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!

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”...