Today was an exciting and challenging day full of great learning work in #ISD186. Six of our teacher leaders opened their classroom doors to a team of colleagues and administrators so we could take a deep dive into the Marzano Instructional Framework. Using just 1 of the 61 elements in the framework, our learning was focused on what to look for, how to ask good coaching questions, and how to facilitate peer observations in a safe and trust-building manner. The learning discussions were rich and the willingness of the team to take risks and dive into learning together was admirable. Read more
The February 2014 Educational Leadership publication is focused on building school morale and offers several articles reflecting on how to cultivate positive spirits in a school staff. The timing is superb… I note on my calendar at the beginning of February every year to brace for the mid-year slump. While I’m convinced it has a good deal to do with the lack of daylight and cold weather here in northern MN, I also agree Megan and Bob Tschannen-Moran that “bolstering school morale is a primary school improvement strategy” (pg. 38). School leadership teams need to assess, plan for, implement action plans to address, and progress monitor the emotional pulse of the larger school team just as an effective coach of an athletic team or the director of musical must do. An emotionally flat team simply cannot perform well while one wrapped up in the positive synergy of real, results oriented school improvement can knock it out of the park.
Thanks to @DCheesebrow I ran across this powerful Ted Talks video presented by Brene Brown titled “Listening to Shame.” Shame isn’t a frequently mentioned topic in discussions around leadership, however the picture she paints of this “epidemic” seems to breath deeply into the work of leading in the public sector. Effectively leading with noticeable authenticity demands a character rooted in vulnerability – the “birthplace of innovation and change.” One must address shame to be vulnerable. Whether we can and/or will admit and talk about it, this message hits mighty close to home for all of us…
How do you hold yourself accountable to addressing shame and leading with authentic vulnerability?
As I left my last position as principal of a junior high, I was given a book from a teacher that was written by a member of his family – a very special gift from a "real deal" teacher who connects with kids and pushes many beyond their own expectations. The book is called Small Decencies: Reflections and Meditations on Being Human at Workby John Cowan. Now that I am half way through it, I feel the need to share a piece of the genuine wisdom offered in this small treasure of reflections. The first of many very short essays/stories is called "Dirt." It resonates deeply with me as I struggle to build relationships in a district with rich history – but one that is new to me and me new to them. In my former position, the staff knew that I was a "real person" who wore a tool belt on weekends and loved working with power tools. They knew that I swept halls and dug in the garbage when needed and mowed lawns if it had to be done. They knew that I hung the cabinets in the teachers lounge myself, and they knew that I could handle difficult situations, parents, students, and realities of working in education. Now new to a district in a district wide position… how do I build those relationships? Here are a few excerpts from Cowan's first chapter:
I sit on a spot o dirt under a medium-sized tree, on the edge of a clearing, at the top of the hill overlooking the lake. This spot of dirt is sacred… I don't know who made it so, but I know that it is sacred, for after I sit here a while, I can remember who I am. And see the world for what it is… pg. 1.
I once asked a senior officer of a major corporation how he was responding to the devastating problems the corporation faced. "It's easy," he said, "we'll lose a couple of divisions and then we will be all right" pg. 1.
I do not think that two divisions meant to him a couple of thousand people. I think that for him two divisions had become a series of numbers projected on a conference room screen… It is easy to forget the dirty consequences of decisions in rooms where the windows are sealed shut, the air-conditioning runs forever, and the ground is far below. I think it was this distance that made him callous to the human effects of the corporation's financial problem and that helped cause the financial problems in the first place. pg. 2
I fear "clean." I am wary of straight ties, polished smiles, tide rooms, immaculate resumes, and antiseptic press releases. THey smell to me of artifice and danger. I never completely trust anyone until they belch, swear, weep, or bleed. If it lives, it's dirty. Clean is a cover-up. pg. 2.
I wish all managers had their own plot of sacred dirt. One they could sit on regularly, getting grass stains on their shorts, stray ants on their backs, and a little bark from the tree in their hair.A spot where if they sit for an hour or two, they can remember who they are and see the world for what it is. pg. 2.
I don't think managers and executives would avoid the hard decisions… I applaud managers who take tough steps when tough steps need to be taken. But I feel much safer if those actions are taken not by somebody who worships in the tower next to God, but by somebody who knows who he is and sees the world for what it is – someone who is accustomed to sitting in the dirt. pg. 3.
My sacred plot of dirt is remodeling my house, splitting wood, hunting, fishing, and grounding myself in some of the labor our ancestors had to tackle everyday for survival. I take great pride in seeing a remodel project through from start to finish and tackling most or all of the work myself. Many people make a living running wires, installing duct work, sweating pipes, roofing, sheet rocking, taping, or painting, and I can benefit from walking their walk on a regular basis. And I do. Most weekends you can find me building cabinets for the next room in the house, splitting wood, mudding/taping walls, or making plans for the next project on the house. The old John Deere tractor I am teased about on occasion (that continues to need work) is less about needing a tractor and more about wanting a plot of dirt to sit on. Some people run these to earn a buck. Some keep them running to put food on the table. I love the smell of cut grass and the reward of getting greasy and tackling a "rebuild" on the old tractor. I need that plot of dirt to sit on and make no mistake, this leader sits there regularly.
School starts tomorrow for our students. I can't articulate how excited I am to have their energy and passion for the world back in our buildings. I am struggling with not opening a building and executing carefully created plans for the re-opening of a school year with kids. Another piece of dirt for me is lunch duty, bus duty, hall duty, and walking through classrooms making sure kids are learning. My plan for tomorrow is to be in buildings seeing the magic and helping if I can. Hopefully there will be a broom to push around, or a crowd to control, or directions to give, or a hand to hold… Might even find a lawn mower to jump on… I'll find a rag and tables to wipe at lunch time no doubt! Hey – we all need our plot of dirt…
I saw this video this morning thanks to fellow school administrator @gcouros on Twitter. George is a principal who gets the big picture – he pushes for excellence and resists rigid rules and policies that box educators into situations that deter doing what is right. He blogs about his own journey on The Principal of Change and hosts a shared principal blog called Connected Principals. Take a look at the video from Ted Talks featuring psychologist, Barry Schwartz. It was posted on George's blog The Principal of Change today.
Teachers – are you a wise educator focused on creating a relevant classroom that resists the lure of shallow rules that stop you from connecting to kids?
Principals – do you give in to the pressure to create shallow rules from teachers who can't see the deep wisdom and meaning in individual situations – or do you create an environment of deep meaning that is relavant to all students, staff members and the community your serve?
First, I need to apologize for the drought of meaningful blog posts in recent months. I'm currently navigating a job transition from building principal to assistant superintendent in a larger neighboring district. While overwhelmed by the details of learning new names, systems, and procedures, I am probably more consumed by reflections on working in a district office instead of in a school. I simply cannot be happy in a job if I'm not making a difference, and I'm just not sure yet how that will play out being one of the "district office folks." Afterall, my whole career thus far has been at the building level where my interactions with students and the adults I am focused on moving are daily - or even several times a day. How can I make the same impact in a job that limits those interactions to… weekly, monthly, or quarterly? How can I make systems change if I "check in" with specific individuals 4 times a year instead of once a week? I have much to learn no doubt…
Today I ran across a post in my Reader file from The Committed Sardine about the impact of service. The post was actually an embedded video called The Simple Truths of Service on You Tube. It's possible this resonated with me because it's a touching story about one individual committing to making the routine work of bagging groceries a meaningful opportunity to touch lives, but I think it's more than that. It resonated with me because as a building principal I helped lead our school to embrace service to the community as a vehicle for teaching students about the bigger things of life, about how to develop a reputation based upon doing what is right, about how to capture the passion of youth for doing good, and about how to capture service opportunities to make memories and develop real community. It resonated with me because I was that store manager in the story who hired great staff, planted seeds, and then captured the individual talents and passions of wonderful people to create momentum that changed the lives of kids. So what now…?
Now I'm that district office guy who swings through once a quarter to make sure things are operating correctly. I'm the guy who works with the board and "gets in the way" from day to day business by making policies and procedures everyone has to follow. I don't bag groceries or even manage the store and hire the Johnny's of this story. Is there room for a district office guy in this story?
I believe the answer is yes. Remember the person who led the customer service program? She gave a speech challenging every employee of the organization to make a difference and create memories for customers that would create loyalty and a desire to return. She's the person that Johnny and the store manager called to share the exciting news.
As a building principal I understood that the success of my work depended entirely on the work of others. Teachers, paras, custodians, secretaries, and volunteers worked tirelessly to make every day a memory for kids and as a result, I reaped benefit. Most importantly, kids were loved and learned. The staff recognized themselves as the "Johnny" in this story and committed themselves to using service as a way to touch lives. I cherish the many wonderful people I have worked with, and I believe the same "Johnnys"are in my new place of employment. Already I have witnessed operations staff working through the night to prepare office spaces, administrators fretting over picking the best staff to work with kids, and a few teachers ramping up for a new year – two months ahead of time… I cannot wait to see the whole machine in action when the students return in September!!
So… The heart of this post is – I found great meaning as a principal who, like the store manager, hired a bunch of people like Johnny and made great things happen in one school. We know the same can happen at the district level… and I'm determined to make that happen.
Folks in ISD 191 – are you a "Johnny?" Do you work in a school that pins flowers on customers and finds creative ways to make someone's day? Do you create memories that fill hearts with a desire to come back to school the next day? That's the bar. That's working in education. That's making a difference. That's teaching.
Creating opportunities for students to serve their communities is the "right thing to do" on so many levels. There is no question that kids can make an incredible impact on the greater community when given the right opportunities. Raising children who value giving of themselves is important to the future of our communities. Brain research makes clear that adolescent years involve a flurry of blossoming and pruning in the regions of the brain connected to values, ethics, and the moral roots that determine the character of adult years. So how does this really look? Check out what some Burnsville high schoolers are doing to help kids with real needs.
Cultivating empathy in my own children and modeling empathy for the needs of our greater community has consistently been a core strand of both my personal and professional work. Brain scans now tell us that the blossoming and pruning of neurons tied to social responsibility, emotional connection to greater causes and to acting on empathetic feelings is in full swing during middle school and high school years – no suprise to those who work with teens on a daily basis. For these reasons – and because of my internal wrestling match with technology and how it impacts human behaviors – I am fascinated by the RSAnimate video belowed shared by Angela Meiers on her blog today. I encourage you to take 10 minutes to watch the video and consider the hopeful message shared.
Maybe, just maybe… with the right leadership, hard work, and the right use of technology… empathy will evolve us into a global community that lifts up more than tears down… I dare to hope… do you?
Earth's crammed with heaven,
and every common bush afire with God;
but only he who sees, takes off his shoes —
the rest sit around it and pluck blackberries (Barton, pg. 64).
One quarter of the way into Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership by Ruth Haley Barton, reads this Elizabeth Barret Browning poem that brought me to an abrupt halt. How many burning bushes have I missed in my principalship journey?
Barton's book is a study of Moses' leadership, and she directs her reflections squarely at those called to spiritual leadership positions. Maybe because I am a leader constantly trying to find the right path, and maybe because I don't leave my own soul in the car when I walk into the public junior high school that I call work, I believe Barton's thoughts are applicable to the principalship. Indeed an average suburban principal, if true to this calling over an entire career, will impact the lives and education of thousands in the walk through 21st century wilderness, Red Seas, plagues and Pharoahs. Barton's reflections on Moses' mistakes, on the make up of his soul that spilled into his leadership, on his decision to pursue solitude, and on his struggle to overcome his weaknesses to deliver on God's call for him are incredibly insightful about real soul struggles in the day to day business of leading a school.
Learning to pay attention and knowing what to pay attentino to is a key discipline for leaders but one that rarely comes naturally to those of us who are barreling through life with our eyes fixed on a goal. One of the downsides of visionary leadership is that we get our sights set on something that is so far out in the future that we miss what's going on in our life as it exists now. We are blind to the bush that is burning in our own backyard and the wisdom that is contained within it… Amid the welter of possible distractions, leaders need time in solitude so that we can notice those things we would otherwise miss due to the pace and complexity of our lives (Barton, 63).
Isn't it incredible how well intended goals, efforts and initiatives – that are wonderful causes on their own – can actually distract us from that which may be most important? Barton forces us to question if we are walking right past the burning bush in our organization or in our personal life. Even worse, we may be looking right at it and "plucking blackberries," oblivious to the blaze that is actually right in front of us!
How does that look in the life of a principal? Many days go by when I fail to acknowledge the magic of learning that is happening all around me. Some days go by in which I don't speak with a single student. The incredible flow of thoughts, issues, and strong opinions coming at me often demands all of my attention leaving me to ignore the deep wisdom of the silent majority. The pressure to be visible at and attentive to every event and detail frequently distracts me from my most important role – being a husband and father. No doubt, this leader has missed a burning bush or two…
One does not need to be a person of any particular faith or religion to gleen wisdom from the reflections that Ruth Barton offers us on Moses' leadership journey. I invite you to join me in this read and offer your thoughts . How is your soul as you walk the leadership journey? Seen any burning bushes lately?