Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Culture Code - a review

There are times that we pick up a book and can't put it down because every page, paragraph, or sentence offers a nugget of truth or information that is new to us. The Culture Code by Daniel Coyle is one of those books for me. Culture, leadership, collaboration, belonging, vulnerability, growth, happiness, fulfillment are all interconnected in my mind. You can't belong to a winning team without feeling connected and feel like you belong. We have all had experiences in life where that has rung true. We have also had experiences where we have been on loosing teams and we don't feel connected.

The author explores the keys to building culture through stories of successful businesses, teams, leaders, and through research that is being done by neurocientists and sociologists. He breaks the book down into three sections or skills: build safety; share vulnerability; establish purpose. Building safety is a key piece creating a positive culture. People need to know that this is a safe environment and it only takes one individual to create an unsafe environment.

That got me thinking how can I build safety. The author points out that " building safety isn't the kind of skill you can learn in a robotic, paint-by-numbers sort of way. It's a fluid, improvisational skill-sort of like learning to pass a soccer ball to teammate during a game." Coyle does provide a few tips on creating safety through dialing in to small, subtle moments.

  • Over communicate your listening
  • Spotlight you fallibility early on - especially if you're a leader.
  • Embrace the messenger
  • Preview future connections
  • Overdo thank-yous
  • Be patient in the hiring process
  • Eliminate bad apples
  • Create safe, collision-rich spaces
  • Make sure everyone has a voice
  • Pick up trash
  • Capitalize threshold moments
  • Avoid giving sandwich feedback
  • Embrace Fun
This is a long list of tips and it easy to get bogged down when considering where to begin or knowing there a few things that are more challenging given the role you may have in an organization. For  me I want to focus on a few of these in the coming months and reflect on my progress.

Here are the ones I want to work on:

Over communicate my listening - by avoiding interruptions and by being improving my listening posture.

Over do thank-yous - because it has less to do with the thanks and more to do with affirming the relationship.

Pick up trash - develop the mindset of seeking simple ways to serve the group.

Avoid giving sandwich feedback - handling negatives and positives should happen in different settings and the sandwich approach leads to confusion.

Thursday, September 6, 2018

AFI Top 100 Challenge

After Jenna's recurrence with ovarian cancer some of our summer plans changed. We couldn't take a vacation so I thought about ways to spend time sharing what I love with my family. After watching all the Marvel movies with Caitlin, my 13 year old I asked everyone if they wanted to watch all of the movies on the AFI top 100 with me. I got groans and a bunch of strange looks, but I decided to proceed anyway. Movies have always been something we have enjoyed as family. As I first looked at the list of movies it looked daunting. So many movies I have never heard of and others I have already seen. 

So I set a few ground rules for myself.
  1. I have to watch every movie, even if I have seen it already.
  2. I have to watch the entire movie regardless if I like it or not.
  3. I cannot pass judgement on a movie until it is finished. 
  4. Try and convince a member of the family to watch them with me. 
  5. Movies are selected at random. 
  6. After watching ten movies I will give a quick ranking of those set of ten.
Feel free to add comments as I go along. I would appreciate  opinions and thoughts regarding this endeavor. So here goes nothing. 

The First Ten - ranked in order of my favorites.

1. Singin' in the Rain , AFI # 5, DVD from the library, watched with my wife Jenna and my sixteen year old Aleigh. 

This was my first time seeing this movie and I loved this movie. It was so much fun. The dancing and choreography was outstanding. In fact we went back and watched some of the dance numbers a few times. I think this was especially true in watching Donald O'Connor perform Make Em Laugh. This movie surprised me in a good way. I will add this to my rotating list of movies to watch and share with others in the future. 

2. Silence of the Lambs, AFI #74, DVD from the library, watched this with my thirteen year old Caitlin.

I have seen this movie many times, but I was looking forward to sharing this with Caitlin as she has seen a few scenes. This is a great movie with so many iconic lines and superb performances by Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins. I may have enjoyed watching Caitlin see the movie for the first time more than watching again. This is still one of my favorite suspenseful movies. 

3. Jaws , AFI #56, streaming online, watched by myself.

I thought I had seen the entire movie before, but I realized I had not. I am not sure how that could be as this is one fun ride. As a kid growing in the 80s the Jaws theme song was something we were all familiar with and if we were swimming in a pool or lake someone would pretend they were a shark. The movie is such a part of our culture and because of that it is a must see. I couldn't convince Aleigh or Caitlin to watch it with me, but someday I will get them to see it. 

4. Platoon, AFI #86, streaming online, watched by myself.

This is one of my all time favorite movies. I watched this movie dozens of times in college as I had a roommate that owned a VHS copy. It is a brutal first hand view of challenges of fighting the Vietnam War. I was a bit surprised at the fact I had hard time making it through the movie after not seeing in it 15 years or so. I literally had to turn away at parts of the village scene because I found it too hard to watch. Perhaps that has to do with age, or maybe it is because I have kids now and I see the world a bit differently. Still a very powerful war movie that I highly recommend. 

5. Casablanca, AFI, #3, DVD from library, watched with Jenna.

Once again I am a bit embarrassed to say this is another movie that I have never seen. I was not sure what to expect, but I did enjoy this movie. I had a hard time hearing the dialogue, so the subtitles came in handy. I liked the back and forth between Rick (Humphrey Bogart) and  Isla (Ingrid Bergman) as they see each other again in Rick's night club. The tension is palpable and you really do wonder if Rick will help Isla and Victor get out of Casablanca. This will be a movie that I want to watch again. 

6. Spartacus, AFI #81 streaming online, watched by myself.

Here is another movie that was a first viewing. I watched this Stanley Kubrick epic over the course of several days. It was incredibly long movie that is beautifully shot and great performances by Kirk Douglas, Laurence Olivier, and Jean Simmons. There were a few times I thought the movie dragged a little, but the scenes with Kirk Douglas as Spartacus were excellent. Overall, worth the 3 plus hours. 

7. King Kong, AFI #41, DVD from library, watched by myself.

I tried to get somebody in my family to join me in watching King Kong and at sometime during the movie they each jumped in for a few minutes, but know one stayed with it. Perhaps it was the constant screaming from Fay Ray that drove them away. As I watched the movie I couldn't help but think of how cool this must have been to see in the theater in 1933. The special effects may not hold up today, but I don't think that takes away from the overall movie experience. 

8. Shane, AFI # 45, streaming online, watched by myself.

I am a sucker for Westerns, especially when there is someone who rides in to stand up for those who can't or who are unable to stand up for themselves. I loved the book and was hoping the movie would be as good. One thing that annoyed me in the movie was the young boy who was constantly saying the name Shane. It really started to get on my nerves. Other than that this was a really solid movie. 

9. The Bridge over the River Kwai, AFI # 36, DVD from library, watched by myself.

 I didn't really know what to expect with this movie as I usually enjoy war movies. While I enjoyed the movie I guess I didn't really buy into the fact the British Colonel Nicholson would make sure that the bridge was to be engineered and built to last even though they were prisoners of war and building the bridge for the enemy. I found that a little far fetched and with that the movie didn't really pay off in the end for me. I thought it was good, but not great. There are other war movies that I think are better. 

10. Cabaret, #63 , DVD from library, watched with Aleigh. 

I hate to say it but I did not enjoy this movie and I really tried. I should say we really tried. Aleigh has been a dancer since she was 3 and is really into music theater so I thought we would both enjoy this one. Unfortunately, we didn't. I don't know if it was the pacing of the movie, the strangeness of the stage shows, or the plot. Oh, well there are ninety more movies on the list to see. 

Quick takeaway - out of the first ten movies I watched three of them had to do with the Nazis or WWII and two were about making a movie. I wonder if that will be an overall trend in the top 100.

Monday, August 27, 2018


Shortly after we moved and slightly before Jenna's recurrence I wanted to find a way to connect with my youngest daughter, Caitlin, and do something fun with her. It was about the same time Avengers: Infinity War was in the theater and I asked her if she wanted to go see it. Now you need to understand that she has been an avid DC comic fan and hadn't seen any of the Marvel movies. For a few years I tried to get her to to switch her allegiance to Marvel, but she held firm in her belief that DC was better then Marvel. 

This time she took the bait with one exception. She wanted to watch all the Marvel movies in order before going to see Avengers: Infinity War. So we set off an a movie watching marathon over the course of three and a half weeks. We watched every movie in the franchise except for The Incredible Hulk. That meant we needed to watch seventeen movies. We ended up watching all seventeen in roughly 24 days. It was kind of crazy that almost every night we geared up for a movie. 

We streamed them, rented them from the library, and borrowed them. Sometimes it was just the two of us and sometimes it was the whole family. I had already seen most the movies, but it was something special to watch her see the movies for the first time. At first see was definitely Team Iron Man. However, as time went on she was she joined Team Captain because of her like of the Winter Soldier, Bucky. In fact she had grown to really connect with the characters. 

As we made our way through all of the movies the anticipation of seeing Infinity War grew. I am not sure who was more excited. We both already knew the spoilers before going into the movie. Caitlin was already thinking she would have a really hard time with the ending of the movie and yet she was still wanting to watch it. True enough she cried at the end of the movie and the entire car ride home. She loved the movie and talked about it constantly for several days. 

A few days later she gave me a hand written note thanking me for watching all of the Marvel movies with her. The note was so touching and I realized she had enjoyed the entire experience as much as I did. 

Connecting is the foundation for relationships. As we start the year think about the students that you have in your school and in your classrooms. How can you connect with them? What crazy adventure will you take your class on this year? How will you make this year a memorable one for them? At the end of the year how will your students feel?

Tuesday, May 29, 2018


As we wind down the year we enter into a stressful time of year. Stress can cause us to loose empathy and understanding as we are wrapped up in our own worlds. I know for me this is definitely true as I go all out to tackle the to do list thinking that once I get done I can relax. Maybe that is my way of coping or trying to take some level of control.

To add to the normal end of the year stress we are in the midst of moving and packing up a house we lived in for 15 years. We also decided to have the floors replaced, rooms painted, and have the house painted in the new house. Talk about biting of more than you can chew.

As we moved along in this process we realized we could save money by doing some things ourselves so we decided to rip up the current flooring, replace the lighting in kitchen and dining room, and paint several rooms, add shiplap to the powder room and laundry room, and move 72 boxes of flooring up two flights of stairs (as I looked at the delivery slip it weighed over 2,000 pounds).

Needless to say I have stretched myself way too thin. I haven't been getting home until way after 11:00 every night for the past week and a half. I totally missed encouraging and coaching Aleigh about an interview for an internship she had today. Our current home is a disaster zone with boxes and bins strewn everywhere. My need to get things done and try and take control has left me exhausted and not able to see what is happening around me.

I wonder how many times it will take me to learn that getting wrapped up in the stress and chaos doesn't work for me or anyone else. I stop doing the things that matter, like investing in others, especially my kids.

Let's hope that this is the last time.

Monday, March 5, 2018


Have you ever had one of those weeks where everything seemed to go wrong and the more you tried to fix things the worse they seemed to get? Well last week was one of those weeks and in the midst of that our family made one of our hardest decisions. We came to terms with the fact that we need to sell our house and downsize. After dozens of conversations and wrestling with the idea of moving we decided to put our house on the market.

Jenna won't be going back to work full time and most likely not even part time. The recovery from surgery and chemotherapy has been more challenging than either of us anticipated. With that in mind we were faced with some very big decisions. Do we continue living in the only house our girls have called home or move to a new house so that we can continue to enjoy new and exciting experiences and make lasting memories? As we contemplated this decision it became clear over time that we want to build lasting memories. We value building those memories rather than things.

I wish I could say that we are super upbeat about our decision and looking at new houses that are half our size, but I would be lying. I wish I could say that both of our girls are okay, but that is not the truth. Their world is once again being turned upside down. We know that once the dust settles we all will be okay and I think that there is a little part of each of us that is excited about a new adventure.

It makes me think of the students that we come across that are constantly moving and how that uncertainty impacts them, or the students who have little voice in their families, or the students who don't have their own space to think or create. It is easy to assume that our students are doing well because they show up and do what we ask, yet beneath the surface it may be a huge struggle for them just to be there. We need to connect with our students and with each other to listen, to understand, to build trust so that we can create amazing schools and amazing classrooms. We may not be able to  change our circumstances or the circumstances of our students, but what we can do for our students is to model how we handle difficult situations. We can teach them that it is okay to be vulnerable and to trust others. We can teach them that they don't have to do it all alone.

While this post was not the easiest to write, I do feel it was important to write as I continue to reflect on how effective I am as the school leader. Am I modeling and teaching to our students and staff how to deal with adversity? Am I really connecting with all of our students and staff or am I too wrapped up in my own stuff? Maybe by writing this post I can begin to do that and I know that moving isn't the end. It is the beginning that will offer new experiences and new memories. That is my hope.

Monday, February 5, 2018

I am a nerd

The other day our youngest daughter was talking about an experience she had in school where the students wrote down all of the negative things they have been told on  index cards and the teacher then took them through an activity where they let go of these negative statements. The students "let go" of the negative comments so that they could begin to hear the positive comments. One of the negative comments that my daughter wrote down was that she was a nerd. It made me think about the word nerd and all the negativity surrounding the word.

Sure, when we think of nerd the images of George McFly or Sheldon Cooper come to mind. The socially awkward, science guy who is in his own world. But, aren't we all a little bit nerdy? We all have interests or passions that we pursue to the point we may be called names like  techie, bookworm, sports geek, skater, meathead, Trekkie, or Parrothead. These are just few of the names to groups of people that are labeled for their passions. 

One of my biggest passions is learning. Over the last couple of years I started to listen to podcasts when I am running, on the elliptical machine, or on my commute. I started listening to podcast on education, leadership, and history. This lead to other discoveries and new podcasts to listen to. I am drawn in by the stories, history, and for the sake of learning something I didn't know anything about.  As I was driving my daughter to a friends house I was near the end of a podcast on hang gliding and she gave me a look like what are you listening to? And why are you listening to it?  I realized at that point I am a bit of a nerd. I like to learn about new and different topics. I love to read about leadership and culture. My wife and I are fascinated by documentaries and we talk about them for weeks after watching them. I enjoy learning for the sake of learning. 

I was never a good student growing up and it wasn't until college that I did well. I wonder if that is because I didn't want to be labeled as a nerd or maybe I thought that being smart or doing well in school was uncool. As a dad to two teenage daughters I am way past trying to be cool and I know that I am a bit nerdy, but I am okay with that. 

I do wonder about the students that we work with and if they feel comfortable enough to embrace and pursue their passions.  Do we support them? encourage them? advocate for them? celebrate them? Or do we allow others to make those devastatingly negative comments that cut to the core? I love being a principal and  knowing that every day I have the opportunity to connect with students and help them pursue their passions. Perhaps it is the fact that I have embraced my nerdiness and that I am comfortable in my own skin that helps me connect with students on their level. 

I do know that we need to help students find their passions and celebrate those passions. I believe it starts with knowing and embracing your own passions. 

So, are you a nerd? a techie? a bookworm? a sports geek? or a skater?

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Try, try, try again.

Here is the third and final part of a three part series exploring the connection between failure, vulnerability, and the importance of iteration. The previous parts were focused on the importance of learning from failure and how vulnerability is a strength.

Part Three - Try, Try, Try Again

With choosing to be vulnerable we open ourselves up for risk taking and hopefully greater success. We also open up ourselves for things not working out as we would hope and not meeting our goal or failing to succeed with an initiative. Carol Dweck shares that "failure can be painful experiences. But it doesn't define you." Being vulnerable and failure are both key components in learning and growth. Yet, we often shy away from being open to learning from failure. 

My daughter, Caitlin, gave me the video game Injustice: Gods Among Us for Christmas and we played the game over winter break. As I continued to get beat by Caitlin I realized that the only way to get better was to try, try, try again. I am not a gamer and I don't play video games often enough to have an innate understanding of how to use the controller. I needed several iterations and tutorials to have some understanding of how to use multiple buttons in the right sequence in order for my superhero character to do special moves. Video games are designed and played by gamers, or in my case a novice, with the understanding that the player will fail multiple times in order to understand how to ultimately win the game. 

Prior to break I visited a fourth grade classroom where students were exploring "energy" The students were working in groups to try and create different ways to get a marble to end up in a cup. In talking with the students and observing their progress it was obvious that students were not afraid to try a method, fail, try another method, fail, and this continued until they were successful. Failing was a huge part of the learning that was happening.

In Simon Sinek's book, Start With Why, he shares about the Wright brothers and how they would take five sets of spare parts each time they attempted to fly their plane because they knew that is how many trials they would attempt for the day. They started each day knowing they would fail, but also learn through that process, until ultimately they were successful with the first flight. 

One of my favorite videos for inspiration is of Heather Dorniden running the 600 meter race at the 2008 Big Ten Indoor Championship. The runners complete three laps and she falls heading into the last lap.

In an interview Heather talked about finishing the race. "The last 50 meters, I hit a gear that I never knew I had." If she had not had learned perseverance and the importance of learning from past failures she would never have reached her potential.

In order to be our best we must be vulnerable to take risks where we may fail, but those failures become lessons in which we learn to get back up and try again.