Monday, October 23, 2017

Made to be Awesome

We are made to be awesome and do amazing things. Yes, I really believe we are made to be awesome. When I say made to be awesome I am not talking about those personal accomplishments. Instead, made to be awesome is leaving a legacy and an impact that is felt way beyond our time on earth.  As I continue read, listen to podcasts, and spend time reflecting I realize that we all have a calling, a purpose, and an opportunity to do something special. The inspiring video A Pep Talk from Kid President to You has over 40 million views on YouTube not just because of the cute and funny Kid President, but because of the message and how we all connect with the idea that we are here for a greater purpose. 

I really don't believe we wants to be average, that we want live a ho-hum existence, or that we strive for mediocrity. Too often we get caught up in the minutia of everyday life. We are so busy running from one activity to the next or crossing off the to do items off of our list that we forget why we are doing what we are doing. If we are to reach our potential and live an awesome life we need to be able understand our purpose.

When we think about purpose we often think about our personal purpose and we get confused that this purpose thing is about me. It isn't. If we are going to be awesome, leave a legacy, and make a difference we need to let go of the notion that it is about me. Andy Stanley, in his Leadership Podcast, sums up the idea purpose not being about oneself "it is a call to sacrifice...a call to action...being committed to something bigger than myself that is not of myself." - August 31, 2017.

Jim Collins, author of Good to Great, describes level 5 leaders who set the example of leading companies to excellence and understanding it is not because of their own greatness, rather it is because they model being committed to something bigger than themselves. In his study of great companies Collins found that these Level 5 leaders have an incredibly strong professional will while having a great amount of personal humility. He shares that these leaders "channel ambition into the company, not the self...(leaders) looks out the window, not in the mirror, to apportion credit for success of the company to other people"

While we may not be leaders of billion dollar, industry leading companies, we can still learn from these Level 5 leaders. They understand that it is not about them, instead it is about the organization. The sacrifice, action, and commitment is not for personal glory, rather it is about moving the organization forward. In each of our lives we are called to a purpose that is greater than ourselves. That may be to give yourself to your children so that they can reach their potential, it might mean volunteering to make your community a better place, it can mean being the best para professional, best teacher, or best administrator in order to create extraordinary schools.

There are roadblocks that keep us from becoming the person we are meant to be and the life we are meant to live. We are responsible for these barricades as we create them by being selfish with our time and get too busy to give ourselves to a greater cause.  We choose to live very busy lives and we don't leave any time for anything else. We don't stop to take stock on where we are on our journey and because we don't take time to reflect we are not able to make any changes. We also fail to jump at the opportunities to do something amazing. We are afraid to take the risk or we wonder if the personal cost will be too much.

I am writing this blog to challenge myself. To live the life I was made to live. To be a difference maker, to make an impact. To be awesome and do amazing things. We are never to old to change. There are opportunities to something amazing everyday.

Remember, you were made to be awesome! Live your life to the fullest by making a difference.

Friday, October 6, 2017

Developing a collaborative culture

The past few weeks, through many different experiences, I have been reminded about the importance of developing a collaborative culture. These experiences that didn't seem connected at first, but later through conversations and reflection I realized that these experiences all had to do with collaborative culture.  From data days to a Voxer group discussion, I recognized the importance of having strong relationships, developing a healthy culture, and the need for collaboration.

In our school we recently had our data days, which provides an opportunity and structure to collaborate with grade level teams to plan for supporting all of our students. To be completely honest these can be very long days. Each day involves meeting with three different grade levels along with specialists, psychologist, and other administrators. Often there are difficult conversations about the best way to support students and you can often feel drained by the end of the day. In discussing ways to set the tone each time we were to meet with a grade level with our assistant principal we decided we would do a quick check-in with everyone at the table. At the start of each grade level data day meeting and prior to jumping into agenda we had each person share one word that described how they were feeling (words ranged from worried to energized) and one sentence about what they hoped to get out of the data day meeting. Our data day meetings seemed more effective, and we felt energized by the discussion and plans for supporting students. I think this occurred because we paid attention to the culture of these meetings and purposely spent time investing in the culture so members felt connected to the work we needed to do.

Not long after data days I  happened upon a podcast where author and speaker Jon Gordon was being interviewed about one of his books and during the podcast he emphasized the importance of needing to constantly work on culture and the importance of developing relationships. It confirmed for me that it was worth while to invest time and energy to purposely invest in developing culture.
Culture drives everything, culture drives expectations and beliefs, expectations and beliefs drive behaviors, behaviors drive habits, and habits ultimately create the future. So your culture is basically who you are, it is what you stand for. You have to make sure you are investing in your culture. - Jon Gordon
One of our main goals for our school this year to to implement classroom meetings so that we can  build positive classroom communities. I have had the privilege to visit and participate in several classroom meetings. I was struck by how these meetings were changing the culture in classrooms. The time that the teachers are spending in  classroom meetings is worthwhile. In one of the classroom meetings I visited the students and teacher were talking about welcoming a new student into their class. This new student was starting the next day and the students shared ways that they could help this new student feel comfortable, understand the routines and expectations in class, and make sure they were welcomed into their space. I was really impressed that the students thought and shared about making this new student feel welcomed. Each day our teachers and students are meeting and developing their classroom culture. I know that this will have a tremendous impact on all of our students.

This week in our Compelled Tribe Voxer group a question was posed that asked - How do you know if you are making a difference? It made me really think. When I was a fourth grade teacher I knew if I was making a difference when I would see students make academic or behavioral growth. As an administrator I still look to student growth as an indicator if I am making a difference, but more than that I look to see if the culture is changing in our school. I look to see if people are working collaboratively to solve problems, to plan for student learning, to be creative in their teaching. I look to see if people are willing to take risks and are excited about stepping out of their comfort zone to try something new.

During my research about collaboration I came across a study that written 35 years ago and I believe that it still rings true today. In order to grow and get better at what we do we must work together, we cannot work in isolation or think that we as individuals have all of the answers. As leaders we need  to create a culture that emphasizes teacher to teacher trust, freedom to take risks, and a desire to be creative.
... continuous professional development appears to be most surely and thoroughly achieved when: teachers engage in frequent, continuous and increasingly concrete and precise talk about teaching practice  (Little, 1982) 

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Can I change my attitude?

Over the last few months I have spent a great deal of time at the University of Chicago medical campus as Jenna was receiving her inpatient and outpatient chemotherapy. During that time I explored different places to eat as the hospital cafeteria food got old real quick. My travels usually took me past the entrance to the DCAM building which is kind of like Grand Central Station. Patients are being dropped off, picked up, the valet attendants are busy moving cars, and it feels a bit chaotic. I would always see the same security officer directing traffic and what I noticed was not the fact he was doing a nice job of directing traffic but he was doing it with joy. I saw him smiling, singing, whistling, and being kind as he directed traffic. What he was doing was noticeable and in some small way made a difference. It made me think if he could bring joy to his job of directing traffic and bring a smile to someone than what can I do?

Image result for life is 90 how you react

This quote has resonated with me for a long time. We can't always control our circumstances, but we can control our attitude. Authors and speakers Andy Andrews and Jon Gordon touch on the idea of choosing your attitude. Jon Gordon talks about taking a daily gratitude walk and listing the things you are thankful for (shelter, food, relationships, job, etc...) and Andy Andrews talks about making the switch of complaining about your circumstance or situation to being thankful for it (high electricity bill vs. being able to have a comfortable home that has air conditioning, having to clean the toilets  vs. indoor plumbing, doing laundry vs. clothes to wear). This change in perspective is a daily battle, takes practice, and time. Our world was rocked when we found out Jenna was diagnosed with Ovarian Cancer. It still is rocking our world. The best way I can it is it sucks, but not every second or every minute has sucked. In fact, when I think about it I have been blessed to have been able to spend more time with Aleigh and Caitlin, I have been able to witness Jenna's toughness and fighting spirit, I have been humbled by the outpouring of love and support, and I learned more about what is means to be understanding and patient.

Merriam-Webster defines joy as a state of happiness or felicity. I am not trying to be Pollyanna abut this idea that you simply should have a sense of joy or be happy all of time. However, I do think we can make a difference in our schools, with students and teachers, and in our relationships if we looked at circumstances differently and instead of seeing the negative or complaining look for the positive. On Twitter the hashtags #dadsasprincpals #momsasprincpals #Joyfulleaders #Liftup101 #CelebrateMondays  #principalsinaction are filled with examples of educators bringing a sense of joy to their schools. We have a choice on how we will be remembered and it won't be for completing all of your items on the to do list, rather it will be how you impacted the lives of others. If we are too busy complaining about our circumstances then we miss the opportunity to make a difference.

Here are two resources I have found helpful as I continue to work on changing my attitude -

The Butterfly Effect 

More Than I Can Bear

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Are you ready?

Are you ready? This question often gets asked between teachers and administrators before students arrive for the first day of school. The exchange often goes something like this - Teacher is walking down the hallway and is approached by another teacher or staff  member. The teacher approaching asks Are you ready? The second teacher responds something like as ready as I'll ever be. The two share a laugh and continue on their way. This exchange is repeated over and over again in hallways of our schools across the country. It is almost the same as asking How are you doing? It is a friendly exchange between two teachers that is meant as a hello rather than really wanting to know if someone is ready for the start of school.

When I really think about this question I end up reflecting about my hopes, dreams, and goals for the year. I think about being ready for all of the students that will be in our building. I think about the teachers and staff. I think about the parents and community. I stop thinking about my to do list and think about how we will make those all important personal connections with students. I think about how I can support teachers in order for them to grow professionally and I think about how I can build partnerships with families. I think about building a community. A place where teachers, students, and families want to be, a place that is special and unique.

At our school we worked long and hard at creating our mission and vision as we desire to become a great school. Through the process of developing these statements we realized how important community and building a sense of belonging is to all of us. This year we will focus on building positive classroom environments where students feel a sense of belonging, where they are valued, and where they believe they can make a contribution. I recently watched a video where the speaker repeated the idea that it is about the process not the product. The process of creating a community of learners and investing in our students leads to student growth  and when we focus on the process not the product we stop being overwhelmed with those things that we can't change like curricular changes, mandated assessments, and increased accountability. When we spend our time and energy focusing on the things that we cannot change that becomes draining and we loose our energy to create or innovate. However when we spend time focusing on the process of improving student learning through building relationships and community then we become energized to continue to connect and create.

This year when I think about the question Are you ready? My answer is yes, you bet that I am ready.

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Long Road

My last blog was five months ago. A lot has transpired in those five months and I every time I sat down to write and reflect I couldn't bring myself to do it. My wife, Jenna, who is my best friend and the a fabulous mother to our two daughters, Aleigh and Caitlin was diagnosed with Stave IVb Ovarian Cancer. Our world was turned upside down and continues to feel like we can't get our feet under us.

There have been many challenging side effects to her treatment and surgery which has left Jenna with the inability to drive and needing to lay down because of the abdominal pain. The deliver of chemo IP (intrapertoneal) creates massive discomfort in her abdomen, causes dehydration (we have had one visit to the ER), intestinal discomfort, tinnitus and hearing issues. Through all of this she continues to be focused on the well being of both of our girls.

One of the biggest things that I love about Jenna is how she has been my number one cheerleader. Even though she is in an incredible amount of pain she shares with me that she doesn't want all of this to impact my enthusiasm for my job, leadership, students, teaching, and learning. Watching someone battle cancer is extremely hard. I often feel as if I am helpless and unable to provide any relief to Jenna's pain. She has two more treatment cycles and we are hopeful that she there will be no evidence of disease when she is finished with chemotherapy. It has been a long road and we are almost at the end.

Through this journey I have learned a number of things that I hope will help me be a better husband, father, and principal. We have also been so blessed with the support of friends and colleagues. While there has been a lot of sadness, we have also experienced moments of joy, gratitude, laughter, and grace.

I don't know what the future will hold and I guess that none of us really do. During the first few months of Jenna's battle I felt lost and it was hard for me to focus. I intentionally took a break from blogging and social media as it was hard for me to feel supportive and positive of those in my PLN. While the journey is not yet over I have started to slowly re-engage on Twitter. The #dadsasprincipals is one movement that I have connected with as being a dad and husband is the absolutely greatest. I am hopeful that Jenna will be able to beat this dreaded disease and that we will be able to grow old together. I wish that I could do something that would guarantee that and knowing that there is nothing I can do is hard. All I can control is my actions and my ability to make the most of my time when I am at school and when I am at home. As Jenna and I often discuss when facing the unknown future is we just have to take one step at a time and let God take care of the rest. It has been a long road and we know there is a lot more to go. 

Thursday, February 9, 2017

At the Heart of Collaboration

As a leader I look for opportunities to foster teacher collaboration so that teachers can learn and grow from each other. I learned from my experiences as a teacher, where way too often I worked in isolation and at times it felt like the members of my team were in competition and not collaboration. We didn't trust one another which limited our opportunity to learn from one another. I do believe there is a place for competition in our schools which I will discuss later. However, without collaboration and trust, competition can lead to less sharing, more about me, and more about their being winners and losers which hurts students. 

There is a lot of research on the topic of teacher collaboration and how that collaboration has a positive impact on school culture and student learning. As far back as the early 1980s research demonstrates the importance of teacher collaboration. Teachers in collaborative schools participate in four “critical practices”: (1) talking, (2) watching, (3) planning, and (4) teaching about classroom practice (Little, 1982). Little goes on to describe what these practices look like: teacher “talking” is seen as teachers discussing classroom practices; “watching” is mutual observation that takes place between teachers; “planning” is teachers designing and preparation of curriculum; “teaching about classroom practice” happens when teachers are discussing instructional improvement.

These critical practices can only take place when there is trust built between teachers. Trust takes time and a willingness by teachers to openly share and to be vulnerable. When there is open dialogue, observation, planning, and discussing instructional improvement among the teachers the school becomes a learning organization.  Senge (1990) describes learning organizations as places “where people continually expand their capacity to create the results they truly desire, where new and expansive patterns on thinking are nurtured, where collective aspiration is set free” (p. 3) and it is through this openness to creativity within teacher collaboration that leads to an atmosphere where risk-taking, innovation, and improvement occurs (Louis, et. al, 1994). Isn't this what we want from our schools? We want our schools to be places where their is risk-taking, innovation, improvement and where teachers expand their capacity to create the results they truly desire. As a leader this is the culture that I want to cultivate and foster, but I know that I cannot do it alone. 

In digging into the research on developing a culture of collaboration one of the themes that comes up over and over again is the concept of shared leadership which is a strategy that good principals use to make decisions, empower teacher leaders, and create a culture where collaboration can materialize (Hord & Sommers, 2008; Leonard & Leonard, 2005; Louis, et. al., 1994; Wells & Fuen, 2008). Principals should not be seen as the ones with all the answers in how to improve the schools. Instead leaders need to connect with teachers and create the atmosphere for teachers to be able to connect with one another. Principals should develop teacher leaders and allow them to collaborate with their colleagues. Rosenholtz (1989) describes three different outcomes for when teachers collaborate with teacher leaders  (1) they define a new way of doing things, (2) suggest and inspire ideas and discourse, (3) help others overcome difficult and challenging problems. When we have teachers leading other teachers learning and growing happen for all involved. This is how we get better. This is how we accomplish our goals and live out our mission. We can't do it alone. 

Leaders who venture off on their own end up developing what Hargreaves & Fullan (2012) describe as the “my school” or “my vision”,  and in these cases the management of the school turns into manipulation and collaboration turns into collegiality. In these situation there is a failure to develop a sense of unity and togetherness. I don't believe in the "my school" or "my vision" places that there is an overwhelming sense of belonging or success. A school should have a common mission that is understood by all in the building. This cannot be just the mission of a principal. The understanding of the work happens when there is collaboration and a sense that we are in this together. I think this quote captures the importance of having a collective understanding of a mission and goals. 

If there is any center to the mystery of schools’ success, mediocrity, or failure, it lies deep within the structure of organizational goals; whether or not they exist, how they are defined and manifested, the extent to which they are mutually shared. (Rosenholtz, 1989, p. 13).

Without a shared understanding and responsibility for student learning  it is nearly impossible for a school to be successful. It takes a collective effort through collaboration and a willingness for principals and teachers to grow and improve their practice. As I stated earlier there is a place for competition in schools. A healthy competition really rests with each individual and how they will use that drive, competitiveness, and willingness to get better. Collins (2001) shares the importance of embracing the brutal truth and being relentless on pursuing this truth. School leaders and teachers need to continue to reflect, learn, and seek the truth in how successful they are in meeting the needs of their students. They need to seek the truth about areas they need to grow. They need to seek the truth to determine where they are falling short. The relentless seeking of truth is where that competitive drive lives. The drive to improve and get better. When members of the school have that competitive drive you end up with better leaders, better teachers, and better schools. This competitive drive also opens us up to learning from each other, to collaborate, and to share in the mission of the school. 

I have been fortunate enough to have been a part of two different schools that transformed into highly collaborative environments where teachers had the competitive fire to improve. In the first school I was the student services coordinator and we developed collaborative teams that worked together to participate in those "critical practices" of talking, watching, planning, and teaching about classroom practice. The end result was a dramatic improvement in student achievement. I was the principal of the second school that had a similar transformation. What happened at this school was equally as remarkable. Through the development of collaborative teams and creating a collaborative culture we embraced the brutal truth that our students were not making the growth we expected. The embracing of our truth was a motivating factor for us to make changes with our instructional practices. I don't think this would have been possible if it was not for that competitive drive, the will to get better, and the desire to do something about our truth. Teachers sought out opportunities to learn from each other. They discussed ways to better meet the needs of students. The culture shifted and our goal of having students grow was embraced by everyone.

Collins, J. (2001). Good to great. New York, NY: Harper Collins Publishing.
Hargreaves, A. & Fullan, M. (2012). Professional capital: Transforming teaching in every school. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.
Hord, S. & Sommers, W. (2008). Leading professional learning communities: Voices from research and practice. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.
Little, J.W. (1982). Norms of collegiality and experimentation: Workplace conditions of school success. American Educational Research Journal, 19(3), 325-340.
Louis, K. S., Marks, H. M., & Kruse, S. (1994). Teachers' professional community in restructuring schools. Madison, WI: Wisconsin Center for Educational Research, University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Rosenholtz, S. (1989). Teacher's workplace: The social organization of schools. New York, NY: Longman.
Senge, P.M. (1990). The fifth discipline: The art and practice of the learning organization. New York, NY: Doubleday.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Creating Culture - A Collaborative Post

A culture of celebration can be created and fostered through celebrating the little things everyday.
  • Allyson (@AllysonApsey)

“Give people high fives just for getting out of bed. Being a person is hard sometimes.” Kid President

As educators, there are things that we can celebrate any day of the week. We love kids, we work to get better every day, we work through challenges, we embrace changes we never asked for, and on and on.

As a principal, my main customers are my staff members. I celebrate them in many ways:

  • Positive feedback for their awesomeness, sharing specifically the amazing things they are doing for kids.
  • Allow the school community to celebrate with us by posting videos on YouTube highlighting strengths. Here is an example:
  • Tweeting out the great things teachers are doing for our kids:

Key to culture of celebration is the consistency and focusing on specific things that contribute to the culture and the success of students. When the school leader celebrates teachers and their successes, teachers will celebrate students and their successes.

Celebrating the little successes every day leads to big successes! Amazing things happen when people feel positive and strong--they celebrate each other, they are willing to take risks, they approach problems with a growth mindset, and there is joy in the air.

Developing relational culture takes time
  • Tim (@Tim_McDermott1)

Developing relational culture takes time. That is why it is important for principals to celebrate the wins as teachers make changes with their instructional practices, the way they collaborate, the way they manage their classrooms, or when they take risks and try something new.  The small wins matter to people (Amabile & Kramer, 2011). They build momentum and keep people moving. A talented principal recognizes these moments and knows when to celebrate and recognize them. DuFour (2015) states, “Effective principals will not wait for monumental accomplishments before celebrating” (p. 242). A culture of celebration and recognition leads to developing further trust amongst the members of a school.  

In my first principalship I wanted to build relationships and create a culture where we would celebrate our learning and our growth. So we instituted a tradition or ceremony of “tossing dogs”, in Batavia we are all Bulldogs so I thought that would be an appropriate stuffed animal to toss.. At every staff meeting teachers could take a small stuffed animal and publicly recognize another staff member and thank them for something they did for another teacher or a student and toss a stuffed dog to them. If a staff member received the dog they were able to keep them. It was really cool to walk into a teacher’s room or a specialist's office and see a small collection of dogs sitting on a shelf or a desk. I also dedicated one staff meeting towards the end of the year where teams would get up and share a celebration from the school year.  The only rule I had was that they couldn’t do a dry and boring Powerpoint. Here is an example of the fourth grade team and their journey of implementing guided math. Teams needed to be creative in the way the wanted to celebrate their journey and growth. The final tradition I started took place at the end of the school year where we would spend time together as a staff honoring those members who were moving schools, retiriing, etc… and then we would do something to recognize and celebrate each other. The first year each person had a piece of construction paper mounted to cardstock that went over their head and hung on their back with a piece of yarn.

Every staff member had a pen and we spent 15 minutes walking around writing personal notes on each other’s paper. It was really great to provide meaningful comments to a teacher and to look around the room to see the same thing being repeated dozens of times.

Amabile, T. & Kramer, S. (2011). The progress principle: Using small wins to ignite joy, engagement, and creativity at work. Boston, MA: Harvard Business Review Press.
Dufour, R. (2015). In praise of American educators and how they can become even better. Bloomington, IN: The Solution Tree Press.

  • Jodie (@jodiepierpoint)

Derek Oldfield and Paul Bailey and I were part of a Voxer book study reading Kids Deserve It. Although we were active in the book study group, the three of us often chatted in a separate voxer chat and the idea of spreading positivity throughout schools nationwide was inspired.  We brainstormed and decided we would have a high five challenge, encouraging teachers, staff and principals to give out high fives as well as write letters and make phone calls home.  We promoted our challenge through Twitter using the hashtag #high5challenge.  We were amazed at the responses, videos and pictures that we received from across the United States. Teachers were writing messages on student’s desks, writing positive notes on bracelets, dancing and high fiving in cafeterias!  Looking through the hashtag every night simply brought joy to each of us.  To celebrate the educators we sent out #high5 #KidsMatter bracelets in hopes that although the two week challenge ended that the positivity would continue.  Kids do matter, and celebrating them with such simple ways as high fives and notes home sure does go a long way!

Culture is built over time, through deliberately focusing on celebrations, whether big or small. Spread positivity, celebrate daily, and then bask in the warmth and joy that exudes from the environment. We would love to hear how you have built a culture of celebrations, share with us in the comments or tag us on Twitter!