders who 1) understand that their decisions may cause waves, and yet they make them anyway and, 2) investigate the waves their decision-making has caused.

Leaders who cannot stand scrutiny of their decisions are not strong leaders. They are leaders who want to be praised for their wisdom without having offered those they lead rationale for that praise. Leaders who will not listen to opposing views are hamstrung in their leadership. They may be respected, they may even be feared, but they will not be truly followed.

Leaders who allow for disagreement, who engage those who disagree and who attempt to anticipate the tension decisions might cause and determine why decisions create friction are comfortable in the role. These leaders know that they cannot make everyone happy and they do not try. Rather they are aware of when their decisions create tension and they consider that tension. They work to understand it. And they do not do this alone.

Weak, arrogant leaders feel offended when you disagree with them. Strong, humble leaders explore dissent.

Giving voice to dissenting opinions is not a sign of weak leadership; it is a sign of great strength.

I want to follow a leader who is strong enough to allow me to disagree with her, confident enough to engage me on my disagreement and wise enough to explain to me when I am wrong. I want to follow a leader who knows my dissent can be a good thing. I want to follow a leader who encourages dissenting opinions.