Tuesday, December 27, 2016

12 Leadership Lessons From Paul

Paul, my awesome son, recently turned 12 years old! That's right... it has been exactly 12 years since that first time I held him in my arms and now less than one year until he is officially a teenager... UGH! While the attitude and sassiness associated with these teen years is consistently rearing its ugly head, he is still a source of inspiration, joy and fulfillment for me. Paul changed my world in an instant - he defined unconditional love for me and taught me what it feels like to be willing to give your life for someone else. It is hard to believe that this hysterical, strong minded and courageous young man weighed less than 7 lbs at birth. But, here he is, in the middle of seventh grade and not a day goes by when I am not in awe of him. Paul was born with some significant medical issues (wrote about them here) yet he has persevered and stayed positive no matter what was going on around him. He has his own passions and interests, his own circle of friends and his own strong set of beliefs... he thinks memes are the be all and end all, he thinks Snapchat is the best social media platform and he would prefer if school were 3 days a week while the weekend ended up being 5 days long... yes, he is a typical adolescent in so many ways. He is also my mini-me and partner in crime - there is nothing I enjoy more than spending time with Paul!

What Paul Has Taught Me

Aside from the obvious life lessons Paul has taught me, he has also taught me a lot about learning, teaching, the world of education and leadership. While last year I wrote about the 11 things Paul taught me about school, this year I have been thinking about the leadership lessons I have learned from Paul. Even though there are many  lessons - literally dozens - that I have learned from Paul, in honor of his recent birthday, I wanted to share 12 of the leadership lessons that have really resonated with me. You see, in many ways, parenting and leadership are incredibly similar because ultimately our words, actions and decisions (as parents and leaders) will have a direct impact on those around us and that is an awesome responsibility. 

12 Leadership Lessons

1) My students deserve to be treated like my own kids. Since Paul was born, my ultimate goal was to create the school/classroom/district that I would want for Paul; a place that I would be proud to send Paul. It is really simple but so important - if I see my students through the same lens I see my own child, my goals become clear and I am no longer seeing my students as "their" children or "those" children but instead as MY/OUR children.

2) We must be mindful of every word, action and decision because it will impact those around us. What I have come to understand in my current position as an Assistant Superintendent, where I am still new and building trust and relationships, is that intent doesn't always match impact. So, while my intentions may be completely positive, the impact on those around me may actually not be so positive and that could be problematic. Thus before taking any action, making any decisions or saying anything that could impact many, I must consider the outcomes. This is true of every interaction I have with Paul and trust me, I have learned from my many mistakes!

3) Leaders must make time for some fun too! While I want our students to read, write and be informed problem solvers (much like I want Paul to study hard and eat his veggies), there must also be time for movement, fun and socialization. As a leader, I will make sure that activities such as physical education and recess are sacred because our students need those times to move and have some fun. To that end, I have also made sure to carve out some fun time for myself so I could re-energize and while that might involve a good book, some reality TV or joining kids at recess, the end result is clear - leaders need to have some fun too.

4) As a leader, I have to share responsibility as a way to empower those around me. As Paul has gotten older he has pushed (more like pulled away) for more independence and the opportunity to make his own decisions. While his choices aren't always the ones I would have chosen, I recognize that I must give him the space to learn from his mistakes. As an educational leader, I must do the same and consider ways to share responsibility with the other educators in our district, our students and our families. I cannot make decisions in a silo; instead, distributive and collaborative leadership allow me to deliberate ideas, broaden my point of view and make more informed decisions... and hopefully better decisions.

5) In the end, there are times when a decision has to be made by the leader! Even though Paul generally hates being told what to do and when, there are times that his vantage point is limited and thus he relies on his parents to make a more informed decision for him (for example, even though he didn't want to be moved to the honors class a month into the school year, we knew it was best for him and guided him in that direction). This is true for me as an educational leader too because I have a broader and more global perspective and thus decisions often require my vantage point. Although multiple perspectives may be considered, the responsibility of the final decision lies with me and sometimes that is totally fine.

6) As a leader I have to be better at listening than speaking. Yes, strong public speaking (at a faculty meeting, a PD session, at a Board Meeting, etc.) is important, but in the end people need to be heard. Yes, Paul does need my advice and guidance at times but there are other times that my ability to just sit back and listen is more valuable to him than anything I could say. By listening to Paul, I am allowing him the opportunity to process his thoughts aloud and I am learning so much about where he is and what he is feeling. The ability to listen - really hear what others are saying - is crucial in my role as educational leader too because not only do I help others understand that their opinions/perspectives are valuable but I am learning a lot and informing my own perspective. The ability to listen is also the key to building sustainable relationships.

7) Leaders must be responsive, not reactive. There are times when I am stressed or frustrated (or just tired) and Paul says or does something that sets me off and I totally react... in fact, I likely overreact. In  the end though, Paul would benefit a lot more from my responsiveness than my reactiveness. The same is true for my work as an educational leader - our community needs me to be responsive but not reactive. As a responsive leader I respond to the needs of those around me by gathering as much information as possible, by considering all the consequences of my actions and by best meeting the needs of our community - especially our students. 

8) We must value the process more than the product. This is something I have to constantly remind myself of when I am watching Paul do his HW. There are so many times I want to swoop in and make a correction or suggest a different word or strategy but in the end, I know I have to let him go through the learning process because that would be more meaningful than me "fixing" something for him. The same is true for me as an educational leader. I don't look for perfection when I am in schools or classrooms - learning and teaching should be messy, engaging and failure should be an acceptable norm within the process. Learning and teaching is always about the process - not the product because I generally care more about the journey than the destination. 

9) Be transparent because honesty allows everyone around me to understand the "whys" and "hows" of my decisions, actions and words. The most difficult time in my life was coming to terms with my sexuality and although most people discouraged me from sharing my reality with Paul, I knew I had to because I needed to be honest with him. What happened when I told him? He hugged me, told me he loved me and said he understood that I would love a man. Done. No drama, no story to spin and no lie to remember - being transparent with my son was the best decision I ever made. The same is true in my work as an educational leader where being transparent with kids, staff and families has helped me earn trust and build social capital and those can be game changers in leadership. 

10) Lead with heart - it is a simple rule but probably the most important one for me. As a dad Paul knows that no matter what conversation we are having or situation we are dealing with, my love for him is at the core and because of that love, in the end, we will figure it all out. The same is true in my work as a leader - my heart guides many of my decisions because I am driven to do what is in the best interest of our students, teachers and our entire community. Yes, I have to be rationale and logical as a leader but in the end, it is my ability to lead from my heart (with passion and pride) that has helped me be successful in various leadership positions.   

11) Leaders don't let the title or role define them; instead they define it! I knew what people expected of me as a dad because of the way I was raised but in the end, my parenting style was just that - mine. Yes, I relied on the amazing example of my own parents but Paul's needs and personality really dictated my own patterns as a dad. My parenting is forever evolving because some days my son needs a mentor, other days he needs a friend and sometimes he needs direction. During my journey as an educational leader, I knew what people expected from the principal or the assistant superintendent (simply because of the titles) but letting the role define me didn't come naturally; instead, redefining the roles and expectations came easier so that's what happened. Whether I embraced the concept of being a lead learner during my time as a principal or spent more time in classrooms/schools during my short time as a central office administrator, the fact remained that I was redefining the role and making it my own because my professional work had to resonate on a personal level. 

12) I am a dad first and foremost and every decision I make as an educational leader is influenced by my "dad lens." This reality is a simple one but one that took me a while to recognize. You see, I never understood how much my work was influenced by my life until I became a building principal about 11 years ago. Whether I was doing the master schedule during my time as a principal or meeting with a group principals during my time as a assistant superintendent, the decisions I made and words I spoke were shaped by my personal experiences as a father... and so far, that has worked for me.

Yes, Paul has taught me dozens of lessons and although the list could go on, these are the Top 12 leadership lessons I have learned from my most amazing son. Thank you Paul - you inspire me, teach me and make me a better person and educator!

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Looking Back And Moving Forward

A collaborative post by Tony Sinanis & Lisa Meade

Looking Back & Moving Forward

When you look back on the order of events, it may not make much sense to those in our worlds. We were both successful principals leading amazing teams in our incredible schools. We worked with kids who were excited to come to school, with families who were proud  to share their children with us and educators who put kids at the center of every decision. We felt highly capable in our positions. The principalship allowed us to impact a myriad of decisions, shape the trajectory of a community and nurture a culture of learning for adults and students. We were inspired by the work of other principals in our PLN and kept raising the bar with new ideas and approaches in our buildings because we knew we had to model what we hoped for our in our communities… being learners first and teachers second!

As we begin thinking about what 2017 has in store for us, we paused to think about where we both were a year ago when we were thinking about 2016. Ironically enough, neither of us were even considering a move - we loved being building principals and were already starting to plan for the next year. Yet, 2016 unfolded quickly and before we knew it, we were both embarking on new journeys that involved district level leadership positions. Needless to say, we had some questions but none more pressing than one that we had always considered from a distance… if entering the principalship was considered “going over to the dark side” then what side would we be on when we moved from the building level to district level leadership roles of Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum and Instruction (Tony) and Director of Pupil Personnel Services (Lisa)? What is darker than dark side?

Transitioning to a new role

Through a different series of events for both of us, opportunities to stretch, reflect, learn and grow were presented. Yet, in that opportunity, we likely didn’t realize the struggle that would exist in saying goodbye to the communities that had become extensions of our families, and even ourselves. When you believe in a building (a team, the students and their families) as much as both of us did, you don’t just walk away without pain, sadness and even some uncertainty. We’d be lying to say otherwise because change is hard; change is uncomfortable; and change is unfamiliar. We left so much in our former districts and made the leap to new positions in new districts and we know we were able to make those leaps because of our previous experiences!

In spite of hurdles we faced when moving on, the challenge of making an even bigger impact in a new space was an exciting opportunity for us. Where we once had a fraction of teachers to support, now we are looking at hundreds of staff members, thousands of kids and a sea of families. The decisions we help to make, or sometimes are making ourselves, are enormous because the accountability is at a whole other level since the impact is so far reaching. We can’t lie - the work can be overwhelming at times because we want everything to be perfect for our new communities, including the new district level teams we are a part of,  but the chance to be part of systemic and organizational work helps us pause and recognize how fortunate we are to have such incredible opportunities in our new roles. Now that we are both in district level positions, we see some things differently and with a greater sense of urgency, at times, than we may have in the past because now the impact is on an entire district - not just one space within a district. Oh boy… how times have changed!  

Appreciating the past

Yet, who taught us the most about what was right for schools? Our building teams where we had the opportunity to lead, learn and inform our practice. Each and every time we meet a new administrator or have the opportunity to talk to someone in an administrative internship, we tell them that being a principal is, by far, one of the best jobs on the planet for so many reasons.

At Cantiague Elementary in Jericho, NY, Tony learned how to work with an entire community to create a student-centered learning environment that functions as a safe haven for children. When children feel safe, they feel confident; when children feel confident, they feel happy; when children feel happy, their brains release endorphins; when the brains release endorphins children are primed for learning. A student-centered school pivots around the core philosophy that schools foster happy, engaged children who have voice in their learning and choice in how to communicate their knowledge. Tony quickly realized, through conversations with staff and families, that students needed to be active members of the school community where learning was at the center.

When the focus at Cantiague shifted from the teaching to the learning, the daily work and conversations changed. Tony, as a building lead learner, tried to model that notion of learning every single day whether through activities within the PLN, or through the reading of blogs or by trying new things in his practice, he was focused on learning and growing. The educators at Cantiague embraced this opportunity to learn too and new ideas and practices sprang up throughout the building. Slowly, the children at Cantiague began to develop a different appreciation for their learning because they understood the work and saw it as valuable and personal. With that slight shift in focus from teaching to learning, Cantiague became much more student-centered and the tone of discourse about learning changed so opportunities to innovate, create, and pursue passions became the norm rather than the exception. The children at Cantiague began participating in school-wide decisions, from planning special events to helping reimagine the school vision statement. We quickly saw that when the students exercised their voices, on some level they positioned themselves as partners in the school experience. We were able to harness the excitement and enthusiasm our children brought to school each day, by amplifying their voices, and letting their positivity permeate the entire community.

At Corinth Middle School in Corinth, NY, Lisa learned the power of culture on a building. Lisa explains, “We each bought into a shared vision for what our school should feel, sound, and look like. Through PBIS and effective use of a building leadership team, we drastically reduced discipline in our building. We took risks (like flipped learning, creating a makerspace and examining our homework policies) step by step. We remembered that at the center of each instructional or behavioral decision we needed to make, there stood a student. Sometimes the students would allow us to help and sometimes they wouldn’t. We tried to not let it matter either way. Faculty meetings became incredibly collaborative through faculty meeting smackdowns and we learned to appreciate the enormous talent pool we had within. Over time, most became comfortable with being honest about decisions they may not have agreed with but still tried to respect as they were rolled out. Earlier this summer, when I made the decision to leave Corinth, I wrote about this departure in the post, For Good.  What I tried to say in that post was how incredibly thankful I will always be to that team for teaching me all about leadership. One of the main ideas I gained was that real leadership can’t be delegated or ignored. Teachers (and support staff) want to be part of a program that puts kids first and is clearly articulated and then adjusted when need be.”

Redefining the role

In each of our new districts, we have been given an incredible opportunity to work with and for superintendents that have found places for a new voice among their team. Leading at the district level and trying to find your voice among an established team (on building, department, and even teacher levels) can be tricky. We often touch base, as friends, about how we are balancing that and how we can refine and improve our practice to increase the potential of having a positive impact. As you might expect, we are better at it some days more than others. What we have come to realize is that even though our new titles come with certain preconceived notions (based on the title itself or our predecessors), we are making the “job” our own and in essence redefining the role. How are we redefining the role? Here are some of the examples…

  1. We remind ourselves that the most important work is done one relationship at a time because over the years we have come to understand that education is about people, not just data, not just test scores or not just meetings;

  1. We have come to understand that important decisions, with far reaching ramifications, have to be made by putting students at the center. In the end, we recognize that some of those the decisions may not be popular but if we are doing what is best for our kids and teachers then we can stand behind those decisions.

  1. We have come out from behind our desks! We are spending as much time as possible visiting schools and engaging with teachers and students within the classrooms so we can build relationships, develop trust with the community and better understand what teaching and learning looks like in our new districts.(Lisa admits that Tony is much more skilled at this than she is -- at this moment!) We are fortunate to be working with educators in our new districts that have been welcoming and supportive during our transitions and have allowed us the opportunity to get to know the kids, who are simply awesome!

  1. We are broadcasting the awesomeness happening in our new districts! From helping to support a district hashtag (#WeArePlainedge & #HFTigerPride) to accessing various social media platforms (everything from Twitter to Instagram to Facebook), we are excited to spotlight all the amazing things happening in our schools and classrooms. From the teaching to the learning, we are proud to engage our families in a different way by giving them a glimpse into the day to day experiences of their children. This work is important because not only does it help contribute to the building of a positive narrative in education across the country, it also helps build trust between the schools and our amazing communities because of high levels of transparency and constant communication.

Finally, we are learning… a LOT! We are learning from our new colleagues including our incredible Superintendents whom are so generous in their leadership. We are also learning from our teachers, our support staff, the building leaders, our new kids, and their families.  While the journey has been humbling because we have stumbled many times over the last several months, it is well worth it because we continue to learn something new and hopefully become better for our new districts! With each and every stumble or success, we move in the same direction --- forward.

“You can't connect the dots looking forward.  You can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something: your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. Because believing that the dots will connect down the road will give you the confidence to follow your heart, even when it leads you off the well worn path.”  - Steve Jobs

Sunday, December 11, 2016

The Most Critical Trait of Highly Effective Edu Leaders

From Highly Effective

What Is The MOST Critical Trait Of Highly Effective Educational Leaders?

Over the last few years I have seen many posts, infographics and lists on social media that describe the traits/qualities/habits of highly effective educational leaders. For example, this article from Forbes magazine suggests that the #1 characteristic of effective school leaders is that "They have consistent, high expectations and are very ambitious for the success of their pupils;" while this post states that understanding neuroscience is the #1 habit of highly effective instructional leaders. Other lists have included phrases such as proactive, instructional leader, intelligent, experienced, a visionary and well organized. While highly effective educational leaders likely possess many important traits, qualities and habits, I think the most critical one to a leader's personal success, and the success of the entire educational community, is having high EQ!

What Is EQ?

Google defines EQ as, "Emotional intelligence (EQ). This is the ability to identify, use, understand, and manage your own emotions in positive ways to relieve stress, communicate effectively, empathize with others, overcome challenges and defuse conflict." That's right - highly effective educational leaders need to possess high levels of emotional intelligence. An educational leader who has high EQ is able to empathize, communicate, understand, listen and defuse potential conflicts in a proactive way. 

Based on my many years of experience, an educational leader could be the smartest person in the building and the most organized person in the building and even the most visible person in the building but if they do not have high levels of emotional intelligence I don't think their work will be sustainable. You see, sustainability is about buy-in; buy-in is about ownership; ownership is about distributive leadership; distributive leadership is about relationships; and relationships are all about EQ.


EQ & Relationships: They Go Hand-In-Hand

Of late I have been thinking a lot about the importance of relationships in education, which we explored at length in our latest book Hacking Leadership. Specifically, I have been thinking about how relationships shape the trajectory of the school community. While I have noticed relationships being mentioned in many recent Twitter chats, I started to question if everyone was actually capable of nurturing positive, healthy and productive relationships because they don't just happen randomly. Instead, building positive and sustainable relationships within a school community is about an educational leader's ability to communicate well and the their levels of EQ. Truth is, many leaders may try to build relationships with the members of the community, and their intentions might even be positive, but if they don't have high levels of EQ there will be challenges. You see, without EQ, members of the community cannot really relate to the leader and thus, the leader is unable to build sustainable relationships. Relationships are all about EQ and EQ is something a highly effective educational leader has or is lacking.   


Why Is EQ Important In Education?

What I have come to understand in almost 20 years as an educator is that education should be relationship driven and data informed. Over the last decade or so, data has become the word in education - data driving instruction; data walls to track student performance; and data even deciding if a school community is deemed a success or a failure. The thing about data is that it is directly impacted by the relationships surrounding it. How teachers relate to kids; how educational leaders relate to teachers; how kids relate to educational leaders; and how families relate to the organization all impact data. Data doesn't happen in isolation; data is a result of relationships and I believe that a successful school is much more about healthy relationships than it is about numbers, test results and data. The relationships that are critical to the sustainability and overall success of the entire community comes back to the leader and an educational leader who has significant levels of EQ will likely be highly effective in their work.

That EQ is at the core of any and all successes within our schools. Here are three examples of how high levels of EQ, on the part of the educational leader, have a direct impact on the success of the school/district:

1) When NYS released the learning modules for ELA and Math through the EngageNY site, they were being touted as a new mandate that needed to be implement ASAP. Well, those modules rolled out in one of two ways... 

Low EQ Way: the leader copied the modules, placed them in a binder and handed them out to teachers and directed them to implement them ASAP. 

High EQ Way: the leader introduced the idea of the modules to the staff; then carved out time for groups of teachers to explore/discuss the modules; the team then discussed the implications on the kids, learning and teaching; and finally, everyone considered how the modules might be integrated into the daily learning in a way that was meaningful to all and was in the best interest of the children. This plan was regularly revisited and in the end, the modules may not have made their way into the classroom.

2) One of the most recent hot topics in education are discussions about how schools can be more innovative and forward thinking with 21st Century Skills at the core of their daily work. Well, that happens in one of two ways... 

Low EQ Way: the leader calls a meeting and tells everyone that their new initiative will be innovation and 21st Century Skills. The leader also explains that everyone will be formerly observed and that their lesson should include some type of innovation and 21st Century Skills. 

High EQ Way: the leader facilitates a deep dive into the notion of innovation and 21st Century Skills over a period of time. The exploration includes blog posts being read, videos being watched, book excerpts being discussed and various staff members (and potentially students) sharing their ideas, experiences and perspectives on what innovation and 21st Century Skills might look like within the classroom. Connections are also made to other schools and educators to learn from the expertise outside of the organization. In the end, educators are treated with professional respect and encouraged to take risks in their work so that innovation and 21st Century Skills don't become somethings on a check-off list; instead, they become a mindset and way of thinking because they are best for kids!

3) The school/district has decided to go with a new math program because the old one isn't aligned to the standards. The roll out of the program happens one of two ways...

Low EQ Way: the leader gives teachers most of the materials from the math program (not everything was ordered because of budget constraints) and one day of PD with the company that produces the program to physically unpack the resources. At this point everyone is expected to implement the program with fidelity and all teachers will be held accountable.

High EQ Way: the leader puts together a committee of teachers that are charged with reviewing and piloting various math programs. After the pilot phase, the committee reconvenes to review feedback from families, students and teachers, in conjunction with other data points, and then makes a recommendation about what program would be best for their students. The program is then rolled out with all necessary materials and several days of PD to explore the resources and also learn about the intricacies of the program. Additionally, the leader designs the schedule to have built-in common planning time for all teachers to collaborate on the integration of the program. Finally, if funds permit (and grants are always an option), a math specialist works with the staff to help teachers build capacity as it relates to math instruction... not just this program.

The examples are plentiful but in the end, the common theme is that relationships are at the core of all successful schools and those relationships are directly related to the EQ levels of the educational leader. In my opinion, EQ is the most critical trait of a highly effective educational leader. 

What do you think? Do you agree? Is another trait more important? Please, leave a comment below and let me know your thoughts on the most critical trait of a highly effective educational leader.  

Sunday, November 6, 2016

4 Possibilities for Planning PD

PD Planning Is Important

The planning of professional development in the world of education seems to go one of two ways... it is thrown together in a rush because everyone is too busy; or it is focused on something "trendy" that other districts and schools are doing. While I have been guilty of both of those approaches in the past (and generally the results were fine), I have been thinking a lot lately about how we could reframe the whole PD planning process. In fact, I was recently at a conference where I attended a session focused on PD and most of the participants in the room were teachers and their overall reaction to PD was pretty negative. They described PD as disengaging, irrelevant and a waste of time. Needless to say, that really got me thinking. I was thinking a lot about planning PD so that the PD is meaningful for most of the participants (we may not reach everyone), resonates on both professional and personal levels, speaks to the needs of our learning community and empowers participants to learn something that will inform their practice. 

Sounds easy enough, right? Well, it is far from easy! In fact planning great PD is one of the most challenging aspects of our work because we want it to be exciting, positive and engaging! We want the experience to look like this... 

Unfortunately, what we know is that the PD experience often leaves participants (and even the facilitators) feeling like this... 

So, how do we make PD super awesome so that everyone leaves the room energized, pumped and ready to try something new? Well, truth is, I am not really sure. I don't think there is a silver bullet to making sure that all PD is awesome PD because I don't know if there is a recipe for "making" awesome PD. What I do know is that planning for the PD is just as important as the PD. 

4 Possibilities for Planning PD

To that end, I would like to offer the 4 following possibilities for planning PD that focuses on learning (thank you Fred Ende for that reminder) and has a positive impact on our kids...

1) Plan ahead with a team of community members who are invested in the outcomes of the PD. One school leader I was speaking to described a PD committee that she uses to plan every PD experience for her staff. The team, made up of teachers, gets together about every six weeks and discusses how things are going. These discussions then turn into a more focused conversation about staff readiness levels and where people could benefit from more support, where people could lead the learning themselves and where there is a high level of mastery, which means they don't necessarily need support in that area at this time. 

The idea of a "PD Team" is a powerful one and I would suggest going beyond teachers and building leaders on this team... I would consider inviting students and potentially family members to be part of the conversation. Our students could shed some serious light on what they need during the classroom experience and what PD for the teachers could enhance the learning experiences. Our students have an important and unique lens and ultimately we want all PD to have a positive impact on them so why not include them in the conversation? Truth is, in some instances, our kids are able to plan and facilitate some of the PD for our teachers and for that reason, they should have a voice in the process.

As for family members, while they may not be educational experts, they do see things through an important lens that can inform our practice. Family members know how their children feel when they come home, how their children engage in learning beyond the school day and how they perceive school from the outside. We should listen to these perspectives to help us determine what we could be doing better because ultimately, effective PD should help us be better for our kids.  

2) Use your Twitter feed (or Instagram posts or Facebook wall) as another source of information for planning future professional development sessions. Get a team of leaders, teachers, students, etc. together and start planning future PD sessions/days based on what you are seeing as emerging themes in your story. What are you seeing a lot of? What are you seeing some of? What are you seeing none of? Use the answers to these questions to help plan next steps in regards to learning and teaching in your school/district. While the impetus for the Twitter feed may be telling the school story and building transparency between the school and the community, the byproduct (if the content of the posts are determined with intentionality) could be a whole new way to look at and facilitate PD! 

3) Focus on the outcomes of the experience - not just the experience. Too often I hear about PD experiences that are solely focused on a product or PD experiences that are centered on a really "awesome" speaker/presenter. While these aspects are important, we must begin with the end in mind when planning PD - what do we want our team of educators to learn as a result of the PD? what impact do we want the PD to have on our kids and school? what practices do we want to refine and enhance as a result of the PD? The end result is critical because we cannot intentionally plan "drive by PD" that begins and ends in one day; we need to plan PD that happens on one day (or maybe more) but the results are felt for days, weeks, months and even years ahead. 

4) Don't lose sight of the fact that if we want PD to matter and have a sustainable impact, it must resonate on both personal and professional levels! Based on my own research during my doctoral studies, all of the participants made it clear that meaningful PD was about getting participants to care, to be invested and to see the possibilities; PD should not be about what we aren't doing or what we "should" be doing. PD should matter to people;  PD should be about possibilities; and most importantly, PD should impact the mind and heart!

These are just 4 possibilities to consider when planning PD for all of the awesome educators in our schools. What do you think? What have you tried? What has worked? What has failed? Please share your experiences below because together we are better!

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Branding 2.0


Branding... it is one of those words in education that generally garners one of two reactions... either educators love it and see it as an important aspect of the work in schools or educators push back against it because they argue that schools aren't businesses and that creating brands is about perpetuating perceptions and not focusing on realities. Well, I, for one, see branding as a powerful and important part of our work as educators because it can be transformative if done thoughtfully and with intentionality.

For the purposes of this post (and beyond), when I use the word branding I mean the following...

1) The work we do to tell our school/district stories using different digital platforms to accelerate and amplify the story beyond our context;

2) The work we do to engage our families in the learning within the school;

3) The work we do to create an identity that allows all members of the community to connect in some way;

4) The work we do to elicit a positive (hopefully) emotional response from the kids, staff and families when they think of our school/district;

5) The work we do to ensure that the brand promise we make to families matches the brand experience of our students and staff; 

6) The work we do to build high levels of transparency between home and school as a vehicle for developing trust;

7) The work we do to celebrate kids;

8) The work we do to help redefine the narrative of public education in this country by spotlighting the many positive things happening in our schools;

9) The work we do to communicate our brand through a personalized school/district vision or mission statement;

Over the last several years I have had the opportunity to connect with educators from around the world and contemplate the power of telling our collective school/district stories and branding our educational spaces. The conversations have been incredibly thought provoking for me because I have engaged in discussions about the difference between the personal brand versus the school brand; the discomfort with feeling like educators are bragging when they are sharing their school stories; and finding the time to actually do the work. Through these exchanges, which have occurred both face to face and through various social media platforms, I have been refining my thinking on the importance of telling our story because the impact it can have goes deep and it can truly change the work unfolding within an educational organization.


How does that happen? How does taking pictures of kids within schools and sharing them through social media change what's happening in schools? How can branding a district or school or classroom be transformational? It comes down to one word... intentionality. Yes, we must be incredibly intentional and thoughtful about the brand we are building through the story we are telling because the results can change everything. 

Branding 2.0

When Joe and I had the privilege of co-authoring The Power of Branding: Telling Your School's Story (thank you Corwin Press and Peter DeWitt for that awesome opportunity), we spent a lot of time framing the concept of branding and storytelling within the context of schools. Our emphasis was on helping educators see the importance of being the Chief Storytellers within their spaces on their way to branding their classroom, school or district by using different platforms and approaches - a branding "how-to" of sorts for educators. 

Now, the time has come for Branding 2.0 - the branding with intentionality that goes a bit deeper. 

Here are the 5 steps to Branding 2.0 for educational leaders:

1) Spotlight the instructional practices that you hope to see become the norm within your school/district. For example, let's say there is a focus in your school on small group reading instruction, when taking pictures during classroom visits capture the moments that embody best practices as it relates to small group reading practices because those are the things we hope to see in all classrooms.

2) Be intentional about the pictures you take so in addition to telling a story for the community the byproduct is personal and professional development. For example, if you see a fourth grade teacher using Minecraft in a meaningful way during a math lesson, instead of just tweeting out the pic, tag some other teachers from that grade level or school on the tweet so colleagues can see what is unfolding in each other's classrooms. What can happen as a result of this practice? Here are some possibilities...

  • Teachers can discuss the lesson during common planning time and figure out next steps;
  • Teachers can use that idea as the impetus for a session at an upcoming EdCamp session (both within and beyond the district);
  • The activity can pop up in other people's classrooms as a result of a collaborative share;
  • Teachers can decide to explore other ways to incorporate Minecraft into their learning experiences;
  • We break out of our silos;
  • This could lead to intervisitations so teachers in the same building can learn from each other's expertise;
  • The list can go on and on...

3) Get kids involved in capturing the learning experiences in  their classrooms. We explored this possibility in our latest book, Hacking Leadership, whether in the form of social media interns or classroom photographers, there are meaningful ways that we can turn over the storytelling to our kids so we amplify their collective voices and give them ownership of the story!

4) Use your Twitter feed (or Instagram posts or Facebook wall) as another source of information for planning future professional development sessions. Get a team of teachers together (and maybe some students) and start planning future PD sessions/days based on what you are seeing as emerging themes in your story. What are you seeing a lot of? What are you seeing some of? What are you seeing none of? Use the answers to these questions to help plan next steps in regards to learning and teaching in your school/district. 

5) Use your Twitter feed (or whatever platform  you use) as an important data point when assessing yourself as a leader and reflecting on the practices of the educators in your space. When leaders tell me they don't have the time to tell their story I typically push back and argue that they are not doing a critical part of their job. The reality is this (IMHO) - posts on SM come as a result of classroom visits and if a leader is spending more time in their office than they are in classrooms (yes, I know there are exceptions to this) then they need to rethink the way they are doing their job and reflect on priorities. When we spend time in classrooms, even if the impetus is to tell our story, we are also seeing what is happening in regards to the actual teaching and learning - the norms, the routines, the practices, the resources being used, the strengths, the needs, etc. This information will help us reflect on how we can best support our teachers and students; this information will also help us when we sit down to write up an observation or evaluation - we will have so much valuable and rich information if we devote time to this important work!

Although I know there will still be some pushback on this whole notion of branding in education, I think the possibilities that come as a result of Branding 2.0 far outweigh the concerns. 

So, are you ready for Branding 2.0? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below... do you agree? disagree? do you have more to add to the list above? I would love some feedback so that I can refine my thinking and broaden my point of view because I believe Branding 2.0 is about intentionality and the only way to be intentional is to be informed!         

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Critical Conversations

Our Work Is Challenging

"I am so glad to hear that I am not the only educator dealing with this issue!"

I cannot count how many times I have heard the statement above (or some variation of it) over the last several years. In fact, I have said it myself dozens of times; and for all the times I have said it out loud, I have thought it to myself hundreds of times. 

It happens in that moment when we break free from our silos and engage in conversations with other educators. At some point during the exchange we hear someone else utter the words that have been floating around our heads for days, months and maybe even years. The words that have potentially been weighing heavy on our hearts and souls because we thought we were the only ones; we thought we were alone; we thought we were a failure... but, we are not! 

The reality is, we are one of many and the time has come to engage in more and more of these critical conversations with other educators so we can escape our silos and engage in discussions that will help us in many ways. Whether these discussions merely help us feel less isolated or help us find a solution to a problem we have been struggling with or even make us appreciate that someone else's reality is worse than our own, we are better as a result of engaging in critical conversations. 

Where do these critical conversations happen?

The contexts of these critical conversations is incredibly important when considering the outcomes. For example, while we often engage in conversations in our own districts and schools, sometimes these discussions are not the most fruitful because we are regularly struggling with the same issues and thus become fixated on the problem instead of seeing a path towards a solution. Don't get me wrong - these internal discussions are important too because they help us come together and potentially work towards a solution but the time has come to engage in critical conversations beyond our contexts. Here are some possibilities...

1) Go to a local EdCamp and just talk to people! EdCamps are a great place to connect with like minded educators and just talk about the kids, the work and the profession. EdCamps are also an ideal space to spontaneously suggest a session to discuss a problem of practice!

2) Join a Twitter chat and decide how you want to engage! Chats can be a great source of inspiration and a treasure chest of ideas so join a chat that meets your needs. A chat participant can just sit back and watch the flow of ideas or can share their own ideas or even engage in "conversation" by responding to someone else. 

3) Organize a gathering at a local coffee house or book store so people from different educational organizations can get together and engage in some critical conversations. Recently I had the chance to participant in a book talk at the Whitehall Barnes & Noble and it was great because a small group of us just spent a couple of hours talking, comparing experiences and sharing ideas. 

4) Organize a Google Hangout with edufriends! Yes, thanks to social media, we can develop amazing and sustainable friendships with other educators from around the world so why not organize a video chat and get everyone together (virtually) to share what is going on in their professional worlds?

5) Join a book club or book study! Yes, critical conversations anchored in a shared text can be incredibly powerful because they allow participants to deliberate ideas, broaden their respective points of view and inform their craft! Best thing about book studies or talks in 2016 is that they are often happening on digital platforms (Voxer, Facebook, etc.) so people from around the country can connect from their couch and talk shop!

Why Are Critical Conversations Important? 

Clearly I think that critical conversations are important. With that being said, I do think we need to be mindful of the goal of those conversations so we can avoid a "gripe fest" where we only focus on the problems. To avoid that situation, here are the 3 steps for framing critical conversations so that they are powerful and productive... 

1) Share The Struggle... yes, our work as educators is a struggle sometimes and we encounter hundreds of challenges, issues and problems each year so sharing the struggle is an important part of the process. This is where we can be reminded we are not alone and we break free of the silo!

2) Ponder The Possibilities... after framing the struggle(s) engage those around you in a really critical aspect of the conversation - what are the possible solutions, answers and next steps. There is a saying I have encountered many times on SM: "The smartest person in the room is the room," and I have found that to be true. When I am struggling with a problem, I lean on friends, colleagues and members of my PLN to help me see the possible solutions... and there are often many!

3) Optimize The Opportunities... after pondering possible solutions, now leverage those ideas and reframe the struggle or problem into the opportunity it really is! Yes, ultimately, problems are opportunities in disguise. They are opportunities for innovation, growth and for becoming the next/better iteration of ourselves as individuals or as an organization. So, get out there and optimize the opportunities!

While I know the idea of engaging in critical conversations in education is not a new one, the reality is that many educators are still stuck in a silo. Whether they are a classroom teacher, building leader or superintendent, the silos are real and often times, incredibly limiting. So, let's get out there, connect with other educators and have those critical conversations because together we are better! 

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Initiatives Should Be About People

Initiative Fatigue... What Is It?

Recently I was having a professional conversation with a colleague from another state about the impact of initiatives in education. We discussed the reality that educators often feel overwhelmed because of the increasing number of initiatives within their schools or districts. As depicted in the graphic above, which represents the work of Dr. Doug Reeves, we see that as we lay new initiatives over "old" initiatives (which may in fact have been new the month or year before) and that may be pushing educators closer to overload and potentially burnout. While I am not certain that initiative overload leads to burnout, my colleague and I did discuss that initiatives often lead educators to feeling stressed, crunched for time and pushed to "cover the curriculum" because they are dealing with initiative upon initiative. 

What Is The Problem With Initiatives?

I would argue that initiatives, as they are generally rolled out within education, are often doomed for failure before they even have a chance to impact educators and learners. Why are initiatives in education so problematic? Here are a few reasons based on my experiences as an educator...

1) Initiatives are about a program and not about a skill set... whenever I think of the initiatives I have experienced as a teacher (and even as a principal), they generally revolve around a new "research based" program, resource or system. Whether rolling out a new math textbook or an online reading program, the initiative is almost always focused on the resource and not the people implementing the resource. We consistently devote professional development to unpacking a program/resource but rarely devote time to developing the skill set of the educators within our spaces. 

2) Initiatives are piled one on top of the other... I was a teacher in a district once that, over a 2 year period, rolled out four different literacy based initiatives - FOUR initiatives in less than 20 months, which comes to about one new initiative every 5 months! Three of the initiatives were reading based and one was writing based. Yes, as teachers we appreciated the access to all these "wonderful research-based" resources but we weren't quite sure what the priority was and how we were supposed to (if we were supposed to) fit them all in throughout the day. Talk about initiative overload! 

3) Initiatives are often about doing the new "trendy" thing in education and not about doing what is best for OUR kids... I cannot count how many times in the last 20 years I have been part of an initiative that was based on a decision influenced by what "most" other schools/districts were doing instead of being influenced by the what our students needed. For example, recently I was talking to a colleague about how her district made a decision about a new phonics program for their primary grades. So, the story goes that there was a hot new phonics program many districts were using a few years ago and because the leaders in those districts raved about its impact on their students (there was no data shared - just word of mouth), the leaders in my colleague's district adopted the program and it became the next new initiative. Although the program was piloted in some classrooms, no other program was piloted so it was clear from the start that the choice had been made before the pilot even launched!

4) We are shocked when educators express feeling overwhelmed by a new initiative and are in need of more time to successfully implement it... even though some places keep piling initiative upon on initiative on school leaders and teachers, people are shocked when educators express feeling frustrated and overwhelmed by said initiatives. Many educational leaders would argue that the one full day of professional development devoted to unpacking a new resource should be enough and thus the resource should be successfully implemented within every classroom. Unfortunately, we know that is not usually the case - one day, or even several days, of professional development are not the key to a successful initiative implementation. Does it help? Sure. Does it equate to sustainable implementation? Not necessarily!

Yes - this list can go on and on but you get the idea... initiative overload is a reality in the world of education. Unfortunately, initiative overload is not making things better for our kids instead, it is leading many educators to feel overwhelmed and burned out and neither of those are good for our kids. 


How Can We Eradicate Initiative Overload?

Although I would not profess to be an expert on successful initiative implementation (in fact, I have been guilty of doing everything I described above when I was a principal), I would offer the following ways we could possibly make initiatives more sustainable, well received and successful...

1) Make the initiative about developing educators' collective skill sets and not about a program... the time has come to make the focus of new initiatives about the developing skill sets of our educators - not about the new program they are implementing. For example, if a district is recommending a new math textbook series, don't make the initiative solely about that the series and its many resources; instead, devote a significant amount of time to professional development for our educators to be more effective math teachers. Or, if a district is embracing the Teacher's College Writing/Reading Workshop, don't make the professional development solely about unpacking and implementing the Units of Study; instead, make the professional development about understanding the "gradual release of responsibility for learning" instructional model because that is the foundation of the reading and writing workshops. Make it about the people and their skills; not about the program and the many resources!

2) If a new initiative is being recommended, then offer a suggestion for what we can let go of moving forward... we can no longer expect educators to add initiative after initiative within their classrooms with no guidance or discussion about where the new initiatives fit in and what old initiatives can come out. Every beautiful garden thrives when the weeds have been removed... let's spend time pulling the weeds in education and removing what we don't need and focusing on what we believe is best for our kids!

3) Make the new initiative about doing what is best for OUR kids instead of doing what is trendy... whenever we are recommending a new initiative, it should be rooted in our own, district-wide, action research that speaks to addressing the needs of our students. We should be looking at data, discussing our students' readiness levels and informing our instructional decisions based on various details. Yes, it is easier to just implement something other people are talking about but if it is not what is best for our kids, based on whatever data we have triangulated through our action research, then we shouldn't make it our new initiative! Let's face it, any new initiative recommended solely because of what other districts are doing will be destined to fail!

4) Listen to our educational leaders and teachers when it comes to how initiatives are going and work from there... we can no longer ignore the cries of educators when they are telling us that they are stressed and overwhelmed by a new initiative because they are the people who are going to determine the outcome of the initiative. We must listen to the issues and concerns, we must discuss the successes and challenges, and we must recognize that any new initiative is unsettling because it is pushing educators to do things differently. We must recognize that we are asking educators to embrace new approaches, mindsets and techniques and that takes time to happen... it takes years to happen. If we want to see a successful initiative, then we must allow the roots to grow deep and take hold by nurturing and watering them... not by ignoring them!

While I don't have research to support all four points I am suggesting above, I am speaking from my own experience as an educator for 20 years and specifically my time as a teacher and principal. We must begin shifting our expectations and practices when it comes to new initiatives and always keep the focus on the people, not the program or resource! 

What do you think? Is initiative overload a reality? How can we address initiative overload?