Reflection on a Decade of Leadership

2020This time of year – the end of a calendar year and the beginning of another – is a time for reflection and goal setting. It occurred to me that this end of year/new year transition is especially unique for me – professionally – for it was at the start of the 2010-2011 school year that I made a transition from the classroom to administration. So as I look to start the year 2020, I felt it important for myself to reflect on the time from 2010-2020 and the lessons I have learned about leadership, educational administration, and myself. Maybe there are “lessons” that I have learned that you can learn from, relate to, and build upon as you also start the new year. Below are Ten Lessons of Leadership that I have experienced (in no particular order):

Lesson #1 – More a Mirror, than a Display Window – I believe there is an assumption, when going into leadership, that its about “other people”. That you will be leading others, so your focus should be on others. While obviously you need to focus on and keep your people central, the lesson I learned early on in leadership, is that leadership is more of a mirror, than a display window.¬† As a leader, like a teacher in a classroom full of students, YOU get exposed. Not the YOU you think of yourself or always hope of yourself to be, but the REAL YOU. Your tendencies, your style, your manner, your values, your mirror reflectionblind spots, etc. will all get exposed. Therefore, leaders must know themselves, before they can ever lead others. And I’m not talking about knowing yourself on a surface level or only on your perceived level of how you think of yourself. Rather really knowing your true self. Push yourself to really see yourself – warts and all. Its analogous to the proverbial time when you first hear your voice on a recording and you say “I don’t really sound like!” Reality check – Yes you do! ūüôā Be honest with yourself. What are your strengths and how do I operate from them most? What are your areas that you are working on and how do you account for them? How do I react when I’m stressed? What type of work do I crave and thrive in? What rings my joy bell? What type of work do I avoid and struggle with? Who do I prefer to work with? Who frustrates me? Who is around me who can always tell me the truth – will I have the courage to listen? These are just some of the questions you have to truly ask yourself and then be okay with the answers – whatever they are.¬† Furthermore, use these answers to make you a stronger leader as you can optimize your strengths and then share and look for help to account for your weaknesses.¬† These questions, and many others, will help you get a better sense of you who are when you are both standing in front of the mirror AND when you in front of the display window.

HumilityLesson #2 – It’s Humbling – Like so many things in life, leadership is a humbling endeavor. It seems to never fail that as soon as you accomplish something or feel like you really know what you are doing, something or someone will humble you. Every time.¬† As a leader you have to know that. And that isn’t because you are bad or did something wrong. Its because it is part of leadership.¬† Easy questions, easy situations, or easy decisions won’t get to you, that’s part of being a leader. These difficult responses/actions will test you, your leadership and will humble you. But you can’t run or attempt to avoid it, embrace the humble. Being humbled and showing humility is a great learning and growing opportunity for you. It keeps you balanced.¬† It keeps you on your toes.¬† It keeps you sharp and focused on improving every day.

Lesson #3 – Keep Learning¬†– Related to lesson #2, as a leader you can never believe that you know everything or have nothing to learn. As soon as you think you know it all, is the day you stop leading – yourself and others. Leading is not a destination, so stop worrying about arriving. The best leaders I know are ones that have the mindset of a learner and therefore are always looking to learn and grow. They are voracious readers. leadership and learningThey are highly connected with their professional learning network (PLN). They are active on Twitter, Voxer, they blog. They discuss and debate. They attend professional conferences. They have mentors and mentor others. They prioritize learning to ensure they will always have time for it. They reflect on what they know, what they have learned, and how they can use it in their positions. Additionally, leaders who are learners serve as great role models for the people they lead. As the “lead learner” they can help instill in their people the importance of continuous learning, reflection, and improvement – all essential characteristics of effective employees and organizations. Practicing what you are preach is really important here, because embracing the mindset of being a learner is really hard for many, especially adults, because there is vulnerability in being a learner.¬† As a learner you have to admit that you don’t know everything; that you can learn and grow more; that you are open to new ways of thinking and doing; that you are willing to change what/how you do things. Have a learner mindset and dedicating yourself to it will keep you fresh, flexible, and ever growing as a leader.

Lesson #4 – Relationships, Relationships, Relationships – President Teddy Roosevelt once said “Nobody cares how much you know, until they know how much you care.”¬† This lesson rings as true for leaders in a school as it does for teachers in a classroom.¬† relationshipsAs a leader you have to prioritize, actively developing and cultivating relationships with your people. Your people have to know you and you have to know them.¬† A common stumbling block for organizations is the de-personalization that happens with “roles” or “groups” of people. How often to you hear someone referring to a position vs. the specific person? It sounds like this, “Administration doesn’t understand the issue” or “Teachers don’t want to change and try something new.” Have you heard these statements or something like it? Do you notice that statements like these don’t use individual people’s names, rather non-personal positions/titles? This happens because its easier to blame positions or titles than specific people.¬† And it happens because there are not strong relationships or strong dedication to relationships present. As a leader, resist the temptation to refer to groups of people vs. specific people. Be curious before getting furious. If you are frustrated with something that is happening, take time and go to the person or people; talk with them; find out what they are thinking; use your “relational capital” that you have built to find a solution or common understanding. It is far more common that people are confused or don’t know how to do something, than they simply won’t do something. And you will know this and remember this if you have prioritized relationship building as a leader.

Lesson #5 – Schedule Your Priorities – In one of my first years in administration I met with our school’s agenda planner salesman, who was known at our school as “Mean Gene” as he was an amazingly nice person. ūüôā¬† He was a retired school administrator and he always managed to work in some “advice” during his sales meetings. One piece of schedule your prioritiessage advice that he gave me that has proven to be prophetic was plan your day or your day will plan you. What Gene knew and I now understand, is as a leader you will never be bored. There will always be more to do than time to do it. However as a leader, you have to prioritize what you will be doing with the time you do have. It is easy to get thick in thin things.¬† You have to have your own clarity as to the work that you need to do. You need to be able to delegate things to others – not to do less work – but so that you can engage in the work of a leader.¬† Be purposeful about this. Literally schedule parts of your work day to do your leadership work. As Brian Tracy is quoted to have said, “There is never enough time to do everything, but there is always enough time to do the most important thing.”

say yesLesson #6 – Find a Way to Say YES – There seems to be a tendency with too many leaders that their default stance/response to a question is NO. While a leader always has to understand that they are responsible for any/all decisions that are made in their organization, this ultimate responsibility cannot paralyze a leader to always say NO. Your job as a leader is to set the vision, establish expectations, and then to get out of the way of your people. Within your organization you have talent, expertise, and leadership – as the leader you have helped create that (through hiring and development), so by saying YES you empower that potential. By saying YES you create a multiplying affect of impact. By saying YES you increase employee engagement. By saying YES you increase trust.¬† By saying YES you increase buy in. By saying YES you build confidence. By saying YES you encourage risk taking and innovation. By saying YES you increase the chances of better decisions being made. As Steven Anderson reminds us, “Alone we are Smart, Together we are Brilliant.” As a leader challenge yourself to work hard to create solutions, to encourage big thinking, to find ways to say YES.

Lesson #7 – Not All, but Most – As a new leader, I remember the pressure I felt to know everything, to have all of the answers. Its the same pressure I felt as a new teacher. As a leader you feel the pressure to take the burden of responsibility from your people as they may struggle. You feel pressure to fix things, to take on all the problems, to do everything. Hopefully this burden/pressure is felt because you want to help vs. you want to control. But regardless of why this is felt, the lesson learned is this perceived pressure/burden is self-induced and foolhardy. A leader doesn’t have to know or do everything and shouldn’t. The reality is leadership has weight and leaders make a mistake when they hide their people from it. Share that weight, make people aware of the full weight of things, and whenever you can, share it with others – empower them to leadershiphelp find solutions and take ownership of decisions made.¬† Don’t be the person who speaks first, last, and most in meetings.¬† Ask more questions than making statements. Now with all of that said, please don’t take that to mean that leaders don’t have to work. I don’t believe that in the slightest. In fact, I believe the separator of good leaders and great leaders is their ability to roll up their sleeves and see things through. To have the vision and the determination to make things happen. As Simon Sinek says in his book Leaders Eat Last, “ Leadership is not a license to do less; it is a responsibility to do more.”

Lesson #8 – Change – If there is a guarantee that I can ensure any leader will face it is that you will work with change. Change is not an optional excursion, something you can decide to engage with or not. Change is a constant.¬† Change will not stop. In fact, in the transformative times we are living in, change is accelerating. Change will happen. The change and growthchoice you have to make as a leader is how you will lead that change. Change is inevitable, growth is optional.¬† How will you view change? How will you use change to improve yourself, your people, and your organization? How will you help your people understand that change is happening? How will you explain/vision the opportunity with change? How will you support your people to understand that change is an opportunity – not scary or a commentary on their current practices/performance? How will you ensure change is not over-whelming? How will you ensure that the change you are engaging in is for a reason/that there is a need? There is great opportunity and risk that lies within the “change question” for leaders. See it. Be ready for it. Tell its story. Support your people through it. Use it to better things.

Lesson #9 – You Better Miss It (Educators only) – It was May of 2010 when I had to make one of the hardest decisions of my life. I was offered a job to become an administrator. It was a great opportunity to learn and grow. However, if I took it, it meant that I would leave the classroom – and in education that means for good. I loved teaching. I was really good at it. I loved the creativity of lesson planning. I loved the challenge of engaging my students. I loved building relationships with all of my students (that still lasts to today, over 10 years ago). It was an honor and a privilege to be a teacher. While I still consider myself a teacher, leaving the classroom to become an administrator changes what that means. I have described it like this – when I was a teacher I made deep, lasting relationships and impact on 120+ students a year. Now as an administrator I get to impact more students (and teachers) in number, however my impact/relationship with once a teacherthis larger group has become less deep. That has been a difficult transition and something I miss every day.¬† If you want to be an effective educational leader, you better miss the classroom and while you have left the classroom, you better always see yourself as a teacher. An interesting phenomenon that I learned happens when you make that teacher to administration transition, your teachers become your students. Your school becomes your classroom. You remain a teacher, it just looks different.¬† You should continue to be student(teacher) centered. You should continue to build strong relationships. You should continue to see your job to grow your students (teachers). You need to continue lesson planning. You should ensure differentiation for your diverse learners (teachers). You should continue to “teach” the right thing, not the easy thing. You should remain a teacher.

Lesson #10 – It Matters – One of the greatest and most difficult parts of being a leader (or an educator) is the same. It matters.¬† Leadership matters.¬† There are no in-betweens on this.¬† There are no great schools or great organizations without great leadership. Great leaders hire, grow, and empower their great people (because there are also no great schools without great teachers). I have worked with and witnessed great leaders and leadership matterspoor leaders – and both of them have impact. Leadership is not for the faint of heart. Leadership is not for those who aren’t willing to work. Leadership is not for those who want total command and control. Leadership is not a destination. Leadership is not a position – its an obligation. Leadership is an opportunity. Leadership is hard.¬† Leadership is infinitely challenging and rewarding. Leadership is about striving for excellence. Leadership is about learning. Leadership is about compassion. Leadership is about vision casting. Leadership is about hope. Leadership is important…and leadership matters.

Orange Barrels & Cautions for Leadership

This summer we took a family road trip to Toronto and Niagara Falls. During our 12 hour drive to and through Canada, we got stuck in a traffic jam just outside of Hamilton, Ontario due to some road construction. While we were sitting there, all yearning to be done driving and out of our vehicle, I began to think about road construction, specifically the orange barrels (fun fact the barrels there were orange and black, not orange and white). I constructionthought about the frustration I was experiencing due to the construction, what a pain it was for all drivers, wondering why they had to do it now, etc. But then it hit me, there is a real parallel lesson to leadership, specifically a quote that I believe all leaders must remember – Everybody likes progress, no one likes change.”¬† I realized, as shook off my pathetic pity party mindset, was that the orange barrels and the construction were necessary. They were part of the progress for this community. So while for me at that moment, and the other drivers who live there and drive that stretch everyday, the “change” a.k.a. construction and the orange barrels were not fun to go through; all of us will appreciate the “progress” the construction will bring the roads and the community. I realized there is a powerful analogy between orange barrels and construction and leadership.

Whether you are a road construction foreman or a leader of an organization, keep these¬†“orange barrel lessons” in mind:

  1. Project Origination – Before you break ground or begin the change, all leaders have to make sure they challenge themselves on where did the idea for this project come from? Who came up with the need for the project? Was there a need for change? Did the idea come from a professional conference you attended? Did the idea come from your own desires as a leader to be part of a large undertaking, for a feather in your leadership cap? Or is it because of a need identified as an area for improvement? Or was the need expressed by your “drivers” – your people?¬† As a leader you have to challenge yourself and your thinking on this and be crystal clear as to WHY and WHERE the need for change comes from. Don’t shirk from taking on a project, but just make sure there is a clear need & vision for it.
  2. There Will Be No Band & Celebration – As a leader don’t be surprised that when you introduce or begin to undertake a change project, that people won’t love it. There will not be people (or very few) who will clap their hands and cheer when the orange barrels start lining the road. Don’t be discouraged and don’t be surprised. Anticipate this reaction. While it’s not okay, it will happen. People want, need, and appreciate progress, but they will criticize, resist, and be unhappy with the changes that progress brings.
  3. Proximity to the Issue = Greater Understanding – To help with you with both orange barrel lessons #1 & #2, help yourself and your change project with remembering that people with the closest proximity to the issue will have the greatest understanding of the issue and reasons for the change project. Drivers who navigate the Queens Highway 420 outside of Hamilton every day understand best why the construction was needed and will appreciate the progress that is made by the project once its completed. Empower these individuals as leaders, ensure they help you shape the project, and serve the important role of building understanding from within others as to why the change project will lead to needed progress and a better future.
  4. Project Posters Have Real Power – At the start of any road construction project, highway posterthe Department of Transportation (DOT) will hold events and display project posters in the community and along the roadway where the construction is happening. They do this because they understand the power of vision, specifically a tangible picture/understanding of what it will look like when the project is finished. While people might not love the news of the change project and won’t like their initial experiences with the changes as they are in progress, keeping the vision as tangible as possible, will make the progress that people want, more of the focus than the change they are experiencing. As a leader you have a responsibility to help your people see the vision, to understand the vision, to believe in the vision – and then ensure they see and are reminded of the vision of the change project continuously.¬†

  5. Take a Phased Approach – Think about a major road construction project, something that covers miles and miles of roadway. They don’t close down the entire highway and rip up everything at one time. For example, if the DOT is looking to expand and improve 50 miles of freeway, they might start with the first ten miles, or may start with an overpass bridge, or prepping small areas along the way. As a leader you have to understand that you must do the same with your change project.¬† Figure out what phases you will take. Figure out where to start. Finish that phase before you take on the next one. And when you finish it, communicate that accomplishment and celebrate it. Promote the benefits/improvements that this first phase has brought to your organization and allow your people to enjoy it. Make sure to connect it to the larger vision of the entire change project (see orange barrel advice #4). And then keep going…there are more phases to work on.
  6. Be Present – As the leader, you are the foreman of the change project. You must be present. You must be part of the project. You don’t have to physically do all of the work and you can’t be everywhere, all the time, but you better be involved. You have to know what is going on, hopefully based on your past experiences doing the leadershipwork that is being done – which builds your own credibility and the credibility of the change project. Roll your sleeves up, grab a shovel, be a partner, and make sure you support the people doing the work everyday, who are directly responsible for the changes and celebrate their work and progress. The road will never get built without them, and then won’t want to build it without you being present.
  7. Before & After – Once the project is “finished”, do not miss the opportunity to circle back and do a “before and after” process. Remind people of where you were prior to the change project starting, which most likely will have been a while ago. Celebrate the hard work done and enjoy the place/status/condition you now are at. This will help heal some change wounds and it will bring back some of the “leadership capital” you will have spent on the project. It will also help to prepare them for the next project – which will have to come. It will also prepare them for when you have to go back and repair, and eventually even redo, the same stretch of that roadway.
  8. Orange Barrels are Inevitable – Taking on a major change project can be daunting. People will attempt to talk you out of it, you might try to talk yourself out of it. The potential of the push back, the attention, hard work, the purposefulness it will take, the risks you will take, the frustrations and set backs you will experience, change is necessarythe real chance that it won’t work, etc. can all be reasons to avoid change. But good leaders understand that progress is both needed and inevitable and therefore so is change. In fact, you are derelict in your leadership duty if you avoid this reality. Roads deteriorate, traffic patterns and loads/needs change over time, new technologies and techniques are discovered – all of which make change necessary. As a leader you have the blessing and the curse to know that from the change – the presence of orange barrels – will ultimately create progress – which you know is needed, will make things better, and will help your people, your organization, and your mission.

As a construction foreman or a leader of an organization, don’t be surprised when people are unhappy, are frustrated with your change project. Don’t be surprised when itorange barrels takes a lot of work to complete the change project correctly.¬† But also don’t be surprised, if you do it correctly, that when you pick up all of the orange barrels, people will be happy with progress you made together. Remember “Everybody likes progress, no one likes change.”

Tour Guide vs. Travel Agent

Well its official…its August and most of us are under one month away from the start of a new school year. As we all begin to prepare for another school year, while still trying to carve out “one more” summer trip and experience, I have questions for you to consider and reflect upon before the school year begins. If you think of a school year like traveling or a trip, which in many ways it really is :), what type of teacher will you be for this year’s “trip”?

Are you going to be a teacher who teaches like a Tour Guide?

Are you going to be a teacher who teaches like a Travel Agent?

When trying to decide, let’s first examine some of the common characteristics of a Tour Guide and a Travel Agent. A Tour Guide has great expertise about their area. A Tour Guide will spend a considerable amount of time and effort increasing their expertise. They enjoy their job. ¬†They have real passion and they truly enjoy being an expert/resource for their visitors who need them. ¬†Most Tour Guides are very good, enjoyable, and add to the experience. ¬†Comparatively, a¬†Travel Agent has great expertise about their area. A Travel Agent will spend a considerable amount of time and effort increasing their expertise. They enjoy their job. They have a real passion and they truly enjoy being an expert/resource for their customers who need them. ¬†Most Travel Agents are very good, enjoyable, and add to the experience.

So what’s the difference? How can you decide? I believe the difference does not come from, nor should we question, the passions or purpose for their jobs. ¬†Rather the difference lies in what role they play and what role their “learners” play as they experience either a Tour Guide or a Travel Agent. ¬†A Tour Guide directs or leads the tour guidelearning of their group through the experience. During their tour, they will do most of the talking. They tend to be in the front of a quiet, passive group of learners. They set the pace of the learning experience. They have a set routine process or path they follow with each and every group they lead. Their tour tends to be generally the same time after time. They will ask the group if they have any questions, usually at certain times and/or at the end of the tour.

Conversely, a Travel Agent puts their client and their needs first, before they design the experience.  Most often, each and every trip they plan is unique or has unique elements travel agent.jpgfor their individual client/experience planned.  A Travel Agent asks a lot of questions.  The client does the majority of the talking.  A Travel Agent provides options and ideas to their clients, but ultimately the responsibility for the decisions and directions for the trip come from the client them self.  A Travel Agent uses their vast experience and expertise, but only as it relates to the needs of their individual client and desired experience.

So what type of teacher will you be this upcoming school year – a Tour Guide or a Travel Agent? Or put differently, what type of teacher is most effective and is needed most by your students of today? In my opinion, like many things in life, it is probably a matter of travel experiencesdoing both. But I would challenge each and every one of you to be more Travel Agent than Tour Guide. Our students of today don’t need (nor want) someone who just knows a lot of stuff, who spends most/all of their time delivering their expertise, often in a one-way, “Tour Guide-centered” format. ¬†They need an expert, but one who can empower them to lead their own learning. To provide for them a safe place to learn and grow, but a place where the path, pace, and, to a large extent, the direction of their learning is determined by them – the learner. ¬†Students need highly effective teachers, probably more today than ever before, but we need to be more Travel Agent, than Tour Guide.



An Equation for Educational Change


What is the equation for American education?

At the dawn of the 20th century the equation for American education was

1 X 1 = 1

The first factor “1” represents teaching and learning. ¬†The role of the teacher was the keeper and disseminator of all knowledge. ¬†The teacher would stand at the front of the room, largely lecturing or talking at the students. ¬†The students were mainly¬†passive, seen as vessels to be filled by the expert teactraditional-classroomher. ¬†Students, usually sitting in rows, listened, took notes, and focused primarily on memorizing the information the teacher told them so that they could take¬†the test to determine their letter grade (A, B,C, D, F).
The second factor “1” represents school structure. ¬†By school structure I mean “how we do school”. ¬†This would include our standardized curriculum and subject areas. ¬†It also includes daily school schedules, bells, different classes, seat time, assessment practices, grading, curriculum sequencing, learning environment, etc. ¬†The professional roles and responsibilities of teachers and administrators would also be included in this factor.

The equation’s product of “1” represents the results we expected from American schools of the time. ¬†We wanted students who were generally literate, were civilized, and could leave school with most of the knowledge and the skills they need, not only to begin working in American factories, but for the rest of their life.

This equation for our schools held largely the same for most of the 2oth century. ¬†However toward the end of that century, as we progressed away from the Industrial era, the equation for American education needed to change. ¬†These more modern times demanded a different “product” from our schools – say “2“. ¬†Schools had¬†to producworkers-in-cubiclese workers and citizens that could first compete in a Cold War and then survive and thrive in an American economy that was becoming a more white-collar, knowledge based economy. ¬†Students needed to be able to solve problems, apply their knowledge, think more complexly and get to a higher/further level of learning (advanced classes, college bound, etc.).

To address the new demanded “product” and to make the equation work, American schools evolved their teaching and learning practices – the first factor in the equation. ¬†Schools expanded curriculum opportunities for students, offering more advanced classes, and creating greater college-bound opportunities. Teachers began to emphasize students working in groups, integrating more diverse pedagogical approaches – not just lecturing. ¬†Classrooms evolved into more student-centered learning environments, where students became more active and played a larger role in their own learning. ¬†Additionally, we saw legislative mandates to provide supports and protections, like Special Education, Response to Intervention (RTI), English Language Learner (ELL) programs, etc., to ensure all students could have equal access to the standard curriculum.

So the equation of American education became:

2 X 1 = 2

But, expectations and demands have continued to grow. ¬†Needs like financial literacy, nutrition and exercise education, social services, etc. have all been added to the equation. ¬†Then as we approached and surpassed the 21st century time barrier, we 21st century skills.pnghave entered into an era of unprecedented change. ¬†The needs of our country, economy, and world have changed dramatically. ¬†The knowledge, skills, abilities, and perspectives (often called 21st century skills) students need today have increased exponentially. ¬†The “product” of our educational system hasn’t just increased, its has doubled – what is now needed is “4“.

The question is if this is our currently reality, what must be done to make the equation work?

Do we again look to the teaching and learning factor of the equation? ¬†The answer is NO. ¬†Teaching and learning has continued to evolve and improve and in the last 20 years. ¬†We have added even more improvement and innovation – for example: interdisciplinary learning, Problem-Based Learning (PBL), differentiation, collaborative learning, flipped classroom, blended learning, personalized learning, 1:1 devices, etc. Our current teachers are the most educated, diverse, professionally developed and skilled our country has ever seen. ¬†But even these additions don’t solve the equation.

Our best, only real viable, solution to solve our current equation is to change the second factor Рschool structures.  The reality is, since our teaching and learning has improved so much, our school structures are actually working against our teaching and learning factor.  This counter-productivity is largely behind the feelings our priceless educators have of being inadequate, overwhelmed, undervalued, frustrated-teacheruninspired, and disillusioned, causing far too many teachers to leave the profession.

Take interdisciplinary teaching for example. ¬†We know this is highly effective for student learning, but for teachers to pull this off they have to work around and against subject area structures, lock-step curriculum demands, a far too rigid school schedule, and silo-ized school cultures. ¬†Teachers end up having to compromise aspects of what they want to and know what is right to do and have to work extra hard even to accomplish the compromised version. ¬†It is no wonder why this practice hasn’t caught on and become mainstream in our schools.

School leaders and teachers alike need to come together and take a look at how we can transform our school structures.  Upon closer inspection, this aspect of education has not been addressed since our modern form of education was created.  Traditional school subject areas, bells, curriculum priorities, classes, seat time metrics, assessment practices, grading, etc. are all largely the same and are in serious need of re-design. We need to identify the skills, abilities, competencies, and knowledges that are essential to our modern times (i.e. critical thinking, collaboration, problem-solving, diverse literacies, engaged citizenship, student agency, etc.) and then design a new school structure that starts with these as our priorities.

Create authentic, real-world learning experiences – not classes and subject areas – for our students that go beyond interdisciplinary and become antidisciplinary. ¬†Don’t have seat time drive our schools and student learning, have learning be the driver. ¬†Eliminate assessments of knowledge that can be googled. ¬†Why are we preparing students for testsStudents work in Columbus College of Art & Desig's College PreView program¬†that computers can pass? ¬†Stop giving meaningless letter grades and give feedback to students on their level of progress in the important competencies (skills, abilities, and knowledges) relevant for their needs, their world and their futures. ¬†Put students in a position to explore their passions and interests. ¬†Develop them as learners, not as students. ¬†Get rid of the bells and the factory-based schedules. ¬†Furthermore re-examine the roles and responsibilities of teachers. ¬†Our best teachers shouldn’t have to make a decision between staying in the classroom or having leadership influence in their profession by entering into administration. ¬†Integrate career advancement within the profession by bridging and the gap between teachers and administrators. ¬†Tap the knowledge and expertise of ALL staff. Remove the structures of the industrial model of education that only exist because we have never closely examined our practices in these areas. ¬†They are a real hindrance to transformative, lasting, highly-engaging and effective learning for our students.

And if we do this…maybe we can ‘solve’ the equation of education before us…

2 X 2 = 4


Roundabouts – The Direction for Learning

roundabout-image-2In the early hour morning of a Wednesday in October while on my way to work, I exited off of Interstate 41. ¬†I was deep in thought…about many things…and as I reached the bottom of the off ramp, I breezed through the first roundabout intersection. ¬†This particular route to work has me go through a series of intersections that are set up as roundabouts. ¬†Given that it was early in the morning, I went through each and every one of them without having to wait or even having to slow down much. ¬†Then as I got closer to school I came across my first traditional traffic light controlled intersection. ¬†Of course I hit a red light and sat there waiting, while no other cars used the “green light” coming from the other direction. ¬†I became impatient, felt like I was waiting there forever, became frustrated, etc., until I finally got the green light to “GO.”


As I pulled away I thought about how inefficient the traditional traffic light intersection
was and how much better the roundabout process was for me that morning. ¬†It was then…that it hit me…this situation is analogous to what is happening and must happen in education. Educational leaders now fully understand that the traditional, industrial-era model of education no longer best prepares our students for their current and fucreative-schools-book-imageture realities.¬†That what we must do within education is not “reformation”, but “transformation.” ¬†(If you haven’t already read it, please read Sir Ken Robinson and Lou Aronica’s book¬†Creative Schools for more on this topic.) ¬†It is not a matter of improving the traffic lights in a traditional intersection – making the lights brighter, using LED lights, changing the location of the lights, etc. – is a matter of transforming the intersection completely – empowering the drivers (within general rules, expectations and structures) to make the decisions for themselves given the dynamics of the unique situation each of them experience when they approach the intersection.


redlightFor far too long students have experienced a “traffic light” learning experience. They were told when they can “go“, when they should “slow down“, and when they must “stop.” ¬†If a student was ready to “go“, but their learning light was red,¬†they had to stop and wait even if there is no reason. ¬†OR ¬†If they weren’t ready to “go“, but their light turned green¬†they had to move forward. ¬†Whether or not they wanted or needed to stay where they were at, they had to “go.” ¬†Furthermore all of the cars, regardless of the driver, the car, its condition, etc. are all directed in the same manner. ¬†There is little to no consideration of their individual abilities, needs, hopes or desires.

Roundabouts, however, give much greater choice and empowerment for the individual driver. ¬†Within the structure of the road and the roundabout and under the parameters of the rules of the road, drivers can use their judgement to make decisions about whether or not they should “go” or need to “stop.” ¬†It is through the lens of a roundabout that we should view learning and opportunities for our learners. ¬†Education/Educators still have a responsibility to lay the path and to design the process (loosely) and the students still have to follow the “rules of the road.” ¬†However through a roundabout mentality, our learners can be more empowered to drive their own learning (pun intended). ¬†They can be put in the position to make the decisions, to react to their needs, to follow others, to learn from others – to “go” or “stop.” ¬†Having a “roundabout mentality” does not mean a free for all where students can do whatever they want, but rather where there is purposeful, meaningful design and structure that enhances learning, not limits it. ¬†Where the power, decision-making and ownership of decisions, actions, and direction are much more in the hands of the learner/driver and less in the hands of teacher/administrator/police/city planner – or traffic light.

Blanket Forts & The Future of Learning

It has been said that for first time in human history the value of unique knowledge and expertise is declining significantly due to the proliferation of accessible digital technology. This phenomenon has happened in history before (see the Protestant Reformation and the works of Martin Luther and many others), however not at this pace and not to this scale. Access to information, knowledge, and each other is historically unprecedented.

This was very apparent to me, and its implications to education, last week when my daughter (Ellen-6) and son (Eddie-3) were building a blanket fort in our living room. When

blanket fort

Generic image of a blank fort. Didn’t take a picture of it, as I didn’t know it would be the subject/basis of an analogy in an upcoming blog. ūüôā

I came home Ellen informed me that they had built the Millennium Falcon. As I toured their creation, I asked her how and why they built it the way they did. My daughter informed me that they ‚Äúgoogled it.‚ÄĚ (duh dad?!?!?) She¬†continued to describe how they used our iPad to look up pictures and information on the features and look of the Star Wars ship. Amazingly they did a pretty good job ‚Äď including satellite dishes on its top, a spaghetti strainer for one of the windows, correct shape of the ship, etc.



Her statements, explanations, and process really hit me. Here I am listening to my 6-year old, who is completely comfortable and competent in using devices like our iPad, discuss how she used tools and resources available to her to access knowledge that previously she would not have had access to. ¬†(Get ready for it…obligatory parent line coming)…When I was a kid, I never could have done this. ¬†Not only did I not have I the internet or devices, but if I needed to learn something, I needed to seek out someone, an expert who could teach me about it. ¬†

So what does this experience mean and have to do with a blog about education?…A LOT!!!

– The world has changed.
– The impact of digital technology (i.e. devices, internet, etc.) is significant.
– Our children will learn and experience their world very different that we ever did.
РWe, in education, must understand the above and adjust our practices accordingly.  And if we fail to, we risk increasing our ineffectiveness and even the potential for total irrelevance.  

My kids were demonstrating the skills, abilities, and mindsets that soon (if not now) all of our nation’s schoolchildren will possess. ¬†Therefore we, in education, can no longer “hang our hat” on the fact that schools are the only place for knowledge and learning. We cannot place a great deal of value on information, memorization, compliance, and one-directional dissemination – teacher to students. Teachers are no longer the experts, holder of all of the knowledge, while the students are the naive, passive receivers of this process.

Now this is not all bad news for education Рit only is bad news if we ignore it and change nothing.  I would argue that if we approach this correctly and openly, we can begin a whole new era of American education.  An era where we can inspire a whole new generation of thinkers and creators that can compel our nation deep into the 21st century.  However to do this, we have to keep in mind the lessons from my blanket fort experience.

Lesson #1 РRe-Evaluate Knowledge РMy kids built a Millennium Falcon blanket fort on their own, as learners, using curiosity, accessible knowledge and technology, and their own abilities to find and apply information.  We need to re-examine and re-order our views and values related to knowledge.  We cannot continue to emphasize learning and knowledge in the traditional sense.   Information exposure is not the concern, it is information processing and application that now is more important.  

Lesson #2 – Be a Travel Agent – My kids built a Millennium Falcon blanket fort on their own without the direct role of ‘experts’. ¬†We, in education, also need to change our view, conception, and primary role of teachers. ¬†Shifting from being the keepers and sole knowledge bearers, to guiders and igniters of exploration and application. ¬†This doesn’t make the teacher any less significant in the learning process, in fact I would argue it makes the teacher more vital. ¬†Teachers can now serve so many more important roles to learning (e.g. facilitator, resource, vision caster, challenger, etc.), in addition to still being an expert on the subject area/material they have taught traditionally. ¬†As I have heard it said, “Highly effective teachers are more like travel agents, than tour guides.” ¬†¬†

Lesson #3 – Create Empowered Learning Opportunities – My kids now know and will remember more information and features of the Millennium Falcon because of the opportunity they had. ¬†This is probably the most critical step in our re-visioning of the learning process and schools. ¬†If we only learn lessons #1 & #2, we will be missing the larger point and will actually do more harm than good to our students and their futures. ¬†We need to create more applicational learning opportunities for our students. ¬†Places/times when they can explore curiosities, develop hypotheses, navigate through the ocean of information, ask questions, share their ideas with others, re-learn from their peers, seek out support and advice from others, and ultimately “create” things. ¬†If we do this, not only will we increase student engagement and stronger learners, we will become more effective in teaching the “traditional knowledges” we have always wanted to emphasize. ¬†

In building their blanket fort, my children effectively used their technology skills, were disseminators of available information, applied their learning to create something/solve a problem, shared it with others, ¬†were highly engaged, AND developed a strong knowledge base of Millennium Falcon. ¬†Knowledge, skills, and mindsets that we need to emphasize in schools. ¬†Not bad for a Sunday afternoon…

The Power of HOPE

quote-each-time-a-man-stands-up-for-an-ideal-or-acts-to-improve-the-lot-of-others-or-strikes-robert-kennedy-54-63-48In 1966 then Senator Robert Kennedy (D-N.Y.) visited South Africa in the midst of some of the worst years of Apartheid. ¬†His speech, known as “Ripples of Hope” at the University of Cape Town, which some historians believe was the best of his life, Sen. Kennedy described a better future for all and the role and responsibility of all of us in making it happen:

Each time a man stands up for an ideal or acts to improve the lot of others or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.

Senator Kennedy used his visit and speech as an opportunity to spread his message of HOPE to inspire and empower others. ¬†With no attempts to parallel or compare to RFK, however greatly inspired by RFK, his life’s efforts, and his message of¬†HOPE, I was recently honored by the Association of Wisconsin School Administrators (AWSA) as the 2016 Associate Principal of the Year. ¬†At the awards ceremony, I took my own opportunity to make my own ‘ripples’ and share my message of HOPE. ¬†A message and concept that I believe is very important, dare I say critical, to the profession of education and those who have dedicated their lives to it. ¬†Below is an excerpt from my speech about HOPE:

imgresI want to leave you today with one word…a word that drives me every day…and that word is HOPE. ¬†This school year Mr. Damian LaCroix, Superintendent of the Howard-Suamico School District¬†(@DLHSSD1),¬†challenged all of us to read a book about HOPE called “Making Hope Happen” by Dr. Shane Lopez (@hopemonger). ¬†In his book Dr. Lopez defines HOPE, what it does, and why it is so important. ¬†After reading the book, reflecting on its message, and discussing it with colleagues, I now define HOPE to mean — HOPE = DREAMS + DETERMINATION. ¬†

HOPE is powerful, it isn’t wishful thinking or optimism alone…it is the confluence of beliefs that:¬†(1) The future will be better than the present;¬†(2) I have the power to make it so;¬†(3) There are many paths to my goals;¬†(4) None of them will be free of¬†obstacles.¬†¬†HOPE takes vision, optimism, aspirations AND hard work, creativity, passion,¬†perseverance¬†— it take DREAMS +¬†DETERMINATION.


It is my HOPE to make a difference in the lives of my students, their families, my teachers, and my community.

It is my HOPE to be an effective and impactful leader, who works tirelessly for others, challenging, supporting, and inspiring them to grow.

It is my HOPE that I am an agent of change in education.

It is my HOPE that our profession of education will one day be controlled and driven by educators, not politicians.

It is my¬†HOPE to help lead a revolution in how we do education and schools – updating our practices to reflect our students’ future, not our pasts.

It is my HOPE to continue efforts to transform how we professionally develop our teachers Рthey want it and deserve it.

It is my HOPE to continue to learn and grow everyday.  To never settle for good enough.

It is my HOPE to continue to be a connected educator Рdedicated to learning, expanding, and influencing others through my Professional Learning Network (PLN) through Twitter, Voxer, my blog, conference presentations, etc.

It is my HOPE to come to work every day with the same level of passion and zest for my job that I had as a new teacher on my first day of school.

It is my HOPE to inspire others.

It is my HOPE that I can look back at the end of my career and know that I have made a difference.

And…it is my¬†HOPE…that you will join me!