Sunday, December 31, 2017

My #OneWord for 2018: Optimize (Our Impact)

One of the most exciting aspects of becoming an educator who values and appreciates being "connected" is the accountability factor. One annual example of this has been the #OneWord phenomenon, in which educators from across the globe openly commit to one word as a driving focus for the year. It's proven inspirational to read what others share as theirs as much as it's proven to be a source of strength to be able to focus on one word, amidst what is typically a high-energy, demanding lifestyle as a middle school principal. 

My own #OneWord journey began in 2015 with Perspective

It continued in 2016 with Stretch

And it evolved in 2017 with Elevate

This year, I have the added advantage of several blogging communities, which provides numerous accountability partners and mentors. One in particular has been an A to Z blogging project that a group of local connected educator friends and I have engaged in, via social media (Twitter and Voxer) and in person (unconferences, meet-ups,  and conferences). 

Back when this idea was first launched, the goal of the members in the group was to publish a post every two weeks, which would have neatly gotten us through the alphabet in a neat and timely manner. But of course, for those of us who have been around long enough to realize, learning (and life) is anything but neat and tidy. There are obstacles to progress, mental roadblocks, and external "politics of distraction". It's interesting to consider, if we can be forgiving of ourselves to get off track (or sidetracked), can we allow this more for our students and the adults in their lives? 

My #OneWord for 2018 is OPTIMIZE, which can be defined as to "make the best or most effective use of a situation, opportunity, or resource".

Thinking back on 2017, I've learned a lot. But one thing I did not capitalize on enough was having the courage of some of my colleagues who participated in the #ObserveMe movement. That is why it's at the top of my "to-do" list for 2018. 


Because feedback is one of the most complex, misunderstood, underutilized, and valuable aspects of being in education. As a school principal, it's my responsibility to supervise and evaluate teachers. I view this process as a something between an act of compliance and an instructional coaching experience, in which I benefit as much if not more than the cooperating teacher in the process. One of the challenges to this process is that it's an isolated, all-or-nothing event that has historically been something we have to "get through". One has to ask, is "getting through" something going to yield long-term benefits to any party involved?

This is one of the driving reasons that in 2018, I will look to OPTIMIZE my impact as a school leader. Five core areas of focus for me to do this are:
  • Communication
  • Collaboration
  • Learning
  • Leadership
  • Relationships
I invite anyone who is willing to help me grow and improve as a learning leader to take a few moments to provide me with some good, honest, constructive feedback. Whether we've interacted by way of a phone call or email, a meeting, video call, or presentation, I would love to hear from you. 

One disclaimer to remember, this is not about me. This is about being able to OPTIMIZE my impact for the students and staff in our school, the families and stakeholders in our community, and for one another, to help our profession flourish.

Happy 2018! What's YOUR #OneWord?

26 Days of Learning Leadership

Day 1:   Accountability
Day 2:   BRAVO
Day 3:   Collective Wisdom
Day 5:   Evolve

Day 6:   Feedback

Day 14: Names and Norms

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Names and Norms

Making your way in the world today takes everything you've got.

Taking a break from all your worries sure would help a lot.

Wouldn't you like to get away?

Sometimes you want to go...

Where everybody knows your name,

And they're always glad you came,

You want to be where you can see,

Our troubles are all the same.

You want to be...where everybody knows your name.

Isn't it funny how sometimes the most subtle of life events can transform us back to another time? For me, the song lyrics above take me back to growing up in the 1980's, watching Cheers, one of my weekly favorite shows on television with my Dad. Now, I know what you may be thinking. A comedy about a group of adults who meet up regularly in their favorite watering hole. Is that really something a kid should've been watching, and with his parent? Well, let me remind you, this was a simpler time.

One of my favorite characters was a witty king of one-liners, Norm, who was always prepared with a quip, upon entering Cheers. His response, however, was preceded by an important detail, which can be found by watching this three second clip: Cheers Norm .

See what happened there?

Norm was greeted, by name, and routinely so. Welcomed into a familiar community - his community - that allowed him to be comfortable in his own skin. Norm knew he was among others, some of whom shared his life challenges, some of whom could empathize and listen, and others of whom had unique challenges of their own, who can lend an ear or even, relate to Norm's circumstances.

Not that I was thinking about any of this while I was watching and laughing along to the laugh track with my Dad, but now, as a middle school principal, I have a new appreciation for this show.

How often do we go about our lives and our work without stopping to engage in the important things. So often throughout my life, I’ve benefited by the generosity of others. This has reminded me to stop and do this more often. As a result, I’ve recommitted to making sure I am doing the little things that sometimes make a big difference for someone else. If I've spoken to you on the phone lately, or we've interacted via GHO or Voxer this year, or even better, we've encountered one another in person, I want to say thank you. You've helped me do this. So...thank you.

What does this have to do with being a school leader, an educator, or someone fortunate to work with and for children?

Now more than ever, we need to commit to the small things. For example, what if we made the use of names one of our norms?  

In October and again in November, I had the good fortune to chaperone two student trips; one with my teenage son's school and the other with the students at the school where I serve as Principal. Since those trips, I have carried, in my pocket, two laminated pieces of paper, neither of which is larger in size than a business card. One of these cards has the names of students who were in my "meal group" and the other has students' names from my "activity group". I carry these around so that each day, I am reminded to check in with as many of these students by name.

Now, as one might imagine (if you work with adolescents, you know this), some engage with me and respond, some ignore my greeting, a few look at me, like, "Why are you talking to me?" I take none of this personally, but rather feel good knowing that these students are known, and know in our school, they are known. Kids need to hear their names. Greeting them allows me to consider some of the challenges they're facing, remembering their best challenge is my worse challenge, as a kid and now, as an adult. (Remember what I said before, watching Cheers with my Dad was during a simpler time, in the world and in my world.)

If you're lucky like me, maybe your school has an Advisory program or a character education or SEL program of some sort. But don't feel like you need one of these programs to make names the norm.

One of the biggest challenges of school leaders today is what results when we focus on what we "have to do" instead of what we "get to do". Each of the following ideas requires minimal preparation, other than scheduling them on your daily and weekly checklist, and maybe asking for an "accountability partner" to help you.

3 ways to promote an inclusive school community:

1. Opening Doors: One of the daily habits I have worked to build is to meet and greet our students, as often as possible throughout the school day. One of the best high traffic, low pressure meeting places, is where I can hold a door for students. These spots provide the opportunity for eye contact, the exchange of pleasantries, and an opportunity for me to use a student's name and for him/her to hear his/her name. An unintended consequence, I've learned, is that students have begun to hold doors for one another, and for their teachers. A component I’ve added over the years is to incorporate a “pitch counter” which I use as a “hello” or “good morning” counter. In middle school, this has been a fun way to remind adolescents that sometimes we adults need the reciprocal greeting as much as our students need to hear it. You'd be surprised how helpful teenagers can be, especially when you tell them you're "just looking for a 100th person to say good morning to you that day".

2. Name Cards: Keep a list of names of students on an index card in your pocket. Learn these names by asking questions of your school counselor, psychologist, nurse, teachers, and paraprofessionals with whom they work. Refer to the names on the card daily, and update it regularly. This will help, not only as a physical reminder to stay connected with students, but also to reminder that behind each of these names is a unique story. Collaborative leaders are catalysts to those around us, to ensure that students succeed, when they are known, and they know they are known. When we write names down, it seems as though it promotes our using them with greater frequency - that's good for everyone.
3. Two-by-Ten: Sometimes we encounter students whose names we know before we meet them face-to-face. You know who I’m talking about - “THAT kid”. Well, that kid needs us more than any of us know, and he’s going to ask for it in many ways that will challenge how we choose to respond. One strategy I’ve adopted for many students (and even some adults) is what researcher Raymond Wlodkowski refers to as, the Two-by-Ten Strategy . Simply put, select one student, and invest two minutes a day for ten consecutive days, speaking about any school-appropriate topic the student would like to discuss. This may take some practice and some artful questioning, but once achieved, the outcome is a personal connection, between a child and trusted adult. Do you have two minutes a day to invest in a child?

Why is this important? It's about building efficacy, in one another and in our school communities. Caring teachers already do this, and with intentional practice, we can all do our part, in building a community of trust.

Peter DeWitt writes in, School Climate: Leading With Collective Efficacy (Corwin, 2018), "Collaborative leaders need to keep in mind that the experience for each student is different when it comes to classroom climate." DeWitt goes on to note that, today, in a not-so-simple time, there are significant issues we can and should be tackling in the safe confines of our classrooms and school communities, among them, issues of race, gender, and sexual orientation. DeWitt continues, "If schools are to be places where all students feel included, then we as educators need to have conversations, read books, engage in debates, and hang up posters and artwork that depict the very students who attend our schools and depict the very population that lives within our country." At it's most basic level, this begins with using one another's name. This is where a "Culture of We" begins.

I’ve written previously about the work of Peter DeWitt and others in My #OneWord2017. It’s important of considering research to confirm or challenge our gut instincts as educators. However, when we look at the vital role Collaborative Leadership plays in impacting student achievement, teacher-student relationships (with an effect size of 0.72) are paramount to the success of individual students and in turn, can be a catalyst for success in our school communities.

Why not make a commitment, right now, to knowing your impact on student achievement and making the most of how you use it?


Monday, December 4, 2017

Manage Like Munson

"I like hitting fourth and I like the good batting average. But what I do everyday behind the plate is a lot more important because it touches so many more people and so many more aspects of the game."

~ New York Yankees Captain, Thurman Munson

Leadership reveals itself in some of the most unexpected places.

The summer before fifth grade was a lonely, yet memorable summer. My family had just relocated from the outskirts of New York City to the suburbs of Long Island. In what seemed like an instant, I went from being a "city kid" playing "up the avenue" to being a Long Island "farm boy". In my ten-year-old mind, I was abruptly converted from being a "City Mouse" to a "Country Mouse". It was a complicated time for a kid.

At my mother's daily urging, my June days were spent on my bike, exploring the neighborhood. One day in particular, I came to discover that the public library had a roving "Book Mobile", driven by a library employee through my neighborhood in the lazy days of summer. As a boy on the cusp of adolescence, I was a sports fanatic. When it came to books and reading, the one genre that could capture and hold my attention was biographies and autobiographies of any and all sports figures, past or present.  

Hopping on my bike, each week, I'd ride the two blocks to meet the Book Mobile. It always seemed to be filled with a wide array of books for me to peruse. That summer, thanks to an intuitive and caring librarian, I fell in love with reading, much like I had fallen in love with the game of baseball.

Baseball was my life, and reading about it wasn't far behind. As a die-hard New York Yankees fan, one particular figure whose story caught and held my attention was that of Yankees catcher Thurman Munson.


Nearly 30 years later, I found myself in a waiting area office, pacing in anticipation. As I tried to convince myself I wasn't nervous, I couldn't help but notice the array of Yankees paraphernalia neatly positioned on the shelves and walls, among them, a myriad of tributes to Thurman Munson. Seeing this brought me back to what I'd now consider a simpler time, settling my attention, and focusing me on a theme that often challenges me, as a now veteran educator: the fine line we walk between school management and school leadership.

Thurman Munson was a catcher, and a great one, at that. Over his 11 year playing career, tragically cut short when he was killed in a plane crash, he was a six-time All-Star, awarded three Gold Gloves, was named Rookie of the Year, and earned the Most Valuable Player award. The Yankees teams on which he played won three American League pennants and two World Series Championships. Widely known for his tenacity, his ability to make quick decisions, and his unapologetic leadership, this was undoubtedly why Munson was named New York Yankees Captain, eventually having his uniform number 15 retired.

His primary role and responsibility?

To catch the ball and throw it back to the pitcher.

As a school principal, I think about these qualities of Munson, his impact, and how they relate to the demands of a leadership position. While remembered for the championships, for the awards and the accolades, time forgets his primary role: being reliable and predictable, in the fundamentals aspects of his role. Being able to throw and catch a baseball is where Thurman Munson made his mark as Captain.

This walk down memory lane has led me to reflect on five personal-professional management questions that drive my responsibilities as a school leader:

1. Am I communicating effectively, fostering trust and opportunity for open and honest feedback?

2. Am I making the most of my time, placing a premium on collaboration and mutual support?

3. Am I maximizing my own professional learning, targeting where I need to improve?
    4. Am I surrounding myself with role models, who drive me to my own brand of professional excellence?
      5. Am I honoring relationships around me with those who make me a better leader for others?

      Each of these questions relates to management, and in turn, leadership. When Thurman Munson, attended to the basic needs of his battery-mate on the pitcher's mound, awaiting his return toss, trust grew. Leadership grows and influence expands when a firm commitment to mastering personal-professional management is made. This is where management meets and folds into the larger realm of leadership.

      This leads me to wonder, in the experience of others:

      • Where do your leadership opportunities and management tasks intersect with one another?
      • What management tasks fit within a wider scope of your leadership?
      • When is the point that managerial tasks elevate leadership?

      Comments and feedback are invited...and welcomed!

      26 Days of Learning Leadership

      Day 1:   Accountability
      Day 2:   BRAVO
      Day 3:   Collective Wisdom
      Day 5:   Evolve

      Day 6:   Feedback