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:
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  • 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!

Being Great: Choosing the Down Escalator

“If you are not successful, then I fail.” 
Johnetta Wiley

Last Sunday during our church service, the pastor began her sermon with the following question: “Why do you work so hard?” What an apt question to ask of so many educators I know around the world, who are among the hardest working people on the planet. She went on to spend much of her remaining time exploring the question, suggesting that the answer for many is that they wish to become great. She then devoted the bulk of her remaining time exploring what greatness really looks like. Frankly, much of what follows is taken from her sermon along with my own thoughts on how this applies to educators and leaders.

So what is greatness, or success? Too often we hear the term, “Climbing the ladder of success.” Rather than think of greatness as ascending the ladder of success, we should, in fact, think of it as

descending the ladder of service. The truly great and successful people I have encountered across the nation in hundreds of schools and thousands of classrooms epitomize this concept, consistently focusing on the latter and not worrying much about the former. Somewhat ironically, but not surprisingly, these same great people who are keenly focused on others, rather than their own success, are the ones we most often look up to as truly great. They embody the spirit suggested in Wiley’s quote above, worrying less about their own success and more about the success of those they teach and lead. Moreover, they understand that no matter how “successful” they become, they ultimately fail if they have not helped others to become great.

An overriding trait of truly great and successful people is a focus on service and serving others, not themselves. Such service is displayed through many actions and by many character traits. Servant educators share with others, they care about others, and they love what they do and with whom they serve. They create environments marked by joy and belonging and they model vulnerability. They treat others with dignity and respect and practice authentic empathy. They are present in the moment and assume the best of others. They give--without expecting anything in return. By serving in these and other ways, they often, in time, become recognized by those who know them as truly great educators yet that is never their “why” behind what they do. Their “why” is to ensure that those they are serving become great. They ascend by descending the ladder of servanthood.

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“Great” is a word employed so frequently in our society that we risk rendering it meaningless. But my friend Dwight Carter--an educator I consider not only a “great” educator but a “great” person--took the time to define it, partly, in fact, because he, too, feared that telling others to “Be Great” held no real meaning over time. Dwight has written and spoken extensively about his model for greatness, using the following acronym to describe what it means to “Be Great”:

Be Grateful

Be Relational

Be Enthusiastic

Be Authentic

Be Teachable

Obviously, Dwight expands on each of these at some length when discussing the topic, but simply put, being grateful, relational, enthusiastic, authentic, and teachable are indeed characteristics of great educators. They are also characteristics of servant educators. Great teachers and great school leaders know that it is not about them. Instead, great teachers know it is about helping their students become great and great school administrators know it is about doing everything in their power to help their teachers become great. Rather than focus on themselves and climbing up, their laser focus is always on how they can best serve others, right here, down on the ground all around them.

So why do you work so hard? I suspect that for many of you reading this, the answer is you want to be great and you want to achieve such greatness through service to others. It seems that we throw the terms “great” and “successful” around pretty loosely in all areas of society, including in our schools. The truth is, in all likelihood, that Jim Collins is correct in suggesting we have a whole lot of really “good,” but not that many truly “great,” organizations. Those that are truly great achieve their success because they are staffed by individuals who choose the down escalator of service rather than always looking up to the next rung on the “ladder of success.” These people know--as the Ditka quote above suggests--that success is not about having, but about being, including being a servant educator, eschewing the climb up the ladder in favor of the journey down to servanthood. Choosing the down escalator to serve our students and each other in our schools is another way we Teach, Learn, and Lead with Passion!

Strategies for Improving Relationships and Culture

“To inspire meaningful change, you must make a connection to the heart before you can make a connection to the mind.” 
via George Couros

#EdWriteNow 2018
This July, I took part in what has become an annual educational event and a highlight of my year. Along with nine respected friends and colleagues, I gathered in Chicago prior to the National Principals’ Conference and wrote a collaborative book in just over 48 hours. This is the second year we have undertaken this project called #EdWriteNow (Officially, Education Write Now). This year, we wrote about connections, relationships, and school culture, resulting in the upcoming book: Education Write Now: Top Strategies for Improving Relationships and Culture.

As I approached Year 2 of #EdWriteNow, I assumed there was little chance of matching the work (Here is a link to that book) of the inaugural team, which included Tony Sinanis, Thomas C. Murray, Sanee Bell, Kayla Delzer, Joe Sanfelippo, Bob Dillon, Amber Teamann, Starr Sackstein, and Joe Mazza as contributing authors. I was wrong. This year’s crew was just as awesome and I believe our final product
#EdWriteNow 2017
will be a book that stands as a positive contribution to the education community.

Once everyone arrived at the hotel, we met as a writing team. First on the agenda was sharing information about the Will to Live Foundation, a non-profit foundation to which we donate all proceeds from book sales of each #EdWriteNow edition. Will to Live is an organization dedicated to preventing teen suicide by improving the lives and the “Will To Live” of teenagers everywhere through education about mental health and encouraging them to recognize the love and hope that exists in each other. You can learn more about their work by watching this compelling video that our team watched to kick off our own work.

Our next task was to decide what to write about and how to turn ten individual 5,000 word essays on education into a single cohesive book. We quickly decided on an overarching theme of “Relationships.” As we began writing, we realized we were focusing on the connections we make within the schoolhouse as well as overall school culture and how relationships and connections impact the culture. Each author wrote about a specific topic related to these broad themes. My own contribution was to write the opening chapter, a piece focusing on how we can create “cultures of connectedness” in our schools that I titled, “Connecting the Dots,” a nod to something Seth Godin mentioned several years ago that has always stuck with me. Each subsequent chapter focuses on a specific aspect of education and how we can impact it in a positive way through relationship building. For example, Dr. Randy Ziegenfuss authored the second chapter titled, “Relationships: The Foundation of Learner-Centered Environments.” Learn about Randy’s insights in his own blog post next week (access Randy’s blog, Working at the Edge, here).

Once we determined our writing topics, the rest of our time was spent writing alone, coming back together as a whole team to share our work, meeting with writing partners to provide critical feedback, and gathering "after hours" for great food, conversation, and much laughter. When we came together as a whole group, we actually read parts of our chapters aloud. It was a bit scary, reading our work aloud to nine friends we all respected not only as amazing educators, but also as excellent writers. However, when we did so, we were thrilled to learn that our individual efforts were coming together nicely as a unified book, with our voices sounding much more alike than different from chapter to chapter.

For my chapter on connections, I wrote that the more we can do to get our students to connect to school and investing in their own learning, the more likely it is that we will fulfill our purpose of creating schools that are for students. Here is a short excerpt from that part of the book:

“...Students, teachers, and administrators who not only have, but are on, a mission are invested, committed, and future focused. They are also connected: to the school, to each other, to networks of people on social media, and to the world around them. School connection increases when those in the school believe that others in the school care about about them as individuals. Students are more likely to succeed when they feel connected to school. As educators, perhaps our top priority today should be to ensure that our students feel connected to our schools. Our students follow the lead of their teachers in so many things, even when we suspect they have tuned us out. And, teachers often follow the lead of their administrators. If administrators feel they are truly connected to the school community and, especially, the teachers they lead, teachers, in turn, will feel more connected to the school. In schools where teachers feel authentically connected to the school, including their administrators and their students, students will also feel more connected to the school. 
        Schools in which students and staff feel connected are schools that succeed. They succeed by connecting what they are doing today to something they will do tomorrow. They aspire to something grand and connect with others who can help them achieve their goals and dreams. They connect what they are learning to what they are doing. They connect academic learning to a purpose. They connect attendance and behavior expectations to group norms and citizenship. They connect social emotional learning to lifelong learning. They connect students and staff members to other students and staff members, both within the school and schools around the world. They connect science, literature, fine arts, physical education, mathematics, and history to current world events. Educators connect with the parents whose children attend the schools--not because they see it as their duty, but because they know connecting with parents increases the likelihood that students will feel connected.”

Next week, please look for Randy Ziegenfuss’s thoughts on our writing process, as well as an excerpt from his chapter. I was honored beyond words to partner with Randy and eight other amazing writers and thinkers on the Education Write Now project. Of course, we could not have hosted this education writing retreat without the support of our sponsor, Routledge, who will publish this book, due out in December.

I am already looking forward to next year’s retreat, which will be Year 3; Sanee Bell and I will continue to lead the work as co-editors and we will invite eight different educational writers to join us next summer. Please let me know if you would like to be considered as a participant. 

As Onica Mayers often reminds us, "Relationships matter, People!" Writing about education issues that matter right now is another way we Teach, Learn, and Lead with Passion!

Final Note: Huge thanks to the second Education Write Now team for donating their time and energy to this project. They are all outstanding and passionate educators. More importantly, they are just about the nicest friends a person could ever hope to have and I am humbled to have had this opportunity to work with them:

Sanee Bell
Randy Ziegenfuss
Rosa Isiah
Elisabeth Bostwick
Laura Gilchrist
Onica Mayers
Winston Sakurai
Sean Gaillard
Danny Bauer

Learning By...Watching?

“I am always doing that which I cannot do, 
in order that I may learn how to do it.” 
Pablo Picasso

My father was an amazing man and taught me much about life. He was a successful businessman, working for forty-three years as an executive with a major corporation. Although he was quite successful in his career, his true passions were his family and working on all kinds of projects around our home. We had quite a large home with five acres of land and I do not recall a time when Dad was not taking on a new project, whether it was building a gazebo, new decks, and stone walls outside during the summer or adding a playroom, remodeling a bathroom, and finishing our basement inside during the winter months. I realize I am biased because I loved my dad so much, but, honestly, he could build anything and fix anything. He worked hard all week at his “real
Dad working on a marketing campaign
job” wearing a three-piece suit every day and driving many miles into the city, but he may have worked even harder every evening and every weekend around our house.

As I mentioned, my dad taught me a great deal about many aspects of life, lessons I will never forget and lessons which molded me into the person I am today. One might think that he would have also taught me a lot about flooring, wallpapering, installing drywall, building stone walls, woodworking, and automotive repair since he was a master at all these (and more) trades. Alas, I am not now, nor have I ever been, very handy at any type of manual labor endeavor. I actually learned very little about such skills from my father, but it was not because he did not try to teach me; in fact, he was a stern taskmaster who insisted I take part in his home improvement projects. Unfortunately, his teaching technique in this area was far less successful than the many lessons he taught me about life in general. As soon as we finished dinner in the evening or woke up on the weekends, my dad launched into project mode and summoned me to join the fun. However, my role was a passive one and consisted primarily of watching him do the real work. If I did anything at all, it was mainly to hand him a tool, clean up some mess, or run out to our barn to get him another tool or supply. I recall one time when he was laboring on a stone wall outside on a sweltering summer day with his shirt off that my sole job was to swat flies and mosquitoes off his back so he could focus on the wall he was building. In each of these projects, it was astounding to see what my dad could accomplish. It actually looked like fun, too. My role, however, was far from fun and I eventually began to resent these father-son projects. I left home after college, having acquired no significant home improvement skills from my father even though I most certainly spent more time watching such tasks being done than any other childhood friend I knew.

I fear that school lessons are oftentimes not unlike my childhood home improvement lessons in which my dad did all the real work while I sat by passively. Much like my experiences, too often students in classrooms (and teachers in professional learning settings) are expected to “learn by watching.” Sadly, no matter how attentive we are when watching others, there are definite limits to how much we can possibly learn while doing so. To truly learn, we must apply what we are learning. We must not only watch, but do.

Like so many educators around the world, my professional practice has been deeply influenced by Rick and Becky DuFour and I remain shocked and saddened that they are no longer with us. I devoured every book they worked on, but none more so than Learning By Doing. This handbook is a practical roadmap filled
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with action steps and resources for actually doing--not just learning about--Professional Learning Communities in our schools. At one PLC institute I attended, I even recall Rick gently chiding attendees, suggesting they stop attending the institutes and actually go back to their schools and just do PLCs. Learning By Doing is their handbook designed to help educators actually act upon what they learned.

As important as it is for educators to learn by doing in professional learning experiences, it is even more important for students to learn by doing in our classrooms. Although our profession gets better every year, I worry that students are still watching more than doing. Modeling can be an important teaching technique, but it only takes us so far. We need to release control of the learning to our students, ensuring they are doing the real heavy lifting involved in acquiring any new knowledge or skill in any grade level or subject area.

My dad was a brilliant man and an incredible father. But in his 

Saying a few words about Dad at his 80th.
He died a few weeks later.
quest to teach me all he knew about home improvement and auto mechanics, he took the wrong approach. Picasso, on the other hand, had it right. To truly learn how to do something we currently cannot do, we simply must start doing it. It goes without saying that we need to be taught some fundamental skills, whether those skills relate to installing drywall, writing a persuasive essay, shooting a basketball, or painting a portrait. But then we must pivot, moving from direct instruction to
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guided practice, providing targeted feedback, ongoing support, and consistent encouragement every step of the way. Moving from Learning By Watching activities to Learning By Doing activities in our schools is another way we Teach, Learn, and Lead with Passion!

The Most Important Relationship Word

“Trust is the glue of life. It’s the most essential ingredient in effective communication. It’s the foundational 
principle that holds all relationships.” 
Stephen Covey

Almost every time I speak to a group of educators, I ask the question, “What is the most important relationship word?” Although several viable answers are offered, almost immediately, someone will suggest the word, “Trust.” Like most things in our noble profession, I am not sure there is a right answer, but I am sure that “Trust” is my answer. Whether we are talking about superintendent-principal, principal-teacher, teacher-student, husband-wife, parent-child, or friend-friend, the “essential ingredient” in the relationship, as Covey suggests, is trust. The people I have most admired and respected in my personal and professional lives have been people in whom I have complete trust.

This trust comes in many forms, but at its core is a calm and confident response of, “Yes” to the question, “Can I trust you?” This broad question can be broken down further, of course, when deciding whether we trust our colleagues. Here are but a few examples:
  • Can I trust you to do what you say you will do?
  • Can I trust that the decision you are making is based on what is best for kids?
  • Can I trust you when you say something will or will not work?
  • Can I trust you when you recommend someone to me for a position in our school or district?
  • Can I trust the feedback you are providing me?
  • Can I trust that the answer you are giving me is the same answer you are giving someone else?
  • Can I trust that you have the knowledge, skills, and capabilities to do what is needed in your role?
  • Can I trust your work ethic?
As educators, we are in the trust business. Our parents send us their most precious gifts and trust us to do what is right by them. Our students, in turn, trust that we have their best interests at heart. Our school culture is strengthened or weakened by the level of trust each staff member has in each other. What are some things we can do to create and maintain a community of trust? Many years ago, in our book, The 4 CORE Factors for School Success, Todd Whitaker and I shared the “Top 10 Trust Traits.” When teachers and administrators engage in these behaviors, those with whom we interact will more likely place their trust in us:

1. Be There

2. Show You Care

3. Provide Resources

4. Communicate Regularly

5. Involve Others

6. Celebrate Success

7. Value Diversity and Dissent

8. Support Innovation

9. Address Underperformance

10. Demonstrate Personal Integrity

I believe these traits hold true whether you are a classroom teacher or a school or district administrator. Which of the ten resonate most with you? Obviously, I consider each of these to be critically, and perhaps equally, important, but one of the ten seems a just a bit different than the other nine. Many of these seem like positive and even “fun” things to do. Number 9, however, is not so fun, yet if we fail to do it, the students and staff we lead will no longer trust that what we said was important was really all that important. We must hold everyone--starting with ourselves--accountable for doing what we said we would do.

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Many years ago at a small church I attended, I was charged with leading the children’s message each Sunday morning during the early service. There were typically only a few children at this service, one of whom was always my daughter, who was 3 or 4 years old at the time. One Sunday, in trying to drive home the point that we should trust in God, I told my daughter we would start the message with me throwing her through the air about 6 or 7 feet to Danny, a high school student I had taught and coached for several years, who would then catch her. Then and now, there is no one I love as dearly as I love my daughter, and I would never do anything to place her in harm’s way. Although this feat was not exactly a dangerous act, Danny was probably the only student I knew who I would have trusted to catch her. Everything I knew about him from years of working with him told me I could trust him to do the right thing in any instance--including catching my daughter when I tossed her his way. My daughter, however, had no such trust in Danny. When I told her what we were going to do, she was a bit nervous, but she agreed--not because she trusted Danny, but because she trusted me when I told her not to worry and assured her that Danny would catch her. Our little performance went off without a hitch, leading to the larger message we were trying to convey during the children’s message.

In our schools, trust can be contagious in a similar way. When principals trust superintendents, they, in turn, behave in ways that lead teachers to trust in them. When teachers trust their building administrators, they behave in ways that lead students to trust in them. Trust is indeed “the glue of life.” When we truly believe in each other, we ignite a culture of trust in our school communities, and nothing can stop us then. Behaving in ways that make others trust us and, in turn, trusting in others to do the same, is another way we Teach, Learn, and Lead with Passion!

The Confident Leader

“One definition of leadership: The capacity and the will to rally men and women to a common purpose and 
the character which inspires confidence.” 
Bernard Montgomery

Many years ago, I heard Todd Whitaker suggest that the greatest gift teachers can give their students is the gift of confidence. The same holds true, perhaps, throughout the school community: the greatest gift principals can give teachers and the greatest gift superintendents can give principals is also the gift of “confidence.” Successful students, teachers, and principals are, indeed, confident people. Moreover, I do not know a single successful leader who I would not describe as a confident leader. At the same time, these very same successful leaders are also extremely humble people. At first glance, being noted as “confident” and “humble” might strike some as just a bit of a contradiction, but the more I ponder on this apparent contradiction, the more I believe they often go hand-in-hand.

The difference lies in the subtle distinction between confidence and self confidence. I know many outstanding leaders who are confident leaders and who also experience moments of self doubt, nervousness, and uncertainty about their leadership capabilities or decision making. This is not only normal, but also a laudable characteristic of leaders. These are real human beings who struggle with real problems and reflect on these problems continuously as well as their own abilities to work through them along with the help of those they lead. Ultimately, of course, such leaders push through these moments of self doubt and project an aura of confidence when leading others. What helps them push through these inevitable bouts of questioning is not so much self confidence, but their confidence in the work itself, or their mission as a leader. The very best leaders I know may experience moments of self doubt, but they never question the importance of the mission or their confidence in achieving the vision of the classroom, school, or district they are leading. This sense of confidence they project to others comes across not so much as self confidence, but, rather, confidence in their belief that--with everyone pushing in the same direction--the mission must be fulfilled and the vision will be achieved. We admire--and follow--leaders who are confident about the mission more than they are about themselves. Of course, deep down, many of these same leaders who regularly question themselves do indeed possess a great deal of self confidence and do firmly believe they can help others grow and help the organization succeed. As leaders, however, they subordinate in importance any confidence in their own abilities to their confidence in the work and the ability of others to achieve great things.

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In Good To Great, Jim Collins describes varying levels of leadership proficiency culminating in “Level 5” leaders. An important characteristic of such leaders is what he terms the Yin and Yang of personal humility and professional will. These are leaders who are modest, channeling their ambition into the organization rather than themselves, yet who demonstrate an unwavering resolve to do whatever necessary to produce the desired results. In today’s Chicago Tribune, I noted an article by David Haugh in which he shares the five stages of being a major-league baseball player according to Joe Maddon, manager of my

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beloved Chicago Cubs. Although perhaps not as familiar as the work of Jim Collins, there are parallels to leaders of companies as well as leaders in schools. In Maddon’s hierarchy, "Level 1" players are just happy to be in the major leagues. Perhaps Level 1 school leaders are also simply happy to have earned their first teaching or administrative position. At Level 5, however, all these players want to do, according to Maddon, is win. It is no longer about money, fame, mere survival, or themselves; it is simply about winning. Confident school leaders are similarly laser-focused on “winning,” i.e., fulfilling the classroom, school, or district mission and achieving the vision by producing the best possible results for the students they serve. Confident leaders know it is never about them, but never lose sight of the end goal and always project an aura of confidence in the abilities of those they lead to get there.

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When I served as principal of a middle school in Georgia, many teachers throughout the school displayed and regularly reiterated what we called our three critical messages that we first learned about from Jon Saphier: 1. The work we are doing is important. 2. You can do it. 3. I will not give up on you. Confident leaders believe passinately in the work they are doing. Confident leaders instill in others a sense that, together, the work can and will be accomplished. Confident leaders never give up on themselves or others in striving to fulfill the mission and achieve the vision. Leading with confidence--in the work, rather than ourselves--is another way we Teach, Learn, and Lead with Passion!

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!

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...