The Humble Leader

“Level 5 leaders embody a paradoxical mix of personal humility and professional will. They are ambitious, to be sure, but ambitious first and foremost for the company, not themselves.”
Jim Collins

For many years, I attended church services every Sunday in Lake Forest, Illinois, where the pastor was possibly one of the most intelligent people I have known and certainly one of the best teachers from whom I have ever learned. His sermons were masterful and he often opened with a bit of humor. One Sunday, he let us know that the topic of his sermon was going to be “humility.” He went on to explain that he had spoken on the topic many times, written about the topic often, and researched the topic at great length. Then, after an appropriate dramatic pause, he added, “In fact, you might say I’m an expert on the topic of humility.” After an appreciative chuckle from those of us in attendance, he added, “I’m even thinking of calling my next book: ‘Humility--and How I Achieved It,’” eliciting another collective laugh. After this humorous opening, he went on to extol the virtues of living a humble life and I was reminded that the very best educational leaders I know--whether they are district superintendents, school principals, or classroom teachers--all exhibit this admirable trait known as personal humility. They are able to lead the children and colleagues with whom they interact, in part, because of what Jim Collins calls their “professional will,” but even more importantly, it seems, because of their genuine and consistent displays of personal

By now, I suspect that almost anyone reading this blog post has also read Collins’s book, Good To Great and is familiar with his characteristics of the very best leaders in the corporate world, people he labels, “Level 5 Leaders.” A key characteristic of such leaders is their somewhat paradoxical blend of professional will and personal humility. In reflecting on the best and most successful teachers and administrators with whom I have worked over the past few decades, I am struck by how true this is in the world of education as well as the business world. The very best teachers and administrators I know are humble people. Because they are consistently excellent, they are often recognized for their successes, yet they never seek such recognition nor wallow in it for very long, if at all. One specific behavior these excellent leaders do exhibit consistently is aligned to what Collins calls, The Window and the Mirror:

When things go well, our best educators point out the window,
giving credit to factors other than themselves; they shine a light on other people (including students, parents, and colleagues) who contributed to success and take little credit themselves. Yet when things go awry, they do not blame circumstances or other people for setbacks and failures; they point in the mirror and say, “I’m responsible; that’s on me.” If they cannot find a specific event or person to give credit to when they succeed, they credit good luck, yet they never cite “bad luck” or external factors when things go poorly.

Can you think of any educators you perceive to be humble leaders who practice--knowingly or not--the window and the mirror model of leadership? I immediately thought of three excellent leaders who I consider exemplars in this area. One is a superintendent, another is a principal, and a third is a classroom teacher:

  • Joe Sanfelippo is a superintendent in Fall Creek, Wisconsin. Although the district is tiny, he has put it on the national map through his outstanding work the past few years. Of course, he will never take any credit himself for the district's many successes. I have never been around Joe without hearing him rave about the amazing students, teachers, parents, and board members in his district. However, when problems arise in Fall Creek--which, like everywhere else in the world, they do--that is when you will hear Joe step up and take responsibility.
  • Sanee Bell is a principal in Katy, Texas. I have yet to meet a person who knows Sanee who has not also told me what a fantastic leader she is. Her work ethic, personal integrity, intellect, and genuine compassion have earned her the respect and affection of all who know her and success in every role in which she has served. Of course, when you ask Sanee what her secret sauce of success is, be prepared for her to start pointing out the window and crediting any number of people, yet taking no credit herself.
  • Kirk Humphreys is a middle grades math teacher in Deerfield, Illinois, whose students consistently perform well above grade level and consistently credit him for serving as an inspiring, caring, energetic, and fun mentor. Of course, if you ever ask Kirk the secret to his success, he will simply talk about his amazing kids and unbelievable parent support.

I admire these three leaders for many reasons, including their personal humility; humble leaders like them make me want to be a better--and more humble--leader myself. Although I am confident you can think of others who immediately come to mind as examples of humble educators/leaders, I also fear you can just as quickly think of those who fall into the exact opposite category: leaders who are quick to take credit for every successful outcome they had a connection to, but who, at the first sign of trouble, are even quicker at assigning blame to any and everyone involved – except themselves, of course. Working with leaders who behave thusly is simply deflating and crushes the culture of the school.

It is natural to want to receive praise and avoid blame. Although it may be natural, it is also wrong and counterproductive to our success as leaders. The concept of the window and the mirror is simple to understand, but may not be natural and, therefore, may even require practice. Fortunately, in schools we have plenty of opportunities to practice our skills in this area, giving credit where credit is due--to students, staff, parents, and community members--while also holding ourselves accountable for negative outcomes, which are, unfortunately, every bit as inevitable as our successes. Serving as a strong leader while consistently exhibiting personal humility helps build trust within your team and builds credibility for yourself as a leader as well as your classroom, school, or district. It is also another way we Teach, Learn, and Lead with Passion!

Teaching Should Be More Like Coaching

“In the end, it's about the teaching, and what I always loved about coaching was the practices. Not the games, not the tournaments, not the alumni stuff. But teaching the players during practice was what coaching was all about to me.”
John Wooden

Prior to becoming a school administrator, I served as a classroom teacher for eighteen years. My very first job was teaching 1st grade; my final teaching assignment was 12th grade English. During those eighteen years, I also served as a coach; although I coached football, baseball, and golf, my true coaching passion was basketball. Although I loved serving as a classroom teacher at all levels, I must admit that near the end of my teaching career, there were many days that my basketball practices seemed to go much more smoothly and were much more productive than my English lessons. I sensed that my basketball players were learning more about basketball than my English students were learning about reading, writing, speaking, listening, and language skills. Unfortunately, when things are not going as well as we wish, it is sometimes difficult to discern exactly why when we are in the moment. However, after time passes, it often becomes much easier to look back and learn why. As I sit here today, I realize my English lessons would have been much more productive if they were a whole lot more like my basketball practices. 

This is somewhat embarrassing to admit now that I know better, but at the time, my English class was more about me, than it was about my students. I did most of the talking, students either learned or did not, and, truth be told, I wasted a fair amount of time during my allotted instructional minutes. As soon as my last class of the day ended, I would quickly change clothes and head straight to the gym for practice. Suddenly, everyone was engaged. Moreover, these athletes were working harder than me and learning a great deal in the process. What made the difference? I could probably list quite a few answers, but these five really stand out to me more than 15 years later as difference makers:

  • Planning: As a basketball coach, to say I was a meticulous planner would be an understatement. I only had 90 minutes of time before the next team needed the gym and I needed 120 minutes. As a result, I planned each practice from minute 1 to minute 90. We never practiced for 89 minutes; we always used all 90. It was not unusual to run certain activities for precisely 3 minutes and 21 seconds or 7 minutes and 49 seconds. I literally used every second of the 90 minutes for purposeful activities designed to help my players become better at the game of basketbal. My English classes, on the other hand, were a tad more random and it was not unusual for me to simply “wing it.” I was known to get sidetracked with stories and might even end class a bit early, allowing students to “do their homework.” I wish I had planned my English lessons as intentionally as I planned each basketball practice.
  • Practice: During my 90 minute basketball practices, there was a great deal of time devoted to….practice. Kids on my teams actually practiced skills I was teaching them. There was not a single aspect of a game situation that we did not practice, from the opening tip, to the crossover dribble, to the way we sat on the bench during a timeout, to the way we wore our uniforms. We practiced everything. Meanwhile, in my English classes, there was not a lot of in-class time devoted to practicing any skills I was teaching. Although we would read regularly and there was some time devoted to actual writing, little of this was deliberate practice, designed for the students to improve as readers and writers in specific areas. I wish I had designed opportunities for students in my English classes to deliberately practice skills they needed to become better. 
  • Feedback: During my basketball practices, I provided loads of feedback. What’s more, it was timely and specific feedback. I might watch a player shoot a few free throws, then stop him to share specific things I noticed, suggesting he try changing one small part of his free throw routine or technique. Then, he would shoot again and I would provide additional feedback. In my classroom, I provided little in the way of useful feedback, rarely moving beyond, “Good job.” Moreover, my feedback on student writing often came days after an assignment was turned in and well after it would do the student writer any good. I wish I had focused more on providing feedback in my English classes and less on grades.
  • Mini lessons: At times during basketball practices, I led direct, whole group instruction. Whenever I was introducing a new inbounds play, for instance, I would take over and explain the play, showing the team where each person should move and when. These lessons tended to be only as long as necessary in order to get the kids started practicing the play themselves, at which point, we would be back to the practice - feedback - practice loop. In my English classes, however, there were days when I spent the entire period teaching a lesson on grammar, poetry, or the research process. I wish I had started each class off with no more than a 15- or 20-minute mini lesson and then allowing students to dig in and start working on the mini lesson skills.
  • Spiraling: In basketball practice, we never truly mastered any skill. When long term planning, I always made sure to schedule times to spiral back to drills related to shooting, dribbling, passing, and defense so as to continue getting better at these foundational skills. On the other hand, in my English classes, once we finished a unit on any topic, I rarely, if ever returned to those concepts. Students either got it the first time or we moved on without them getting it. I wish I had planned on circling back to big ideas in my English curriculum throughout the school year to ensure that students truly learned and retained essential content and skills.
I worked really, really hard as a classroom teacher. I worked really hard as a basketball coach, too, but during practices, my athletes were working a whole lot harder than I. Moreover, they were learning and growing more as basketball players than my students were growing as English students. It seem so obvious to me now, but at the time I was doing the best I knew how as a teacher. I honestly think I could do much better today--and I would start by “coaching” more and “teaching” less in my classroom. As John Wooden suggests, coaching is actually all about teaching. Teaching the students we serve by coaching them in our classrooms is another way we Teach, Learn, and Lead with Passion!

Changing the Way We Think about Change

“When you change the way you look at things, 
the things you look at change.” 

Max Planck

This July, I took part in what turned out to be a highlight of my thirty-five year career in public education: Along with nine respected friends and colleagues, I traveled to Philadelphia and wrote a collaborative book in just over 48 hours. The book will be called Education Write Now, Volume I. Another team will gather again next July and every subsequent summer to release additional volumes.
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 will be donating all proceeds from book sales. 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 “change,” with each author writing about a specific topic we believe needs to change. My own contribution was to write the opening chapter, a general piece on change itself. Each subsequent chapter focuses on a specific aspect of education and how we must change the way we think about it. For example, Dr. Tony Sinanis authored the second chapter, called, “Changing the Way We Think about Learning.” Learn about Tony’s insights in his own blog post next week (access Tony’s blog, Leading Motivated Learners 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 of a scary feeling, 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 change, I wrote that the time is now to truly change education and not merely settle for doing what we are already doing, only doing it better. Here is a short excerpt from that part of the book:

“...In fact, to draw on another familiar adage, when it comes to public education in our great nation, it sometimes strikes me that “the more things change, the more they remain the same.” Something tells me, however, that our noble profession is facing a tipping point when it comes to change. Now is the time for real change, change that moves beyond using one email platform or another; change that goes beyond moving from interactive whiteboards to some other projection system, change that truly reimagines the way in which we evaluate our individual and collective performance; change that requires us to actually stop doing some things completely. In education, the time for change is now, regardless of our comfort level with this premise. There have been sputtering calls for education “reform” over the years. Then, we “changed” our tune, suggesting that rather than “reforming” education, we must “transform” education. I completely understand and support this subtle distinction. Wagner et al make the compelling case: “Education reform” implies that at some point in the past, our education system was just fine and all we need do is make minor improvements to return to this era of success. Even if we accept the premise that our educational system was just fine at some point in the past, the fact remains that our nation’s needs have changed since that time, our nation’s demographics have changed since that time, our career pathways have changed since that time, our children have changed since that time, our family structures have changed since that time, and resources available to us have changed since that time. The time for “reform” has long since passed us by; the time to "transform" is now--before this concept, too, becomes yet another educational buzzword that results only in finding better ways of doing the same old thing. Rather than asking how we can simply function more effectively, we must ask ourselves how we must function differently. Doing things better is good. Doing better things is even better. In education, we always have and always will strive to do things better. The time is now, however, to do better things. The future of our country--every student in every classroom--demands that we act and act now…”

Next week, please look for Tony Sinanis’s thoughts on our writing process, as well as an excerpt from his chapter. I was honored beyond words to partner with Tony 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; Joe Mazza 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. Writing about education issues that matter right now is another way we Teach, Learn, and Lead with Passion!

Final Note: Huge thanks to the inaugural 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 best friends a person could ever hope to have and I am humbled to have had this opportunity to work with them:

Dr. Tony Sinanis

Mr. Thomas C. Murray

Dr. Sanee Bell

Ms. Kayla Delzer

Dr. Joe Sanfelippo

Dr. Bob Dillon

Ms. Amber Teamann

Learning to Serve, Part I

“One thing I know: the only ones among you who will be really happy are those who have sought and found how to serve." 
Albert Schweitzer

After thirty-five years of full time public education service, I retired, effective June 30, 2017. Of course, like many “retirees," I will likely be as busy--if not more so--than I was prior to June 30. Much of my time will now be devoted to working with Jimmy Casas, Todd Whitaker, and others to host What Great Educators Do Differently conferences around the United States and Canada. In addition, I will be serving as an Instructional and Leadership Coach with the International Center for Leadership in Education. Finally, I hope to continue writing books about education and speaking to groups of teachers and leaders whenever possible.

In addition to these ongoing professional pursuits, I am also exploring non-educational interests. A bit of a frivolous example from just last week was a bartending course I took in Chicago. A close colleague and friend also retired from our school district June 30; the two of us enrolled in a bartending course just for fun and to try something completely different than our previous vocation. We decided on the accelerated four-day class. Throughout our time together learning to tend bar, I reflected on how the experience was both similar to and different from learning in public education environments.

Some things about the bartending course were completely different and much worse than what I witness in classrooms around the country on a daily basis. For one, the instructor swore at us regularly and even kicked one student out of class at one point. Other parts of the experience were great, however; chief among them was the fact that I actually learned a ton in a short amount of time. After four days, I now know and can do much more than prior to the course. So, in terms of learning, it was a big win. In fact, I was challenged beyond what I thought possible. 

At the outset, we were told that we would need to mix 22 different drinks correctly in less than nine minutes in order to “graduate” from the class. At first, we all agreed that this was simply not possible for an experienced bartender, let alone rookies like us who would only be practicing for two days. We secretly agreed that this was merely a scare tactic and they would let us know it was an impossible feat just before handing out our “diplomas.” Shockingly, a mere twenty-four hours after agreeing the task was a metaphysical impossibility, I conquered it--with 12 seconds to spare. This left me wondering if we are challenging our students often enough, pushing them beyond what they (and maybe even we) think they can do. 

No one wants to see students frustrated on a regular basis, but I was reminded that when I am pushed, I can often do the “impossible.” With the right kind of teachers and teaching, our kids can, too. We need to create a vision of what success will look like in terms of their learning and growth and then go about inspiring them to achieve it, supporting and encouraging along the way, but never letting up on our expectations that they can and will learn. 

Some things happened in our bartending class that allowed me to accomplish this learning goal that also apply to our classrooms:
  • First, the learning and performance goals were crystal clear. We knew exactly what we were expected to do. In our schools, we must also clarify what the learning targets are and our expectations for meeting these.
  • Next, the teacher modeled for us how to mix and serve each of the 22 drinks. He did not go through them all at once, but “chunked” them, showing what some had in common as a way to save time when preparing them. In our schools, we must also break down the learning into smaller tasks that we “chunk” together in logical ways.
  • Then, he allowed us a great deal of practice time. It was helpful to watch him as a way to get started, but the real learning happened when we actually practiced. In our schools, we must also allow for plenty of deliberate practice time. 
  • Feedback. I got better at what I was doing when I received feedback. And not just from the teacher. Some of the most helpful feedback I received came from my colleague taking the class with me. Even though I was in, what was for me, an uncomfortable learning environment, partnering with a classmate I knew and trusted made me much more comfortable and helped me improve. In our schools, we must also provide specific feedback to those we are teaching and leading. Moreover, we must be intentional about providing effective peer feedback opportunities so students and staff learn from each other.
  • Shortly before our official attempts, the instructor brought us back together and showed us some final time-saving techniques for mixing these vastly different drinks. I had been improving all along, and these final tips came just at the right time--when I was close to reaching my goal. Had these subtle tips been offered in the earlier whole group instruction, I would not have been as prepared to act on them. Finally, our instructor told us these were just suggestions and that if a different way worked better for us, we should go with that instead, using any method that worked best for us, as long as we accomplished the goal. In our schools, we must also provide just-in-time, as opposed to just-in-case, instruction. In addition, we must welcome and even encourage individual autonomy for accomplishing goals as long as the goal is accomplished.

Overall, I suspect that bartending and teaching are much more different than alike, but I continue to be struck by how much I learned in a short amount of time and it has me reflecting on how we can challenge ourselves to challenge our students--and each other--just a bit more each day to ensure that we are all reaching our true potential, growing beyond what we even think possible. One distinct characteristic bartenders and educators share in common is that they are both service-oriented endeavors. In my next blog post on this topic, I will share a final reflection about the ways in which serving as a bartender parallel the ways we serve as educators. Learning to serve--and continuing to improve how we serve--is another way we Teach, Learn, and Lead with Passion!

Education Write Now: Issues that Matter Most

“Sixty years ago, I knew everything; now I know nothing; education is a progressive discovery of our own ignorance.”
Will Durant

This July, I will be taking part--along with a group of educators from around the country--in what we hope will become an annual event. It is a three day retreat called Education Write Now. Ten of us will gather in Philadelphia prior to the National Principals’ Conference with the goal of writing a book during our time together. In this book, we will focus on important issues facing educators right now. If all goes as planned, we will continue working on it after our retreat with a target print date of December 2017.

We plan on brainstorming ideas that are the most important and urgent ones facing educators today. Then, we will settle on ten issues that will become the focus of our work, with individuals or pairs working to produce a chapter on each during the retreat. As we prepare for the inaugural Education Write Now event/book, we could use your help: Please share with us in the comments section below (or by contacting any of us directly) what you believe to be the most pressing issues in our profession right now. We will bring all ideas to the event this July and look forward to eventually sharing our thoughts on:
  • Why these issues matter...
  • What current status looks like...
  • Where we must go next...
  • How we can get there...and
  • Who is making progress right now so we can learn from them?
We could not host this education forum without the support of our sponsor, Routledge who will ultimately publish the collected writings of the team in a single volume. Although our primary intent is not to sell books, 100% of any royalties we do receive will go to a worthy charity, the Will to Live Foundation, 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.

Again, we hope that this summer’s work will result in Volume I of an ongoing, annual publication. Part of what will make this process and product so unique is its collaborative nature. Although all participants will be writing independently at times, each person’s work will be influenced by collaborative dialogues, debates, reflections, and research. Each summer, we will invite different educators to the retreat who are also interested in thinking about current issues and writing about these. For our inaugural event, contributors include (click on names to access blogs/websites):
Please also let us know if you would like to be considered for participation in a future Education Write Now project; again, the plan will be to convene these annual events for a three-day period 
each summer. Finally, we invite you to follow the hashtag #EdWriteNow as we begin sharing ideas and resources on Twitter via this avenue while also providing project status updates.

Thanks for taking the time to consider what issues are most urgent and important facing those in our noble profession right now, in 2107, and sharing those with us. As educators, we know quite a bit about the art and science of teaching, learning, and leadership. However, an important thing we all know is that what we know to be best practice today, may not be best practice tomorrow. Moreover, we know that we can never know everything, but can, instead, find out how to keep learning and growing to get better. Reflecting on what we do and do not know (and discovering, as Durant suggests, “our own ignorance” as a way to educate ourselves) is another way we Teach, Learn, and Lead with Passion!

Fly Me to the Moon

“Providing activities that relate to students and capture their interests is a best practice. However, if we want such activities to produce genuine student growth, instructional design must focus on learning outcomes as opposed to the activity itself.”

To this day, one of my favorite all time songs is Fly Me to the Moon, preferably versions sung by Frank Sinatra. There exists a remote possibility of a connection between this preference and my 7th grade science fair project. When I was in 7th grade, the Apollo

program had recently ended, but the idea of flying to the moon was still a pretty big deal. In fact, when Mr. E., our science teacher, announced the details of that year’s science fair, my buddy, Scott, immediately leaned over and said, “Zoul, I’ve got a great idea! Let’s do our project on whether man can live on the moon!” Thus, what was to become the coolest project in the history of our junior high school--if not the entirety of American public education since its inception--was born.

Over the next several weeks, my dad dutifully drove me over to Scott’s house, where we diligently toiled away for hours on our moon project. Not surprisingly, our project involved paper mache, glue, sawdust, spray paint, and plastic plants, buildings, and human figurines. It also included plastic domes and plastic tubing which connected the “Residential” dome to the “Community” dome to the “Workplace” dome. When finally finished, Scott and I beamed with pride and the smug knowledge that our science fair project would be feted as a masterpiece and we would walk away as first place winners at the annual science fair competition. As we marveled at our finished product, my friend reminded me that we were also supposed to do some research and write a paper determining whether man could actually live on the moon. We threw a few sentences down on paper and prepared for the big event, arguing about who would keep the first place ribbon at their house first.

The night of the science fair was a pretty big deal. Back then, we all dressed up. I looked pretty spiffy in my maroon velvet blazer and big bow tie. In glancing around at the other projects, it was painfully obvious that ours was the best. Even our friends came by, proclaiming that we were sure to win since our final product was the coolest thing they had ever seen. Then, the big moment: Judges came by our table and asked us a few questions about our findings. For some odd reason, they seemed more focused on the science involved than they were on our actual moon model. One judge asked, “Well, boys, based on what you learned, will it be possible for man to live on the moon?” Scott and I looked at each other incredulously, aghast that a man this obtuse could possibly be serving as a science fair judge. We masked our disappointment in his intellect and, directing him to our model, said, “Well, of course, Sir. Can’t you see? This is where the people will live, this is where they will work, and they will shop and play in this dome over here,” pointing to the various features of our rather amazing model. The second judge was no more erudite than the first, and pressed us again about how these domes would actually operate to allow man to live there. Mildly exasperated, we again directed his attention to our masterpiece and patiently explained the various features we had created. The two judges looked at each other, thanked us, and quickly made their way to the next project. My buddy and I anxiously awaited the announcement of our first place finish and wondered if we were going to be called upon to give a speech once on stage to accept our award.

Much to our surprise, we not only failed to win first place recognition, we also missed out on the second place, third place, and even honorable mention categories. Our pals were nearly as stunned as we were, with many of them rushing over to tell us we were robbed and that ours was clearly the best in the entire fair.

Although we honestly had no clue at the time why our jaw-dropping project merited zero recognition from the judges, I suspect anyone reading this today has already diagnosed the problem. Our “Science” project was a tad short on “science” even though it was a stunning art project. In fact, we learned nothing at all related to our proposed question about whether living on the moon was feasible. Although I can still recall with great clarity the work we put into the model of the moon, I recall no reading or research we did about the actual question itself. I suspect our “scientific” paper merely described our art project and included nary a word about any scientific considerations pertaining to living on the moon.

Although science fair projects have come a long way in terms of rigor and academic focus since my junior high days, I still worry at times if, in an ever-present quest to “innovate” in our classrooms, we are sacrificing “learning” in the process. Although I am a firm believer in engaging students through high-interest activities and projects and using flashy technology tools to enhance such work, I am perhaps even more adamant that these activities, projects, and technologies must relate to specific learning outcomes designed to grow our students’ knowledge and skills. Over the course of my career in education, I have seen the education pendulum swing from one extreme to another and back yet again, with the two extremes being some version of “traditional” learning and some version of “innovative” learning. Today we are in the most innovative educational environment I have witnessed in decades. My fear, however, is that if we do not remain steadfastly focused on learning outcomes and results, we may soon see the pendulum sway back once more, with a concomitant outcry of of folks demanding a “back to basics” approach to public education. As with almost all educational concerns, we cannot be forced into one or the other. We must continue to provide “innovative” learning experiences, complete with authentic projects and exciting learning activities, but we cannot lose sight of the “learning,” the knowledge and skills students must acquire in the process.
Listening to Sinatra sing about flying to the moon, swinging on stars, and seeing what spring is like on Jupiter and Mars sounds almost as fun as my 7th grade science fair project. However,
gaining actual knowledge about life on the Moon or the science behind space missions to Mars and beyond is decidedly more useful--and can be every bit as fun! Ensuring that our students are engaged in fun, exciting activities while also ensuring they are learning in the process is another way we Teach, Learn, and Lead with Passion!

Flashy or Foundational?

“Teaching is not about us being brilliant; it is about students being brilliant.” 
Tom Newkirk

Recently, my good friend Tony Sinanis posted the following question via Facebook:

“Something I've been thinking about... Are we more focused on the pockets of "great things" happening (the flashy/trendy/sexy things) & possibly losing sight of the fact that certain foundational practices aren't solidified? If that's a reality, I think progress won't become a sustainable norm in our schools. Thoughts?”

This caught my eye at an ironic time as I had been pondering the very same thing. My own short answer? Yes we are. And, No it won’t. In fact, if we only focus on--as Tony calls them--the flashy/trendy/sexy things, and in mere pockets, no less, while subordinating in importance foundational practices, we are doomed, methinks, to a future in which the pesky, inevitable education pendulum swings all the way over to a “back to basics” focus.

My second thought was to suggest that this is yet another example of an “and” rather than an “or,” meaning we need to continue to explore the flashy/trendy/sexy while also making sure we are attending to the foundational. In other words, we need both. Then, in another moment of serendipity, I came across a blog post by another respected friend, Dean Shareski, titled, aptly enough: “When the Answer is Both.”

Dean suggests that simply saying it’s “both” is a bit of a copout, the kind of thing we say to please everyone. It may be partially true but it can also be an unsatisfying answer and one that lacks direction. Instead, we should determine what we think should be the focus, then emphasize and lead with what matters most. Good advice, and worth considering when choosing between the Foundational or the Flashy in Tony’s scenario.

Although I currently serve in one of the most innovative (“flashy”) districts with which I am familiar, I still think we need to lead with and emphasize the foundational. If we lead with the foundational, we can get to the flashy. On the other hand, I worry that if we lead with flashy, we may never get to foundational and we will be forced, at some point, to retreat all the way back to basics, which is a direction in which I am loathe to journey.

What, then, are some of the “foundational” things we must lead with and aim for in order to ensure we we are poised to implement “flashy” ways of achieving our goals? Here are five possible foundational non-negotiables worth considering:

  • We must still focus on safe learning environments. Our first priority is student safety, including physical safety of course, but also social and emotional safety. If we fail to promote risk taking or fail to protect students from adverse consequences for initial failures, they will never feel safe with the flashy/trendy/sexy ideas we want to try in our classrooms. How are we ensuring that our kids will feel comfortable taking chances?
  • We must still focus on learning. Anytime we implement a flashy new tech gizmo, we must have a purposeful learning goal in mind. What will students know and be able to do as a
  • We must still focus on results. I know of nary an educator who entered the profession because they were passionate about standardized tests. I am no exception. Still, we must hold ourselves accountable for ensuring that our students are growing and learning. Are our students demonstrating growth?
  • We must still focus on professional collaboration. If we do not carve out time to share ideas and resources, observe each other teaching and leading, and look at student work together, we will never move from pockets of excellence to networks of excellence. Are we identifying bright spots that are currently working and replicating these?
  • Finally, we must focus on eliminating old practices when we agree to adopt new ones that are better. Anthony McConnell, an outstanding principal in our district, suggests that one of the easiest ways to innovate is to simply cease and desist with non-innovative practices. As but one example, many “innovative” schools still rely on “traditional” grading and reporting practices. No matter how flashy/trendy/sexy our instructional practices and tools, I suspect we will never be truly innovative if we try to marry those practices and tools with a traditional, centuries-old grading system. When we adopt new ideas that we determine are not only new, but better, are we also concomitantly doing away with the older ways of doing things that are now inferior?

Ultimately, as Tom Newkirk suggests above, our profession is not 
about us being brilliant (or “flashy”). In fact, some of the most

amazing lessons I have observed recently involved a teacher rarely speaking nor actively leading the learning. Instead, teaching is about our students being brilliant, with us ensuring that the environments (and “foundations”) we create and the plans we intentionally design allow our students to create, collaborate, communicate, think critically, and invest in their own learning. In the end, what is “flashy/trendy/sexy” is not what teachers are saying or doing, but what students are actually learning and to what extent they are growing. I fear that too often we focus on the cool things we are doing and the cool activities we are designing instead of leading with the learning. Leading with the “foundational” (learning targets, sound pedagogy, and results) while still emphasizing the “flashy” (innovation, experimentation, and technology) is another way we Teach, Learn, and Lead with Passion!

Treat them Like Adults?

“To demand consistent, adult-level competence of all k-12 students is inappropriate. We have to help students become mature decision-makers and time managers.” 
Rick Wormeli

Several weeks ago, I participated in a version of Instructional Rounds at an amazing middle school in our district. In our version, twelve educators from around the district conducted a series of fifteen-minute classroom observations in 6th, 7th, and 8th grade classrooms. Many of the teachers participating as observers were K-5 teachers in the district. Our charge, as observers, was to spend the morning looking for examples of Innovation and the 4 Cs (Communication, Creativity, Collaboration, and Critical Thinking) in action.

At the end of the morning, we concluded our observations and began the debriefing process in an effort to provide feedback to the school hosting the Rounds. During this debriefing, one K-5 teacher commented that she was struck by and impressed with the way the students and teachers interacted. She said something along the lines of, “It’s amazing! The students talk and interact just like mini adults; they seem so grown up and adult-like compared to how they are at the elementary school.” As a district level educator, I have the luxury of frequently observing teaching and learning at all grade levels across the district, from Pre-K thru 8th grade, including the K-5 teacher who made this comment. I reflected upon these observations quickly and responded, “You know, in some ways, interactions between teachers and students in all great teachers’ classrooms are 'adult-like.' In fact, when we were observing in a Pre-K classroom the other day (whose teacher is widely regarded as one of the most effective teachers anywhere), we commented that the teacher spoke with these 3- and 4- year olds much like she might speak with adults--yet, in a way completely appropriate to the fact that these children were not adults at all, but, instead, 3- and 4- year old preschool children.”

Now, please do not get me wrong; taken out of context, there is a great deal more harm than good that can come about from “treating children like adults.” See Rick Wormeli’s sound advice above as but one example. No one--including me--wants our teachers to expect our students to make decisions, manage time, behave, or perform academically like mature adults; indeed, we expect great teachers to take children where they currently are and help them become all they can be as they move forward. Yet, in some ways, it seems to me that our best teachers--whether at the Pre-K or high school level--do treat their students as "mini adults" in a few critically-important ways. They do this not, of course, by demanding adult-level behavior or learning performance, but simply by not treating students in a condescending manner and, instead, speaking with them respectfully, in a way that communicates high expectations for their learning and behavior along with confidence in students’ abilities to perform to high--albeit developmentally-appropriate--levels.

When I observe masterful teachers “treating students like adults” in a positive, supportive, appropriate, and encouraging manner, I typically observe students flourishing. Five ways I see such teachers “treating students like mini adults” in this manner include the following:

  • High Expectations: When we treat students like adults (in an appropriate and productive way), we have high expectations for all learners--and ourselves. We do not expect some students to not meet standards, nor do we put any ceiling on how far any individual student can learn and grow. Instead, we view our standards as the floor for all students, but the ceiling for none.
  • Level of Control: When we treat students like adults (in an appropriate and productive way), we give up some of our control, and turn that over to students. Whether teaching 12th grade or 1st grade, we allow for student voice and choice and do not feel the need to be the sole arbiter of what happens, when it happens, and how it happens in our classrooms. We may observe more, but do less. When we do less, our students may do more and when we do less and students do more, everyone enjoys learning more as a result.
  • Respectful Dialogue: When we treat students like adults (in an appropriate and productive way), we do not speak in condescending tones nor do we speak to them as if they were babies, even at the very youngest grade levels. Instead, we speak to them with clarity, precision, and using age-appropriate language but not selling them short in terms of what they can understand. Our tone is friendly, warm, and energetic, but it also communicates seriousness about the work that lies ahead and the importance of doing it well.
  • Approach to Failure: When we treat students like adults (in an appropriate and productive way), we acknowledge that a certain amount of failure is not only inevitable and to be expected, but also a productive part of the learning process. We encourage risk taking and try to normalize errors--with the understanding that we reflect on our failures and grow from these.
  • Accountability: When we treat students like adults (in an appropriate and productive way), we also hold them accountable to established group norms, work standards, and patterns of behavior. Although we know that no student in any class will meet these standards of performance 100% of the time, we remind them of our expectations in these areas and hold them (and ourselves) accountable when we fall short. 
Many years ago, when I moved from teaching 1st grade to teaching 4th grade, I was amazed at how much more “adult-like” my students were. The same thing happened when I moved from 4th to 8th grade, and once more when I moved from teaching middle school to high school. At each stage, my students were just a bit more adult-like, in terms of appearance, academic capabilities, socialization, and independence. At the same time, some things about these widely-varying young people did not change, including the overarching way I treated these students and the way they responded to my treatment of them. When I expressed a bit of nervousness about teaching 8th grade after only having taught elementary students, the principal who was interviewing me said, “Don’t worry; what made you great as a 1st grade teacher is what will make you great as an 8th grade teacher. You will do the same things but on a different level.” In time, I learned that she was absolutely correct. My 1st grade classroom was an environment in which the teacher and all students worked hard, had fun, and were nice to each other every day. That recipe stayed the same when I moved to teaching 8th grade and then high school. The depth and breadth of our learning experiences varied significantly, but the way we treated each other remained largely similar.

We would no sooner expect adult-level competence
from our students any more than we would turn over the car keys to our 3rd grader, so I am wary when I suggest we treat our kids like adults in our classrooms. At the same time, our very best teachers manage to do this appropriately in several critical ways without losing sight of what the developmentally-appropriate activities and expectations are at each step along the journey to adulthood. Treating our students with the respect and dignity we offer our adult colleagues is another way we Teach, Learn, and Lead with Passion!

Directing Change

“One reason people resist change is because they focus on what they have to give up, instead of what they have to gain.” 

Rick Godwin
Sometime around 1976, my dad came home from work one evening and shared some news that seemed astounding, radical, and just a bit scary: his company was offering all employees the option of having their regular paychecks directly deposited into a specified bank account rather than receiving an actual paper check! He called this crazy new idea, “Direct Deposit.” Being one of the savviest people I have ever known, and realizing this change was not a scary thing, but, rather, something that would actually make his life better (albeit it in a small way), he immediately signed up. I recall him, however, telling us that the vast majority of his colleagues chose to continue with regular paper checks, rather than changing over to this new, more effective and efficient pay option. The idea of opting for this newfangled approach to getting paid seemed just a tad too risky, or simply different, apparently. My dad’s colleagues were focused more on what they would have to give up (an actual paycheck they had been receiving for many years which they fully understood) than on what they had to gain (e. g., never having to worry about depositing a paycheck again, and having their money deposited into their accounts sooner and more safely than previously).

Obviously, almost every single working person reading this post today has their paycheck directly deposited into a bank account and never gives it a second thought. In fact, many readers have likely never received a traditional paycheck requiring a visit to the bank. Trust me, though: in 1976, this change initiative struck me as nothing short of radical. Many of my father’s peers--presumably older and wiser than me at the the time--obviously felt the same, too scared to opt in to a program then, that, today, we all realize would have made their lives distinctly better. You know what eventually happened, of course. Over time, the fear went away, as more and more employees learned from these “risk-taking” early adopters that direct deposit is, indeed, a change for the good, not a change to be feared.

When I accepted my first full-time job in education (teaching 1st grade), our large school district offered direct deposit, but it was not required. Having learned from my father several years earlier, I eagerly signed up for my pay (a whopping annual salary of $12,673.00) to be directly deposited into my checking account. Like many employers, our school district allowed employees to choose either form of payment for quite some time. Then, a tipping point was reached and Direct Deposit became no longer an option, but simply the way the district paid all employees. The few remaining holdouts were simply required at that point to change from receiving a traditional paycheck to a direct deposit pay stub.

When I moved to Illinois in 2009 and served as a principal at a middle school, I learned that, apparently, direct deposit--something I had long taken for granted--was not the required form of pay for employees everywhere. That February, we experienced a blizzard that caused us to cancel school for students. As principal, I still went in to catch up on work. That morning, one of our teachers knocked on the door. I let her in and asked what she was doing out in this crazy weather. It turns out that the day before had been a pay day and this teacher stopped in to pick up her paycheck. I was stunned and asked her why in the world she did not simply have her check deposited automatically into her account (privately, I was flabbergasted that there was a person alive in 2009 who made a conscious decision NOT to opt for direct deposit when it was an option). Her answer, of course, made no defensible sense; rather, she said something along the lines of, “I’ve taught her for thirty years and have always received a paycheck.” Still somewhat stunned, I dug through the mail, found her paycheck, and sent her on her way, incredulous that a change my dad embraced as an obviously smart thing to do in 1976 had still not been accepted by everyone 33 years later.

As one who often thinks about change, I have been reflecting on this quirky example. If something like direct deposit, with absolutely no downside and only benefits, had not won universal acceptance after more than 30 years, what does this say about more daunting change initiatives we may need to consider?

A few thoughts:

  • In schools, when initiating change that only impacts adults (not children), perhaps it behooves us to offer choice, allowing trailblazers to opt in. If the change proves to be beneficial, more and more folks will begin taking the plunge.
  • Having said that, once the change has been embraced by a significant majority of employees over time, it may make sense to eventually do away with the option altogether, and simply mandate change for all at that point.
  • On the other hand, if the change involves what is best for students, and we can determine that the change will improve students’ lives in some way large or small, I am less sure that we can afford to let adults in our schools “opt in” to the change. Perhaps the change needs to be mandated for all at the outset.
  • We must actively listen to resistors and be open to reasoned arguments against the change, even delaying or opting against change when appropriate. At the same time, any argument along the lines of, “But we have always done it this way” does not qualify as such.
  • Change is still a tricky deal. No matter how beneficial the change, some will simply never voluntarily undergo it. Again, I worked with a highly intelligent person who opted against having her pay directly 2009!

Recently in our district, we were debating how (not whether) to move forward with a change relating to technology. At first, I was not convinced it was a student issue as much as an adult issue, and I argued for taking a “Direct Deposit” approach, allowing anyone
who wanted to try the new technology to do so without requiring everyone to follow suit. However, others insisted that it would impact not only teachers, but also students, and felt we should move forward with the change for all staff. We are still debating the pros and cons of this one. On the other hand, many districts have changed over to standards based grading, assessing, and reporting. Although I realize many schools start by allowing individual teachers to implement such practices, this is one that seems so beneficial to student learning that I wonder if we should move forward as an entire school or district--once, of course, we have acquired the necessary knowledge and skills to move forward with an effective implementation? What are some change initiatives in your setting for which you would allow others to choose whether to enact? And what are some others that are coming down the pike that would be non-negotiable change initiatives? There will always be resistance with any change, of course--even complete winners like Direct Deposit. However, any such resistance some may be feeling is likely due to focusing on what they know they will have to give up rather than on potential benefits of the change.

Changing from the “tried and true” to the “new and unproven” is never easy. Unfortunately, some proposed changes are not quite as obviously beneficial as changing from traditional paychecks to direct deposit pay. Still, our very finest people know that if there is a chance the change will be beneficial in some way for students, it is incumbent upon us to take a chance. Accepting change if we suspect it will benefit students--even when we are giving up something that is working well--is another way we Teach, Learn, and Lead with Passion!

When 1 + 1 = 1...or 3

“Synergy is better than my way or your way. It's our way. Synergy is what happens when one plus one equals three, or ten, or a hundred, or even a thousand! It's the profound result when two or more respectful human beings determine to go beyond their preconceived ideas to meet a great challenge.” 
Stephen Covey

“If you're talking about how you promoted synergy in an organization, that could mean you just got everybody together for donuts twice a week.”
Erin McKean

McKean’s point notwithstanding, I do enjoy donuts. However, I like true collaborative ventures even more. Like most educators, I am a firm believer in the “4 C’s” of 21st Century teaching and learning: Communication, Creativity, Collaboration, and Critical Thinking. In fact, these are often our “look fors” when we visit classrooms in our district. We believe that anytime kids are engaged in these activities, they move from mere “meaning seekers” to “meaning makers.” Moreover, as adults, we try to model these behaviors ourselves, communicating clearly and regularly, creating new ways to do our work, thinking through real problems, and, finally...collaborating.

Looking back over my career, I can point to many examples when I engaged in true collaboration which yielded amazing results, ranging from projects in the districts I’ve served, to books I have written with co-authors, to presentations I have delivered with colleagues. In each instance, the end result was better than what I could have produced on my own. On the other hand, I have also taken part in many “collaborative” projects which were really nothing more than a series of polite compromises. Too often, in fact, what we call “collaboration”--both in our classrooms and in our professional work--falls short of what I think we truly desire from our team efforts.

In the spirit of collaboration, I invited colleagues in our district to help me think about the topic of collaboration, sending a Google Form with questions taken from a Frayer Model template (If you are not familiar with the Frayer Model concept for examining vocabulary, see this link). Using this model, I asked my colleagues for:
  • Their definition of Collaboration
  • Characteristics/Indicators of Collaboration
  • Examples of Collaboration
  • Non-Examples of Collaboration
In perusing their responses, I was drawn to a comment about “synergy,” reminding me of Stephen Covey’s thoughts in the quote above and the idea that 1 + 1 can actually equal 3. When two people experience authentic collaboration (synergy), the final product is something greater than the two of them could have created individually. Even when we are on our “A” game, my very best alone, combined with your very best alone, yields a 1 + 1 = 2 equation. But, when we engage in legitimate collaboration by providing critical feedback, brainstorming, listening actively, disagreeing respectfully, and relinquishing our natural tendency to defend our preconceived notions, amazing things can happen: my best, while interacting with your best, can actually result in a 1 + 1 = 3 situation; what we produce through this collaboration is simply greater than our best individual efforts.

Unfortunately, I have also seen “collaboration” actually produce a deleterious impact upon final results. Indeed, I have witnessed teamwork that results in 1 + 1 = 1 situations. Often, this occurs when students (or adults) are grouped together and each member simply shares their thoughts with everyone else saying polite things and agreeing. It becomes more compromise than collaboration.

Let me provide both an example and a non-example from my own recent experience, starting with a non-example. Not long ago, I was randomly placed in a group with five other district administrators from around the nation. We were allowed two hours to create a presentation which we would share the following day. We began awkwardly and it went downhill from there. The person who offered to create our slidedeck was not proficient in doing so. The person who agreed to share the presentation the following day was not an effective speaker. Each time someone said something, it was added to a slide, regardless of whether it was relevant to the topic. It appeared that many in the group were holding back. I found myself thinking that our “collaborative” effort was less than what each of us could have produced alone and that several of us could have done a vastly superior job if we had done the entire project from soup to nuts independently. This, alas, was a collaboration non-example. We were guilty of sentiments shared by a colleague on my recent survey: Generic compliance to complete the task, always being an "okay, let's add that" group. To be honest, our presentation the next day bordered on embarrassing. This group--comprised of six highly-educated and successful leaders--generated a “collaborative” product that was decidedly less than what each of us could have done alone. Although collaboration can go awry for any number of reasons, in this instance it went south due to sheer politeness: no one was willing to push back on another’s ideas.

On a more positive note, I recently experienced what I consider a solid example of true collaboration/synergy. After finishing a recent book with co-authors Jimmy Casas and Todd Whitaker, we sent it off to several educators we respect around the world, asking them

to read the draft and provide an endorsement for the book if they deemed it worthy. We mentioned a deadline of December 31, 2016 for getting us the endorsement. We were so gratified by the many responses we received and are honored that so many respected friends and colleagues took time out of their busy lives to read our book and provide words of support. Then a surprising thing happened. It was around 3:00 pm on New Year’s Eve. I was having a late lunch while vacationing on St. Simons Island, Georgia. I noticed an incoming email on my phone from one of my educational heroes and all-time favorite thinkers, writers, and human beings, Rick Wormeli. Glancing at it quickly, I saw that he asked me to call him right away. Curious, I opened it and read further. To paraphrase, Rick said that although he felt it was a wonderful book, there was a paragraph he disagreed with so strongly that he would be unable to provide an endorsement unless we discussed and revised the paragraph. Yikes; I was not expecting this. My initial thought? Pretend I had not seen this and resume my NYE activities; instead, I returned to my hotel room and called Rick. For the purposes of this post, what he found objectionable in the paragraph is subordinate in importance to how he addressed it with me: respectfully and honestly. What transpired over the next 48 hours was a back and forth with Rick about the paragraph in question. During this time, I was clearly able to understand his perspective; at the same time, I explained my own, when we differed. In the end, I agreed that the words we had written were not sending an accurate interpretation of our stance--which was, actually, predominantly in alignment with Rick’s.

At one point, I sent him a revised paragraph which I thought was vastly improved and would end the back and forth. I’ll never forget something he said in his response: after agreeing that the paragraph was much better, he said, “But I suspect you did not send this to me because you wanted a ‘yes-man’ so I am going to push back just a bit more.” He then suggested re-wording two sentences. I used approximately 80% of his wording on these two sentences and our book became stronger as a result of the entire process. In the end, I was extremely grateful for Rick’s time and effort. I appreciated him helping to make our book just a tiny bit better. I am honored that he provided a wonderful endorsement for it. More than anything, though, I am grateful for the bold, honest, and respectful collaboration. Oftentimes, we are loathe to say we disagree with something that someone we like and respect says or writes. Rick had the courage--and compassion--to do so and I appreciate it. To be completely honest, at first I was taken aback and just a tiny bit defensive. However, after listening carefully--and sharing my own respectful counterpoints--I focused on the work and making it better. Although it only impacted one short paragraph in a 64,000 word manuscript, to me, it is a clear example of “1 + 1 = 3 collaboration.”

There is a place in our lives, I suppose, for compromise (and there is definitely a place for donuts!). However, when it comes to our professional practices, we must not be afraid to move beyond compromise and work toward collaboration or, better yet, synergy. Truly collaborative ventures are rarely smooth sailing and, at times, we must honestly let people we like and respect know that we disagree with them and we think we can do better. Going beyond our preconceived ideas when collaborating with our colleagues in an effort to have a more profound impact, 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”...