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." 
Epictetus

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:
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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
Via: goo.gl/gLmYcH
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
Via: goo.gl/q6bXZk
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!



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