But I Did Stay at a Holiday Inn Express...

"The performance will be our credentials."
Ken Bouldin

One of the schools in our district, Kipling Elementary, has been engaged in a semester-long book study of Sal Khan’s One World Schoolhouse. As part of the study, each week a staff member shares their thoughts about a chapter of the book through a writing posted to the school’s blog, Learning and Leading in the One World Schoolhouse. Recently, I contributed to the school’s book study with my reflections on a chapter of the book titled, “The Future of Credentials.”

In this very short chapter, Kahn suggests we are mixing three different ideas together when we speak of “education.” The first is the idea of teaching and learning. The second aspect is socialization. The third idea is that of credentialing--giving a piece of paper to someone that proves to the world that they know what they know. Khan maintains that these three ideas get muddled together because they are all performed by the same institutions. He makes the case for separating the role of ”credentialing,” letting people gain credentials through alternative sources.

Although short, I found this chapter both powerful and validating. Currently, traditional credentials for students are the diplomas they receive at various stages along their academic journeys. At the college level, these “credentials” are time consuming and expensive. Moreover, they are a bit vague in terms of describing what, exactly, the owner of the diploma actually knows and is able to do. What is truly important is not the diploma itself, but what the owner of the diploma can do as a result. I am reminded of the old Holiday Inn Express ad campaign in which various people perform remarkably in any number of roles with their only “qualification” being that they had stayed at a Holiday Inn Express the night before. Here is but one example from this ad campaign:

How is this humorous commercial advertisement applicable to credentials? Well, the fact that we possess a diploma--or that we have stayed in a Holiday Inn Express--is, ultimately, unimportant. What truly matters is whether we can perform the required skills necessary to succeed. Personally, I have actually earned the “credential” of staying at a Holiday Inn express. However, you certainly would not want me performing surgery on you any time soon. As the commercials suggest, however, the reverse may also be true. If one can perform the skills, the credential itself (a diploma) is subordinate in importance--possibly even irrelevant--and could actually come from an alternative source of credentialing rather than the typical source (a school).

Traditional credentials also pose equity challenges for students from underrepresented communities. To make the process more affordable, fair, and less time consuming, what if we, instead, designed specific credential opportunities for a wide variety of skills and allowed anyone to attempt to earn these credentials anytime and anywhere as a way to better themselves?

Like most things in education, what applies to students also applies to us, as educators. What if--instead of grad school--we were allowed to advance our pay level and degree level by proving we had acquired new knowledge and skills, instead of putting in the required seat time and credit hours to earn another diploma? Speaking only for myself and reflecting on my master's, specialist's, and doctoral degrees, I think such learning might have been more efficient, cost effective, and relevant than most of the traditional graduate-level education courses I endured.

I take pride in so much of what we have done and continue to do throughout our own amazing school district in Deerfield, Illinois. Among these many accomplishments is our own small initial foray into credentialing through our Deerfield University professional learning platform. This platform allows staff members to earn badges and incentive points on a voluntary basis by learning about a topic, doing something with their learning, and submitting evidence of their application of learning. It would be interesting to offer credentialing opportunities to our students as well. In fact, I wonder what credentials we would offer at various grade levels and subject areas? What would be the Top 5 credentials you would offer students the opportunity to earn if you teach 4th grade? Music? Art? PE? Calculus? Spanish? Maybe it would be fun to determine the “critical 5” for each area, the essential knowledge and skills that you would expect any student in the grade/course to earn along with another 5 that would be “growth” credentials, based on individual interest or exceptional aptitude in a certain area.

Khan labels this chapter, “The Future of Credentials,” but it seems as if too often in our noble profession we speak about “The future of…” when we need to shift our mindset and realize the future can be now. Identifying the key knowledge and skills we want our students and each other to possess, determining methods for measuring mastery of this, and then awarding a credential certifying such mastery are ways we can personalize learning for all today. They are also ways we Teach, Learn, and Lead with Passion!

Just One Thing

“Your students won’t always remember what you've taught them, but they’ll always remember how you've treated them.”

Earlier this week, I was commiserating with a principal friend about our respective writing projects. Having just submitted my newest book to the publisher, I lamented that I was so deep into it that I could no longer discern if it was even any good. My colleague expressed a similar sentiment and then suggested something that gave me pause. In essence, he suggested that if we in education simply did just "one thing," we would have it all solved. This "one thing" reference reminded me of a key moment in the film City Slickers. Check out this clip:

My colleague's "one thing"? If we all followed the golden rule of treating others the way we want to be treated, that would take care of pretty much all the challenges we face in education and we would not need any books at all. Oversimplified stance? Perhaps. But, let’s consider. 

Four Seasons is noted for its fanatical adherence to their philosophy of doing everything in their power to provide first class treatment to their guests--and each other. In fact, under the “How We Behave” umbrella of their Service Culture framework, they commit to the following: We demonstrate our beliefs most meaningfully in the way we treat each other and by the example we set for one another. In all our interactions with our guests, customers, business associates, and colleagues, we seek to deal with others as we would have them deal with us. Presumably, most everyone reading this post would concur with this ancient philosophy, but how often do our actions truly align with our beliefs when it comes to this “one thing”? Recently, I was treated horribly by someone I know. I recall thinking, “I can’t imagine how this person could possibly have treated me like this. I would never want to treat someone like this.” A few days later, I had the conversation with my colleague and started to reflect on my own treatment of others. Upon reflection, although I am still confident I would never have done what was done to me, I was equally confident that I do not always treat everyone with whom I come in contact precisely the way I would want to be treated. But what if I did? And what if we all did--especially in our schools?

In what ways would our schools be different if every educator in every school dealt with every student, every colleague, and every parent as we would have them deal with us? For instance, if that “one thing” was the standard for treating others, how would we respond when:

  • A student misbehaves consistently?
  • A colleague asks us to cover their class?
  • A working parent asks if they could meet for a conference before or after “normal” working hours?
  • A student fails to turn in an assignment?
  • A student, parent, or colleague lashes out at us angrily about something?
  • A student misses two weeks of school for being ill?
  • A colleague falls short of our expectations in some area?
If, in each of these instances, we responded according to this “one thing,” I suspect our schools would be better places in which to teach, learn, and lead. If someone disappoints us--be that person a student, parent, or colleague--and we respond with respect, empathy, and honesty, chances are we are responding in a way we would want that person to deal with us. Here’s the kicker, though--(well, three actually):
  1. It Starts with Me: First, like all good ideas for making our world a better place, it starts with me (or, in your case, you). If we are not modeling this behavior ourselves, it is unlikely to spread and become embedded in the culture of the organization. 
  2. Easier Said than Done: Second, this sounds a whole lot easier in theory than it actually is in practice. I mean, there are some really annoying things occurring in our schools each day! Not only that, but at times people with whom we interact disappoint us, treat us poorly, and even do things that hurt us. When these things happen, it is never fun and often tempting to respond in kind. When thusly tempted, it behooves us to keep in mind the following powerful axiom: “We are defined by our actions toward others, not others’ actions toward us.” 
  3. We are All Different: Third, I have learned that not everyone wants to be treated the way I want to be treated. Although there are certainly differences among people in how they prefer to be treated, in our schools I suspect there are some ways of dealing with others that work for nearly everyone. Behaving toward others with dignity, respect, patience, calmness, and empathy while actively listening and seeking to honestly know the other person are behaviors that will sit well with virtually all students, parents, and colleagues in our schools. In fact, the more we get to know our kids, parents, and colleagues, the more equipped we are to twist the Golden Rule just a bit, moving from treating others as we would want to be treated to treating others as they would want to be treated.
We may never get the entire school community consistently behaving to the Four Seasons standard of dealing with others, but the more often each of us models this “one thing,” the more likely it is we will get others to follow suit. Eventually, if we stay the course, it may even become embedded into the culture as simply, “The way we do things around here.” This “one thing” may not be the answer to every challenge facing those of us serving in schools, but I honestly suspect it would eliminate many of the negative incidents that occur therein. Moreover, intentionally and consistently seeking to deal with others as we would have them deal with us is another way we Teach, Learn, and Lead with Passion!

Do Your Best. Then, Do Better.

“Do the best you can until you know better. Then, when you know better, do better.” 

Maya Angelou

Here are three true statements (that some may find impossible to believe) about the first principal I ever worked for as a teacher:

  • She smoked cigarettes in her office occasionally.
  • She sometimes paddled children with a wooden paddle when they misbehaved.
  • She was an outstanding principal who I liked and respected a great deal during the five years I worked with her. To this day, I still consider her a friend and mentor.
At the time, I was teaching first grade in a suburban area just outside Atlanta, Georgia. Admittedly, I am very old--as my PLN friends are quick to point out--but this was not the Stone Age; it was the 1980s. And my principal smoked in school and paddled kids. And I thought she was awesome. In considering these three points from my first year of teaching, some may find the fact she smoked in the principal's office the most incredible. Others may find using a wooden paddle to punish kids even more incomprehensible.

However, I would not be surprised if some find the fact that I actually liked and respected the principal--one who smoked and paddled children--the most surprising of all. To those of you, I promise, you would have liked and respected her, too, if you worked for her during that era. She was a student-centered leader who truly cared about every single child in the school of over 1000 K-5 students. She cared about every staff member, too. In fact, thanks in large part to her leadership, we were a close-knit staff who worked hard together when at school and enjoyed each other’s company outside of school.

How can I speak so highly of a school leader who smoked in her office and occasionally paddled children who misbehaved? At the time, such behaviors were completely acceptable parts of the school and district culture--and were equally acceptable throughout that part of the country. To use Angelou’s quote, you might say she was doing the best she knew at the time. However, because she was a lifelong learner who was open minded and welcomed change, when she knew better, she did better. In my final year of teaching there, she had stopped smoking and put a halt to corporal punishment, even though both were still legal (and widely practiced at neighboring schools) at that time. So, what are the implications of my first year teaching experiences from decades ago for those of us practicing as teachers and school leaders in 2016?

First, it is important to realize that best practices evolve over time. What we think is best practice right now may well be looked at with scorn and horror many years hence. Still, we must move forward, doing the very best we can today, armed with the very best knowledge we have available to us; at the same time, we should constantly examine and reflect upon what it is we consider best practice today and always be open to changing when we find a better way. We simply cannot continue to do things if the only reason we have for doing them is the fact that we have always done them. In my first year of teaching, the principal paddled children--and the vast majority of the staff supported and even encouraged this behavior--simply because it had always been done. There simply was no other defensible reason for doing this. Thankfully, we are no longer using corporal punishment in most schools across the country. Fortunately, smoking is no longer allowed in schools either. Believe it or not, however, in every school I visited this year--including those in my own district--staff still did things simply because they have always done those things. Like my first principal, the people doing these things are neither bad people nor lazy professionals. In fact, many are passionate individuals dedicated to their kids, colleagues, and schools. Yet some traditions continue in schools today that serve no real learning purpose. When we notice this happening, we should confront it, discussing it openly among all affected parties. Ultimately, if we cannot support our current practice or policy in ways other than, “Well, we’ve always done it that way,” we should seriously reconsider such practices or policies.

In full disclosure, my principal that year was not the only educator in the building doing stupid things. To be completely honest, I suspect that I was right up there atop the leaderboard in terms of educators doing stupid things. In fact, I am still writing apology notes to the children in my classroom during that era. If memory serves, I may have even shared a cigarette or two with my principal in her office during the year! It is of some comfort, I suppose, to know that if, today, we were to poll every one of my colleagues working in the school that year, I suspect each would say the same thing: as much as they cared about their kids and their profession, in hindsight, they engaged in some practices then that seem rather ludicrous today.

So what lessons can we learn from the somewhat shocking behaviors that occurred many years ago which seemed perfectly normal at the time? And, what lessons can we learn from much more recent--if less extreme--practices that we no longer consider best practice? My answer is that we must be extremely vigilant about monitoring all we do, measuring whether it is producing the desired results, and implementing new and better ideas whenever we discover them. Realizing that times change and our practices can and should change with them is important. The vast majority of us are doing the very best we know how each and every day. Still, we must be open to the possibility that what we are doing today as “best practice” may not be the best we can do tomorrow. Doing our very best on a daily basis--and then doing even better when we know better--is another way we Teach, Learn, and Lead with Passion!

Tennis, Anyone?

“If people knew how hard I worked to get my mastery, it wouldn’t seem so wonderful at all.” 


I am a horrible tennis player. However, in the 1990s, I played competitively and practiced regularly, eventually reaching a level of proficiency I would describe as, “not too embarrassing.” During that time, I noticed something interesting as I tried to “master” the game of tennis--admittedly, a rather lofty, if unattainable, goal.

At the time, I was teaching in the Atlanta, Georgia, area. Most evenings, I would practice, and on weekends I was part of a team that competed in a citywide tennis league. My closest friend at the time was a fellow teacher who lived nearby. We had similar schedules and a common tennis court available so we had the opportunity to practice together frequently. Even though this person was one of my closest friends, I hated playing tennis with him. You see, as bad as I was at the game, he was even worse, a step below my own meager ability level. Whenever we played, I would win nearly every game, without much of a challenge. I found myself a bit bored and--more importantly to me at the time--not improving my game. On the other hand, there was another person on our tennis team who was able to practice with me, albeit much less often. I looked forward to these sessions. Although we were not as close personally, this fellow had exactly what I needed when it came to tennis: he was slightly better than I was! Most times we played, he would win our sets by scores of 6-3 or 6-4. On occasion, I was even able to win a set. Playing against someone of his skill level was precisely what I needed to stay totally focused and engaged during every single shot of every single game. Moreover, I found myself getting better whenever I played against him. In this instance, winning was not nearly as important to me as getting better. Although I consider myself one of the most competitive people around (perhaps too much so), in this case, I was less worried about competing against him (winning) than I was about competing against myself (improving).

So, how does this relate to the world of teaching, learning, and leading? Reflecting on this experience hearkens me back to Dan Pink’s seminal work about what motivates us. Anyone reading this post likely needs no reminder that Pink identified three essential elements related to motivation: Autonomy, Mastery, and Purpose. Although all three may be applicable here, my tennis experience is most connected to the “Mastery” component: I had a strong urge to get better and better at something that truly mattered to me at the time. I realized I was not going to get any better playing my good friend, while I was equally confident I would get better playing an acquaintance whose game was a step above my own and pushed my own performance. As classroom teachers, this is vitally important to remember. Are we assigning work that is too easy? Stuff our kids already know and can do with no real challenge to them? If so, we may find our students losing interest in the work, possibly complying with the assignment by doing it without truly being engaged and trying to grow and get better. At the same time, we cannot create student work assignments that are overly challenging. In my tennis analogy, if I had played tennis against Serena Williams, who presumably has the ability to defeat me 6-0 every single set, I would neither improve nor be overly engaged in the game for long. As teachers, it is equally important that we not assign work that is too far beyond our students’ current skillset.

As with so many other things in our profession, what holds true for students also holds true for adults. When designing professional learning experiences for our colleagues, as an example, we need to

take into account each individual's current "Point A" and then
identify each one’s “Point B” on the learning continuum, holding everyone on the team accountable for extending their learning, but never expecting all adults in the school to be at the same point on the learning continuum at a given point in time. We must design professional learning experiences that stretch everyone based on their current level of proficiency in a certain area. We must keep expecting educators to grow and get better by providing learning experiences that matter to them and are challenging, yet attainable.

Both Dan Pink and Michaelangelo make the connection between work and mastery, suggesting that one will never approach mastery without putting in the necessary work. Motivating ourselves--and our students--to embrace the work on the road to mastery require us to intentionally assign tasks and performances that push each individual just beyond their current level. We need to provide our kids--and ourselves--with what Pink calls “Goldilocks tasks,” challenges that are neither too hot, nor too cold; not overly difficult, yet not overly simple. One source of frustration in classrooms and during professional learning sessions is the frequent mismatch between what people must do and what people can do. When what they must do exceeds their capabilities, the result is anxiety. When what they must do falls short of their capabilities, the result is boredom. We must find the sweet spot in between.

Achieving total mastery in any area may never actually happen; however, motivating people to strive for mastery in important pursuits is a noble and attainable endeavor. Motivating our students--and each other--to get better and better at something that matters is another way we Teach, Learn, and Lead with Passion!

Staying in the Moment

“Good teams stay in the present and what's going on right now. They stay focused on the day, the at-bat, the pitch.” 
David Ross

Everyone who knows me, realizes I am a passionate, lifelong Chicago Cubs fan. Like Cubs fans everywhere, I have noted a new practice this quirky team seems to have adopted: Players who reach first base point to the ground with both fingers. Apparently, this is a practice adopted after learning about the importance of staying in the moment from a psychologist, Dr. Ken Ravizza, who often works with sports teams. With all the hoopla surrounding the potential of the Cubs this season, it makes sense for them to not get too carried away about the possibilities down the road and, instead, focus on staying in the moment.
Although many have predicted a World Series in their future this season, the Cubs know that World Series success is earned one day, one pitch, one hit, one throw at a time. Just as importantly, with the team's dismal past record of postseason success, it is equally important that they not dwell on these past failures. If they were to base their future success on what has happened in the past, they would be planning a World Series run in the year 2124. Indeed, if the Chicago Cubs are to maximize their chances for success over the course of the current 162-game season, it behooves them to make the most of each individual day, living intensely in the moment rather than looking too far ahead or worrying about what has come before. The only way our beloved Cubbies can realize the long term success they seek tomorrow is by doing everything in their power to succeed today.

In thinking about this, I realized the many parallels which exist between the 162-game baseball season and our own 180- day school year. There are many opportunities for educators to lose sight of the present moment, whether looking ahead to upcoming events or reflecting on previous events or past performance; it becomes easy to take our eye off the ball: what is happening right now, in every classroom, in every school, in every cafeteria, hallway, playground, and with every student and staff member with whom we are interacting and serving. The most successful teachers and administrators I know are simply masterful at “being present,” focusing like a laser beam on the lesson they are currently teaching, the conversation they are currently having, the meeting they are holding with a parent, the feedback they are giving to a student or colleague. Of course, these great educators are also planners, who well know what units of instruction are approaching and how they are thinking of teaching these or what professional learning opportunities they want to offer next year for various staff members. Yet, while planning these short and long term events, they never lose sight of what is most important: the future that is unravelling before their very eyes right now, whether that is the child who needs their full attention or the colleague who stops by unexpectedly with a question.

Before long, many of us will be nearing the end of another school year. Approaching the end of any school year is akin, perhaps, to approaching the end of any baseball season; whether we have had a stellar "season" or a somewhat challenging one, it becomes ever-so-tempting to lose sight of the current year and look ahead to the off season or even next year. When tempted to do so, let’s remember to “point to the ground” as a reminder to focus on making the absolute most of every second we have available to us to ensure that our outcomes--and those of the kids we serve--are the ones we are all hoping to achieve.

In the quote above, David Ross---a back up veteran catcher for this year’s team--wisely observes that good baseball teams stay in the moment, focusing intently on today and even a single pitch, a single at bat. Good schools are made up of team members who behave similarly, never losing sight of today and the single lesson, the specific question, the simple kind gesture that may just make all the difference in the world to someone else down the road.

Working in schools is an amazing opportunity; it is also a ridiculously challenging profession and when we are in the middle of our season, a myriad of responsibilities, tasks, duties, and events hit us at a head-spinning rate. Losing sight of the here and now to take care of what is coming next is always tempting as a strategy to save time; however, based on my experiences, the more we attend to what is before us this very moment and the less we try to multi-task or look ahead, the more time we save in the long run. 

Moreover, the better our collective focus is on this single day, the greater our chances of success for many tomorrows. Our season--like the baseball season--is a long one. Our likelihood of long term victory--a successful school year for us and our students--is based largely on the “small” victories we are achieving today. Cumulatively, these small victories will add up to a celebration worthy of the one the Cubbies hope to experience when they finally win the World Series! Staying in the moment and being present for our kids, parents, and each other are important ways we Teach, Learn, and Lead with Passion!

Are We Settling?

“The biggest human temptation is to settle for too little.” 
Thomas Merton

I rarely watch television other than news and sporting events and it is rarer still that I notice any advertising campaigns on those infrequent occasions when I am watching TV. However, this month is probably my heaviest television-watching month of the entire calendar year due to college basketball’s March Madness, which remains my favorite sporting event ever. During this year’s March Madness tournament, I could not help but notice an ad campaign by DirecTV called, The Settlers, which plays on the word, presenting a frontier-era family in a suburban neighborhood who stick to antiquated ways such as a horse-and-buggy, making their own clothes, faceless dolls, and...cable TV. Although I have no clue as to whether DirecTV is superior to cable TV, this ad campaign did cause me to wonder: In education, are we in any way “settling” for less than the absolute best? If so, in what areas? And, in which areas is it imperative that we do not settle?

In general terms, our profession’s customers--the children who attend our schools--are simply too important to allow ourselves to settle for less than the very best we can provide. Whether we are talking about facilities, finances, curriculum resources, technology, or extra curricular offerings, our children deserve the very best available. Having said that, I do reside in the real world and can accept that there are budgetary limits in all walks of life, and education is--and should be--no different. In what ways, then, is it ever acceptable to "settle" in education and where must we draw lines in the sand, insisting we hold out for nothing less absolute best? 
  • An obvious standard for never settling is for each and every one of us to commit to giving our personal best every day when we arrive to work. This is easier said than done, of course, yet it is the one area over which we likely have the most control in terms of consciously deciding to not settle.
  • Another “no-settle” zone is to always ask, “What is best for kids?” when making any decision. We should never waver from this as the gold standard for decision-making in our schools. It may well be that budget constraints limit our choices, but once we have identified the choices available within these budget constraints, the question must always be answered based on which alternative will result in better outcomes for students. 
  • Another area where we must resist “settling” is in the area of school facilities and classroom learning environments. Once again, we may not have enough money to build new state-of-the-art schools every few years or even outfit our classrooms with the most up-to-date furnishings and equipment. At the same time, we must do all in our power (and within our budget) to never settle in ensuring that our facilities and classrooms are safe, clean, welcoming, learning-focused places in which to teach, learn, and lead.
Finally, and most importantly, at this time of year, I am reminded of another area in which we should never settle: hiring new staff. Currently, many schools around the world are in high-gear hiring mode, filling teaching positions along with a host of other educational roles and filling these just as fast as they can. Filling these positions is as important as any decisions we make for those of us involved in the process. Make the right decision and the lives of our children will be enriched, perhaps for decades to come. In addition, our own lives will improve, as we surround ourselves with new professionals who bring with them new skill sets, new perspectives, and new energy, while at the same time becoming the type of team member who fits in well with the current staff, committing to the mission, vision, and values of the team, focusing on learning, results, and collaboration with their colleagues and student-centered teaching in their classrooms. Make the wrong decision, however, and a school/district could be in for an equally-long period of time--a time marked by disappointment and frustration, as we learn the person we selected is neither a good fit, nor equipped with the knowledge and skills to succeed with their students and/or their colleagues. 

Although the hiring process is arduous--particularly if a school or district is hiring large numbers of new staff--this is a primary area in which we should simply never settle. “Never” is a rather strong and absolute-sounding term, yet I think it is appropriate in this instance. That may mean that we interview a multitude of candidates, only to find that we need to keep looking and start the process anew. That sounds like a whole lot of extra work and time. Better, methinks, to spend this time and energy upfront, than settle now and spend much more time and energy later correcting this mistake.

As important as many of our programs are in schools, Todd Whitaker hits the nail on the head when he insists that it is people, not programs, that make the difference. People are always the problem and they are always the solution. Programs themselves are never the problem and never the solution. The true variable in our schools is our people. It is incumbent upon us, therefore, to never settle for a candidate who we are not 100% convinced has the skills, knowledge, character, attitude, and relational capabilities--or, at a minimum, the potential to grow enough in these areas, and quickly--to succeed with the students and parents they serve and the staff with whom they will collaborate.

I am, by nature, a practical person, comfortable living with rules, procedures, budgets, limitations, and the realization that sometimes doing the very best we can do is all we can do, even when we suspect it is not enough. However, there are some situations with which I am not comfortable. Settling for a mediocre candidate to fill any role in which the person will be working with children is one. In the ad campaign referenced at the start of this post, the father says to the son (when he asks why they cannot have the supposedly better technology), “We’re settlers, Son; that’s what we do.” Well, let’s not be settlers in our schools. As Merton suggests in the quote above, "settling" is quite a tempting proposition; however, this is a temptation we must resist. Never settling for less than the best we can do each and every day and never settling by hiring a less -than-stellar educator are more ways we Teach, Learn, and Lead with Passion!

Fierce Intention

“A productivity ritual is a consciously created expression 
of fierce intention.” 
Tony Schwartz

For three years, I traveled 100% for work; it was both rewarding and grueling. Having the opportunity to work in widely-varying school districts across more than thirty states during those three years was an amazing professional opportunity. I learned a great deal during those years--about education, yes, but also about travel. During this time, I flew over 140 flights each year. I remember the number clearly because, at that time, to qualify for “Diamond Status” on Delta, one needed to accrue a certain amount of miles or number of segments flown during each calendar year. The perks for reaching Diamond status were pretty sweet--so nice, in fact, that when I finished my first work year with "only" 138 segments, I took an overnight random trip to Florida on December 28th to see a childhood friend--and to collect my all-important final two segments! Flying this often dramatically changed the way in which I approached my travel planning. After a few months, I had the entire process down to a science, planning each step of my journey with, as Schwartz would say, "fierce intention."

Here are just a few steps I took each time I flew in order to
maximize my time: First, I would leave my home exactly 127 minutes prior to my scheduled departure time. From experience, I knew this was the precise number of minutes necessary to ensure I would have enough time, even if traffic became an issue, to drive to economy parking, take the tram to the terminal, check my bag, get through security, and make it to the Sky Club lounge, where I would wait until it was time for boarding. My next intentional decision was where to park in the always-busy economy lot at O’Hare. I took the exact same route through the parking lot each

time, knowing exactly what my first, second, and third tier choices were for best available spot. Then, I would do the following:

  • Place my parking ticket in the console of my car for safe keeping.
  • Grab my luggage from the trunk, lock the car, and immediately place my car keys in a specific pocket of my briefcase so I would know right where to find them upon returning.
  • Walk to the tram and enter the last car of the three-car train (because upon arrival at my terminal, the last car would be closest to the escalator I needed to ascend to the terminal).
  • Once on the train, I removed my drivers license from my wallet and placed it in my right front pants pocket, then putting my wallet away into a specific spot in my briefcase.
  • Then, I would take out my phone and open my mobile boarding pass; for the remaining time, I would peruse my Twitter feed, favoriting resources I wanted to come back to later.
  • When the tram stopped at Terminal 2, I made sure to position myself so I would be the first person to exit and immediately board the escalator, mere steps from the tram door.
  • I immediately proceeded to the priority baggage drop area, dropped my bag, and made my way through security.
  • Once through security, I made a beeline for the Sky Club lounge, where I showed the attendant my drivers license and boarding pass. Once I did this, I retrieved my wallet from my briefcase and placed my license back inside.
  • Next, I went to the rear of the lounge, set up my laptop, grabbed a water and some snacks, and began working.
  • Then, at precisely six minutes prior to the stated boarding time, I packed up, visited the men’s room, and headed to my gate down the hall.
  • Once seated on the plane, I took out my Kindle and read until the moment the flight attendant announced they had closed the cabin door.
  • Then, I closed my eyes and fell asleep (amazingly, I was able to do this almost every single flight).
  • I was always awakened by the announcement--preceded by the dinging chime--that we had reached an altitude of 10,000 feet. As soon as I awoke, I immediately took out my laptop and began working, which continued until informed we were descending and laptops had to be stored.
I practiced similarly intentional (OK, maybe rigid or even obsessive) ways of deplaning, retrieving my luggage, getting into my rental car, and checking into my hotel, but you get the idea. I planned out with fierce intention every step of my travel journey for each and every trip. Why did I plan so intentionally? To be honest, I spent so much time traveling for this job that I simply needed every possible minute I could find to do the actual preliminary work necessary prior to arriving at the schools and districts I served. I did not have a minute to waste if I were to get everything done that needed doing. As an added bonus, I found that the more work I could accomplish while en route, the more relaxed I could be when not working and the more I could be renewed on the rare occasions when I was at home and not on the road.

How does all this apply to teaching, learning, and leading? Let’s deconstruct Schwartz's quote form above into three key components, keeping great educators we know in mind as we do so:

“Productivity rituals.” Great educators establish rituals or routines and follow these consistently to minimize the possibility of wasting time or the likelihood of unexpected events from occurring.

“Consciously Created.” Great educators do not happen upon such rituals and routines by chance; instead, they learn from experience how best to set up their schedules--and those with whom they work--for success and purposefully go about adhering to them.

“Fierce Intention.” Great educators who consciously create productivity rituals do so because it is part of their very nature and indicative of the passion they have for ensuring those whom they serve succeed. They are determined to succeed at whatever it is they do and plan accordingly--even “fiercely.”

Honestly, many of the finest educators I have known--whether administrators or teachers--are also folks I would characterize as fiercely intentional. All teachers know what I know: there is simply never enough time to get everything done that we want and need to do during the school day; great teachers respond by rarely, if ever, wasting a single minute available to them and by establishing specific routines for themselves and others in order to best meet the needs of the students they serve.

Great educators are very busy people engaged in the most important work I know: shaping the future of our nation’s young people. Because every minute matters when it comes to our kids, they consciously choose to make the most of each precious one. Consciously creating productivity rituals and following these with fierce intention--are ways we Teach, Learn, and Lead with Passion!

Continuous Improvement...and Mailboxes

“Continuous Improvement is better than delayed perfection.”
Mark Twain

May 17, 1991 was a humbling moment for me: it was on this date I discovered the sad fact that I did not have the stamina to run a single mile. All my life, I had been an athlete and was even coaching several sports at the high school level at the time. So when I decided, after our high school baseball season ended that spring, to join a friend for a distance run, I did not think too much about it. At the same time, even though I was very active and in fairly good shape at the time, I had not run any significant distance in many, many years. My friend wanted to run three miles and that seemed like a simple task, so off we took from my house for a 3-mile run in the neighborhood. After just less than a mile, I knew I could not continue; my chest pounding, body aching, and breathing laborious, I gave up. My friend kept going while I turned around and walked--feeling humiliated--back to the house. On that long, sad walk home, I set a goal: I decided I would run a marathon.

The next day, I set out for another run. I knew exactly how far I had made it the previous day, so my goal was to make it that far again and just a little bit more; in fact, I decided to run to the next furthest mailbox before stopping that day. I managed to do this and followed the exact same pattern each and every day thereafter. Each day, I would simply run the same distance as the day before and then tack on “one more mailbox.” Because of the design of my neighborhood, on some days, the next mailbox was literally only inches apart from the previous day’s mailbox. On other days, the next mailbox was several hundred yards further. Whatever the distance, I knew I could make it the same distance as I had covered the day before and one mailbox more. By following this regimen, I slowly, but steadily, increased my distance. It was not long before I ran my first 5K race. Not long after that, I was ready for my first 10K. I was thrilled when I reached half-marathon status and then, on Thanksgiving Day 1993, I ran my first full marathon, 26.2 miles! In approximately a year and a half I had progressed from not being able to run a single mile to running 26.2 miles. Since then, I have completed about a dozen more full marathons (Note: The method I used to complete my first marathon is not one you will find in any running or training book or program, nor one I recommend; I have since adopted more traditional distance running programs).

Our improvement as individual educators as well as school and district improvement is not unlike my marathon journey, as unorthodox as it may have been. Rarely do our successes and sustained improvement occur overnight or by accident. Instead, they occur over time and happen almost imperceptibly during the improvement journey itself through targeted goal setting and intentional action steps. Indeed, if we continue pushing the needle forward each and every day of our professional lives, it astounds us when we look back at where we were and to where we grew over time. Too often, we seek the quick fix or magic bullet when, instead, we simply need to keep improving--each and every minute of each and every day. In fact, I note several parallels between my long distance running story and the continuous improvement journeys of educators, schools, and districts of which I am aware:

  • We must begin by establishing an audacious vision. Deciding to run 26.2 miles when one cannot currently run a single mile is more than a mere goal; it is a grand vision of the future. Educators, schools, and districts who accomplish great things start by establishing a far-reaching--but attainable--vision of a better future.
  • We next need to identify clear, daily goals we must achieve in order to eventually realize our vision. In my running quest, I decided to set a daily goal for myself: to run just a little bit further than I had the day before. As educators, if we get just a little bit better each and every day, pretty soon we will be a whole lot better.
  • We need the right equipment, support, and knowledge to help us get better. On my very first run, I began by lacing up my basketball shoes, which likely contributed to my inability to run a single mile. The very next day, I purchased actual running shoes and running clothes. This new equipment itself was not the major factor in successfully running a marathon, but having the proper equipment maximized my chances for success. In our professional improvement, we also require necessary materials and professional learning experiences if we are to succeed. Rarely can we get to where we are going if we do not have people and resources to support us.
  • We must start now. Whether the vision is running a marathon, sending a man to the moon, or becoming more innovative in our instructional practices, the time to start is now. As Twain notes above, it is far better to start improving now, getting better steadily than to wait until we think we can do something perfectly.
  • We need to celebrate min-victories along the way. When I ran my first 5K race, I felt like I was on top of the world. The same thing happened after my first 10K and half-marathon. These accomplishments along my path to the larger vision kept me going. In our professional improvement journey, we must also recognize and celebrate successes along the way to the larger prize.

When I consider my professional accomplishments and those of other educators with whom I have served, most seem to have followed a trajectory similar to my distance running success. Such accomplishments happened over time, not overnight, with a great deal of intentional effort and a consistent focus on the end goal. Whether your vision is to become a more connected educator, earn an advanced professional degree or certificate, become a school or district known for innovative instructional practices, become a 1:1 school or district, or improving the results you are getting in your classroom, school, or district in terms of test scores, my hunch is that you can do it and you will get there. Perhaps not as fast as you would like and certainly not without some setbacks along the way, but in these journeys--as with my running journey--persistence defeats resistance and we eventually will get there if we keep making forward progress toward our vision of the future.

Professional improvement--whether for an individual educator or an entire school or district--is never easy; as with most things in life worth pursuing, it takes a vision as well as the dedication and determination to reach the vision. I am honored to serve in a profession filled with individuals willing to make huge sacrifices in order to better serve our nation’s most important resources: its children. Establishing long-range visions of a better future--and then going about the grueling, but rewarding, business of realizing such visions--are ways we Teach, Learn, and Lead with Passion!

Change for Direction, Not Perfection

“To improve is to change. To be perfect is to change often.”

“There is nothing wrong with change, if it is in the right direction.” 

Both of the above quotes are attributed to our pal, Winston Churchill, with the former likely being more familiar to most than the latter. In education, it seems we are almost always advocating for change in almost every aspect of what we do. In fact, I find myself and many fellow educators I respect a great deal arguing passionately for changes in the ways we approach instruction, classroom environments, assessment, grading and reporting practices, technology integration, libraries, and teacher evaluation, to name but a few. It seems as if we believe, a la Churchill, that the more we change, the closer we will come to “perfecting” education.

I typically consider myself somewhat of a change agent in our profession; in fact, I often look forward to and embrace change in all areas of my life. Recently, however, I realized that Churchill’s second quote is equally worthy of our attention; it is not always wise to change simply for the sake of change; instead, we must consider why we want change and whether the proposed changes will accomplish our goals and result in a better version of what came before.

Each January, I visit my eye doctor for an annual vision screening. For years now, I have worn one contact lens, in my left eye. It was a compromise we made several years ago, allowing me to see adequately--though not perfectly--both from a distance and while reading. To see perfectly in terms of both reading and distance would have required that I wear both contact lenses and reading glasses, a scenario I refused (and still refuse) to consider. For me, this compromise continues to work well enough. In terms of the contact lens itself, again, I have been using the same brand and type for many years. To me, these lenses have always been fine. Not perfect, mind you, but they rarely bother me and my eye is never dry or irritated from wearing this lens on a daily basis. Still, each January, I head to the eye exam, secretly hoping there will be a change of some sort, a change allowing me to see even better or to a contact lens that is even more comfortable. Lo, for the past five years, I have come away disappointed. My vision has remained the same and each year the doctor suggests keeping the prescription exactly the same. Once we agree on that, I then ask eagerly if there has been any new contact lens innovation resulting in a different lens I should try instead of the lenses I have been using for years. Each year, the doctor informs me of other options available, but always asks a series of questions along the lines of: “Are your current ones comfortable?” (Yes). “Do your current ones bother you on a regular basis?” (No). “Do you feel as if your eyes are often dry?” (No). Then, she looks at me suspiciously and asks why I would want to change. My answer? Although there is nothing really wrong with my current vision or the comfort of my contacts, I would be happy if my current condition could become even better. In my view (pun intended), there is no reason to settle for the status quo if it can be improved upon by changing to a new approach. Alas, each January for the past five years, my eye doctor has sent me on my way with the exact same prescription and exact same type of contact lens. Each January I depart, just a bit dejected that no changes were forthcoming and that things would remain the same--at least for the next twelve months.

How does my eyesight situation apply to teaching, learning, and leadership? Speaking only for me, I approach work--much like when visiting the eye doctor--actually hoping for change. I start with my bias that change is good and that we can always get better at what we do. If getting better requires change of any first or second order variety, I stand ready to lead such change. At the same time, when considering (and even hoping for) change in these areas, I need to consider whether the change options available will be an improvement on the status quo. Are there some things we are currently doing that are actually operating at peak effectiveness and efficiency? What is the problem we are currently experiencing? Is there a change we can effect that will solve this problem? How will the changes we implement impact our staff and students? What metrics should we use to determine whether change is needed?

Change simply for the sake of change is not necessarily a good thing. Importantly, it is not always a bad thing, either; I often advocate changing certain things simply to shake things up. Yet, we must consider all changes we undertake carefully. Although I am an outspoken advocate for moving beyond our comfort zone and always trying out new ideas and resources, too much change can result in confusion, disorganization, and lack of direction, causing more damage than if we had simply stayed the course. Moreover, when considering change, it is important to draw a distinction between changes in mission, vision (not eyesight in this case, but in what we hope to become as an organization), and values from changes in the way we execute, strategize, or implement to fulfill our mission and achieve our vision while behaving in ways aligned to our shared values. Our mission, vision, and values are designed to be long term propositions. Therefore, changes in these areas should be made only after carefully considering the current status and fully understanding the major shifts in winds requiring us to adjust our sails. It’s very difficult to keep team members focused, inspired, and empowered if the direction in which we are heading keeps changing. On the other hand, making changes in the way we execute our plans can and should be considered frequently, even on a daily basis, with each of us asking how we can do what we do better, even when we are already getting stellar results. 

Lao Tzu reportedly posited, “If you do not change direction, you may wind up where you are heading.” At times, we find we are headed in the wrong direction in some area of our work; when this is the case, it is our moral imperative to make the changes necessary to correct our course. At others times, we determine that we are generally headed in the right direction; still, it behooves us to consider what changes we can make along the way so as to make the journey better, faster, smoother, or more enjoyable. Finally, we may even identify those rare instances when---at least for this present moment--changing course would lead us in the wrong direction. Like my eyesight, our current situation may not be perfect, but it may be the absolute best we can do today. Tomorrow? Perhaps new opportunities will arise which compels us to change. With apologies to Churchill, pursuing perfection is a fool’s errand; on the other hand, changing in pursuit of the path toward continuous improvement is work worth doing. In short, we should change for direction, not perfection. Identifying what we must change, what would be nice to change, and even what should not be changed are ways we Teach, Learn, and Lead with Passion!

1.35 Seconds

“The 3 P’s of Success: Passion, Persistence, and Patience.” 
Doug Bronson

Passion? Check. Persistence? Check. Patience? Umm...I may well be the world’s most impatient man. This has long been a flaw within me, one about which I’ve always been acutely aware. Even when I do not recognize it within myself, I have a plethora of family and friends happy to remind me of this rather obvious flaw on a regular basis. Although I am not typically one to make formal New Year’s resolutions, living my life as a more patient human being would be one well worth considering. In addition, many of my PLN members have been sharing their #oneword for 2016 in recent posts, something that has become an annual tradition for some. When first asked what my #oneword was in a previous year, I responded quickly with my stock answer: “Passion.” This year, however, I feel the need to consider the much less glamorous and rather more pedestrian: “Patience.” Moving from “passion” to “patience” is due, in part, to a recent realization that my impatience with all things in life had reached a level of ridiculous proportions.

For the past two years, I have lived in a high rise condominium. Thankfully, I am only on the 8th floor; were I to reside on the uppermost floors, I would likely lose all semblance of sanity waiting for the elevator to reach its lofty destination. Still, even on the 8th floor, my impatience manages to get the best of me most days. I began noticing something especially troubling. It happens when I am on the elevator and it stops at another floor, allowing someone to join me for the ride. One of two things happens next: Sometimes this new passenger immediately pushes the “close doors” button. Other times, the new passenger will simply board and wait for the doors to close automatically. In the former scenario, the doors close more immediately and I find myself secretly congratulating this savvy fellow traveler; in the latter instance, I find myself mildly agitated at the precious time being wasted and silently rebuke this careless, time-wasting neighbor or visitor. Occasionally, I would even reach over and push the “close doors” button myself in an effort to expedite this painful process. After all, there was work to be done, people to see, places to go; who were these frivolous people who could nonchalantly allow precious time to pass so idly? 

Then, over the holiday break--a time when I find myself acting with just a tad more patience than is typical for me--I realized my annoyance in this regard bordered on the insane. I decided to actually measure the difference between the two scenarios, hoping to justify this insanity. Using the stopwatch on my phone, I learned that it took a whopping 2.65 seconds for the doors to close and the car to begin moving when I did nothing at all, other than allow the doors to close on their own. Next, I timed how long it took these same doors to close when I pushed the “close doors” button immediately upon stepping onto the elevator. The answer: 1.3 seconds. I was saving a precious 1.35 seconds each time I, or a fellow passenger, took the proactive stance of pushing this button. 1.35 seconds.

Like many of you, I am extremely busy on a daily basis. In fact, I am acquainted with no fellow educator who complains about having too much free time at work. There is always work to be done and always too little time in which to do it. Still, 1.35 seconds? Did I really need to worry about “wasting” 1.35 seconds? Starting today, I am going to work on being just a bit more patient in all areas of my life: with colleagues, with family members, with parents, with myself, with the important work we are doing, and...who knows, maybe I'll even chill on my future elevator rides. “Patience” may not become my #oneword, but I aim to give it equal importance next to the other two “P” words from the quote above which I have long prided myself on, “Passion” and “Persistence.”

Being passionate as an educator is almost always an attractive trait; I enjoy being surrounded by educators who are truly passionate about the kids they teach and the content they are responsible for teaching. However, like most good things in life, carried to an extreme, passion can become a negative, transforming into anger, or at least behaviors perceived by others as anger. Being persistent, too, is generally an excellent trait to seek in prospective educators and promote within all educators. Here again, though, we can become so focused on reaching our goal that we risk losing sight of the bigger picture. So, it is important to balance our passion and persistence with a healthy dose of patience, knowing all the while that change may not occur as swiftly as we would like and we may never have enough time to accomplish all with which we are charged. At the same time, when we persist--with passion and patience--we know we will eventually see the fruits of our labor. I will continue to make the most of every minute available to me in this new year. On the other hand, if I am faced with the occasional 1.35 seconds of idleness every now and again, I am going to embrace those moments as well. Exhibiting passion, persistence, and patience, each in its proper measure is another way we Teach, Learn, and Lead with Passion!

Cultures of Excellence

“ Culture is what enables teams of people to defy the odds and achieve the remarkable. ”  from the NfX Company Culture Manual “Culture”...