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.