The 33rd Friday: Bow Ties & Lifelong Learning

“You don't learn to walk by following rules. You learn by doing, and by falling over.”
Richard Branson


People who know me well know that I wear bow ties every Wednesday. Alas, this week, I forgot to follow my weekly ritual and several folks noticed this, which raised questions about my bow tie habit. One such question I often get is, “Do you tie them yourself?” (Answer: yes). Some male staff members go on to share that they have tried, at one time or another, to learn how to tie a bow tie with little success. This week, someone asked me how I learned to do so myself, which reminded me of how I started upon this habit in the first place.


For one year of my life, I pretty much lived at a Hilton hotel in downtown Lexington, Kentucky, working during the week with schools surrounding that area. At one such middle school, I worked with an outstanding principal who also happened to wear bow ties every day. Over time, I asked him the very same questions folks sometimes raise with me today about bow ties. I thought this fellow looked pretty sharp in his bow ties and he was always prodding me to give the “bow tie look” a try. I decided to commit to one day a week and picked Wednesday. Next, I went downstairs from my hotel, where a Jos. A. Bank store was fortuitously located, to pick out a few bow ties. I selected 3 or 4 and then asked the young man helping me pick out ties if he could also assist with learning to tie the dang things. He was kind and patient, showing me how he did it himself, modeling the tying process with a bow tie around his own neck. I actually tried to do this in the store several times to no avail and, honestly, I gave up temporarily and left the store (bow ties in hand) when it became clear to me that the clerk was about to give up on me.

So, I did what any good 21st century lifelong learner would do: I turned to YouTube! I sifted through several examples of “How To Tie a Bow Tie” videos until I finally found one that--after viewing perhaps twenty times or more--got me through the part that was most problematic. 

You see, some steps along the way were quite simple: Start with one end slightly longer than the other. Place the left side over the right side. Other parts were trickier and it honestly took me many viewings of the video and many failed attempts to get through the dreaded: feed the middle of the dangling end back through the knot step. Much to my relief, I finally mastered this technique and now give tying a bow tie nary a thought as I prepare for my Wednesday ritual!

So how does this apply to us as educators? Well, I think it speaks just a bit to the ways in which many of our of “YouTube” students learn today and will in the future. As teachers, we are no longer merely the possessors of all knowledge which we then magically transfer to our kids. Nor are we always the individuals best equipped to directly teach certain skills. What we can do, however, is: 

First, plan intentionally every single day to inspire our kids to seek new knowledge and skills. Next, make certain that we have empowered them with the capability to acquire this new learning--whether they are gaining it at our sides or outside our classroom walls. 


I am thankful to be connected with so many amazing educators who not only teach their kids in a variety of ways each and every day within their classrooms, but also inspire them and equip them to learn once they leave their classroom each day to pursue lifelong learning. Doing this is another way we Teach with Passion!






The 32nd Friday: Have To's vs Must Do's

“The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.”
Stephen Covey

Last week, a colleague from another district called to chat about some struggles he was facing with his current job. During our conversation, he shared his frustration with a few trivial aspects of his job that were taking his focus away from the primary parts of his job about which he was truly passionate. I know this person to be one of the finest educators with whom I have ever worked, so I mainly just listened. If I offered any advice at all, it was not unlike Covey’s famous quote above, suggesting that we simply must “keep our eye on the ball,” with the ball being “doing what is best for the students and colleagues we serve.”

When I was principal of a middle school in Georgia, our staff had many similar discussions about all the demands pulling on our time, both as individual educators and on the school as a whole. Eventually, we decided to intentionally address these competing demands upon our time by separating them into two categories, which we called:

  1. Our Have To’s and...
  2. Our Must Do’s
The “Have To’s” were things that we simply had to do, regardless of our passion for doing so. Collectively, we agreed on several school wide “Have To’s” such as duty schedules, crisis plans, cafeteria protocols, etc. Although we all agreed that these were important things we "had to" do, none of us became educators because of allure of these tasks. Individually, some staff members’ “Have To’s” were other team members “Must Do’s,” which was a fortuitous thing; since our staff was comprised of many unique individuals with unique--and complementary--skill sets and passions, we rarely neglected any professional responsibility. As but one example, we came to lean on Tony Collins, a 6th grade math teacher, when we could not figure out how to devise the perfect master schedule. None of the administrators were particularly passionate or expert at this. Neither was anyone else--except Tony. Tony was both passionate about scheduling and had a mind that worked in a way that was always able to create a schedule that fit our needs. For Tony, scheduling was a “Must Do.” For the rest of us, it was a “Have To,” and we were, therefore, hugely thankful for Tony’s interest and capability in this area.

It seemed as if every teacher at that school had a unique “Must Do,” about which s/he became the school’s resident leader and expert. We were all thankful for these individual passions, or personal “Must Do’s.” However, what made this school truly special was not our individual “Must Do’s,” but our collective agreement on what were “Must Do's” versus “Have To's.” It may sound trite and corny, but Working Hard, Having Fun, and Being Nicewere absolute “Must Do’s” for every staff member at this school. When kids or staff were falling short in any of these areas (which was, of course, inevitable during the course of a long school year), we immediately reminded them that these habits were commonly shared core values and picked each other up. In addition, when faced with tough choices, asking, “What is best for our kids?” was another collective “Must Do.” To be honest, there were other responsibilities that we considered mere “Have To’s” and, as a result, we did not necessarily gain a lot of recognition for how we performed in these areas. We realized they were still important to some extent and took care of them, but never forgot they were not nearly as important as our “Must Do’s.”

I am glad my friend contacted me this week to share his frustrations; it was a nice conversation and caused me to reflect on a time almost a decade ago when an entire school discussed similar frustrations and how best to address them. In addition, it caused me to think about the current six schools I serve and how similar they seem in this regard to the school I served back then. I love that our schools are staffed with passionate educators who adhere to both individual and collective “Must Do’s” while always making sure to address the “Have To’s.” Such schools handle both tasks well, but always subordinate in importance the latter to the former.


As we begin yet another week of teaching and learning in our schools around the globe, I ask you to reflect on your individual “Have To’s” and “Must Do’s.” What aspects of your job do you complete (albeit well) simply because you have to? Conversely, what aspects of your job do you tackle because your passion, pride, zeal, and drive combine to prioritize them as “Must Do’s”? Finally, how do you manage your busy schedule to ensure that you take care of the “Have To’s” while never letting them take precedence over your “Must Do’s”?


Thanks for knowing what is most important about your job and keeping that focus Job #1 while also taking care of the less glamorous or fulfilling aspects of your job. Being intentional about “keeping the main thing the main thing”  is another way we Teach with Passion!


The 31st Friday: Learn Like a Pirate

“A genuine teacher does not seek to impress you with their greatness, but instead to impress upon you that you possess the skills to discover your own.”
Charles F. Glassman


Many of you have read Dave Burgess’s book, Teach Like a Pirate. Obviously, Dave's book is well worth reading; however, I pulled the above quote from a subsequent and related book titled, Learn Like a Pirate: Empower Your Students to Collaborate, Lead, and Succeed. This new book, just out in print about a  month ago, was written by Paul Solarz, a 5th grade teacher in Arlington Heights, Illinois. I have been fortunate to have met Paul on several occasions and am thrilled that he will be sharing his insights on teaching and learning at an upcoming conference I am helping to organize, the inaugural What Great Educators Do Differently conference in Chicago.

I was thrilled when I received my copy of Paul's book and immediately started digging in. I just finished it last week and highly recommend it for all educators. Although impossible to summarize in a quick blog post, in essence, Paul’s book offers practical strategies for creating a “student-led” classroom.

In flipping through the book again just now, I reviewed every highlight I made (there are many) and then dog-eared several pages with highlights that still struck me as particularly impactful and worth sharing. Please note that these words from Solarz are extracted from all parts of his book and are about a wide variety of topics upon which he touches in different chapters throughout:

Give Me Five: Those three little words give my students the power to lead. When a student shouts, “Give me five!” everyone in the classroom (including the teacher) stops what they are doing, faces the speaker, and intently listens to their message.

Grades: Instead of assigning grades on student work, I give feedback that helps everyone grow.

Assessment: Focusing on formative assessment that takes a student from their Personal Point A to their Personal Point B will be more valuable than any number in a gradebook.

Rules: In our classroom, we have one rule: “Be a good person.”

Rigor: Rigor is different for each student. What is hard for one is easy for another, so I don’t plan “rigorous lessons.” Instead, I provide opportunities for students to find the rigor in our everyday work.

ePortfolios: We no longer use paper or pencil in science or social studies because all directions are posted online and all work is “turned in” via ePortfolio entries. No re ost papers. No more, “My dog ate my homework” or “I left it at home excuses. Everything is done online and published immediately.

Rituals: From walking through the door each morning to going home when school ends, students know what to do, when to do it, and how it needs to be done. These rituals make it easy for students to lead; a structured environment allows students to anticipate and respond to the classroom’s needs.

Passion Time: When I plan out my year, I schedule two “Passion Time” twice a week for 45 to 60 minutes each time. This is for my students to build, create, design, research, learn, survey, etc. about topics of their choosing. Passion Projects begin with an essential question that must e approved by me. To get the go-ahead, they must take a topic of interest and form it into a meaty question that can keep them actively working for a period of six weeks. We now call these questions PHAT (Pretty Hard and Tough) questions.


What great teaching tips these are for all teachers, regardless of the grade level or content area we teach! Again, these ideas just a smattering of profound nuggets that caught my attention; the entire book is well worth reading if you are interested in increasing your students’ ownership of their learning and the learning environment. As we kick off "Teacher Appreciation Week," I want to thank teachers around the world for “empowering your students to collaborate, lead, and succeed”; doing so is another way we Teach with Passion!




Changing the Way We Think about Change

“When you change the way you look at things,  the things you look at change.”  Max Planck This July, I took part in what turned out ...