Archive for category Leadership

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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Let It Happen Organically

A couple of years ago I was hired to be the principal of the 6-12 Collins-Maxwell school in Iowa.  The Superintendent, Jason Ellingson and I both had a passion for Personalized Learning and began to create plans on how to develop this system within the Collins-Maxwell school district.  It was exciting and a lot of fun.  We had a plan that allowed for the system to change over time organically.

After two years at Collins-Maxwell I decided to take a position closer to home that would allow me to spend more time with my wife and kids.  I am now the Vice-Principal of Callanan Middle School in Des Moines, Iowa.  Since making that move, I have been thinking a lot about how a school district the size of Des Moines could make this same change to Personalized Learning.  Some believe that change can’t happen in a district this size without a step-by-step plan that is incremental.  Start with A, then go to B, and so on.  I would like to challenge that and say it will never happen with a step-by-step plan that is incremental.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying we shouldn’t have a plan that lays out all the components necessary with the steps needed to make this happen.  I’m saying that if we think we are going to create a 3-5 year plan to make this happen and then think that by flipping a switch it’s just going to magically appear before our eyes we are sadly mistaken.  And, if this is what people are expecting, the whole plan will fail.

I believe that the only way to change any system over to a Personalized Learning environment is in a more organic manner.  I believe that there are things that must be put in place to support the change, and then from there it is about changing the philosophical views of all those in the organization one person at a time and giving them the supports necessary to change their practices.  I believe this will also build like a snowball rolling down a hill.   Below I will outline some of the things that I believe need to be put in place to make this kind of change happen over time.  Keep in mind that these are not necessarily in chronical order.  I’m not sure that they necessarily need to happen in any specific order.

  1. There must be leaders and pockets of teachers (I like to call them Facilitators of Learning or FOL’s), with strong influence who believe that Personalized Learning is the vehicle needed to help every child reach their full potential. These people must share the same vision, mission, and values.  They must be creative, risk takers to try new things in their classrooms and share out their successes as well as where they came up a little short so that we may learn from them.
  2. Trust must be built within the organization to allow for open and honest conversations to occur around changes in philosophical beliefs.
  3. Conversations must occur about the Vision, Mission, and Values to ensure that everyone is moving towards tighter alignment over time. Conversations must occur about the best vehicle(s) that should be used to support the Vision, Mission, and Values.
  4. Technology must be purchased at a one-to-one ratio to support both FOL’s and learners.
  5. FOL’s must receive personalized professional development on how to use technology to support the learners in their classroom.
  6. FOL’s must be trained in Standards Based/Referenced Learning (SBG/SRG) and how to align and increase the rigor of their Curriculum, Instruction, and Assessments. By using SBG/SRG all learners and FOL’s have a clear focus of what they know and are able to do.  They also have a clear focus of what they need to know and be able to do.  The majority of the standards in the Core are skills.  By focusing on these skills, FOL’s can better personalize for each learner by giving them a voice and choice in how they learn and demonstrate these skills.  SBG/SRG helps FOL’s move away from the one size fits all project/assignment mentality and helps to support a more personalized approach with each learner.
  7. FOL’s must be given and trained how to use a framework within their Collaborative Groups to help focus constructive conversations around the improvement of Curriculum, Instruction, and Assessments. Once FOL’s begin discussing and supporting each other in the improvement of their Curriculum, Instruction, and Assessments they will begin to learn from each other’s successes and begin to organically change over time.

It is my belief that if all of these things are put in place a more Personalized Learning environment will begin to take shape organically and gain momentum over time, one classroom at a time.  This is a big shift for all learners in the organization and must be given the time and support needed to be successful.   At some point, administration will need to consider the thought of releasing some barriers the traditional school places on its learners such as: semester time limits, bell schedules, grade levels, and others.  When that will need to happen, I’m not sure.  The leaders will know when it is right because the FOL’s and learners will become frustrated by the limitations of the current system.

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Lead From the Side

Most of us are leaders of some kind or another.  Whether it be the leader of your family, a group of friends, a team, or even a person that someone looks up to, you more than likely are a leader whether you want to be or not.  Think back on all the leaders you have had and which ones have had the greatest positive impact on your life.  I would be willing to bet that many times the people who have had the greatest positive impact on your life are those that walk with you as opposed to those who either walk ahead or behind you.  By giving people the power of choice, helping them think through their choices, and then walking on the path with them, strong relationships are built.

I have made the mistake of leading over a group of people and as a result hurt many people and injured many relationships that I am still struggling to repair.  It takes a great deal of time and energy to build strong, trusting relationships that are needed to help move any one person and any organization forward.  Yet, it only takes a moment and one action to destroy them.

When you are leading, where do you lead from?  Are you leading from above, watching over everyone and talking over people?  Are you leading from in front or behind, pulling and/or pushing people along when they don’t want to move in the first place?  Are you leading from below, holding people up that are continuously sinking on their own?  Or, are you going on a journey with the people close to you, helping them, supporting them, and creating stronger relationships along the way that only create stronger people as a result?

You might be thinking that pulling, pushing, and holding people up are the most efficient ways to get them to move, even if only a little bit.  And, you are probably right when looking at the short term.  However, if you want to nurture someone to become independent, resilient, creative, and a problem solver on their own, you must take the longer path and enjoy the walk with them.  The payoff in the end will be much higher.

So, the next time you find yourself in a position of leadership, take a look at yourself and make sure you are only leading from one place, right next to the person or people you are working with.  Lead from the side!  The payoff in the end will be huge for everyone involved.

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Trust Nurtures Creativity

Have you ever tried to be creative around someone you know doesn’t trust you, or someone that you don’t trust?  If you have, and you are anything like me, you probably found it very difficult if not impossible to be creative at all.  Trust is extremely important in fostering and nurturing creativity for everyone.  We have to be able to trust and know we are trusted in order to take risks we normally wouldn’t have taken.

Just the other day I had a conversation with a fellow educator whose building and district were requiring all teachers to give common end-of-unit assessments.  These common assessments were created by an individual or small group of people to insure that all students are held to the same standards district-wide.  After thinking about this further, I began to question deeper what impact this could, and probably will, have on education and, more importantly, our students and future leaders.

To me, this implementation of common end-of-unit assessments says something to all of the educators required to give them.  It tells them that their leaders don’t trust them.  Their leaders don’t trust that the teachers know and understand what levels of mastery their students should be held to.  They don’t trust that they will even teach the standards at all.  They don’t trust that they will hold all of their students to the same level of mastery.  They don’t trust that their educators can and will create strong assessments aligned to the standards.

Why don’t they trust all of this?  What other supports could be put in place to help educators hold students to a common standard, teach and assess from the Core, and create strong assessments, yet still tells everyone involved, “I trust you.”

Why not push your teachers to have conversations in learning communities about each of these things?  Give them the resources needed and have the conversations around each of these things that stretch and push each other.  And, if someone is not holding his or her students to an appropriate level, then have the conversation with him or her about this and take care of it in a way that doesn’t stunt and stifle the level of trust everyone else deserves.

Our teachers need to feel trusted.  They need to feel free to take risks and try new things.  There hasn’t been a time in education before where creativity was needed more.  Our students don’t operate the same as they did in the past.  They now want and need things to be more relevant to their interests.  They need to know and see why it is important to learn.  And, they expect the assessments to have some kind of value to them.  In order for all of this to happen, our teachers must have the ability to create personalized assessments that still hold each and every student to the same level.  That takes incredible levels of creativity.

Teaching used to be called an art.  Some of us are now trying to make it a science.  Why can’t we have the best of both worlds?  We must be careful with the message we are sending with our initiatives.

What initiatives are you currently doing that limit trust?  What are you going to do about them?  Trust your teachers and nurture the creativity inside them.  This will pay off royally later.  Trust me.

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Systems of Learning!

What is the purpose of a grade?  What is the purpose of semesters, class periods, or even timed tests?  What is the purpose of our current system of education?  It is my opinion we need to think about these questions so please stop reading for a few minutes and take the time before you read any further.

If you have taken the time to think about each of these questions, you may have come to the same conclusion I have — that each of them has been set in place to rank and order our students.  They have not been put in place to support learning for ALL students, only to discover who can learn the fastest, or who can learn the best under the rules and parameters we place on them.  How fair is that?  Who gets to decide how you learn and how long it should take for you to learn?  And to make things worse, in most places it is completely up to the individual teacher what this looks like in their classroom, where each teacher has a different style, and it is up to the students to conform to each style as they enter the classroom.

I want a system to support the learning of every student.  One in which all students are given the support, time, and personalization to succeed.  One in which students have the freedom and ownership to seek and find what interests them and then use those interests to support their learning of the Common Core Standards.  Why did you become an educator?  Can we call ourselves educators if we are not truly educating ALL of our students, and instead leaving many behind to fail only because our system does not allow us to give them the time and support the student may need?

Stop worrying about what we have always done, and begin thinking about what we need to stop doing.  Begin doing it differently.  A true system of learning is one that promotes learning for all.  Not some.  Not most.  All.  We know we do not have that system currently.  What do you want your education system to support, and what does this system look like?

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Technology + Core = Freedom for Creativity

Are we in the middle of a perfect storm?  We currently have technology entering the classroom at an incredible pace, and most states have made it the law for all teachers to teach from the Core Standards.  This can sound very scary to a lot of educators because their practices must change drastically.  They now have to learn how to use a technological device that they may have very little to no experience using, and that their students probably have been using for the past few years.  They also have to plan their lessons differently, which could mean the loss of some of the resources and lessons they have been using for the past decade or two.  All of this sounds scary for a large number of educators.

However, I had a conversation with one of the educators in my building who felt much different about it.  She described it as freedom!  She told me that she has felt trapped for quite a while and that the implementation of a one-to-one initiative of iPads and planning from the Core has freed her to be creative again.  She is excited about the changes she is planning to make.

After hearing this, I couldn’t help but get excited with her.  I have been reading many articles about the science of teaching – how we have to all teach the same things and have the same expectations.  If we are to all teach the same things, have common assessments, and common grading practices, many of us begin to feel trapped and unable to be creative in our craft.  All of this sameness feels very blah!

Here’s the flip side to all of this.  Technology gives us access to just about an unlimited number of resources.  And the Core tells us what we must be teaching and assessing, but nowhere tells us how we must do it.  There is actually more freedom in the Core than there is in a textbook.  The Core gives teachers and even learners the permission to be creative again.  Lessons don’t have to come out of the same book for every teacher.  Learners don’t have to read the same pages to understand the standards and benchmarks they are learning that day.  Technology has allowed teaching and learning to become completely personalized.  We can use videos, read articles, practice problems from an interactive site, talk to people anywhere in the world, and many other ways to teach and learn the standards.  Finally, educators have the freedom to become artists again.

So, what kind of educator are you?  Now that you have the freedom and the right resources to create a perfect storm in education, what are you going to do with it?  Are you an artist who has been waiting for this day?  Well here it is, jump on it, and enjoy.

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