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.


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?

What is Modern Learning?

Taken from a comment I made on a very intriguing post in my Change.School community:

Modern Learning is all about the “who” in our daily life. Now, I stole this mantra from my mentor, but I firmly believe in it. Modern learning requires us to know our audience and present ideas and concepts (whether required or via passionate personal interest) in a way that is relatable to each person in the room. We must work very hard to research and explore ways to connect to those whom we hope to inspire. To change a culture, we need buy in…and everyone’s buy in is specific to personal need. However, when we can connect that personal need to the needs of the many, we have an opportunity for real change.


So Modern Learning connects personal need and interest to that of the larger community or system. ML turns all boats towards the same guiding light so that we can arrive, together, at a place of enlightenment and growth.

My “What” and My “Why”

I’m on my way back from Santa Fe, NM, after attending a Division Heads conference for area private school leaders. As I sit in the back of the airplane, I find myself surprised to find a unique opportunity to reflect on my practice. For inspiration in this effort, I turn to the May 2017 issue of Educational Leadership Magazine, particularly to an article entitled, “Is Your School Better Because You Lead It?” by Bondi K. Kafele. Within the article, Kafele asks two questions for the reader to ponder: “What is your work about?” and “Why do you do it?

These are perfect reflection questions for any professional. I will take a slab in building my own answers here.

What is your work about?

There’s nothing like a 30,000 foot question to get me thinking. My work is all about the privileged child and how that young person can better understand the opportunities afforded to him or her because of various, unique environments available either at home or in our school. Facing reality, my 250 students enjoy an elevated classroom experience free of outside, standardized influence when compared to the typical experience which manifests in thousands of public school learning environments because requirements which exist outside of their control often tie their hands behind their backs. It is therefore my role to guide our teachers and students in the conversation that explores how this special opportunity to teach in a private educational environment reveals an obligation to lead others to success. That success manifests in various professional and personal avenues to be appreciated and celebrated.

Why do you do it?

I love kids, plain and simple. I recognize that, as a product of private school learning, I have so much to give to my community with regard to academic knowledge and how to use it as a way to improve the world around us. This gift includes and is most consumed (for me, anyway) by lessons I have learned, good and bad, about the life in a privileged environment. I love how young people see the world, the naivete that their varied experiences bring, and the way that exposures to life outside their “bubble” broaden their scope to reveal passion and identity. I also love the educational environment; I feel comfortable in private education because I am surrounded by like-minded individuals. The various perspectives of my colleagues may not always align with my own, but the beauty inherent inside the ”hows” of education (ie, pedagogy, technology, relationships, etc.) are better shared with those who start from a place of love and responsibility to serving today’s youth in some way, shape, or form.

So, there you have it. What has developed into more of a manifesto than a reflection, I have put to paper my reason for being in education and, specifically, in educational leadership. I hope you have the chance to reflect on your craft as I have today. It’s a refreshing and energizing activity. Please share your thoughts when you do!

if you got a problem…yo, I’ll solve it.

Ice, Ice, Baby

This is a great article, and one worth considering as applicable to students and to the adults in the room. I just returned from a conference with other Division Heads during which Dr. Rob Evans, educational psychologist and author, spoke in the closing session about the “tough conversation” between schools and families. One major connection to this article Kate shared and his talk occurred when he stated,
“We live in a time when opportunities for our children continue to increase exponentially, while predictability of future options has been decreasing just as quickly.” 
It sounds like the coping mechanism for anxiety is often medically prescribed, when, in truth, what we all need is more time; however, I don’t think any remedy outside of a magic wand can provide us more hours in our day. Yet we crave a time to think and reflect on our daily lives, our school schedule, etc. From the very youngest to the CEO, time to think would do us all a world of good and lead to better choices. Dr. Evans goes a bit further to discuss a very poignant fact:

Problems can be fixed; dilemmas can be managed. 

Often times, looking at the way we handle issues in our lives can determine how much anxiety we bring upon ourselves. We cannot control everything, yet our instant life via mobile devices makes us think we can. But true problems are in need of solutions that disrupt the issue and provide a new road to travel. A dilemma is more on the level of inconvenience; perhaps, dilemmas can be serviced better with a bit of white-out rather than trashing the blueprints altogether.
The summer provides me an incredible opportunity, even in the midst of shuttling my boys to and from activities to keep them occupied while I’m at work, to reflect on my practice. I can slow down, think about priorities and (for instance) write about my thoughts in a venue such as this blog. I can think about how I do school; my expectations and reasonings behind various events and actions throughout the year. Most of all, I need to consider what problems I can cut out, and what dilemmas I am capable of fixing.
I hope and pray that your anxiety levels drop with the coming of a slower, or perhaps an alternative schedule this summer. I invite you to view the future weeks with hope and possibility.

Making an Impact #IMMOOCBB

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I (Kirsten) shared this quote with my awesome #IMMOOC blogging buddy (Charlie) and even though it is not from The Innovator’s Mindset, we felt like it directly correlates to our work and mission. Here is our buddy blog experiment sharing the wonderings about leadership, empowerment and impact.


Most of my (Charlie) teaching strategies have developed from my time coaching sports. While I began my career in education as both a teacher and coach, I recognized that my gift for working with young people existed on the playing field long before I figured out how to lead a classroom. My love for sports (namely, lacrosse) and my ability to inspire players to give their best effort and elevate their strategic thinking galvanized my career choice years ago, and I haven’t looked back since.

Along the way, I worked with many inspirational student athletes. They found their role models in athletics and built their “game” as inspired copies of their favorite television sports heroes. Names like LeBron James or Tom Brady come to mind as people who motivated my young athletes. These superstars demonstrate leadership within their “field” that elevates others every day.

LeBron’s teammates gain confidence when he is present; they come together to play better as a team. The ball feeds through LeBron at the exact right time to give teammates the best chance to score. Lebron has vision two or three passes beyond the current one, carrying an oil can in one hand and a wrench in the other as he tweaks and tightens the basketball machine.

When Tom Brady walks up to the line of scrimmage and barks out the play, calls an audible, or makes a hand signal towards his receivers, everyone listen.G including his opponents). Tom recognizes something that is about to happen based on the moving pieces in front of him. No one else sees the game like he can, so the other players on the field follow his lead, orchestrating a masterful charge down the field.

While these examples are a bit sensational, the framework for them equals that which is required for classroom leadership: the opportunity for our students to make an impact in their current and future lives depends on the teacher elevating his or her own game within the learning space. We model the way so that others will recognize the value in giving one’s best effort and in setting challenging standards.

My (Kirsten) journey at TEPSA is about to come to a close as I move to a new adventure working with school system leaders in the coming weeks. The thought of what my legacy will be is at the forefront. I’m no LeBron or Tom Brady, but hope there is a legacy of good work that will last in my absence.

I am not the kind of leader that comes in and makes sweeping changes from the start. I told our Executive Director that right from the start. You want major changes, I’m more of a slow and steady kind of girl. The African Proverb says it best: “If you want to go fast, go alone – If you want to go far, go together.” I’m in it for the long haul with the crew on board. Along the way with little changes here and there, conversations, shifts, additions, and deletions you look up and find what was there several years ago has transformed into something new and different (and hopefully better). In reflecting on what builds sustainable change over time, I think it boils down to these qualities. Feel free to add your own in the comments of what we did not include!

Build Something Meaningful

No one wants to sustain a practice that is irrelevant or not adding value to the organization after the originator leaves. To know what is meaningful for staff, students and parents, you must know them! Meaningful work comes from connecting with others and we all know relationships are key. Ensure what you create and implement resonates with the learning community and is something worth keeping over time.

Empower Others

The experiences discovered in our learning spaces should instill self-confidence and a desire to know more. But these two characteristics prove empty without the skills and ability that drive them. That is what empowering others means:. a person who has filled his or her learning toolbelt can tackle any topic and pursue any passion. It’s our job to demonstrate these tools and the innovative uses for them.

Share, share, share

If you have knowledge, let others light their candles in it.
-Margaret Fuller

Knowledge has no value when kept in secret. As we push for more innovation in our learning spaces, collaborative effort remains the only skeleton key. Knowledge should not be kept as power, it needs to be shared to create powerful learning throughout the organization. Teaching students skills to know and be able to do things independently is so rewarding. Do not forget we need to do that for the adults as well. The #IMMOOC experience is a great model for this! George, Katie and all the other gracious learning collaborators are sharing their time and talents so we can learn with them. It is wonderful to find such a smart and fun group of educators to connect with and stretch my thinking. I look forward to continuing this learning journey even after the experience is over and sharing what I’ve learned to hopefully help others.

Check out the blog developed by my good friend, Kirsten: Leadershift. We would love to hear your thoughts on this topic, please share in the comments. What are you doing to improve others and make a lasting impact?

Time to Return – This Journey’s End is Near! #IMMOOC

In case you are not a connoisseur of fine rap music from the early 2000s, Eminem coins the line above in his signature song, Lose Yourself, found in the movie “8 Mile,” and perhaps the most famous of his career…save for Slim Shady, that is. For it was Slim Shady that put a white rapper in the mainstream for the first time with a disruptive and innovative sound of someone who had to fight tooth-and-nail for acceptance. 

But I digress.
We return to school tomorrow! It is my hope that you have found time to rest, recharge, and prepare for the final lap to our own Mile Run. As I stated at the Luncheon before we left for break, Sir Roger Bannister broke the four-minute mile. While he may have run with a euphoria that I can only hope to find when running after Reid as he careens down the street on his bike, I can say for certain that the third lap in a mile run is the most difficult one. The exhaustion sets in, the monotony of the race seeps into your daily routine, and the finish line seems so far away.

No more!

Let the endorphins take over; allow your adrenaline to fly; put your creative courage to the sticking place. It’s time to start the FOURTH QUARTER. I challenge you to make this week your best one all year…until the following week comes and you can further up the educational ante.
As you design your classes moving forward, remember a few things:

  • You are learning as much and as fast as the students; allow vulnerability to have a role in your classroom.
  • The average attention of a middle school student does not exceed 11 minutes. Use your time wisely and mix it up!
  • Your students should leave your class at the end of the year with MORE questions about your content area than when they came in…pique their interests and get them wondering.
  • The greatest problem solvers can oftentimes be the problem finders. Turn your student questions into research challenges that our young people can own and share with their peers.

Have a great fourth quarter, everyone!

Innovation Day, Inbound!

Eyes Front

Tomorrow my school will have an inservice day for all the faculty and staff. I am super excited to see the possibilities unfold as we begin to look forward towards 2017-2018. In the administrative world, the master calendar for next year is all but solidified in concrete, and the various open spaces in our faculty teams have been identified. Solutions begin to appear daily, and the image of the coming school year is more than a mirage off in the distance. At the same time, however, the leadership team has been evaluating our various philosophies regarding the way we do business and targeting those pieces that need retooling. From schedules to the names of courses, everything gets a first look so that we can be sure that we are doing things with the learner in mind.

You can probably tell that this time of year is my favorite, as opportunity meets action. While we have no need to reinvent the wheel, it is my job to talk to faculty and leadership with the purpose of brainstorming ways to ensure that this wheel is screwed on tightly and well greased.

But for some, particularly students (insert “7th graders” here), this time of year can seem to drag on until Spring Break. People often find the phrase “more of the same” repugnant; I believe that there is always an opportunity to rebuild or redesign a program to make it better for our students and the learning in the classroom. So, in an effort to jazz things up a bit, I am instituting my first FedEx/Innovation Day program for the faculty.

Creative Juices Oozing

I learned about the FedEx day model a few years ago, but it just resurfaced as a logical thought this past month as I read through this Connected Principals blogpost by Chris Wejr. I was pleasantly surprised to find it; the timing could not be more ideal! For those of you new to the idea, a FedEx day allows an individual to pursue an innovative thought without the impediment of the regular grind getting in the way. In other words, someone covers your job while you pursue an idea that would benefit both you and your place of work. The goal of a FedEx day serves one’s heart and (in this case) one’s school as a teacher innovator creates an action plan that would bring a new idea to life. This isn’t a replacement program that simply changes the way we do our current curriculum; FedEx day is a game-changing, disruptive thought that could make us greater as an institution while demonstrating teacher mastery. I have already challenged teachers to start thinking about how they could utilize a FedEx day in a previous division meeting. It is my hope that tomorrow serves as the beginning of a time when our great minds can walk through open doors.

This isn’t a replacement program that simply changes the way we do our current curriculum; FedEx day is a game-changing, disruptive thought that could make us greater as an institution and that demonstrates teacher mastery.

In reality, the design of an action plan may require more FedEx time; that need has to present itself in the plan at the end of the day, and then the driver of the FedEx program can determine if more time away from the norm is warranted. But the initial day is one of creative flow. Here is the program model as I presented it to the middle school faculty:

  1. Take the afternoon of our inservice day, from 1:30 until going home, to think and design a plan to have some FedEx time.
  2. Create this action plan (there isn’t a specific design to this plan, but it’s sort of like a field trip form that we use…purpose, logistics, who is involved, goal, etc.)
  3. Send me the plan so that we can sit down and discuss how I can help bring an idea into light.
  4. Once ratified, the FedEx Day proposal will have these features at a teacher’s disposal:
    • Use a workday (without spending a personal day) to begin working on this plan.
    • Employ the MS Leadership team to act as teachers in the classroom for the day (so we will need lesson plans, unless it’s a day given to us in order to bring in something unique).
    • Request funding (as needed) to help bring this day into development. While funding is severely limited, it is never a bad idea to ask for help!

In thinking of the way I envision this program to go, I have done some brainstorming of various ideas:

  • Building a research project for your students that has them explore new and exciting learning strategies.
  • Searching for a MOOC or some sort of professional development program to complete and share with the faculty.
  • Exploring a new digital tool to introduce to students and teach faculty.
  • Creating a photograph collage or artwork to share with the school and the students (think faculty gallery).

I’m sure this list could grow as I sit here and do some thinking. I really hope that the various members of our great faculty sink their collective teeth into the FedEx idea. My personal goal with this program remains in the effort to make this school the very best place to work. In giving teachers a voice and opportunity to express their ideas, I hope that I’m on the right track.


I am beginning to read The Innovator’s Mindset: Empower Learning, Unleash Talent, and Lead a Culture of Creativity by George Couros. It’s been on my reading list for some time; however, Couros has begun a second round of his MOOC which uses this book as the text, so the incentive to join in the conversation has met a point of opportunity.

After working through the introduction and the first chapter, I’m hooked. Couros introduces the idea of innovation in education as what we should be doing in order to break free from the traditional, factory-based learning models and pursue learning as a genuine skill to hone and cultivate as a pedagogical priority, a change of direction I fully embrace. Yesterday’s model of educating a child is antiquated; yet, we as an industry seem lost in the cycle that this model precipitates. Couros presents a new track for us to consider with precision and a sense of urgency. Granted, it’s not breaking any barriers or introducing a silver bullet; he is writing about what many (myself included) have been thinking for some time. The linear-based curriculum model needs a refresh, and innovation must remain the core of this change.

Couros describes innovation as “a way of thinking that creates something new and better” (note that I’m reading this book via Kindle, so I don’t have page numbers to cite). He dives into the definition further by referencing the words of Katie Martin from the University of San Diego Mobile Technology Learning Center. Martin states that educators don’t necessarily need to be transformational (as this is not making “new and better”); however, a classroom leader should always seek ways to provide the optimal learning experience for his or her students. In today’s classroom, that usually means employing a new technology or digital application. However, he does not mean to replace a current system with a high-tech option as a solution. As the SAMR Model suggests, Couros is decidedly advocating for disruption in the way we do things in the classroom so that students can learn better.

I greatly appreciate the angle that Couros takes from the very beginning of his introduction. In order to foster innovation in our students, we must first learn to be innovative classroom leaders. As an administrator, I must make time for the teachers who work in my division to grow as educators. It just so happens that I have introduced the “FedEx Day” concept to the middle school teachers this past week. In essence, I want them to pursue something innovative that will make them a better teacher (see a film, start a course, visit a school, etc.). I will teach their class while they are away researching their idea. Upon returning to school, my hope is that they have found something of the disruptive ilk. I want them to bring new and exciting into the classroom. As Couros states, if a student leaves a course without further questions or curiosity about the topic he or she experienced, then the teacher has not done adequate work throughout the school year. Asking tough questions about “how we do business” is the first step:

  • What is a student more likely to need: knowledge on how to write an essay or a blog post? (This one is from the book.)
  • What is more relevant: naming all the parts of a machine or knowing how to take it apart and put it back together?
  • What is more pressing: knowing the difference between Impressionism and Cubism, or being able to speak eloquently and in detail about a piece of art and its impact?
  • What provides the most long-term value: comparing and contrasting two historic battles in history, or presenting ideas on what war teaches us about intention versus perception as as it relates in a student’s everyday decisions?

I don’t have all of the answers. In fact some of the questions written above flirt with a “need part A to do part B” design, though I would consider them mutually exclusive and therefore separate tracks of teaching. As I reflect and gather information from the MOOC and the text, I like where this conversation is going and where I hope it will teach me to lead my division.

Closing One Chapter…

Reflection on this Final Year

The middle school hallway is empty, save for the remaining book bags and leftover textbooks that may (or may not) find their owners over the next week or so. The teacher check-out sheets are in my box…most of them, anyway. I am sitting in my office listening to the rain hit the gravel on the roof and remembering so many other sounds I have heard this year: The frequent sound of laughter carried down this hallway as young men and women race to class or to the courtyard for lunch; the tears of disappointment or sadness as a result of unmet expectations on a test or after reading a casting list from the play in which a part was not earned; the wonderful conversations of evolving strategy between student and teacher as a mentor empowers a student to accomplish a goal. But the maximum effort which manifests in displays of stellar writing, chalkboards full of difficult calculations, notes in the margins of intricate translations, and practical testing to gather concrete data is one that does not necessary accompany an auditory memory but penetrates us all to the core, nonetheless. It is with these memories, via pictures on Instagram or through stories told of classroom experiences that we gain some perspective on what this year looked like in the eyes of our young people.

How to reflect?

How do I measure success when reflecting in this way? Do I look at a student’s academic progress to calculate growth? Do I count the students involved in school activities to determine if our young people “do enough” outside of the classroom? Do I assess teacher success by looking at standardized testing?
Most certainly, I do not do these things.

On the contrary, I measure success by the copious amounts of appreciation shown to teachers this past week via hugs and statements of “thank you” and “sign my yearbook, please?” Students do not have this level of comfort everywhere they go. It takes time and trust to build these relationships. Another measure of success stems from the active, impromptu conversations I witnessed between parent, child, and teacher on the last days of school. Parents serve as role models to their children at all times, though sometimes unbeknownst to them, by making a point of being present and addressing teachers directly. In a time of email communications and text messaging, these face-to-face interactions make our community beautiful as we are working together in concrete ways the sake of child development. Finally, I measure institutional success by student interaction: a sixth grader signs an eighth grade yearbook; a seventh grader is visiting the eighth grade homeroom and is a welcomed addition; a “pickup” game of touch football in the courtyard includes boys of all ages and grade levels.

This is a community of honorable men and women. This is what I am going to miss the very most.

“Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above…”

My chapter in this school is coming to a swift end. It seems like I announced my departure only yesterday, but it was almost five months ago that I met with faculty to discuss how the transition to new leadership would occur. Since that day, teachers, students, and parents have come to me to express gratitude and appreciation for my work in the middle school. But it is without thought that I shift this appreciation and praise to the teachers who are principal in the development of each child. After all, my interaction with children has been a mere fraction of what each teacher has offered to the young men and women of the middle school.

I am humbled by what all has transpired over the past three years. From the growth of our student body while still shrinking the class sizes, to the concentrated effort to improve our student-led discussions in the classroom, to the development of celebrations that highlight the impact our students have made on their academic community. It is my prayer that students leave this summer realizing how personal validation and spiritual development will always follow great effort. I praise God for allowing me the opportunity to guide this division with great support from my superiors and an energized willingness by the faculty to follow my vision. Some specific examples of faculty excellence come to mind:

  • I am grateful to have been witness to a Latin teacher who never backed down from a challenge by seeking strategic ideas to maintain student focus before realizing how capable she is in leading learning and exploration.
  • I am in awe of the science teacher who stuck her neck out to design and facilitate a new program which has now gained national attention because she believed in what the children could do with just a little bit of encouragement and planning.
  • I am inspired by the English teacher who taught literature from the heart and raised the bar on what was expected, enlightening students to realize the joy of literature and the emotional depth of understanding that can result from simply having a group conversation about the text.
  • I am thankful for the theater teacher who took a chance on young, unfinished actors to create something enveloping and dynamic for us all to watch with emotion and amazement.

These are only a snippets of what has transpired while I have been leader of the middle school. I did not do any of this; the credit can only fall on the students who trusted the guidance of the knowledgeable faculty to help us become “better in the middle.” The work is uncanny and puzzling at times, and the path towards a solution is often hidden. But this community is a team of trailblazers — I am happy to follow their direction to the summit.
Thank you for a wonderful chapter to what has been an amazing, challenging, and emotional experience. I cannot wait to see what is in store for the young people of this community in the years to come.

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