My Team – Gratitude

I wish I had a better grasp on some earth-shaking information that would give you a way to improve your craft beyond measure.  Alas, my well runs dry at this time of year, and I guess it’s lucky, too. You don’t need another “challenge to be great” or royal decree regarding what classrooms should look like, nor a step-by-step guide on how to build better relationships with your students.  As I read through our middle school narrative comments this week, I know for certain that my team already understands these things. When the intent of their efforts to inspire learning shines as bright as it does when each of them is present in the Middle School, this place truly becomes the most magnificent school I have ever known.

When people ask me why I enjoy working at Presbyterian School, I say that I am surrounded by the smartest, most hard-working people I know who have invested time into something in which we believe is worth every late night, every missing assignment, and every tough conversation.  I work with teachers who understand that great learning stems from the trusting relationship built with his or her students. Truly great classroom leaders understand that the learning process is a partnership in which no single person owns, but relies on the skill sets offered by all those involved.

My School is a true representation of the value that can be found in hard work, reflection, and active communication.  We put into daily practice what many institutions only hope to achieve at culminating events: the development of confident young people who demonstrate learning with incredible capability and zeal.  And in the brief pockets of time when this goal is not met, we take it upon ourselves to improve our craft and reset the bar to encourage age-appropriate risk and a better understanding of how to navigate the path forward.

Recently, I posted on the Modern Learners community my description of “what school should be.” I am proud to say I’m living in it…but here was my answer:

[I picture school to look and act as] an extremely busy train station with frenetic energy based on the potential of SO MANY destinations. Every single person is granted ALL responsibilities of conductor, passenger, mechanic, server, security, and logistical coordinator. It is a joyful place filled with possibility. Conversations about where a person has visited and what that person has seen and done are commonplace. The sharing of ideas from the aggregate experiences of the participants simply builds new and exciting opportunity to further explore and connect to places unseen. It’s a magical place.

Happy Easter…remember that through forgiveness we have been saved, and through the sacrifice of one precious Man, we have been given everything.  It’s our responsibility to share that meaningful, joyful, and soulful responsibility to each other, now and forever.

Timeless Learning- Reflections (Week 2)

What are you doing every day to help create the world you want to see?

Part of my job as a division leader is vision-casting. It is my responsibility as director of the middle grades to be a person who thinks about where this “cruise ship” should travel, the path to our destination, and the events along the way. Conversations that involve listening to faculty members create and explore new ideas while encouraging these individuals to stretch their thinking is paramount. For instance, should a teacher want to build a new lab study in heat transfer, it is my job to consider how students should be learning and walk through that vision with e educator leading the way. At the same time, I should carve out pockets of the day or week to discuss school vision with the entire faculty team so that they begin to reflect on how their day-to-day aligns with that vision. When the individual activity arrives, such as the heat transfer lab, that educator already has a foundation built that manages expectations and supports new methodology.

Another piece to create a world I want to see is research and exploration. We must do some learning for ourselves to improve the environment present for faculty and students. Exploring new concepts, practices, and current research must remain a consistent part of our professional effort. When something new presents itself, we must then consider how that new idea, program, or practice aligns (or challenges) our current vision. We should model comfort when considering ideas that challenge the status quo. While change is difficult in schools, adjusting to new research or practices starts with leadership – vulnerability (admitting that a better way exists) is a requirement for change.

Imagine a place where students could…

If you could create a brand new school for yourself in September, what would it look like? Mine would be a place of opportunity. I could envision a space where students can engage in various activities, from hands-on experiments to discussion-based centers. Students should be able able to self-direct a large portion of their learning, with adults in the building serving as “inspiration specialists” who have a wealth of knowledge about platforms, applications, communities, and culture. These adults would carry the responsibility of educating students on the various paths to take while refraining from making a choice for them. Students would be in charge of their learning journey, creaky accountable “gates” through whichthey would pass on the road to discovery. I believe this school would support middle-aged students an older. Kids who enroll would have that certain mental wanderlust, eager to search for answers and share their findings.

And the space would never end with the physical walls if the building, but would extend to the great outdoors, fields and courts of competition, and digital pathways for communication with the global village.

Quick Reflection: How to be a good principal (or person…same thing)

The first response that keeps coming up is presence. Leaders can’t lead from an ivory tower. The best results come from watching and experiencing school first hand. That means being in the hallways, observing in the classroom, and making contact/conversation with families at drop off and pickup times. The more we are seen as a part of the daily program, the better our credit with all parties involved.

Second is personal investment. Sitting with teachers at the lunch table (see presence) and asking for home and school stories doesn’t necessarily integrate you into the foxhole community, but it shows your interest in making it better.

Third is accessibility. We need to be available and prompt this availability in conversation with faculty by encouraging group or one-on-one meetings. We need to open our door to parents – in either case, not to make change, but to ensure that parties are heard. There is so much

Finally, we need to be LISTENING. Further, we should say, with intention, that we are listening. So establish our role as lead listener – not necessarily with a solution as the end game…but to serve as fact-finder and a hub of possibility.

Are We Asking the Wrong Question?

We are all the Man in the Arena

As an educational leader, I worry about gun safety laws in our country and how we plan on making the world safer. However, I don’t have an opinion on gun safety that I’d like to share; I’m ignorant on the legal and political stances of key decision makers to really have an intelligent conversation. But I am an avid Brene Brown reader, so I harken back to an analogy in Daring Greatly as she references Theodore Roosevelt’s “Man in the Arena” speech. As we enter into our own worlds (offices downtown to classrooms full of children), we all enter our own arenas in which we must fight like gladiators to achieve our goals. And the loudest, most nefarious critics are often those in the cheapest seats. Yet they influence us as we fight, serving as that nagging voice in the back of our heads, questioning our every move. I’m doing battle every day…and I must do so with confidence that the tools I utilize will facilitate my success.
I am sure you can see my frustration when listening to those who claim to be “in the middle of it all” but do not recognize that there are actually people in the middle of it all. As I watch the news stream on my computer, I can’t help but feel there are so many who are trying to be first to the microphone on one side of the conversation or the other, claiming to have a solution while saying everyone else is wrong, while those of us sitting in classrooms continue to live, day by day, with a mission to help children in spite of the potential threat to our safety. I don’t know the answer to gun control, and I don’t pretend to even like the conversation. However, I cannot help but think of that typical movie scene where mom and dad are yelling at each other…and the young kid is quietly escaping stage left to a haphazard hangout with friends also looking for relief.

Expectations are Growing in Bad Roots

According to Kegan and Lahey’s thesis in The Immunity to Change, people fall prey to the status quo because today’s culture has demanded it for so long that systemic change becomes practically impossible. Taking this thought into education, Dr. David Gleason postulates that today’s student has an achievement problem singularly facilitated by the fact that our children’s successes are orchestrated to escalate a family’s social status…and that is a norm which seems to be immune to change. On this Educating Modern Learners podcast, Dr. Gleason shares his research-based concern that has me thinking – have we made our own bed with school violence? Gleason expresses the issue in his new book, At What Cost: Defending Adolescent Development in Fiercely Competitive Schools, as one in which we place high, socially-normed expectations for success on those who are not yet neurologically developed enough to meet them. For instance, parents want their child to be the Harvard-bound kid, or the ace on the pitcher’s mound, or first chair violin in order to “be successful,” and therefore provide indirect validation to a family’s success. The cost of this crushing neurological responsibility is often too much for a child to bear. No matter the level of achievement, asking a young person to live up to someone else’s dreams is like trying to turn the Titanic with telekinesis; the iceberg frequently becomes an easier route. I just pray that the damage is small enough to repair. I don’t mean to talk out of both sides of my own mouth: kids don’t have the mental capability of knowing what they want and how to get it until much later in life. However, imposing an expectation of success that is unrealistic only causes anxiety, frustration, and (at times) retaliation.

Recalculating…

In my opinion, we need to confront the issue, head on. As a mentor advises, “confrontation is the hallmark of caring and the soul of honesty.” But perhaps we are confronting the wrong issue. Is the gun control really the problem, or is the root much, much bigger?

Imagine, Imagine, Imagine

My youngest son loves Elmo. He adores watching this character sing and dance, particularly with Taye Diggs as they go driving in their imaginary yellow automobile. For some reason, this little jam gets Parker moving and singing. He loves making the sounds that a car makes; he’ll watch the same video over and over. However, the song is not what I think about when I watch it with my boy. At the beginning of the video, Taye and Elmo “imagine, imagine, imagine” what their ideal car and drive would look like. They even remember to imagine seat belts!

Today, Elmo’s fun video has me thinking: what do I “imagine, imagine, imagine” when it comes to school? How has my vision changed over the course of the school year because of the challenges set before me by the facilitators and members of the Change.School program? How about the lessons learned from my colleagues at Presbyterian?

A Million Dreams are Keeping Me Awake

Much like Elmo, I close my eyes, and I can imagine a few key ideas:

  • I am meeting with middle school faculty. While greeting them, I ask them to reflect on why they enter the classroom each day. Do they enjoy the skill-driven learning goals they have built their curriculum and the ways in which they engage students? Am I feeding them with opportunities to do create dynamic learning spaces? Are they enticing students to own their learning process?
    • Teachers construct an adventurous environment in which students can explore and pursue learning with passion and vigor. It is my hope that we move beyond simple engagement with content. Especially for middle school children, almost all content will resurface in the coming years. So content is the medium; however, the true learning in place hones collaborative and creative skill. Learning to learn is the model.
  • I am observing a class that is exploring a new concept. Students are struggling with the challenge, leaning on each other and the micro-discoveries that manifest throughout the group on the way to comprehension. Students are smiling because they enjoy the challenge designed by the teacher in the room. That teacher is there to facilitate wonder and guide young thinkers towards a common pathway.
    • Learning spaces model trial-and-error; students should never fear the potential of failure as a step towards success. Grades as metrics do not provide any sort of long-term value; rather, it’s the skill to develop and manage a process that makes a great student and learner. Students should feel a sense of urgency to identify problems and make an effort to discover evidence which lead to answers…and more questions.
  • I envision learning opportunities in all spaces and from all sorts of places. Students are on their iPads, searching a multitude of spaces, referencing texts they may have found virtually or in the learning commons on campus. The teacher in the room bring her or his own knowledge base to the table as well, only inspiring further research.
    • The spark may come from other people in the room, such as students, YouTube, the docent at the museum, the professional with life experiences to share, etc. We need to tap into all resources in our learning spaces; to fall short in this area is simply a failure of the system as a whole.

Developing a Roadmap to Get There

I believe in the power of teacher autonomy. I should not need to observe and review lesson plans when my vision is clearly articulated and genuinely adopted by faculty. We hire faculty who demonstrate a willingness to buy into the culture of our school and appreciate the pedagogical freedom to live into that vision on one’s own terms. Further, teachers should have the authority to challenge my vision with practical evidence of “a better way” to inspire learning and student agency. That is what a division meeting is for – a gathering of individual vision so that we can move forward together as a confident unit. I look forward to the time we as a division can play together as much as the time when we wrestle through our differences. I would never claim to have all the answers (which is why I surround myself with smarter people in the room). So, is there a roadmap? I’d say the faculty in my division depend of me for a direction of travel, not how to get there. That diversity of thought makes school messy…and messiness models creativity in our students.