Tag Archives: leadership

Not Rocket Science

Let’s start by conceding that teachers are not among the most respected professions in American society. Perhaps they used to be. Perhaps they are in other cultures. They are not in ours. In case you are tempted to disagree, stop to consider the following: teacher award programs (and there are many) get light press coverage and are not broadcast live in primetime to massive television audiences. Movie and television awards shows are covered in that way. Speaking of, how many television shows do you watch about lawyers or detectives or singing or cooking or real estate improvement/sales? How many shows about teaching?  And how many of those few shows about school portray teachers as the admirable protagonists? Instead of pointing out more evidence let me trust that you already know that teachers are not respected throughout our society in the way that professions and the professionals in them that require similar training and skills are.

We say teaching “is not rocket science!” When we are frustrated that our kid’s teacher hasn’t responded to our request for a conference. Or when we hear that local teachers are asking for a raise. Or when the teacher across the hall does not make it to the team meeting. Or when (as administrators) we discover a mistake a teacher has made. For most teachers, this attitude comes at you from all around – from parents, from colleagues, from administrators.

Setting aside the rhetoric for a moment, that attitude is demoralizing. The attitude that says “quit messing around and get it right” and “if there’s a problem, it’s either because you aren’t good enough or aren’t trying hard enough”. The problem with treating an entire profession this way – from the outside and from the inside – is that that is the perfect way to destroy the profession. Highly talented, bright, passionate young people don’t have to become teachers. More and more of the great ones are deciding not to. Enrollment in the college of education in the town where I live is down 50% since 2010. What’s not rocket science is what will happen when all the teachers who have been teaching more than fifteen or twenty years retire. The capacity of us all to ignore or simply not care about this issue is astonishing. Education is not a luxury commodity. It is not, for example, collegiate or professional sports. But we venerate our athletes and care enough about what they have to say to debate whether or not they should say it. The voices of teachers generally do not matter at all.

The great irony is that teaching is, in fact, more cognitively and emotionally demanding and more complex work that rocket science or brain surgery.  I mean this literally.  Consider for a moment a partial list of what is expected of every teacher every day:

  • Create a written plan for teaching and learning for that day (subject to review and approval by administrators and others).
  • “Build relationships” with students: use their names (pronounced correctly), interact with them about things that matter to them, learn and keep in mind any factor that might impact how they learn – learning styles, cultural background, physical or cognitive disability, etc.
  • Conduct lessons that provide students multiple opportunities to apply what they learn, problem-solving, critical thinking, and collaboration. The lessons must also be engaging, hands-on, developmentally appropriate, and technology-rich.
  • Have a plan that is “differentiated”. Plan to teach a group of students whose readiness to learn the skill, concept, or content varies widely. “Individualizing” instruction to meet the very different learning needs of each student is the responsibility of the teacher.
  • Maintain a positive and safe learning environment. Take a room full of children, young adolescents or teenagers and set conditions wherein they ignore all the distractions that are part of being alive, focus on the learning activities, and interact only in productive and positive ways with each other. Keep all social and emotional burdens the students are carrying from interfering with learning.
  • Keep up on your recordkeeping. Record grades in a timely manner. Document progress on a huge range of data points for a variety of purposes. Provide students descriptive feedback on their work.
  • Attend one or more meeting. Faculty meetings. Team meetings. Data meetings. Committee meetings. Planning meetings. Professional development. Etc
  • Supervise students in a non-instructional setting. Lunch duty. Bus duty. Hall duty. Etc.
  • Communicate clearly and frequently with everybody: students, parents, administrators, colleagues, etc.

If you are not an educator, you probably think this list is exaggerated or does not represent a set of daily responsibilities that is particularly demanding. If you are an educator, you will doubtlessly point out that the list is missing more than it includes.

Here’s my whole point: we should all start acting like teaching is a profession that sets insanely unreasonable expectations. This is not even to argue that teaching should be less complex; merely to argue that our actions should demonstrate that we recognize and respect the complexity. To that end, I have a handful of recommendations.

1. Treat your colleagues with the respect they deserve. The greenest, strugglingest teacher is great at some part of teaching. Approach each encounter with your peers as if they have something to teach you – because they do. That type of respect rubs off. Worse case scenario, you will create a culture inside your school in which every member of the team goes through the day knowing they are held in esteem by their peers.

2. Find ways to make your work visible.  When someone is upset with you, it is pointless to complain about your workload – that comes across as deflection or whining. Consider a more proactive approach such as using a class social media account to highlight the learning (and range of activity) that goes on in your class every day.

1. Take time to consider your interactions with teachers. You write them thank you notes. You give them gifts. But do you treat them with the honor you afford your child’s doctor? When your child gets a bad grade or into trouble at school what assumptions do you make – that you need to know how to help your child correct a mistake or that you need to find and fix the school’s mistake? Please don’t tolerate inappropriate behavior from educators; just give them the same benefit of the doubt you give other professionals you trust.

2. Watch how you talk about school. Life is messy. Life is frustrating. Your child is not perfect. Don’t let your frustration shade the way you talk about your child’s teachers. What we say influences what we think. What we think becomes what we believe. What we collectively believe about teachers matters.

1. Act like teachers are the most important adults in your building. They are. Please, I beg you, stop treating teachers like minions and worker bees. This is a problem not merely because it is hurtful to them, it’s a problem because it doesn’t work. If you are getting indignant right now with thoughts like “I would never treat a teacher that way”, I am probably talking to you. Let me ask a few questions. Do you work for “buy-in” from teachers when you are implementing something new or do your school’s best ideas and plans come from teachers in response to problems you identified together? How often do you use the words “to fidelity”? Which list is longer, the teachers who have left your school in the last three years or the list of teachers waiting for a spot to open up so they can join your team? Yes, you are legally responsible for everything that goes on in the school. I’m clear on the respect I have for principals. But telling people what to do – even when it is disguised as “training” and “consensus building” and “creating consistency” – never works. It might get you a bump in standardized test scores for a couple of years but it does not create success that is sustainable. And it stifles the potential even of the teachers who support you most loyally.

2. Hold the complexity of the job in your mind when you interact with teachers. When you “support” a teacher (or reprimand or put her/him on an action plan), you are probably not wrong about the facts. They probably didn’t post their lesson plans or objectives. They probably did handle the student behavior issue awkwardly. But was your response in proportion to the complexity of the job? If teaching really is vastly complex, how is it productive to treat single issues (or even multiple issues) as grounds for a “get better quick” plan. Approaches like this imply that this issue at hand is so important that it outweighs all the strengths the teacher has. Saying “You are doing a lot of things well but … [action plan]” is the same as saying “Nothing matters except/as much as the thing you aren’t great at yet”.

We are all conspiring together to threaten the future of public education in the way we think about, talk about and treat teachers. But it does not have to be this way. You are only responsible for you. So be different. Begin (or renew your commitment) to treat teachers like they deserve more than platitudes. Treat them like they have earned your deepest respect and admiration. Your great-grandchildren deserve it.

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Galactica Actual

October is Principal Appreciation Month.  This post is dedicated to all the amazing principals I have had the privilege to work with as a teacher and colleague.  

The best metaphor I know to explain what it is like to be a principal comes from the show Battlestar Galactica.

In the pantheon of sci-fi television series, Battlestar Galactica must surely deserve consideration as one of the greats.  In case you have forgotten, the series depicts the odyssey of the last remnants of the human race as they are pursued through the universe by a race of humanoid “cylons” they had created. The ragtag fleet of ships is lead by Laura Roslin – who is promoted from Secretary of Education to President (of the human race) when the 42 government officials ahead of her in succession to that position are killed in the initial attack by the cylons, and by Commander William Adama – captain of the only surviving vessel of war: the battlestar Galactica.

Commander Adama’s ship has a squadron of “Vipers” – flying machines that function in space the way fighter planes function in terrestrial conflicts.  The command of military maneuvers is coordinated between the Galactica and the Vipers by radio transmission.  As with naval ships and fighter galacticaplanes on Earth, each has a call sign.  For example, Commander Adama’s son Lee Adama flies under the call sign “Apollo”.  Pilots attempting to communicate with the battlestar address their communication to “Galactica”.  As in “Galactica, this is Apollo.  I have made visual contact with the enemy.”  In a practice that mirrors that of battleships in the United States Navy, a junior officer on the Galactica is the one who operates the radio and speaks to the pilots most of the time.  When they hear from Galactica, it is his voice that comes over the airwaves.  

But he is only the voice of the ship.  When pilots need to discuss something very important, unorthodox or otherwise unusual, they ask for permission to speak to the Commander himself.  They say “Give me Galactical Actual”.  They are saying, in effect, ‘I have been speaking to the voice of the ship but now I need to speak to the ship itself’.  When Commander Adama says “This is Galactica Actual”, he is is saying ‘Go ahead, you are speaking to the ship’.  

When I saw the show for the first time, I was a principal and I made an instant connection to that concept.  You see, psychologically, it is is the same for a principal.  You are the school.  If you are (or have been) a principal, you know what I am talking about.  On the other hand, if you have never been a principal, you can only understand what I am saying theoretically.  To be the principal of a school is to be the school.  Of course, you are legally and professionally responsible for every detail in the school.  But beyond that, your personal identity becomes entwined with the school.  When your school is mentioned in the paper because a frozen pipe flooded the school or because there was a fight at the football game or because test scores were released last week, you were in the paper – whether your name is mentioned or not.  There are plenty of factors that make the principalship a difficult job – an ever evolving set of expectations, pressure to create change quickly, a steady barrage of deadlines and due dates, and an endless stream of decisions big and small that must be made.  The one that is most difficult to understand until you have experienced it yourself though is the psychological weight the job carries.  It is as if you must become the school.  Whether the individual in the office is a great leader or not, the school begins to take on the personality of the principal; and the principal assumes the identity of the school.  Whether it is more accurate to describe it as being the school or carrying the school, it is a heavy task either way.

Metaphors aren’t useful unless they lead to greater understanding.  Here are just a few hints and suggestions to help make this one worthwhile.


  • You are your school but you are not alone.  Wear the mantle of leadership loosely.  Build a team that works together.  You do have to be a heat shield to protect the folks around you but they can keep you sane by strengthening your hands for the work you do together.
  • Do everything you can to keep your work out of your home.  If you do not take a single task home, you are still carrying hundreds of people and their problems and needs home on your back.  Don’t make it worse by stealing time from your family or personal time to catch up on paperwork or any other tasks.
  • Keep perspective.  Either your school got along fine for a long time before you came along or it will for a long time after you leave.  Or both.  Education certainly did and will.  You are valuable and important but a healthy perspective (from the lens of history especially) will help you stay grounded.


  • When you get frustrated with your principal, keep in mind that they are people too and that this phenomenon I am describing has an impact on how they do the job.  This is not an excuse for poor practice but it might help you understand how to relate to your principal.  
  • Being a principal is not synonymous with having a huge ego.  Admittedly some school leaders appear to be engaged simply in the pursuit of power.  For most though, it is a monumental task to fulfill all the requirements and expectations they face every day.  What looks like ego is often just an attempt to make enough good decisions every day.  
  • On more than one occasion I sat in my office and cried because someone took a few minutes to write me a personal thank you note.  Have you thanked your principal lately?  If not, think about taking five minutes to write a quick note for just one thing he/she does well.  You will make their day (or maybe their week)!

Galactica out.

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No Checklists

The following is one man’s opinion.  I am not a researcher.  I do not even have a career’s worth of experience to support my claims.  What I do have is deep conviction and a track record that suggests that I am not completely wrong.

I do not believe in checklists.  I believe that we areorigin_9568156463 still using a leadership model that has run its course and is no longer the best option.  There was a time when (and there may still be situations in which) dictating what and when and exactly how others are to act was an effective approach to leadership.  There can be no doubt that it was in fact the leadership model used during a large chunk of human history and did produce impressive results. It seems to me though that, in many ways, our (human) objectives have changed and demand a different approach.  One we appear reluctant to adopt.  Consider, for example, the fact that for the first time in human history, the educational system in this country and several others) aims to educate the entire population.  No other society has even attempted this objective.  Ever.  Instead of blaming teachers and The Education System in general for struggling to accomplish this Herculean task with outdated tools and resources, perhaps we should consider new approaches to the task.  One approach that would require zero additional funding is a shift to a leadership paradigm that sees vision casting and navigating as more valuable than expecting and inspecting.  While the majority of my formal leadership experience is in the field of education, I believe that these principles apply equally well in all areas.

I submit that leadership that is based on telling people what to do can not produce sustainable results.  I reject as faulty logic the argument that suggests that changing folk’s actions will naturally and eventually result in a change of mind.  Making someone do something over and over may produce automaticity but it does not necessarily produce conviction.  Unfortunately, the prevailing model of leadership (in American schools at least) is to cast a vision (tell folks what they are going to be doing), make a plan (tell them how they must do it) and evaluate progress towards “shared goals” (inspect for compliance).  It is fashionable to talk about “buy-in”, but in my experience, the what and the how are rarely really negotiable.  This paradigm runs all the way through our system.  No Child Left Behind (the federally enacted school accountability act of the last decade) however well intentioned was based on a very basic assumption: if we place enough pressure on schools to get better, they will. While good things have come from NCLB, this assumption has proven to be woefully unfounded.  Unfortunately, we continue to act out that assumption all the way down to the individual level even when we see that it doesn’t work.  We have trained our teachers to follow directions and keep their opinions to themselves – even when we “ask” for them.

It is my firm conviction that the micromanagement that we so frequently assume to simply be part of life results in superficial and temporary results at best.  We are fully aware that this leadership approach requires continuous supervision.  Most human beings simply can not stay in compliance all the time when expectations of them come in the form of a checklist (literal or figurative).  On the other hand, checklist leaders can not allow deviations because the toleration of any exception is an invitation to chaos.  The funny thing about this approach is that even when “results” are achieved, as soon as pressure to comply is released, most compliance ends.  In other words, any momentum gained is not self-sustaining.  Plenty of schools have “turned it around” and become “outstanding” by means of very tightly controlling everything.  Test scores shoot up and the educational world applauds.  When the (often charismatic) leader who drives this growth moves on or when the grant runs out or when the program is replaced, however, things slowly drift back to the way they were.  Actually, I have worked at a school where the momentum only lasted one semester before we began spiraling toward mediocrity.  In other words, checklist leadership is only as good as the last inspection.  This approach to leadership in schools frequently feeds the all too common assumption that one of the main purposes of school is to help students get more test questions right, a paradigm I have commented on in another post.  If we are to set our sights higher than creating test-acing automatons, we need a different approach.  Checklist leadership is not the way.

It seems to me that there is a better way.  Most people want to be part of something significant.  Most people want to help solve the problem.  Most people want to be good at what they do.  Very few people want to be told what to do.  Clarification: most people would rather be told what to do than to be criticized or belittled for missing the hidden agenda, but when their personal dignity is safe adults don’t like to be treated like children. Actually, children don’t like to be treated like children most of the time.  Daniel Pink explains these ideas beautifully in his book Drive.  He suggests that most people are in fact not motivated by extrinsic factors (once their basic needs have been met).  The desire for autonomy, purpose, and expertise is highly motivating.  Pink cites research studies to back his claims.  All I have is my belief about the nature of human relationships and my experience as a leader … and as someone under authority.

Even the Age of Accountability has not adequately described what we are aiming for.  We are getting outscored by Finland and a bunch of other countries and we don’t like not being first, so let’s get out there and “fix this”.  To what end?  Are we trying to get better test scores so our president can have bragging rights at the next G8 summit?  Will a race to the top of the testing heap make other countries stop bad-mouthing us?  Will better scores make life tangibly better for the individual students who achieve them or for the schools or the generation of students those individuals are part of?  I submit that schools need a better purpose than raising test scores.  A purpose that can not be prescribed by anyone outside the building nor by any one person inside the building.  The reason is simple.  If we do not all voluntarily sign up to pursue a much more meaningful goal, we will continue to become more and more irrelevant to the young people who occupy our seats because the law holds them there.  The leader who believes himself to be helpless against the time honored tradition of checklist leadership can not possibly produce results that last beyond his tenure.  At best.  The one who stares down the status quo and chooses a different approach may find that people who are challenged to be amazing – and given the freedom to pursue that goal – might begin performing at a level that could never reasonably be required by a checklist leader.  Such a leader might just disrupt things long enough to give others the courage to consider a bit of changes themselves.

photo credit: AJC1 via photopin cc

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Honest Feedback

If you are in a leadership position of any kind this post is for you.  It is especially relevant for school administrators.  Leadership is not an individual sport.  Successful leaders do not operate in isolation; they work to create cohesive teams that work towards clearly defined goals.  The necessity of team building is a point not often missed; unfortunately, the approaches to doing so are counter-productive far too often.  Many leaders never consider questioning the ubiquitous assumption that it is their responsibility to “hold folks accountable” for doing what they are supposed to do – read apply the pressure necessary to ensure compliance.  I submit that meaningful and self-sustaining commitment to any shared goal is possible only by building a culture of trust.  That objective is possible only when you have a team that provides honest feedback.

It is my experience that most working professionals have been thoroughly and systematically conditioned to avoid giving honest feedback.  The role of a team member is to be a “team player” – one who does as he/she is told without asking questions.  Public school teachers have been trained to play this role well – give “input” when asked by listening carefully to what the boss is saying and then filling in the little “dialogue” boxes with answers that fit the formula provided by the expert or the “specialist” at the time.  In other words, teachers are afraid.  Listen to our buzzwords – “accountability”, “adequate yearly progress”, “standardization”, etc, etc.  The underlying premise of No Child Left Behind is that if we apply enough pressure (and/or offer enough incentives) our problems will get solved and stay solved.  From my perspective, this observation applies to other professions as well.  The terminology may be different, but the trend is the same: we can be great (or at least a lot better) if we could just get everyone to comply.

I began my career as a school administrator convinced that this thinking is wrong.  I believe that while this approach can yield to a change in the “data”, it will rarely lead to more learning and can never result in lasting change.  From the first day I was hired as a school principal, I set out to create a culture where the voice of each team member was valued; where each individual’s honest assessment of the decision we were considering was sought.  For more than half of my first year, the attitude of the faculty was polite skepticism.  It was as if everyone was waiting for the other other shoe to drop.  Till this day, some members of the faculty are apologetic when they offer a dissenting opinion – even when I ask for it.  In this my third year, there are levels of departmental, cross-curricular, and grade level collaboration unlike anything I have seen or been part of before in my career.  It is my opinion that the freedom to object – and think, and plan and innovate – has been a major part of bringing us to this place as a school.

I do not think there can be a formula for creating a team that provides honest feedback, but here are three specific examples of the strategies I have used.

Be vulnerable
Nothing demonstrates a desire for feedback like asking for it.  A practice I have engaged in both as an assistant principal and as a principal is to invite small groups of the faculty and staff to meet with me on neutral ground (usually the library) for the express purpose of providing feedback about me specifically.  In my invitation, I send five questions I will be asking:
– “What are my blind spots?”
-“What do I think I do well that I don’t?”
– “What do I need to do better?”
– “What do I need to stop doing or do much differently?”
– “In what area am I most in need of growth?”
These groups are always small; they always include both teachers and staff; everyone gets invited (by the end of the year).  In my invitation and at the start of the meeting, I ask for honest feedback.  I share my conviction that I can not possibly be fully effective as a leader if I am not aware of the perspective of the people on my team.  A point of particular emphasis is my request that participants save their words of encouragement for later.  This is not an attempt to fish for complements.  Almost invariable, I come away from these sessions with insight that I almost certainly would never have gained if I had not asked for the feedback.  Sometimes, I make major changes to my perspective or approach based on what is shared.  In addition to giving me the opportunity to learn, these meetings build trust.  On more occasions than I can remember, staff members have been very appreciative of the fact that they were invited to participate and that their feedback was invited at all.  Even participants who chose not to provide feedback frequently say that the gesture of asking was deeply meaningful to them.

Ask for feedback … and use it
If a principal’s roast is not quite your feed, you can still ask for feedback.  Seize opportunities to ask people for their opinions and then use their input as often as you can.  Ask the custodian how he would approach a task you are discussing instead of informing him of how you want the job done.  Use the secretary’s suggestion for how to get seven sheets of student-specific paper and report cards sorted and into the hands of teachers in time to distribute.  Give a draft of the parent letter you just wrote to a teacher (not just the Language Arts teachers) and ask her to mark it up for you.  The more you ask for feedback in the little things, the more willing your team will be to give their honest opinions about the big things.  In the past couple of weeks, we have started our school-wide professional learning group (details and an update in a later post).  Three of our departments (so far) have taken a day out of the classroom to engage in shared professional learning.  Science went first and planned a great activity.  They each wrote everything they do as part of their job as a teacher on a paper plate.  They then rewrote their plate to be organized the way they would like it to be.  Part of that process was “fixing a plate for Mr. Maxey”.  They wrote the things they would like me to take off their plates.  I visited their meeting that day (and the others on their days) so that they could share their specific ideas about how I can lighten their loads as classroom teachers.  I walked out of that meeting and took immediate action.  Our faculty meeting this month was planned around that feedback.  If you really listen to your team, they will be willing to be honest with you.

Admit your mistakes publicly
It takes a big man (or woman) to admit his mistakes.  But there are plenty of small-minded fools propping up the charade of their own greatness.  Here’s the thing: if you are a human being, you are going to make mistakes.  The only question is whether you are going to pretend that you are infallible or gain the trust of your team by admitting your mistakes.  By the way, for many leaders this is very difficult.  Too often our own pride convinces us to move on as quickly as possible.  In my opinion it is possible to say you made a mistake while communicating that it wasn’t your fault or not that big a deal or in some other way down-playing the issue.  It seems to me that leaders should bravely but humbly say “I made a mistake.  I am sorry.  I am going to fix it and make plans to keep myself from making this mistake again”.  When they do, their team and community gain respect for them.

As the cliche goes, there is no “I” in team.  There are plenty of eyes on your team, though.  It would be foolhardy to ignore the perspective of the entire team.  Good leaders listen when the members of their team offer feedback.  Great leaders ask for it.

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You Must Be Willing to Fail

If you have been anywhere near public education in the last ten years, you have probably heard somebody declare with great conviction “Failure is not an option”.  In most cases, this sentiment is expressed by very well-meaning educators and has served as a mantra to symbolize our collective desire to ensure that no student receives anything other than our best effort for his/her success.  Too often though, it seems that this rhetoric is applied with haphazard ubiquity.  The effect I have seen it have is that educators get the message that we can not afford to tolerate failure of any kind.  That misapplication of a very well-intentioned message leads not to relentless excellence but to cautious risk-management and a slavish adherence to the status quo.  The students we serve need us to abandon this mindset.  They will not be adequately prepared for the future they will face by adults who play it safe and teach them to avoid failure too.

I propose a new attitude about failure and the risk of failure.  Every educator and every student should be given explicit permission – and indeed challenged – to act in ways that include a high risk of failure.  Here (in no particular order) are a few reasons why.

Failure is inevitable
When we act as though failure can be avoided completely, we reveal a fundamental misunderstanding of nature.  It is simply not possible to never fail.  We sometimes seem to lose sight of the fact that failing is an integral part of learning.  The only way to never fail is to never try.  A baby who is learning to walk is in fact falling more than he is walking.  Preventing him from falling will not teach him to walk.  Showing him how to keep from falling will.  The greatest tragedy is not falling down; the greatest tragedy is not getting back up. 

Failure is a better teacher than success
As a teacher, I have seen first-hand students’ obsession with getting the right answer (so they can get a good grade) instead of a passion for learning.  We have instilled in them the wrong message.  Being right the first time every time leads to far less learning than being wrong over and over at first.  If I do not lead a student to a place that requires growth, why did she need me in the first place?  Failure-as-learning works for adults too.  Innovation can not possibly be accomplished by individuals who are afraid to fail. 

The higher the goal, the greater the potential for failure
We have set for ourselves the goal of shaping the course of young people’s lives.  I can not think of a task more risky or difficult.  How can we possibly believe that this task will be accomplished by a strict adherence to irrelevant traditions or a careful implementation of the latest program … to fidelity?  If I am not free to fail though, I will almost certainly act in a way that is known to work.  We must take risks if the education we are offering this generation has any relevance to them in their adulthood at all.

History will forget you either way – you might as well try to change it
I may be alone, but I often find comfort in this thought.  What use does history have for those who play it safe?  Also, how arrogant do I have to be to believe that I was born to build and protect my own puny reputation?  If I am truly serving the interests of others, any cost to me personally will be justified.  Actions that echo through history are unlikely to be without cost to those willing to take them.  The unwillingness of so many to take meaningful action makes such sacrifices necessary.

The cure for a fear of failure is failure
What I am proposing is not easy.  I have been trying to nurture this paradigm since I became a principal in 2011.  Old habits die hard though and I am often reminded that removing the cause of a fear and removing the fear are two different things.  The best way to lose one’s terror of failure is to fail … and to survive the failure to try again. 

Give those around you permission to fail.  Nurture the kind of courage that accepts the possibility of failure in the pursuit of excellence.  Pick yourself up with dignity (and humility) when you fail yourself; hiding your own failures will diminish this message.  When you understand that failure may actually be preferable from time to time, it will no longer have the power to keep you in check.


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(One) Principal’s Creed

I believe teachers have the most important job on earth. 

I believe my students deserve my best every day and that I can only teach students effectively if I love them.

I believe Dumbledore was right: my choices are far more important than my abilities. 

I believe that I am not where I am, doing what I do by accident. 

I believe in the power of collaboration, that self-reflection is an essential part of growth, and that educators who aren’t learning are regressing: two heads are better than one … and 45 heads are many hundreds of times better than one.

I believe that failure is an option … and is often a better instrument of learning than instant success.  I also believe that failure can not be banned by fiat. 

I believe love is stronger than fear and relationships are more important than rules. 

I believe that what educators do changes the course of young lives … one way or the other. 

I believe that my students learn much differently than I did and that they will not reach their full potential if I value the preservation of tradition over preparing them for the future they will live in. 

I believe that I must not allow teaching students to answer test questions correctly to be the purpose of school. 

I believe that dogmatism and leading by checklist are excellent ways to maintain the status quo and to ensure mediocrity. 

I believe a major part of my job is to recruit and develop and empower great teachers … and to protect them from bureaucracy. 

I believe there is no spoon and impossible needs our permission. 

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Survival Guide to the Second Half of the Summer

An Open Letter to Myself:

Dear Andrew

In case you haven’t noticed, summer vacation is exactly half over.  The fact that you are reading this (and that I am writing it) suggests that the first half of the summer was not fatal. I know you have plenty to do, so I’ll keep this brief.  The following is a recap of what I have learned this summer and some suggestions to help you wind up to the start of the Fall semester successfully.

1. Daniel Pink is right.  Since teachers are people, they ARE highly motivated by autonomy, mastery, and purpose.  How else do you explain the fact that the teachers at Rock Quarry Middle School spent the entire last day discussing, exploring, and unanimously ratifying the RQMS Grading Manifesto and attending the inaugural EdCampRQMS voluntarily.  If it wasn’t the sense of immense value in the work they were doing, what did motivate them to describe it as the “best last day ever”?  Don’t forget this as you plan for next year.  Don’t give into the temptation to seize control. Make protecting your teachers from bureaucracy a priority.

2. This technology thing might actually catch on.  In the past four years I have gone from an accidental “tech guru” to place of fanatical belief in the role of technology in learning from now on (at least until the Apocalypse and/or the cylons attack).  I’ve been integrating technology into my instruction since the first year I was a teacher, but I believe it is simply foolish and irresponsible to ignore all the ways that technology can amplify the learning is already happening in our classrooms.  I’ve specifically become convinced of the value of social media as a professional learning tool in the last year – particularly Twitter.  The impact on my own learning was so great that I made joining and starting to use Twitter a strong recommendation on the RQMS Faculty Summer Reading list.  I don’t have any particularly unique ideas to share.  What I do have are experiences that are different from other educators.  I can learn from them and let them learn from me.  As you continue to plan this summer, keep working to make the case for this kind of dynamic, self-directed (and almost always) very powerful approach to professional development.  Get more educators around you connected; keep modeling the best practice  you know; above all, keep sharing and learning.

3.  This just in: you are a human being too.  You make a point of always keeping in mind the fact that the students and teachers and parents and even folks you report to are people before any role they have.  You’ve done no better than mediocre at remembering this about yourself over the last year or two.  When you get tempted to think that the work you do is indispensable, recall that human learning and even formal education got on just fine without you for several hundred years (or many thousands).  You matter, but don’t burn yourself out trying to do everything at the same time.  Don’t stop exercising when the school year starts (again).  Don’t stop reading yourself to sleep at night.  Don’t stop doing crazy yard work just because.  Tickle the girls just a few seconds longer.  Spend time with (just) Lori more often.  Get those jumping stilts.  Check off a few more summits.

As everyone knows, all great lists are supposed to have either 10 or 101 items.  Make up the other 7 (or 98) yourself – you seem like the kind of guy who might have an idea or two to share.

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