We Create the Culture and The Culture Creates Us

“Our success is driven by such an incredible culture with this team—culture on the floor, preparing, attention to detail, how we conduct ourselves off the court.”
Bill Behrns, Loyola (Chicago) Assistant Athletic Director

March Madness may be over, but I am still reveling in the Cinderella run of the Loyola University Ramblers. The performance of this team, led not only by Coach Porter Moser, but also team leaders, inspired everyone in the Chicago area, if not the entire nation, throughout their miraculous season. As one who lives a mere three miles from campus, I took a special interest in watching these young men compete on the court. I was equally impressed by their words and actions off the court. A great deal of the team’s success can be attributed to the culture they created and, in turn, what they became by that culture. In fact, if you watched any of their tourney games, you likely noticed the team’s “Created By Culture” T-shirts. 

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What they became, as individuals and as a team, was created by the culture that they created. We first create the culture and the culture creates us, influencing our attitudes, behaviors, commitments, and overall level of success. The more I watched and read about this team, the more I realized that the culture needed for success as a basketball team is not unlike the culture necessary for success in the schoolhouse. 

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To keep the team’s culture constantly in the forefront of the minds of team members, Moser installed a “Wall of Culture” in the locker room with dozens of words and phrases that are cornerstones of the team’s philosophy. These ever-present textual reminders are not only posted prominently, but also reviewed regularly by coaches and team members as a way to reinforce the daily habits, techniques, and mindsets that lead to the team’s long-term success.

Successful schools are similar, organizations with a strong culture in place, and led by individuals who regularly remind each other what is important, why it matters, and how they must behave to fulfill the school’s mission and achieve the school’s vision. Such schools even make the time to prominently display the school’s values throughout the school and in each individual classroom. During meetings, team members hold each other accountable for group norms and adhering to commonly shared values while always keeping their eye on the prize: student success.

During Loyola’s magical run, I would wake up every morning and read the latest features on the team in my morning Chicago Tribune. After their buzzer-beating victory over Miami in the opening round, columnist David Haugh mentioned that this was no accident, stating that, “At Loyola, they rehearse success.” When I coached high school basketball years ago, we also rehearsed success--in every aspect of the game. Prior to our opening game each season, we even practiced how we handled time outs during games. Many teams we competed against would simply call time out, whereupon players would saunter over to the bench and gather somewhat haphazardly to discuss strategy. On our team, we actually practiced each step of the process, including what a player should say if they needed a time out, how they should protect the ball if they were in possession of it when calling a timeout, how fast they should move to the bench (faster than other teams), where players in the game should sit (facing me, away from the stands), and where players not in the game should stand (behind me, facing the stands). There was a reason for everything we did as team, including small details like how we ran timeouts. At the end of the practice, one parent commented, “Wow, I have never seen a team practice timeouts before. You guys are really ready for everything.” The observation was gratifying and validated how important it was as coaches to prepare our athletes for every single event that occurs in a game. I suspect part of Loyola’s “rehearsing for success” includes practicing every possible event that can arise during an actual game.

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Successful schools rehearse for success also and there is a reason for everything they do and a way they go about doing it as they prepare for every classroom lesson and every staff meeting. Every administrator paints a vivid picture of what success for the school looks like for every staff member and outlines actions steps for achieving the vision. In the classroom, every teacher does the same, pointing and guiding students to an ultimate outcome while celebrating small wins along the way. Both invest intentional time to consistently getting better by reviewing where they are going, where they are now, and what they need to do next to close the gap while often reminding those they lead about cultural keys to success, holding all individuals on the “team”--in this case, staff members at the school or students in the classroom--accountable for adhering to commonly-shared values, norms, and behaviors necessary for achieving the vision.

Whether talking about successful schools or successful basketball teams, a critical key to success is creating an incredible culture. First, we create the culture and, if we maintain and reinforce it consistently, eventually the culture creates us. By creating a successful culture, we ensure that our culture will create success--for athletes on our basketball teams or for the students at our schools. Of course, it doesn’t hurt to have someone like Sister Jean
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watching over you and cheering you on! Paying attention to the many small details that make up a school or classroom culture is another way we Teach, Learn, and Lead with Passion!

Is This Really Important?

“If everything is important, than nothing is.”
Patrick Lencioni

“Everything is important. That success is in the details.”
Steve Jobs

When I served as principal at a middle school several years ago, our leadership team was discussing time, specifically, the lack thereof and a perception that we allowed too many interruptions to instructional time during a typical school day. We were brainstorming ways to maximize instructional minutes and minimize class interruptions of any kind. It was my first year as

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principal and (following the practice of the previous principal) I had been making morning announcements a few minutes after the school day started and afternoon announcements a few minutes before the school day ended. After the leadership team meeting, I met with the assistant principals and our school secretary (who, as a true leader in our school, also served on the school’s leadership team) and we decided we would stop making afternoon announcements--unless it was an announcement that was extremely important.

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At the next school leadership team meeting, we all shared ideas for maximizing instructional time gathered from our respective teams. I shared the idea to cease afternoon announcements, with the caveat that we would still make an announcement if it were of true import. Everyone seemed pleased and lauded the idea, which would likely save five minutes of instructional time most days. Then, one team member had an epiphany, suggesting, “Umm...shouldn’t that actually be the bar for any announcement we make at anytime?” His point was that if it were important enough for the entire school to hear at a certain time, we should go ahead and make the announcement. On the other hand, it it was not truly important that the entire school hear an announcement, we probably should not waste instructional time to deliver it, whether it was in the morning, afternoon, or any other time.

This story is a simple, but real, example of something my friend and colleague Anthony McConnell and I write about in our book, The Principled Principal: 10 Principles for Leading Exemplary Schools. The first principle we examine is what we term, “The Priority Principle” and, frankly, this remains a conundrum as

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evidenced by the two seemingly contradictory quotes at the top of this post from two men whose leadership insights are beyond reproach. On the one hand, if everything is important, nothing is important, meaning that there can only be so many things we do that are truly important to our core work. On the other hand, if we are actually spending our most precious commodity--time--devoted to something, then that “something” ought to be important or we ought not be wasting our time doing it. 

As school leaders, we obviously need to prioritize our time. What we cannot do, however, is send the message that something we are doing at our school is not important or less important than something else we do. We should prioritize how much time we devote to every important thing we do, but we should not say one is more important than the other. School safety and crisis planning is extremely important, perhaps now more than ever. Is it more important than academics? Nope, but guess what? Academics are not more important than school safety and crisis planning either. They are equally important and we must do each to the very best of our abilities as educators. Although they are both important, it is foolhardy to debate whether one is more important than the other, What is appropriate is prioritizing how much time we devote to each. Although school safety is every bit as important as academic learning, over the course of a full school year we need not dedicate nearly as much time to crisis planning as we do to academic learning. So many things we do in schools are like this, yet we fall into the trap of saying this is more important than that. There exists a subtle, yet important, distinction between prioritizing something’s importance versus prioritizing the time we dedicate to something that is important. 

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When faced with the false dilemma of devoting time in the school day to competing demands upon that time, the answer might be, “Lets do A,” or “Let’s do B.” However, if they are both important, the answer must be, “Let’s do both--and do them with 100% commitment from every staff member.” Although we may not dedicate the exact same amount of time to everything we do in schools, everything we do in schools must be considered equally important, from academic learning to innovative instructional practices, to social emotional learning, to school safety, and even to standardized testing. Yes, even that. If we are investing time in the school year to administer these assessments, we should commit to ensuring our students perform to their highest potential.

So, Lencioni and Jobs were both right. Everything we do in schools is important, yet not everything merits the same amount of time devoted to it in order for us to ensure we have given it our best. A final challenge, though: I suspect we should periodically audit how we spend our time in schools, to make sure that everything we are doing is, indeed, important. I suspect we will discover some things that, upon reflection, are not important. When that is the case--as it was with the announcements we were making at one middle school years ago--we should stop devoting a single moment to them. There are too many things we must do each day that are “all-important” to the kids we serve. Prioritizing what is important--and eliminating what is not--is another way we Teach, Learn, and Lead with Passion!

They are Always Watching Us

“If we don’t model what we teach, 
then we are teaching something else.”

Several years ago, I worked with two middle schools that were nearly identical in every way. Now, I believe that every school is a unique learning community with unique learners, unique educators, and a unique school culture, but these two schools were about as similar as two schools can be. They were about a mile apart and had nearly the exact same number of students enrolled. Moreover, the demographics at these two schools were almost identical in terms of race, gender, economic status, limited English proficiency, and students with disabilities. The schools had the exact same level of staffing and program resources. The parent community at both schools was equally similar. In short, these two schools were way more alike than different.

Interestingly, however, one of these schools had what some deemed a student bullying problem. The other middle school seemed to have very little in the way of student bullying incidents. At first, I was puzzled by this and could not determine why two schools whose students were so similar could have discrepant instances of student bullying. The more I observed in these two schools, the more the answer became evident: the school with significant student bullying issues also had a significant amount of teacher bullying occurring. The vast majority of staff at both schools was comprised of dedicated and passionate professional educators. Yet, at one school, there were a few powerful teachers who bullied certain colleagues. For anyone who thinks professional bullying does not exist, I encourage you to read When Teachers Bully Teachers and Let's Be Honest: Professional Bullying in Schools Is a Thing.” Sadly, although it may not be as common, teachers bullying other teachers is just as real as students bullying other students.

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Unfortunately, in the very places where students most need to see adults modeling and promoting acceptance, support, encouragement, connection, empathy, and sincerity, in some schools a few teachers do the opposite. In some cases, these teachers may actually do a fine job of promoting anti-bullying in their own classrooms with their students, yet when it comes to interacting with colleagues, they inexplicably engage in the behavior they profess to detest. Why does this happen and what can we do about it?

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Some teachers who bully other teachers do so because they feel threatened. They see a colleague taking risks in the classroom, going above and beyond in their work habits, working closely with the school’s administration, and building such positive relationships with students that they become the “favorite” teacher of many. Although working hard, taking risks, working closely with administration, and having kids genuinely like their teachers are all things I want to see happening in schools, unfortunately, teacher bullies view these differently. It threatens their status and challenges the status quo. Perhaps one teacher had been the students’ “favorite” until another teacher came on board and students started gravitating toward this teacher. Maybe another teacher is resistant to change and views a colleague who is willing to change and try new things as a threat to them. Yet another may resent the fact that a colleague arrives early and stays late each day, thinking this makes her look like a slacker. Student bullies behave the way they do for a number of reasons, many of which we fail to understand. Sadly, teacher bullies are no different.

So what can we do?

  • If we are the victim of bullying by a colleague, it may behoove us to first try to understand why the person is behaving as they are. Determining the “Why?” behind the behaviors might drive our subsequent actions, including standing up to the bully. One approach, suggested by Angie Miller, is simply sharing the following: "My feelings were hurt today when you did this. Can you tell me what I've done to upset you?" Of course, confronting a bully may be no easier for an adult than it is for a child. Sometimes we simply need to recognize the behavior for what it is, ignore what we can, and stay positive at all times. George Couros often states, “We need to make the positive so loud that the negatives are almost impossible to hear.” No matter how we are treated by staff members who bully us, we must take the high road and not fall into the trap of becoming negative or acting in kind. This is difficult. Being bullied hurts, whether we are 12 or 42. 

  • Another thing we must do when we experience professional bullying is realize that the issue is about the bully and not about us. Moreover, we must remember that the bully is the exception, not the rule. Find your tribe, remembering that “Your vibe attracts your tribe.” Find those colleagues both within your own school community and educators around the world who are equally passionate and energized about students and our profession and who refuse to be distracted by the vocal few who behave otherwise. Connect with like-minded colleagues who will help you stay the course.

  • Finally, if we are not the target of adult bullying but recognize it happening in our school, we need to speak up and call out our colleagues who bully--respectfully, privately, professionally. In schools with the most productive and positive cultures in place, all staff members--not just principals--hold each other accountable for adhering to group norms and modeling for students what we expect of them. If we cannot muster the courage to approach a bullying colleague about their behavior, we can at least do something almost as effective: don’t join in any conversation in which one staff member is making fun of another. Remain stone faced silent. Walk away. Do not laugh or play along. Let it be known by your actions, if not your words, that this is something you do not support.
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It strains credulity that a few adults in some schools exhibit the very behaviors we try to eliminate when we see them displayed by students, but the problem is real. As bad as the problem is by itself, here is what makes it even worse: when staff members bully staff members, it does not go unnoticed by students. They are always watching us and listening to us. Kids are ridiculously smart and observant and possess an uncanny capacity for picking up on things lurking just below the surface. At the middle school level, especially, when many children are at their most impressionable stage, students are likely to follow our lead. If we send the message in any way, however subtle, that bullying is something we do, you can rest assured that for some students it will be something they do, too. Be the teacher students look up to for all the right reasons by modeling respectful, professional, collegial behavior at all times. It is another way we Teach, Learn, and Lead with Passion!

The Things They Remember

“Students will remember how we treated them long after they forget what we taught them.”

This January I spent most of the month on St. Simons Island, Georgia, partly to get away from the Chicago cold for a bit, and partly to begin work on a new book. I lived on St. Simons from 1995 - 2002 and it remains one of my favorite places on earth. When living there, I taught middle school language arts, high school English, and coached a number of sports. I have many fond memories of many awesome students I taught and coached during those years.

One weekend while on St. Simons during my visit, my entire family also joined me there to celebrate my mother's 85th birthday (she had me when she was 50 or so). When my sister and I got off an elevator to enter a rooftop restaurant where we would be celebrating, a young man waiting to take the elevator down exclaimed, “Coach Zoul!” Although I vaguely recognized the face, I had to ask his name. When he told me, I immediately remembered him from my English class and high school baseball team. I asked him how old he was now and he let me know he was 34 (Yes, it made me feel quite ancient). We hugged and he told me a rather interesting story. It went something like this: “Coach, you were the best! My cousin and I still talk about you all the time. Just the other day, we were talking about the time you slid down a pole into the classroom from the ceiling when we did not even know you were up there.” This former student-athlete and I reminisced a bit more, hugged again, and I went about my my business with my sister, who asked somewhat incredulously, “You slid down a pole into your classroom from the ceiling??!” Well, I suppose I did since this young man seemed to have it etched into his memory, but here’s the kicker: I have no recollection of this event whatsoever.

Now, it certainly sounds like something I would do. And, I taught in an ancient Works Project Administration building classroom that had several supporting poles throughout and ceiling tiles I 
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suppose could have easily been removed. As a teacher, I always loved teaching my content, but I loved playing practical jokes and having fun with my students even more, so his anecdote certainly rings true, but I just don’t remember it. Yet, this now 34-year-old former student did and was still talking about it with his cousin 17 years after the fact. 

To be honest, I have had similar encounters with a number of former students over the years. They always seem to remember something crazy we did during class that had nothing to do with the curriculum. A former first grade student reminded me once of the time that we squeezed my entire class of 24 first graders into my 1975 Ford Thunderbird as a reward for perfect behavior. I have mixed feelings about the things my former students remember actually. On the one hand, I sincerely believe that learning is the ultimate purpose--or “Why?”--of any school and I expect all teachers (including myself during my 18-year teaching career) to actually be teaching a guaranteed and viable curriculum each day. At the same time, I also realize that kids need to know we care about them as people first and students second and they need to not only work hard but also have fun in our classrooms. Dylan William suggests that pedagogy trumps curriculum--or rather is curriculum--because what matters is how things are taught, not what is taught. And I would suggest that sometimes pedagogy includes the zany things we do as teachers that have nothing to do with learning standards.
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Although I am a firm believer that we must ensure what we are teaching includes actual grade level (or above) learning standards, the “how” is even more important and this "how" can include all the non-academic things we do just for fun. I suspect that sliding from the ceiling down into the classroom took no more than three minutes away from my instructional time on this particular day and I suspect it was three minutes well spent. Even though my former student did not mention any of the works of literature we were reading that year or papers that we wrote, maybe on that particular day he was just a little more engaged in reading Julius Caesar after starting class with the teacher making a surprising entrance from the ceiling.

One never knows what the students sitting in front of us today will remember many years hence; my hunch, though, is that it will more often than not be something completely unrelated to the curriculum. Take time to ensure that the non-academic memories our children retain many years down the road are memories of fun, laughter, caring, and even silliness. I believe our very best teachers--even those focused like a laser beam on standards--make time for pure fun each and every day in their classrooms. Indeed, it is another way we Teach, Learn, and Lead with Passion!

Stop Making Assumptions

“Don’t make assumptions. Find the courage to ask questions and to express what you really want. Communicate with others as clearly as you can to avoid misunderstandings, sadness and drama. With just this one agreement, you can completely transform your life.”
Don Miguel Ruiz

It was a humbling--if not humiliating--moment. I was listening to one end of a phone conversation between two of my best friends and two of the most passionate educators I know. I heard the friend who I was with consoling the other friend and letting her know it was fine that she was going to have to back out of a commitment she had made to us. I became visibly agitated and even started making comments to my friend while he was still speaking with her that he should insist she honor her commitment. My friend, clearly agitated with me, waved away my comments and finished his conversation. When he hung up, he turned to me and said, “Would you please stop making assumptions?”

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He then explained why our mutual friend was calling to cancel her commitment to us. Her reason for canceling, of course, was not a small matter and something about which she had agonized over. When I learned the other side of the story, I frankly wanted to crawl under a rock and hide. I had assumed the worst about someone. To make matters even more egregious, the person I assumed the worst about was someone who I like and respect a great deal, yet I still assumed I knew what she was saying on the other end of the phone and why she was doing what she was doing. I based my assumptions on limited information after listening to one side of a conversation. When I learned the truth about this situation, I was devastated, embarrassed, and filled with remorse. How could I have assumed this about someone I consider a friend?

Too often in my life, I have been guilty of making assumptions instead of truly trying to understand another person’s motives, perspectives, and actions. I need to get better at this and stop making assumptions. In education, I suspect that others may fall prey to this trap as well. We are so busy and stressed that we simply begin making assumptions about why people act the way they do, whether it is about a student who misbehaves, a parent who gets upset with us, or a colleague who lets us down in some way. One of the best things we can do in any such situation is to stop making assumptions about why the person did what they did. Of course, another way we could approach such situations is to go ahead and make an assumption, but only if that is to assume the best about the other person. Maybe we can assume that the student wants to please us and is trying to find a way to let us know she needs our help. Maybe the parent has been working two jobs to make ends meet and wants the very best for his child. Perhaps the colleague we are upset with really respects us and wants to help, but is unsure about his own capabilities and is afraid he will let us down.

We can never know everything there is to know about ourselves, let alone others. One thing we can do, however, to know others better is to stop making assumptions about them or, when we do, to assume the best about them. Jumping to conclusions never helps anyone or any situation and only increases the likelihood that misunderstandings, sadness, and drama will occur among us. As we approach another new year, I, for one, need to do a much better job in this area. I am impatient by nature and prone to acting quickly on limited information. Making assumptions is bad enough in our daily personal lives, but when we do so in our schools and classrooms--especially when interacting with the students we serve--we are failing in a critically important arena that can have long-lasting repercussions.

Let’s stop making assumptions based on limited information this year. When we must make an assumption, let’s assume the best--about our students, our parents, and each other. I make so many
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unintentional mistakes on a daily basis, that I certainly hope others will give me the benefit of the doubt and assume my intentions are good, even when my words or actions fall short of my expectations for myself. I, in turn, need to do the same. One year ago, Todd Whitaker, Jimmy Casas, and I wrote a book called Start. Right. Now. in which we share some ideas about things we need to start doing in education. Making assumptions based on limited information, on the other hand, is something we need to Stop. Right. Now. in education. As Ruiz suggests in the quote above, when we agree to stop making assumptions, it can completely transform our lives. It can also help those with whom we interact. Assuming the best of others and not making the assumption that we know why people are acting the way they are is another way we Teach, Learn, and Lead with Passion!

The Humble Leader

“Level 5 leaders embody a paradoxical mix of personal humility and professional will. They are ambitious, to be sure, but ambitious first and foremost for the company, not themselves.”
Jim Collins

For many years, I attended church services every Sunday in Lake Forest, Illinois, where the pastor was possibly one of the most intelligent people I have known and certainly one of the best teachers from whom I have ever learned. His sermons were masterful and he often opened with a bit of humor. One Sunday, he let us know that the topic of his sermon was going to be “humility.” He went on to explain that he had spoken on the topic many times, written about the topic often, and researched the topic at great length. Then, after an appropriate dramatic pause, he added, “In fact, you might say I’m an expert on the topic of humility.” After an appreciative chuckle from those of us in attendance, he added, “I’m even thinking of calling my next book: ‘Humility--and How I Achieved It,’” eliciting another collective laugh. After this humorous opening, he went on to extol the virtues of living a humble life and I was reminded that the very best educational leaders I know--whether they are district superintendents, school principals, or classroom teachers--all exhibit this admirable trait known as personal humility. They are able to lead the children and colleagues with whom they interact, in part, because of what Jim Collins calls their “professional will,” but even more importantly, it seems, because of their genuine and consistent displays of personal
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By now, I suspect that almost anyone reading this blog post has also read Collins’s book, Good To Great and is familiar with his characteristics of the very best leaders in the corporate world, people he labels, “Level 5 Leaders.” A key characteristic of such leaders is their somewhat paradoxical blend of professional will and personal humility. In reflecting on the best and most successful teachers and administrators with whom I have worked over the past few decades, I am struck by how true this is in the world of education as well as the business world. The very best teachers and administrators I know are humble people. Because they are consistently excellent, they are often recognized for their successes, yet they never seek such recognition nor wallow in it for very long, if at all. One specific behavior these excellent leaders do exhibit consistently is aligned to what Collins calls, The Window and the Mirror:

When things go well, our best educators point out the window,
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giving credit to factors other than themselves; they shine a light on other people (including students, parents, and colleagues) who contributed to success and take little credit themselves. Yet when things go awry, they do not blame circumstances or other people for setbacks and failures; they point in the mirror and say, “I’m responsible; that’s on me.” If they cannot find a specific event or person to give credit to when they succeed, they credit good luck, yet they never cite “bad luck” or external factors when things go poorly.

Can you think of any educators you perceive to be humble leaders who practice--knowingly or not--the window and the mirror model of leadership? I immediately thought of three excellent leaders who I consider exemplars in this area. One is a superintendent, another is a principal, and a third is a classroom teacher:

  • Joe Sanfelippo is a superintendent in Fall Creek, Wisconsin. Although the district is tiny, he has put it on the national map through his outstanding work the past few years. Of course, he will never take any credit himself for the district's many successes. I have never been around Joe without hearing him rave about the amazing students, teachers, parents, and board members in his district. However, when problems arise in Fall Creek--which, like everywhere else in the world, they do--that is when you will hear Joe step up and take responsibility.
  • Sanee Bell is a principal in Katy, Texas. I have yet to meet a person who knows Sanee who has not also told me what a fantastic leader she is. Her work ethic, personal integrity, intellect, and genuine compassion have earned her the respect and affection of all who know her and success in every role in which she has served. Of course, when you ask Sanee what her secret sauce of success is, be prepared for her to start pointing out the window and crediting any number of people, yet taking no credit herself.
  • Kirk Humphreys is a middle grades math teacher in Deerfield, Illinois, whose students consistently perform well above grade level and consistently credit him for serving as an inspiring, caring, energetic, and fun mentor. Of course, if you ever ask Kirk the secret to his success, he will simply talk about his amazing kids and unbelievable parent support.

I admire these three leaders for many reasons, including their personal humility; humble leaders like them make me want to be a better--and more humble--leader myself. Although I am confident you can think of others who immediately come to mind as examples of humble educators/leaders, I also fear you can just as quickly think of those who fall into the exact opposite category: leaders who are quick to take credit for every successful outcome they had a connection to, but who, at the first sign of trouble, are even quicker at assigning blame to any and everyone involved – except themselves, of course. Working with leaders who behave thusly is simply deflating and crushes the culture of the school.

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It is natural to want to receive praise and avoid blame. Although it may be natural, it is also wrong and counterproductive to our success as leaders. The concept of the window and the mirror is simple to understand, but may not be natural and, therefore, may even require practice. Fortunately, in schools we have plenty of opportunities to practice our skills in this area, giving credit where credit is due--to students, staff, parents, and community members--while also holding ourselves accountable for negative outcomes, which are, unfortunately, every bit as inevitable as our successes. Serving as a strong leader while consistently exhibiting personal humility helps build trust within your team and builds credibility for yourself as a leader as well as your classroom, school, or district. It is also another way we Teach, Learn, and Lead with Passion!

Teaching Should Be More Like Coaching

“In the end, it's about the teaching, and what I always loved about coaching was the practices. Not the games, not the tournaments, not the alumni stuff. But teaching the players during practice was what coaching was all about to me.”
John Wooden

Prior to becoming a school administrator, I served as a classroom teacher for eighteen years. My very first job was teaching 1st grade; my final teaching assignment was 12th grade English. During those eighteen years, I also served as a coach; although I coached football, baseball, and golf, my true coaching passion was basketball. Although I loved serving as a classroom teacher at all levels, I must admit that near the end of my teaching career, there were many days that my basketball practices seemed to go much more smoothly and were much more productive than my English lessons. I sensed that my basketball players were learning more about basketball than my English students were learning about reading, writing, speaking, listening, and language skills. Unfortunately, when things are not going as well as we wish, it is sometimes difficult to discern exactly why when we are in the moment. However, after time passes, it often becomes much easier to look back and learn why. As I sit here today, I realize my English lessons would have been much more productive if they were a whole lot more like my basketball practices. 
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This is somewhat embarrassing to admit now that I know better, but at the time, my English class was more about me, than it was about my students. I did most of the talking, students either learned or did not, and, truth be told, I wasted a fair amount of time during my allotted instructional minutes. As soon as my last class of the day ended, I would quickly change clothes and head straight to the gym for practice. Suddenly, everyone was engaged. Moreover, these athletes were working harder than me and learning a great deal in the process. What made the difference? I could probably list quite a few answers, but these five really stand out to me more than 15 years later as difference makers:

  • Planning: As a basketball coach, to say I was a meticulous planner would be an understatement. I only had 90 minutes of time before the next team needed the gym and I needed 120 minutes. As a result, I planned each practice from minute 1 to minute 90. We never practiced for 89 minutes; we always used all 90. It was not unusual to run certain activities for precisely 3 minutes and 21 seconds or 7 minutes and 49 seconds. I literally used every second of the 90 minutes for purposeful activities designed to help my players become better at the game of basketbal. My English classes, on the other hand, were a tad more random and it was not unusual for me to simply “wing it.” I was known to get sidetracked with stories and might even end class a bit early, allowing students to “do their homework.” I wish I had planned my English lessons as intentionally as I planned each basketball practice.
  • Practice: During my 90 minute basketball practices, there was a great deal of time devoted to….practice. Kids on my teams actually practiced skills I was teaching them. There was not a single aspect of a game situation that we did not practice, from the opening tip, to the crossover dribble, to the way we sat on the bench during a timeout, to the way we wore our uniforms. We practiced everything. Meanwhile, in my English classes, there was not a lot of in-class time devoted to practicing any skills I was teaching. Although we would read regularly and there was some time devoted to actual writing, little of this was deliberate practice, designed for the students to improve as readers and writers in specific areas. I wish I had designed opportunities for students in my English classes to deliberately practice skills they needed to become better. 
  • Feedback: During my basketball practices, I provided loads of feedback. What’s more, it was timely and specific feedback. I might watch a player shoot a few free throws, then stop him to share specific things I noticed, suggesting he try changing one small part of his free throw routine or technique. Then, he would shoot again and I would provide additional feedback. In my classroom, I provided little in the way of useful feedback, rarely moving beyond, “Good job.” Moreover, my feedback on student writing often came days after an assignment was turned in and well after it would do the student writer any good. I wish I had focused more on providing feedback in my English classes and less on grades.
  • Mini lessons: At times during basketball practices, I led direct, whole group instruction. Whenever I was introducing a new inbounds play, for instance, I would take over and explain the play, showing the team where each person should move and when. These lessons tended to be only as long as necessary in order to get the kids started practicing the play themselves, at which point, we would be back to the practice - feedback - practice loop. In my English classes, however, there were days when I spent the entire period teaching a lesson on grammar, poetry, or the research process. I wish I had started each class off with no more than a 15- or 20-minute mini lesson and then allowing students to dig in and start working on the mini lesson skills.
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  • Spiraling: In basketball practice, we never truly mastered any skill. When long term planning, I always made sure to schedule times to spiral back to drills related to shooting, dribbling, passing, and defense so as to continue getting better at these foundational skills. On the other hand, in my English classes, once we finished a unit on any topic, I rarely, if ever returned to those concepts. Students either got it the first time or we moved on without them getting it. I wish I had planned on circling back to big ideas in my English curriculum throughout the school year to ensure that students truly learned and retained essential content and skills.
I worked really, really hard as a classroom teacher. I worked really hard as a basketball coach, too, but during practices, my athletes were working a whole lot harder than I. Moreover, they were learning and growing more as basketball players than my students were growing as English students. It seem so obvious to me now, but at the time I was doing the best I knew how as a teacher. I honestly think I could do much better today--and I would start by “coaching” more and “teaching” less in my classroom. As John Wooden suggests, coaching is actually all about teaching. Teaching the students we serve by coaching them in our classrooms is another way we Teach, Learn, and Lead with Passion!

We Create the Culture and The Culture Creates Us

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