When Is It OK To Break the Rules?

“I am free, no matter what rules surround me. If I find them tolerable, I tolerate them; if I find them too obnoxious, I break them.”
Robert Heinlein

The majority of educators I know tend to be rule followers by nature and there is certainly something to be said for establishing guidelines in our schools to ensure safety and optimize student and staff performance. There are other times, however, when we must serve as disruptors, recognizing that a rule we may have in place serves no legitimate purpose or is even counterproductive to what we are attempting to accomplish. Recently, I found myself reflecting on two such instances that are of a totally different nature but equally representative of rules gone awry.

One instance related to school safety. At a school I visited this past year, I was walking down a busy hallway during a class change. As I turned a corner by a stairwell, a door opened suddenly and struck me. A student had come down the stairs and flung open the door, inadvertently striking me as I passed by. The school counselor, who also happened to be walking by, stopped to make sure I was OK and said, “This happens all the time. We have a sign on the door warning people to open the door carefully, but it doesn’t do much good.” In examining the area, the solution was rather obvious: keep the stairwell doors open or perhaps remove them entirely. I suggested as much to the counselor. She agreed that this was the logical thing to do and informed me that they had already tried to make that change only to be told it was against the safety code. School and local fire officials had designated the stairwell as some sort of safe haven in the event of an emergency which, for some reason, dictated that the doors remain closed. I raised the issue myself with these people and was rebuffed. I pointed out that students and staff members were getting hurt on a regular basis by following this rule. I also inquired as to whether any emergency had ever occurred in the fifty-plus years of the school’s existence which resulted in the stairwell being used as a safe haven. Not surprisingly, the answer was no, but the doors were to remain closed all the same, just in case. If not so maddening, it would have been humorous: in the name of “safety,” we followed a rule which made the school much less safe for the students and staff walking the halls of the school on a daily basis.

A much different--and possibly even more important--example has to do with grade acceleration. Although it may not be a formal “rule,” I have found that allowing a child to skip a grade or subject is generally frowned upon and rarely allowed. Every student we serve, it seems, must pass through every stage of the PreK-12 journey without skipping a step in the process regardless of their social, emotional, academic, and physical status. In over thirty years of public school service, I can count on one hand how many students I came in contact with who were allowed to skip a grade. In each instance, the recommendation to do so was initially met with stern opposition; yet also in each instance, the student who was allowed to skip a grade thrived once they were moved ahead. The argument for keeping a student in, say, second grade, when all indications are that the child would be better served by moving her into third grade are no more compelling than the argument for keeping stairwell doors closed even when it means that students and staff are regularly clonked on the head by an opening door. In fact, the argument pretty much boils down to: “But, that’s the way we have always done it.”

I am generally not opposed to rules. In our schools, especially, it makes perfect sense to have clear rules in place to ensure student safety and to maximize student and staff performance. Yet, there must be a purpose behind the rules we establish. And the purpose must be something larger than, “That’s just the way we have always done it.” If the “way we have always done it” is getting the results we desire, we should probably keep doing it. If, instead, “the way we have always done it” is harming people or holding them back from performing at their optimal level, we must heed the words of Heinlein and break such “obnoxious’ rules. What are some other rules we should break in our schools? I am interested in your thoughts. Knowing when to follow the rules and when to be a disruptor and break the rules are important ways we Teach, Learn, and Lead with Passion!

Teaching and Learning Contradictions

“We shouldn’t squander our valuable instruction time with routine management tasks. Immediately upon arrival, students should be engaged in some form of review of learning 
or preparation for learning.”

Rick Wormeli

In a post I wrote last year about leadership contradictions, I suggested the following:

 “...leadership is a venture filled with contradictions. At times, I find myself believing in what can seem like completely opposing ideas.” 

Upon reflection, I discovered that I also view the concept of learning as a venture rife with contradictions. In fact, there are scads of examples, including the quote above from one of my favorite educators of all time, Rick Wormeli. I agree with Rick 100% that valuable teaching and learning time should be reserved for, well, teaching and learning. At the same time, I also believe that--at least at the beginning of any course or school year--we can actually maximize learning time if we invest time spent on “routine management tasks” that we will encounter throughout the year, so that we need not waste time on these tasks subsequently as the year progresses. Here are three other contradictions I wrestle with when it comes to learning:

Contradiction #1:

  • We must teach to mastery
  • We need to keep pushing forward through the curriculum
When I was principal of a middle school, a teacher asked me, “Do you want me to make sure every student has learned the material or do you want me to keep up with the curriculum map?” My unhelpful answer was, “Yes.” Like virtually every educator I know, I believe that one of our primary responsibilities is to ensure that all students master grade level learning standards. Unfortunately, not every student will master each learning target, objective, or standard in the same way or on the same day. And the fact remains that there are many other standards awaiting to be taught and learned. We cannot wait until every child in every class proves mastery of a learning standard before moving to new learning. It does not mean, of course, that we do not find ways to circle back with students who need additional support on previous standards.
This is challenging to say the least, but we must do it. As an educator, I believe: We must do everything we can--individually and with our colleagues--to ensure all students master grade level standards. We must also keep up with pacing guides/curriculum maps to ensure that we teach all grade level standards during the course of a school year.

Contradiction #2:

  • We need to focus on innovation
  • All students must master basic skills
We can never settle for the status quo in education; our customers (students) are too important. We must give our very best each day, but when we learn new and better ways to “do school” we must do so. We cannot simply keep adding more of what is familiar or merely improving upon the familiar. Today’s best practices will not be tomorrow’s; we must innovate, continuously creating new and better practices. Innovation does not mean we overlook basic skills, however. Every student must be fully literate, in particular, mastering reading early in their educational journeys. New, bright shiny toys and bells and whistles must not (and need not) replace direct, explicit, intentional instruction in the areas of reading, writing, mathematical computation, and scientific inquiry, to name but a few “basic” areas we must always emphasize in our schools. As an educator, I believe: We must continue teaching basic skills, particularly at the primary grade levels, and we must constantly and actively pursue new and better ways to ensure we are motivating and inspiring all students to learn all that they can.

Contradiction #3:
  • It’s all about the kids
  • It’s all about the teachers
Something I say often--and look for in others when hiring staff--is that every important decision we make must be based on what is best for students. I believe that to my core. Yet, I also believe that the most important variable affecting student academic achievement is the quality of the teacher in every classroom at every school. Every educator I know would probably agree with the statement that “it is all about the kids,” but it will never be “all about the kids” unless we are also “all about their teachers.” We
must support them, coach them, celebrate them, inspire them. Kids may well be #1 in our schools, but teachers are--at a minimum-- #1A. Without honoring teachers and making sure that we are all about teachers, we will never be all about kids. As an educator, I believe: Schools should be places at which we are all about kids. Schools should also be places at which we are all about the teachers.

I could list many other learning contradictions, including the fact that I believe students are much different today than they were many years ago, while I also believe that students in our schools today are pretty much the same as they have always been. What learning contradictions have you noticed in your experiences? I would love to hear what you would add to the list. Education and learning are challenging undertakings, in part, because so little is black and white and so much is gray; learning is rarely an “either/or” proposition. At the same time, the contradictions that make teaching and learning so challenging are also what make our efforts so rewarding. What we do is more art than science. At times, that can be discomfiting. Yet, it is a productive struggle and one we must recognize, embrace, and learn from. How can we thrive in an atmosphere where there are so many contradictions and so few obvious answers? Recognizing these contradictions and understanding that there is seldom one right way to act are important ways we Teach, Learn, and Lead with Passion!

School Culture Essentials: Help. Thanks. Wow.

"The culture of a workplace--an organization's values, norms, and practices--has a huge impact on our 
happiness and success."
Adam Grant

I first became aware of Anne Lamott when I was teaching writing
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and came across her 1994 book, Bird By Bird, a thoroughly enjoyable book with helpful 
tips on writing and living. Recently, I read her 2012 book, Help, Thanks, Wow: The Three Essential Prayers. Although I enjoyed the book immensely, my takeaway for the purposes of this blog post has little to do with the content of this book--other than the title itself, and how that remarkable title might apply to education, specifically school culture.

At a recent What Great Educators Do Differently conference, Jimmy Casas and I were leading a session on "Building Culture and Leading Learning." During the session, I asked school leaders to reflect on what they would like others to say about their school culture, filling in the following blank with five different words:

I would like our school to be noted for its Culture of _________________ .

We brainstormed a wealth of inspiring ideas, including the hope that our schools might be marked by cultures of: Learning, Compassion, Caring, Results, Commitment, Innovation, Risk-Taking, Safety, and Excellence, to name but a few. Rather spontaneously, I thought of Lamott’s book I had recently finished and shared with the audience that I would also like to work in a school known for a culture in which Help, Thanks, and Wow were interwoven in the daily teaching, learning, leading, and living at the school. What if our schools were filled with students and staff who continuously sought help and offered it to others? Who consistently expressed gratitude for all the blessings in existence within the school community? Who never failed to express awe and wonder at the amazing things happening each day at the school? So many things are in play when we talk about "school culture." It includes the norms, attitudes, behaviors, beliefs, values, practices, celebrations, traditions, and myths that exist. Perhaps it also includes what Lamott identifies as her three simple prayers: Help. Thanks. Wow.

Essential Culture Characteristic #1: "Help": In the session we were leading recently, Jimmy made a statement I have heard him suggest on countless occasions. The four most powerful words in leadership are: “I need your help.” In a school marked by a culture of helping, we must not only embrace this sentiment, but expand upon it. Every staff member in the school and every student in the school must be comfortable seeking help from everyone else in the schoolhouse. Teachers must ask for and provide help to each other. Principals must ask for help from students and staff and provide help in return. Students must be assured that asking for help is normal and part of the school’s culture. I remember when I began my first year of teaching many years ago. I was very nervous and unsure of how to actually teach, including designing lesson plans for my first graders. During my first week of working at the school, I asked a veteran teacher if I could look at her lesson plan book so I could get some ideas for my own classroom. Although this person became a close friend who I grew to respect, I will never forget her answer. She flat out refused, telling me she had to figure it out for herself and I would have to as well. In 2019, I desperately hope this is no longer the case. No matter what your role is in a school--administrator, teacher, teacher assistant, or student--your job is tough--and made only more challenging if forced to do it alone. We must create school cultures in which asking for assistance on a regular basis without fear of repercussions is a way of life. Cultivate your “Help” culture today.

Essential Culture Characteristic #2: "Thanks": Schools with strong cultures are populated with people who genuinely appreciate all the good that is occurring therein. They take time to notice when a student helps another student, when a colleague comforts a student who is hurting, when a principal goes out of her way to celebrate staff members. They do not take these small kindnesses for granted, but, instead, take a moment to reflect on how thankful they are to be working in a school, where so much good happens so often. Moreover, they heed the advice of Gladys Bronwyn Stern’s “Silent gratitude isn't much use to anyone" admonition and share their gratitude with others. We must create school cultures in which appreciating the good we witness throughout the daily grind becomes a way of life. Cultivate your “Thanks” culture today.

Essential Culture Characteristic #3: "Wow": In schools, we are fortunate to experience hundreds of of daily incidents for which we can be thankful. Perhaps even more remarkable, we work in places where awe-inspiring and legitimately wonderful things take place regularly. Things that not only make us thankful, but leave us awestruck. A student who has struggled for years to read suddenly cracks the code and becomes a voracious reader. A dedicated school nurse prevents a tragedy by acting quickly when a student experiences a medical emergency. An entire school donates their time, money, and resources to improving some aspect of the community in which they live. A student designs a product that is subsequently used in a local business. A student singing the national anthem before a basketball game brings tears to everyone in attendance. An entire school makes time to recognize the contributions of the school custodian. Things are happening in our schools every single day which make me stop what I am doing and simply say (silently or aloud), “Wow!” We must create school cultures in which feeling awe at the amazing things happening in our schools regularly becomes a way of life. Cultivate your “Wow” culture today.

I want to express my Thanks to Anne Lamott for inspiring this blog post. Her writing always Helps me and leaves me with a sense of Wow.  

School culture is comprised of many things and, as Adam Grant suggests, has a huge impact on our happiness and success. We can behave in certain (and oftentimes simple) ways to create a culture in which that impact is profoundly positive. Three simple (and essential) ways are to follow Lamott’s advice, ensuring that we ask for assistance, appreciate the good, and recognize the awe surrounding us each day. Creating school cultures in which we seek help, express gratitude and feel awe are important ways we Teach, Learn, and Lead with Passion!

Creating Cultures of Empathy

“Leadership is about empathy. It is about having the ability to relate to and connect with people for the purpose of inspiring and empowering their lives.”

Oprah Winfrey

Major League Baseball’s Opening Day is almost here and I am already beginning to worry whether my beloved Cubbies will win this year’s World Series in 4, 5, 6, or 7 games. I suppose as long as they win it all, it matters not whether they pull off a sweep or need the entire seven games. One reason the Cubs will win the World Series again this year (after magnanimously allowing the Astros and Red Sox to enjoy a brief moment in the sun the past two seasons) is the talent they will have on the field during the games. Another reason, however, is the clubhouse culture they have established. In my 2015 post suggesting Joe Maddon could be an awesome school principal, I wrote that a team’s culture is nearly as important a variable to their winning as is their talent. 
And the Chicago Cubs have clearly established a strong clubhouse culture.

One reason the Cubs’ clubhouse culture is so strong is due to the organization’s strong leadership, specifically manager Joe Maddon and President of Baseball Operations Theo Epstein. Their leadership sets the culture tone for the rest of the team. Serving together in Chicago since 2015, these two leaders have continuously worked to improve the talent on their roster as well as the atmosphere in the clubhouse. In reflecting on what it is that sets the Cubbies culture above most other teams, a few words come to mind, including:
  • Empathy
  • Work Ethic
  • Joy
  • Caring
  • Results
  • Continuous Improvement
  • Priorities
These are all important attributes of any organizational culture, but I was reminded specifically of the impact empathy has upon Cubs' culture when reading a recent story in the Chicago Tribune highlighting how Epstein and Maddon endeavor to see the world through the lens of those whom they are leading.

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According to Epstein:

“It’s incumbent on us not to just sit there and say, ‘Players have changed; they don’t get it, they don’t listen, they don’t care.’ or ‘We don’t understand them.’ We have to learn the lens from which they view the world and learn the best way of communicating with them because they’ve grown up with a totally different upbringing than we did and with devices that are omnipresent.”

All the above components of a strong baseball clubhouse culture are also foundational pillars of a strong school culture. In schools with positive cultures, all staff members are focused on results and continuous improvement. All staff members take their professional responsibilities seriously and work hard each day, yet they intentionally find the joy in the day-to-day routines of the school. All staff members sincerely care--about the students they serve, of course, but also about each other. All staff members recognize that everyone in the school is important and everything each person does at the school is important and they are masters at scheduling their priorities rather than prioritizing their schedules. As important as each of these culture builders is, however, the ability of all staff members to empathize with others in the school with whom they interact cannot be underestimated. Let’s revisit Epstein’s quote, making two small changes: replacing “players” with “students” and substituting “teaching” for “communicating with”:

“It’s incumbent on us not to just sit there and say, ‘Students have changed; they don’t get it, they don’t listen, they don’t care.’ or ‘We don’t understand them.’ We have to learn the lens from which they view the world and learn the best way of teaching them because they’ve grown up with a totally different upbringing than we did and with devices that are omnipresent.”

In some ways, students (and baseball players) today are not unlike
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students (and baseball players) 10, 20, or even 50 years ago. In other ways, they are altogether different. It is incumbent upon us to not only embrace what remains the same about our learners, but also embrace how they have changed over time. Each of us will always have our own lens through which we view the world, but we must also stand in the shoes of our students and picture the classroom, school, community, and world from their lens. Devices
are omnipresent not only for baseball players but for students--including those as young as preschool. We can pine for “the good ol' days” from now until the cows come home--or until the White Sox win another World Series, perhaps--but those days: 
1) Were not always so good and 2) Are gone forever.

Many things have stayed the same in baseball and in schools over the years. In the upcoming baseball season, players will hit home runs, pitchers will strike batters out, and runners will steal bases--much like they did when the National League was formed in 1876. In our schools this year, students have been reading, writing, and studying history--much like they have done in our country's schools since the colonial era. At the same time, both baseball and schools are dramatically different than they were at their inception, with many of these changes due to advances in technology. As the Cubs embark upon another World Series season, I am reminded how much their success is based on their culture, including embracing change and practicing empathy. These are pillars of school success as well. How we approach change can significantly impact how successful we will be as educators. Creating cultures in which such changes are embraced as opportunities and in which staff members learn the lens through which their students see the world while learning the best approaches for teaching them are more ways we Teach, Learn, and Lead with Passion!

Leadership Priorities

“The key is not to prioritize what's on your schedule, but to schedule your priorities.” 
Stephen Covey

Since “retiring” from full time public education service in 2017, I have had the privilege to co-author several books, speak to thousands of educators around the country, and work in several schools as a coach. In addition, I have served as a short-term interim administrator. These experiences as an interim principal have been richly rewarding; being back in a school every day--albeit on a temporary basis--rejuvenated me and reminded me just how challenging (and rewarding) it is to serve as an educator in any role. My last full time principal assignment was a decade ago; taking on this leadership role again, I found myself doing many of the same things I did years ago. On the other hand, I found myself doing some of these things quite differently. How I behaved was directly related to my priorities in this new role. I was determined to be intentional about scheduling my priorities as opposed to prioritizing what was on my schedule.

On my first day as an interim principal, I decided to do what I had always done as a full time principal: I went outside to the car rider line and shook the hand of every student arriving to the school between 7:45 - 8:15. As a principal, I always prioritized this on my schedule for several reasons, including:
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  • Students and parents seem to appreciate it;

  • It helped me get to know students and their families better;

  • I believed that students were more likely to behave better when I looked them in the eye each morning, shook their hand, and told them to have an awesome day;

  • I believe it is a way to model for other adults in the building what I expect in terms of presence and visibility in the common areas of the school;

  • Somewhat selfishly, I found it to be a fun, positive, and energizing way to start my day.

I am well aware of the many reasons why it is difficult to do this every single day as a school administrator, but I encourage all principals to simply prioritize greeting students each morning into their daily routine in spite of the many competing demands on their time. When I started doing this as an interim principal, several parents actually took the time to get out of their car to thank me for doing this. I had others take photos of me shaking their child’s hand in the morning. One morning, a parent walking into the school told me, “What you do out here every morning is the talk on the streets of our town.” I am convinced that this simple daily routine is a difference maker for school leaders and we must schedule it as a daily priority.

When I was a full time principal, I also met with students who misbehaved, were chronically tardy/absent, or were underperforming academically. On my first day as an interim principal, several teachers immediately asked me to do this, too, indicating a particular student about whom they were concerned. I decided to approach the situation much differently than I had when I was a full-time principal. When I was a principal, I was often so “busy,” that I failed to prioritize an adequate amount of time to these situations, instead merely checking them off my to-do list. Upon reflection, I am not proud of this, but often I would simply call the student in, quickly “address” the issue, and send the student on his/her way. As an interim principal, I decided to take a different approach. Instead of merely checking the task off my list, I decided to make it a priority to actually work with the child to resolve the problem. I spoke with the student for almost fifteen minutes, mostly serving as an active listener. I then called the student's mother and spoke with her for another fifteen minutes, again listening very carefully. Then, I turned back to the student and spoke with him for another ten minutes. Together, we came up with a goal, a plan, and a mutual commitment to follow through. I checked in with this student almost daily to reinforce expectations, see how he was doing, and celebrate success when appropriate. Although meeting with students who were struggling in different areas was something I did as a full-time principal as well as an interim principal, the way in which I did this changed dramatically--and for the better. The difference? As an interim principal, I prioritized doing whatever I could to actually solve the problem, instead of approaching it as a task to be completed.

Many of the things we must do as school leaders should change over time; we must constantly be on the lookout to innovate as leaders not by merely doing things better, but by doing better things. At the same time, there are certain things we must do as school leaders that we will likely be doing as long as we have schools. For these things, we should continue to strive for improvement, doing what we do tomorrow better than we do it today. Being visible during school arrival time is an example of doing a better thing (if, instead, we currently devote that time to attending meetings or catching up on work in our office). Meeting with students to actively listen and then design a plan for success when they are struggling (rather than simply meeting with them to assign a consequence) is an example of doing things better. In each instance, the key--as Covey reminds us--is not to prioritize our schedules, but to schedule our priorities. In our book, The Principled Principal, Anthony McConnell and I make the case that how we manage many competing responsibilities is not only a challenge, but an opportunity. How we approach this challenge can significantly impact how successful we will be as school leaders. Scheduling our priorities is a key to success and another way we Teach, Learn, and Lead with Passion!

Gratitude for Expectations

“He is a wise man who does not grieve for the things which he has not, but rejoices for those which he has." 

Ever since I first became an educator many years ago, one of my
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core principles has been related to expectations, specifically establishing high expectations first and foremost for myself and then for every student and staff member I served as a classroom teacher and administrator. Having high expectations for myself and others with whom I interact remains a core value. Having said that, it is inevitable that, at times, we (or others with whom we have a relationship) do not meet our expectations. What happens when we fail to realize such dreams? 

Recently, I attended a concert at City Winery in Chicago featuring someone I consider among the greatest living songwriters in the world, Michael McDermottIn addition to being an outstanding singer, guitarist, pianist, and songwriter, McDermott is also a gifted storyteller. Halfway through the concert, he began telling a story about his initial meteoric rise in the music industry. He was a very young man represented at the time by the top agent and top manager in the entire industry. His first album was a huge success and his manager told him he would be playing the United Center (where the Chicago Bulls and Blackhawks play) within five years. Well, things did not exactly turn out as planned for Michael and these lofty career expectations were never met. But McDermott spoke that night about how grateful he was for the way things did turn out for him. He self deprecatingly said he did indeed make it to the United Center periodically--to catch big name music acts. As for himself, looking around the 300-seat venue we were in, he laughed and said, “This is my F***ing United Center!” We cheered him on and then he said something along the lines of, “You know, if we would only trade gratitude for expectations, we would all be better off” before launching into his next song. 

I will never stop having high expectations for myself, for my family and friends, and for any students or educators with whom I work. I will continue to set lofty goals and encourage others to do the same. In fact, I hope we all dream such big dreams that not realizing all our dreams becomes not only possible, but inevitable, at some point along our respective journeys. And when that happens, I hope we will reflect on the dreams we have realized and all the good in our current situations, choosing to be sincerely grateful for all that we do have without bemoaning that which we do not. If we focus on what we do not have, we will never have enough; on the other hand, gratitude turns what we do have into enough.

I respect McDermott and so many others for making the conscious decision to choose gratitude for what one has, as opposed to focusing on expectations not met. In the end, things most always turn out for the better in any case. I recently had a friend interview for an administrative position she desperately was hoping to get only to be told the job went to someone else. It reminded me of how disappointed I have been each time I failed to land a position I, too, desperately wanted--at least at the time. Upon reflection, in each such instance, I now look back with gratitude that I was not offered those jobs; for me, life has had a way of working out perhaps not exactly as planned, but precisely the way it should have for my ultimate happiness. Although it is painful right now and of little comfort, I suspect that my friend, too, will look back five years hence with gratitude that she did not get this position and thankful for the position she does have at that time.

Expectations can be tricky things. Of course we should have high expectations, yet we must realize that unmet expectations can cause conflict, if we allow them to gnaw at us. In fact, Blaine Lee suggested that almost all conflict is the result of violated expectations. But we can also make the choice to not allow unrealized dreams to get us down and, in fact, to express gratitude for what we do have, rejoicing in future possibilities whenever one door closes.

I will likely never see Michael McDermott performing at the United Center, but I am grateful to have seen him play at dozens of small venues in several states the past few years. Although most folks reading this blog post have likely never heard of him, I am not alone in my opinion that McDermott is one of our greatest living musicians. Bestselling author Stephen King has said of him: "Michael McDermott is one of the best songwriters in the world and possibly the greatest undiscovered rock n roll talent of the last 20 years.” (Speaking of Stephen King and unmet expectations, when I published my first book, one of my colleagues said, “Jeff, you are going to be on Oprah with this book!” Needless to say, I never did make a guest appearance on Oprah. However, I am extremely grateful that, together, books written by Stephen King and me have sold over 350 million copies!). Despite King’s (and mine, for what it is worth) high praise of Michael’s songwriting skills, he appears destined to continue playing small venues in his career, rather than large stadiums. Although some might resent this, I am glad that McDermott chooses gratitude, not bitterness. And I can guarantee him that the 300 people who heard him at City Winery in December appreciate him as much as--if not more than--the 20,000 people who heard Josh Groban recently at the United Center.

As we begin another new year, I hope everyone continues to dream big dreams and insist on high expectations for themselves as well as others with whom they serve. As important as this is, however, I hope even more that 2019 finds you choosing gratitude throughout the year for everything you have, everything you accomplish, everything that comes your way, and, even, for the inevitable disappointments you are sure to face while pursuing your dreams. Having high expectations--yet trading gratitude for disappointment when such expectations are violated--is another way we Teach, Learn, and Lead with Passion!

Leadership Contradictions

“Doing things better is good. 
Doing better things is even better.”

The more I serve as a leader and study the world of leadership, the more I believe that leadership is a venture filled with contradictions. At times, I find myself believing in what can seem like completely opposing ideas. Even the quote above is an example. Although I believe we should be doing the things we currently do in schools better tomorrow than we are today, I also believe this is no longer enough and that we should, in fact, be doing better things tomorrow than we are doing today. Here are four other contradictions I wrestle with when it comes to school leadership:

Contradiction #1:

  • Test scores matter.
  • We should not focus on test scores.

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Although not everyone reading this will agree, I actually believe that test scores do matter. We are public servants paid by taxpayers and we should be accountable to these taxpayers in many ways, including student achievement on accountability tests. Whether it is fair and whether we like it, many parents use test scores as a primary reason for moving (or not) into a certain school district. Test scores matter. They may not matter to every educator, but they should, if only because they matter to many of our students and parents. At the same time, I believe we should not focus on test scores on a daily basis. Instead, we should focus on providing meaningful and engaging learning experiences throughout each school day that are aligned to specific learning standards and targets. If we do this intentionally and consistently, our students will learn and grow and show evidence of this on any test they must take. As a leader, I believe: Test scores do matter and we should not focus on test scores.

Contradiction #2:
  • If everything is important, then nothing is important. (Patrick Lencioni)
  • It’s all important. (Steve Jobs)

For many years as a school leader at the school and district level, I invoked Lencioni’s well-known adage often, suggesting we should not try to do it all and that less is more and that we must focus on what is most important. Over time, my thinking has evolved on this. I now believe that everything we do in a school is important and we must give it 100%. If it is not important, of course, we should stop doing it. But if we are doing it, we must give it our all. Here is the thing, though: Although we must consider every single thing we do in a school equally important in terms of our commitment to it, not everything we do in school is equally important in terms of how much time we should devote to it. As an example, I happen to believe that advisory programs are important components of any school. As leaders, we must ensure that every staff member in place implement any advisory plans with 100% commitment and fidelity. However, reading is even more important than advisory programs, in my opinion--not in terms of our commitment to it (in both cases, the commitment must be 100%), but in terms of time. We should dedicate significantly more time to reading each day than we do to advisory programs. As a leader, I believe: If everything is important, then nothing is important and everything is actually important. 

Contradiction #3:

  • Trust in the process.
  • Trust your instincts.

This leadership contradiction rears its head in a number of school areas, in particular when it comes to the hiring process. It is important to have a process in place when selecting talent for any school staffing position. There must be procedures in place for recruiting candidates, screening candidates, interviewing candidates, and contacting references. Having said that, we cannot rely solely on the process or any associated quantitative measures about each candidate’s qualifications and probability for success. As leaders, we are not houseplants; we were hired because we are smart, qualified, insightful, experienced, and we exhibit sound judgment. Although a clear process for recruiting and selecting new employees can help guide us in making the best possible hiring decisions, we cannot be afraid to trust our instincts. We know our school community, we know what we need in every hiring decision we make, and we can typically discern which candidate among several seemingly similar candidates is the best fit for the school or district at any given time. As a leader, I believe: We must trust the process and we must trust our instincts.

Contradiction #4:
Via: goo.gl/BZJa3U
  • Education is constantly changing.
  • Schools today are largely the same as they were decades ago.

This fourth contradiction is interesting. So many things have, indeed, changed over the years in our schools. Yet, so much remains the same. I could list hundreds of things that were different about my daughter’s high school experience from 2008 - 2012 compared to mine. However, I could list just as many things about her experience that were not at all unlike my own some thirty years earlier. We have made significant improvements to our schools, yet we have miles to go before we sleep. After all, here we sit in 2018 and we still have a 180-day student school year with an extended summer vacation in virtually every school in the land. Doing things because we have always done them can be a stubborn thing to overcome. As a leader, I believe: Education is constantly changing and schools are largely the same as they were decades ago.

Here is a final contradiction for now: Education and leadership are challenging undertakings in part because there is so little that is black and white and so much that is gray. At the same time, this very fact that makes these endeavors so challenging is precisely the reason they are also so rewarding. What we do is more art than science. At times, that can be discomfiting. Yet, it is a productive struggle and one we must recognize, embrace, and learn from. How can we thrive in an atmosphere where there are so many contradictions and so few obvious answers? Recognizing these contradictions and understanding that there is seldom one right way to act is another way we Teach, Learn, and Lead with Passion!

When Is It OK To Break the Rules?

“I am free, no matter what rules surround me. If I find them tolerable, I tolerate them; if I find them too obnoxious,  I break them.” Ro...