Lead With Yourself

I was recently selected to be a part of Des Moines Public Schools’ Principal Pipeline program.  When selected I was honored and deeply humbled.  I remember looking around a room of around 200 leaders in the district and seeing all of the faces I had learned from.  I had one big question.  Why me?  There were a ton of great leaders in that room.  Matt Smith, Chief of Schools in Des Moines, came into my office to answer any questions I had about the program.  I specifically asked him that question and he had a good answer, but it really didn’t help me truly understand why.  He then asked me what I thought I needed to improve in the most, and my response was, my confidence.  Confidence in myself, but mostly the confidence in all of the decisions I would be expected to make as a principal.  I was not able to articulate this very well to him in that moment, but after a lot of reflection I am able to articulate it a little better now.

Fast forward several weeks and we have our first class.  There are eight people who have been selected for this program, all sitting around a table with a few other leaders in the district including Matt.  We have only had two meetings, but both have required us to search deep within ourselves to know who we are and what we are about.  We have been pushed to make decisions based purely and completely on knowing ourselves.  It has truly been an awesome experience and has given me the opportunity to reflect deeply on who I am and what I am about.  I look forward to my Monday classes that last from 4:00 until 8:00.  I find myself not wanting to leave the room with these amazing people who care so much about each and every person in their lives.  And, it is also pushing me and has helped me to find that confidence in who I am, that I will need to have in order to make the decisions every principal has to make.

I have learned so much already, and the biggest lesson I have learned so far is the importance of knowing and leading with yourself.  Know what you value and what you hold most important.  Know what it is that you work for each and every day.  Know your core.  I have always known this, and was taught this by a very close friend and mentor, Jason Ellingson.  However, I needed another reminder to help me find my confidence again.  I know deep in my heart that I have the best interest for all involved at the core of every decision I make.  I know that I value love, trust, relationships, creativity, learning, collaboration, and continuous improvement.  I know that if I value all of these things, and I keep these values at the forefront of every decision I make, I will make decisions that are good for everyone.

Revisiting my values has helped me to find my confidence again and has helped me understand my, “WHY ME?” question.  I have always had the confidence and strong values in myself, and always will.  Sometimes it just needs a little TLC to bring it back out again.  Great leaders know who they are and what they value most.  Their vision for where they are going and why they do what they do is always at the core of every decision they make.  Do you know who you are, what you value most, your WHY?  If not, maybe it’s time you took a little time to reflect on it.  After all, if you want to be a great leader, you must always Lead With Yourself.


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One Child’s Story

Many educators have been focused on the “SCIENCE” of education for a long time now.  Because of this the “HEART” of education has been put on the back burner and forgotten.  This post is a true story that is a reminder about WHY the HEART of education and relationships are so important.  I have omitted names so that those involved can remain anonymous, but please do not let that take anything away from the amazing story of this resilient young man. 

This story is about a boy in high school who turned out average grades, was a strong athlete, but got into trouble often.  Many teachers and administration had written him off thinking he wouldn’t be able to get it together to be successful in life.  He could be explosive at times and had gotten into a few violent physical altercations.  There was some staff that were even scared of him because they never really knew how he was going to react.

His coach, on the other hand, knew him on a more personal level.  He knew that his home life was tough.  His mom was very sick, his dad was in and out of the country, and this student was left to help take care of his mother and her illness, as well as take care of his little brother.  He was holding down 2 – 3 jobs at a time.  One of his jobs was delivering papers which required him to start his day at 3:00 in the morning, and others included retail jobs or fast food jobs.  Somehow this student continued to make it to school, make it to his athletics, and maintain decent grades.  The pressure he was under was more than just about any adult could take.  Of course he was explosive!  Please keep in mind that he also learned from his family that explosive behavior is how you get people to listen to you.

One day this student was observed by his coach, which also happened to be his teacher wearing the same clothes a couple of days in a row and looking as though he hadn’t showered.  The student appeared to be more tired than normal.  When he was asked if he was ok, the student broke down and told him that he had been kicked out of his house by his mother and he was living out of his car.  The coach immediately got DHS involved and invited the student to live with him and his family.  They lived together for a couple of months until the student was able get things patched up with his mother again and he decided he wanted to move back in with her.

A month after he moved back in with his mother, he had another violent act at school.  Administration kicked him out of school and told him he couldn’t return.  The student decided he was going to give up and drop out of school.  His coach immediately went to his house, picked him up, and drove him to an alternative school to help him get enrolled there.  The student was reluctant, but ultimately decided to give it a try.  Fast forward several months later and he graduates high school.

With his high school diploma he earned a job as a teller at a bank.  Within one year he had a management position at the bank.  In less than four years this man is now only one managerial position away from having his own bank to run.  

Every child’s path to success is different.  But the one thing that EVERY child needs is someone who cares about them, will never give up on them, and will work hard to find a path to success that works for them.  

The science of education is important, but it is time for all educators to look deep into their HEARTS and remember WHY they got into education in the first place.  If it was to help all children grow up to be successful young adults, then maybe we (the educators) need to be passionate enough, creative enough, resilient enough, and LOVE our children enough to find a path that works for each and every one of them.

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Love Your Learner

Do you love the children and young adults in your school buildings?  The past few days I have been honored with the opportunity to work closely with other passionate educators at the ASCDL2L conference.  During this conference I was given time to collaborate with others and reflect on the Whole Child approach to educating our youth.  It was an experience I will never forget.

The Whole Child approach to educating our youth asks us to serve all of our learners’ needs.  It is difficult, if not impossible, for anyone to learn in an environment in which they do not feel safe.  It is difficult, if not impossible, to learn when a person’s health needs are not met.  It is our duty as educators to make sure that ALL of our learners’ needs are met.  This may require us to bring in outside agencies to assist with mental health and addictions.  This may also require a school with a high poverty rate to provide free and reduced lunch and breakfast to all learners.  Whatever the learners’ needs are, we as educators need to work to find the resources they need to help them.

I also believe the Whole Child approach requires us to think about our “students” differently.  You have probably already noticed that I have refrained from using the term “students” to describe the youth that we educate.  If we are truly serving the whole child when educating, it is my opinion that we need to stop thinking of them as “students”.  The term student describes a person who is a RECEIVER of knowledge.  I believe what we truly want our youth to grow up and become are SEEKERS of knowledge.  This kind of person can be best described as a “learner”.  And, if we are truly educating “learners,” we will need to begin developing closer relationships with them in order to understand them.  By better understanding them we can begin to use their passions and interests to support the learning process.

Think about the one teacher in your life that was your all-time favorite, that one teacher that inspired you to be better.  Have you got that teacher?  Do you feel as though this teacher understood you?  Do you feel as though this teacher loved you?  I believe that before you can help a child you must first understand them.  Before you can truly understand them you have to love them.  It has been proven to me on many occasions that if a learner believes without any doubt that they are loved by you, they will do anything for you and are somehow able to blast through almost any obstacle to find success.  It has also been proven to me, on many occasions, that if an educator truly loves their learners they are willing to do whatever it takes to help them achieve success.  All humans have a need to feel loved.  Why are so many educators afraid to show their learners this compassion and care?

Let’s begin helping our youth by addressing the Whole Child so that we can address their needs, tap into their passions and interests, and guide them to becoming SEEKERS of knowledge.  It’s time you Love Your Learner!

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Discipline Through Love and Support

This past week I attended the National School Discipline Conference in Vegas.  The conference was great, and gave me a lot of time to reflect on my own practices and beliefs.  On my way home from the conference I had a huge revelation.  I will get into that a little later.  This conference had many great speakers such as Alfie Kohn, Principal Baruti Kafele, Brian Mendler, and Larry Thompson.  Each of these speakers continued to drive home what many of us already know, but seem to lose track of when we get “stuck in the weeds”.  The POWER is in the RELATIONSHIPS.  For our most difficult students, there is no consequence that can be issued that is big enough to change their behaviors.  However, if you are able to develop a relationship with them and work with them, they will many times follow you and take direction.  There is also great power in teaching students the specific behaviors that you expect.  Respect, Integrity, and Responsibility are not specific behaviors.  Instead we must teach them what each of these mean in our building, classrooms and in life.  These behaviors must be taught through direct instruction with the whole student body and individuals when needed.  Only when these two things are combined can you begin to help support all students.

Another big piece that I learned at the conference is how important climate and culture are to the learning environment.  I have always known this, but this conference has helped me to think about it a little differently.  I have always been a strong believer that strong instruction improves behaviors.  I still believe this, however I also now believe that there is another component even more important than instructional skills.  That component is the ability to show students you REALLY care about them / LOVE them and will NEVER give up on them.  This cannot be achieved by disciplining students the old fashioned way.  I knew this as a teacher.  I lived it and breathed it, but never thought about it as a key piece.  It was just something I did because it was a part of me.  It was my personality and I couldn’t do it any other way. When a student was acting out I’d try to have a private conversation with them to learn about them and what is going on.  The conversation IS the relationship and by taking that supportive approach I was able to get to know the student.  I was only able to issue an appropriate consequence once I knew the student and that’s if a consequence was needed at all.  In order to have a supportive, caring climate and culture all staff need to have this same belief.  Everyone learns best in an environment where they feel cared for and supported.

Now for the big revelation I had coming home from the conference.  I have been an administrator for the past four years.  During this time, I have not lost track of the importance of relationships and showing students you love them.  However, my personality and need to support everyone has gotten in the way of me doing what is right for everyone.  When a teacher sends a student to the office, I want to issue the consequence so the teacher feels supported.  I also know that often times the student needs support, so I have the conversation with them to get to know them and what problems they may be having.  This is where my new found revelation gets me thinking.  We all know consequences do not change behavior for our most difficult students.  Again, there is no consequence big enough for them.  RELATIONSHIPS are the key.  When I issue the consequence to a student sent to the office I am taking all ownership and power away from the teacher and I am missing out on a huge opportunity to help build that relationship between the teacher and the student.   The issue was between the student and the teacher, it was not with me.  If I truly want to support teachers and students, I have to stop issuing consequences for the smaller day to day stuff and empower the teachers with the tools and skills necessary to have the conversations that build strong relationships with every student.

Larry and Angela Thompson have written a book called Give ‘em Five that does just that.  In this book it talks about the five key pieces to every conversation a staff member has with a student to help them feel cared for and supported.  The five pieces are: support, expectation, breakdown, benefit, and closure.  Every conversation will look different depending on who is involved.  It is important that everyone incorporates their own personality and style into each conversation.  The only thing that needs to remain constant is that each of the five pieces is present in all conversations that involve changing a person’s behavior.  When these five pieces are present in a conversation the person will leave feeling supported and feel as though the other person cares about them.   I have to start supporting teachers by both using these same five elements in every conversation and by teaching them how to use them.

Let’s start showing everyone we do not just care about them and want to help them.  Let’s show them WE LOVE THEM and will NEVER give up on them!

For a resource on how to have supportive conversations that help students take ownership of their behaviors you can read Larry and Angela Thompson’s book Give ’em Five and/or visit the following link – http://www.dev-resources.com/RCD2012.pdf

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Academics VS Learning

What is a school supposed to offer our students?  Really stop and think for a little bit about that question before reading on.  Years ago school was designed and even advertised as a place people go to receive their academics.  If you look up the definition of academics on Dictionary.com you will find the following definitions:

1.  pertaining to areas of study that are not primarily vocational or applied, as the humanities or pure mathematics.

2. theoretical or hypothetical; not practical, realistic, or directly useful.

Today many schools are still operating in the same way.  Teachers deliver academics for students to receive and then regurgitate on tests to demonstrate they still remember hypothetical, non-practical, realistic, or even directly useful information.  No wonder our students are disengaged!

What would happen if every school began to focus on learning?  The definition of learning on Dictionary.com is:

1.  knowledge acquired by systematic study in any field of scholarly application.

2.  the act or process of acquiring knowledge or skill

3.  the modification of behavior through practice, training, or experience.

Now those are some key terms I can get into.  How would schools need to change in order to support learning?  With learning comes application, and changing of behaviors.  What would happen if a school’s primary focus was to turn every student into a life-long learner?  I know we have to teach the Common Core.  What happens if the Core is not our primary focus, but instead is a tool we use to support students in becoming life-long learners?
If we as educators remain teachers and continue to be the keepers of all knowledge and deliver academics to our students we will never develop the large number of curious, risk taking, creative, problem solving learners we need in this world.  Instead we must become Facilitators of Learning and mold young learners back into their early childhood state of being curious, risk taking, creative, problem solvers.
The Core should not be our focus, instead it should be a tool we use to guide our learners into becoming the young adults we need to help not only them thrive, but the world as well.

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What Educators Should Stop Doing

I am currently reading the book What Got You Here Won’t Get You There by Marshall Goldsmith.  It’s a great read if you are looking for a leadership book.  This book is all about what you should stop doing to become a more successful leader.  It got me thinking about our education system and the current transformation that is happening to a Personalized Learning Environment.  There are a lot of things that we currently do that are going to keep us from making the jump to a true Personalized Learning Environment.  In this blog I am going to outline several of these.  After reading them please comment and let me know if you disagree with any of them or if there are some that I missed.  Be sure to elaborate and tell me why you feel the way you do.

Stop using a textbook as our main resource in the classroom.

Textbooks are outdated the moment they are placed in a learner’s hands and most textbooks are used for 6-10 years in our classrooms.  Imagine how outdated they are by then.  Textbooks are also limited in the information they can provide.  There is something we have called the internet that is constantly being updated and provides a wealth of knowledge within seconds of activating a search.  It is more important for our learners to learn how to conduct a quality search and be able to spot a strong resource from a weak one.  It is also more important that our learners learn how to analyze what they are reading and be able to summarize and use what they learned from that reading.

Stop grading behaviors, skills, and knowledge together

How many of us have given points to students because their work is nice and neat?  How many of us have given points to students for bringing in a box of Kleenex?  How many of us have taken points away or even given a 0 for late work?  None of these things indicate what a learner knows and is able to do.  They should not be grouped in the same grade/score as a students knowledge.  Neat, organized, and on time work is important in the work place.  Good behavior/conduct is also very important in the work place.  In fact, they are so important I feel these behaviors should have their own score.  Separate this score and call it a Citizenship and Employ-ability grade.  By having a score that represents a students mastery of the standards and a seperate score that represents their behaviors and work ethic everyone will have a much clearer picture of the learners abilities and work ethic.

Stop the grading periods and hard deadlines for learning targets

By having grading periods we are supporting the philosophy that when a learner knows something is more important than that they learn something.  Isn’t it more important that a learner learns?  If we get rid of grading periods and set soft dates for our learners to give them a guide for pacing, learners will never feel as though they are being left behind.  It is up to us as the educators to find a method that best supports the learner.

Stop grade levels – Start levels of learning

We need to stop grade levels and start levels of learning.  If learners are not all moving at the same pace, grade levels would no longer be needed.  They should be replaced with levels of learning.  Learners would still be working with other learners close to their age and learners close to their ability.  Learners may also be working with peers that have similar interests and passions as they collaborate and work together to solve real world problems.

Teachers should stop being the Keepers of all Knowledge AKA Sage on the Stage

Don’t get me wrong, there is still a place for lectures when a student or group of students would learn best from this.  However in most cases this can be obtained with the use of videos so that students can access the lectures at any given time, from anywhere, and have the ability to pause and rewind them.  It is also my opinion that students need to learn the skill of how to find information on their own and interpret, summarize, analyze, evaluate it, and eventually create from it.  This is not done by educators giving the students all the information through lecture and having students memorize it for a test.

Stop assigning practice homework to students who already know it.

Some people would say stop assigning practice homework completely because even if the student does not know it they will probably need the teacher’s support to help them.  I believe today’s technology fixes this issue and therefore would support students working from home if they would like.  I am instead advocating that we stop assigning practice homework to students who have already demonstrated mastery of a learning.  My daughter comes home every night from school with a math assignment that she rarely gets even one problem wrong on.  This homework takes her 20-30 minutes and rarely, if ever, stretches her thinking to higher levels or supports her in learning something new or deeper.  In my opinion we are doing all of our students an injustice if the homework is only assigned for repetition of something they already know how to do.

Stop believing that everything assessed must be learned in the 4 walls of our classroom.

There is an entire world outside the 4 walls of our classrooms.  What would happen if we had a student who was interested in computer programming and he/she was partnered with a mentor who currently worked in this field.  The mentor allowed them to come to work with them and work along their side to learn on the job.  I’m guessing they could learn some math standards while on the job and even learn some Language Arts standards as they wrote a report about what they learned and did.  The same could be said about someone who was passionate about becoming a botanist, healthcare worker, engineer, mechanic, lawyer, performing artist etc…  If our students are passionate about these and would like to learn about them in the real world, couldn’t we find them mentors to work with and then come back to present out what they learned in the field to demonstrate their mastery of the Common Core and how it all applies.

Stop spoon feeding students.  The learning is in the struggle.

We must create an environment that is built on a growth mindset and teach students how to be resilient in order to work through things that are more difficult for them.  It is ok to try and fail.  The key is for our students to stop viewing them as failures and instead view them as opportunities for growth.  If we want our students to become life long learners they must also learn how to use the resources at their disposal to teach themselves.  We as educators should be there to support, lift them up, and guide them to be the best they can be.  We should become Facilitators of Learning instead of teachers or keepers of knowledge.

Stop segregating classes and standards.

In the real world there is not a job that exists where the subjects live in isolation.  You can not become successful in any job unless you are well rounded in all of the core areas and have the ability to use your knowledge of them together at the same time.  We have to be creative and collaborative to create projects that are cross curricular and show students how each of the subjects supports the other.  I’m not saying that we should stop having teachers (Facilitators of Knowledge or FOL’s) that are experts in a specific field.  I’m advocating for our FOL’s to collaborate together and with learners to create projects that are interdisciplinary and aligned to student interests and passions.

What else should we stop doing as educators?  What other walls do we need to tear down in order for us to unleash the full potential of every child?

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Evaluation Tool to Support Personalized Learning

I was sitting in a classroom the other day observing a teacher for her evaluation.  I have the 8 Iowa Teaching Standards sitting right in front of me as I observe her and I am completely focused on what she is doing to meet the students’ needs in her classroom.  That’s right, my entire focus is on what she, the teacher, is doing.  While I am doing this, I have a huge epiphany.

She was doing a fantastic job of setting up activities for students to collaborate and think critically.  Her transitions were fantastic when having students move from one activity to another.  Students knew her expectations and followed them at all times.  She was constantly assessing students learning and adjusting her instruction to meet as many of their needs as she could with her current structure.  She is a great teacher who is meeting all 8 Iowa Teaching Standards at a high level.  Why am I not satisfied with the evaluation I am writing?

Then I realized what the disconnect was for me.  I have a passion for flipping the focus from what the teacher is doing, to the students and their learning.  My entire evaluation is focused on what SHE is doing to support the students.  If we want to get away from the Sage on the Stage and Keeper of All Knowledge platform and move to a more Personalized Learning environment where the students’ learning is the focus then I feel we have to change our evaluation tool.

A few years ago a new set of teaching standards were released called the InTASC standards which were created to articulate the standards teachers need to meet to create a more personalized learning environment to meet the needs of each and every one of their students which they call, and I like to call, “learners”.  The InTASC standards are a great step to better support this movement.  They are still very much focused on what the teacher is doing, but have a stronger influence on what the teacher is asking students to do, how much voice the teacher is giving the students, how the teacher is personalizing each learner’s path, and how the teacher is making the learning relevant and real world applicable.  I love just about everything in the InTASC standards but struggle to get past the fact that there are 10 different standards instead of 8 and most of the standards have 15-20 criteria under them.  This gives them a feel of being much more complicated than the previous standards.  They are also missing, just like the Iowa Teaching Standards, a growth mindset.  Teachers are either meeting the criteria or not meeting.  If we want our learners to have a growth mindset, we must also create an evaluation tool that supports our teachers in a growth mindset with a scoring rubric that pushes them to meet each criteria at higher levels as they improve.

It is my opinion that we need to find a way to simplify these a great deal, add a piece that focuses on what the students are actually doing while keeping the majority of it still focused on the teacher, and create a rubric that supports a growth mindset for all teachers.  I feel by adding the student piece we will get a more clear picture of exactly what is happening in the classroom.  And, by adding a 4 point scoring rubric we will be able to provide better support for our teachers to change from a fixed mindset to a growth mindset.

Has anyone created anything similar to what I am asking?  Is there anything else you would want in the evaluation that would help support this movement?  Please share so we can create something that we can all get behind and find useful.

If you would like to view the InTASC Standards you can find them by clicking on the following link.


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