Teach & Serve III, No. 10 – Proceed with Caution

Teach & Serve III, No. 10

Proceed with Caution

October 11, 2017

While I may believe I never treated a student in the manner this student described, she/he felt treated negatively by me, felt I did not care, felt I was a negative force and a bad teacher.

This is a hard one.

I was in high school classrooms for almost 25 years before leaving that work for my current position. I choose the word “classrooms” intentionally as I made certain, even as I transitioned from full time teacher to full time administrator, that I was assigned at least one two semester class every year I worked in secondary education. I felt that was important in terms of keeping me grounded in the real work of the school which is, obviously, working with students.

In those almost 25 years, I am sure I worked with thousands of students. I live in a kind of ambient anxiety about running into them now because I am terrible about remembering them names which is unfortunate. I wish I could remember all the kids I had in class with me, but I simply do not have that kind of bandwidth. Many I know do and I am so impressed by them.

When I consider those years, I have only fond memories of students in my classes, fond memories of all the students whether they worked hard or not, participated well or not, got in trouble or not. I look back on that mass of kids with a smile.

I have always assumed that students who sat in the desks in my classrooms had much the same thoughts about me, if not a pleasant feeling about being in my room, then, at least, an idea that we were in something together, that I respected them and that we shared some good times. It has never occurred to me that some of those students felt as though I did not care about them, did not know them and did not value them.

No. I should write it had never occurred to me, not until last spring.

Facebook is a wonderful tool and I have really enjoyed connecting with people from my past, including students. I made it policy not to “friend” them when they were still in school, but, if they requested after graduation and I remembered who they were (because looking at their pictures always helped!), I accepted. I have had many a conversation through FB with former students and it has been a pleasure to follow their lives in this pretty limited fashion.

As it turns out, some of my former students have even read these blogs on education that I write weekly. I discovered this by seeing the infrequent “likes” they might click after a post and I found out that some are really reading these things when I received a message from a student.

The content of the message was not what I expected. Essentially, the student felt that I bullied her/him in school, that I did not care about her/him, that I made a point of sticking it to her/him. When this student was considering transferring from the school, she/he remembers many teachers trying to change his/her mind. The student is certain I did not recall her/his name.

It was a long message and a powerful one.

I remembered the student quite well. That is the reason I had accepted her/his friend request. This is a student that I would recognize if we ran into each other. This is a student of whom I had warm and fond memories.

This student did not feel the same. Situations I remembered one way, this student recalled in an almost polar opposite fashion. And, to be clear, the student’s perception is reality. While I may believe I never treated a student in the manner this student described, she/he felt treated negatively by me, felt I did not care, felt I was a negative force and a bad teacher.

There is not a thing I can do to go back and change what I did to make this student feel this way, though I very much wish there were.

The benefit of this exchange between us was for me to be more reflective looking back, for me to consider things from my former students’ perspectives and for me to take myself down from the pedestal I have placed myself upon.

The good leaders and teachers I know welcome challenging input, they solicit ways to improve, they listen to those they have hurt and they invite pointed critiques.

Then they grow.

I have grown from reading these comments. Looking forward, I am more aware of how my actions and interactions influence others. Looking back, I am more aware of how my nostalgia colors my view of the past.

These are good things. They are hard things, but good.

Leaders must be cautious when they (as I often do in these posts) pat themselves on the back. Leaders must remember that their actions are interpreted, minute-by-minute, by those with whom they journey. Leaders should never get too comfortable thinking they have it all figured out.

Leaders must proceed with caution, for they are responsible for the perceptions they create.

Teach & Serve III, No. 9 – Who’s in Trouble?

Teach & Serve III, No. 9

Who’s in Trouble?

October 4, 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.”

In my years as an administrator, one of the teams on which I served to which I wish I could have offered more was the Student Assistance Team.

The Student Assistance Team was made up of administrators and teachers and directors. Anyone on staff could refer a student to this group. It was designed to catch students who might fall through any cracks in our program. It was designed as a place where kids could be discussed, plans could be made, help could be created. It was designed to keep kids on track socially and academically, to respond to their needs and to strengthen the overall community by assisting those who needed the most support.

It was a great work of which to be a part.

Many schools have groups such as this. All schools should have them. Schools ought to be about this. They ought to have these sorts of nets in place. They ought to have people committed to keeping their eyes on as many students as possible. They ought to know that protecting students is as important as teaching them.

Here’s the question: do we have these same kinds of supports for the adults in our buildings?

If we do not, we should think hard about developing them.

As leaders in our schools – as administrators and department chairs – part of our role in serving our staffs is knowing who needs to be served and how. Leaders must be as vigilant about the health and wellbeing of the adults in their charge as they are about the students in their charge.

This is not a lot to expect.

At the end of the equation lies the students. The operators in between the administration and the students are the teachers and staff, the adults in the building. To care about the kids is to care about those who are most closely in contact with them.

Leaders have to know who is in trouble on their staff. Beyond that, they have to try to help those who are in trouble.

When I was as assistant principal, my responsibilities revolved, primarily, around working with the faculty. Looking back, I know there was more I could have done, there were people to whom I could have been much better, colleagues I should have worked with in a far more compassionate way. However, I can say with honesty that I attempted to make it my work to know who the adults in my charge were, how they were and what they needed to be the best version of themselves.

Bringing the best version of themselves to all the did at the school made them better, the experience of the students better, the school better.

How would I ever know if a teacher needed to be non-renewed or replaced if I did not take the time to know them, to hear their perspective, to work with them? How could I advise my principal on hiring and firing if I did not try to engage and understand? How could I help if I did not know who needed help? I tried to connect because I thought it was critical to my role. I could have done better and, in many cases, wish I had, but I did understand that leadership required this of me.

Leaders who do not understand that knowing who on their staff is in trouble is as important as knowing which students might be in trouble are missing something critical.

Take care of those in need, adult and student alike. Make their lives as fulfilled as you can.

That is one of the critical roles of leadership.

Teach & Serve III, No. 7 – Intimidation

Teach & Serve III, No. 7

Intimidation

September 20, 2017

I do not want to follow a leader who thinks that the best way to engender loyalty is to intimidate those being led.

And I won’t.

I have written about this anecdote before, but I had cause to consider it anew this week.

When I first was hired as an administrator, I had a conversation with my uncle who, for years, had been Dean of the Math Department at a midwestern public university. He had well over 40 professors and adjuncts in his department and there was much to manage.

My uncle, a very bright, very tall man, said to me: “Sometimes, use the height.”

“What’s that?”

“Sometimes use your height.”

I am a tall man as well, taller than my uncle, actually, but I still did not take his meaning.

“When things get out of hand, if I am sitting in a meeting, I just stand up. That tends to quiet the room.”

“Ah,” I said. “Thanks.”

It sounded like a pretty good strategy to me. Rise up. Indicate displeasure. Control the room.

I do not, however, remember ever using this technique. I am sure I did.

15 years later, I wonder about it. I hate to overthink it, but it does seem to me like a move that is meant to intimidate. I am tall. I am taller than you. I exert my authority.

Okay, okay. No big deal. It is not like my uncle pounded on tables (I do not believe he did, anyway) and it is not like I ever did, either (if I did, I have conveniently blocked those times out of my memory).

This is not a bad strategy. It is not offensive. It is just fine especially if one does not find oneself standing up all the time to control a room or reset a meeting. See, I believe the only reason a strategy like that would work in the first place is because those being led respect the leader enough to care what he or she is doing, standing or sitting.

There are some leaders, though, who believe that their leadership originates from a place of power. Some who believe the only reason they are followed at all is because of the title on their lanyard, the name plate on their door, the position they hold. There are some leaders who believe their positions grant them all the authority they need to be leaders, to be called “boss,” to be in charge.

And those leaders, in my opinion, tend to rely on leadership techniques that intimidate, that divide, that defeat. Frankly, though initially those being led might be “defeated” by these tactics, it is my experience that, in the end, leading from intimidation is almost always self-defeating.

Is there a place in leadership to exert one’s authority? Of course there is. Often leaders need to. But if that is the primary mode of operation – if intimidation in leadership is seen as a useful tool, not a last resort – that is a problem.

I do not want to follow a leader who thinks that the best way to engender loyalty is to intimidate those being led.

And I won’t.

Nor will most others. For long.

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?

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?

Teach & Serve II, No. 41 – Graduations

Teach & Serve II, No. 41 – Graduations

May 17, 2017

So, yes, our students leave us but we, in large part, do not leave them.

The sun is out with more regularity and throughout more of the day. The trees and grasses are greener. The flowers are budding. There is, if you listen closely, more melody of birds in the air. Spring is upon us and summer is not far behind.

For us in the work of education that can only mean that the end of the year approaches.

Rapidly.

Though there are things standing between us and the end of the year, some of them pleasant, some of them hurdles, some of them variable from school-to-school, there is a universal: graduation.

Typically, and appropriately, graduation is viewed primarily as a student event, a moment (or long series of moments strung together in what can seem to be an interminable chain depending upon who your school conducts its festivities) during which the senior class is honored, their names are called and their last steps as members of our student communities are taken. It shines the spotlight on the kids as they leave us and that is a very good thing.

It signals something of an end and a speaker is likely to remind the crowd that these particular groups of students, their families and their teachers will never occupy the same space again.

I used to mention sentiments like that when I spoke at graduations. They were true words.

But, it is important to remember at these times as the names are read and the stages are crossed and the parties are thrown, that the experiences our students have had at our schools go on. These graduates are who they are because of what has happened to them and what they have done in the years at our schools.

The students leave us and, if we are honest with ourselves, it is hard to remember each of them in sharp detail. Our work is predicated on assisting groups of kids to go, it is based on mentoring them away from us and, though the best among us are excellent at recalling the majority of students they have taught (I have never been great at this in all honesty), the fact is one group graduates and another comes in.

So, yes, our students leave us but we, in large part, do not leave them.

They can point to interactions we do not remember. They can identify as critical moments incidents we might recall as insignificant. They can recall the paths we led them down when we did not even know we were pointing them in any direction at all.

That is a heady realization. There is a responsibility in the work we do. We have responsibility for every interaction we have with a student.

This is not a responsibility we should ever take lightly. If we do underestimate it, it is time to look for another vocation.

The reality is that most of those who work in education, who work as administrators and teachers, understand this responsibility and, more than that, they embrace it. They love students and that is why they are in the work.

An old and overused adage goes like this: “A teacher was asked: ‘what do you teach?’ The person inquiring wanted to know what subject the teacher instructed. ‘Students,’ the teacher replied, ‘I teach students.’” We have heard this one before and, while it is worn, it does convey a truth.

If we are in education, the students are entrusted to us are far more important than the content we convey.

Graduations should serve to remind us of the awesome responsibility we have. Graduations should be a celebration of the work that we do. In as much as they mark the accomplishment of our students, let them also mark ours as well. Let them serve as reminders of the good work we do and let them challenge us, as we look to the summer sun, to review, revive and return in the fall ready to serve once again.

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.