Monday, December 22, 2014

Can We Change Ed Reform?

OK...School district leaders, government agencies, education we go...  
Social media has been a great place for me to learn and grow over the course of the last 2 years.  I have met some amazing people, connected with government entities, and cultivated resources that I hope have helped our school move forward.  However, there are times throughout the year that I think we as a connected group forget that though our group is growing, it still makes up a relatively small portion of educators working with kids on a regular basis.  We talk about change, the impact of being connected, and how ownership of learning is key to learning...but it is often in a tunnel of those we have chosen to connect with and who share similar views on what education should look like. There are people across the world doing amazing things.  Most of those who are connected are more than willing to share so our Fall Creek group can have the connections to get better in their space.  We have been able to bring in authors virtually, talk to local, state, and national leaders on a regular basis with the help of our social media presence, and distribute resources we have found by getting past the Google search.  That is awesome...but the perspective is still only reaching a small population.  The people we work with will not connect if they don’t see the value to their immediate space.  Example...I hate to exercise and eat well.  Hate it.  I know it is good for me and I know it would make me feel better.  My wife is the most beautiful thing that has ever landed on the planet and she is doing everything she can to provide great meals and encourage me to exercise, but when I see a place to get a pizza, I’m getting a pizza.  I haven’t seen the value because I have not been invested in it...and if she can’t convince me, no one will until I start to see the value for myself.  When I see personal success, clearly I will be encouraged to engage more.  Social media is the same thing...until educators see the value for their day to day interactions with kids, it will still be a place where a small percentage lives or what “those people do”.

Social Media is for other people
In the Superintendent position, the circle of those who I connect with on all social media platforms is the great state of Wisconsin I have a Twitter list of Superintendents that has under 100 names.  We have 425 districts in this state.  Even with the group on the list, I think there are about 20 who I connect with on a regular basis and share ideas.  I love their passion...but I KNOW about their passion because of the connection we have made on social media.  I’m sure there are a plethora of very high quality superintendents across our state and I feel bad that I haven’t been able to connect
with them...the impact we could have together is much better than what we have individually.  There are a number of very vocal and highly visible people on the speaking circuit who are extremely active on Twitter.  When I went to see speakers 5 years ago it seemed like they were talking about dreams rather than reality.  They stood on a stage, got people fired up about education, and then they left.  Now, we are able to connect with those people on a regular basis.  Every keynote speaker I have seen in the last 2 years has been accessible through Twitter.  I have reached out to most, and in almost every case I have been able to engage in a dialogue about how we could help our kids grow and succeed. Having said that...we need to help people connect so they can find their own way without making it feel like they are poor educators without it.  Help out at social media lounges at conferences, engage in conversations on twitter, and offer to help through Google Hangouts or Skype.  Helping others see the value means being there if they need the help, not just telling them they should do it.  We owe it to our staff to help connect and continue the conversations so they know how.

Social Media and technology does not fix bad teaching
Getting everyone ON Twitter is a great idea in theory, but ON Twitter does not always mean invested in the process.  Conversely, ON Twitter does not make you a great may give you more resources, but at the core of what you do should be the teaching and learning of the group you are assigned.  They only have a limited time with us and every effort should be made to ensure that the time they spend in our space is inspiring.  The use of social media and technology can clearly enhance the learning environment, but is not the answer if instruction does not change.  Bringing back the exercise example...I have the shoes, the Ipod, the quality ear buds, and like 5 mapping apps.  All of them were great for a week...then the allure of something new was gone and the $100 shoes I bought to take me to the next level stare begrudgingly at me every time I leave the house.  If the intent moves to more ownership of the process, everyone will be more invested.  We all want to own our growth.  The most productive Professional Development in our district over the last 2 years was clearly learning from peers and self directed.  Our teachers know that...and that knowledge helps us transfer the environment to our students.  Teachers don’t like to be talked at all day. Guess what, students don’t either.  Loved this post from Grant Wiggins on a teacher spending 2 days as a high school student.  We owe it to our kids to increase our ability to instruct and provide a place that is engaging for students.  Getting there means we need to empower our teachers to learn HOW to make that happen instead of walking in an expecting it to be the norm right away.

Waiting for the next
Social media aside...this is the biggest issue with education reform.  Initiatives have historically been attached to a person.  New administrators come into districts and have a perspective on how they think they can move the needle in a particular area.  They are well intended, and honestly, that is part of the reason they are there...but if initiatives are attached to a person, they leave when the person
moves on.  I know teachers and administrators who have not engaged in a new process because they know the person will be gone in a few years and they will have to start something new when a different leader chosen.  Who can blame them!?!!?  The minute they feel comfortable with the initiative, a new one comes along and they have to find a way to integrate what they have done, or scrap all of the work that went into it at that point.  We have all been there...change is necessary, but doesn’t need to be constant.

The point is reform will go nowhere if our staff does not feel a connection to where we are going.  If we want them to invest, we need to invest in them.  For those who are making decisions on a state and national level...ask our teachers what they need to be successful.  For those people in the connected community...extend the conversation beyond those on social media who already believe a new direction is needed.  Those of us who are connected have a responsibility to spread the word, do great things, and invest in people who are not connected so they can see the value without pontificating so we push them away.  We have a responsibility to get into universities and raise the expectation so we are hiring people who we want to be like, not who fit into who we are.  There are pockets where these things are happening...and pockets of excellence are a great start, as long as we encourage and empower everyone in our environment to do what is best for kids and those pockets grow over time.  Go Crickets.  

Thursday, November 27, 2014

The Start

So...I went to the White House and met the President last week.  I really don’t know a different way to start the post.  That happened.  The leader of the best country in the world, in location that I have visited twice, but always outside a gate. At some point I will reminisce about the speech, the entrance and exit of the President, the fact that I shook his hand twice, sat 10 feet from him as he
addressed the nation, and received texts from our staff as the students in Fall Creek watched from their classroom.  The events of the day were captured brilliantly by David Britton.  At some point the surreal notion of being in that space will fade.  Not today.  Today, the inspiration of being at the White House, discussing what school could look like with the highest ranking officials in the US Department of Education, and meeting with 117 school leaders across the country to make life better for kids in our school system still woke me up with a mission to get better.  The makeup of the room included leaders from schools districts that ranged in size from hundreds to tens of thousands.  The interesting component to me was the issues that we face in a district of 800 were the same as those faced in other districts much larger.  Quality time for Professional Development, financial support, and connectivity were all brought up throughout the day. We all face these and need to help each other for all kids to succeed.  I walked away with a great sense of pride in the relationships we create with kids and a determination to make our spaces better for them to learn.  Here are a few takeaways from the summit:

It’s about Trust
Everything we talked about that day will fail if we don’t develop trust with our staff, students, and community.  Nothing can be done to improve student learning if the people we are hoping to bring along on the journey do not trust where the journey leads.  We have a responsibility to build trust first...above all else, create an environment where trust is the default.  The more initiatives we bring forward, the less people will be willing to jump on board in the process.  I have worked in places where staff members judge the number of years they have until retirement by the number of initiatives they will have to endure.  That is not fair to them, and certainly not fair to kids. Solution: Find two things your staff does really well and enhance their opportunity to grow those. Have them find one thing they want to improve, and let them drive the learning in that area.
It’s about Leadership
The day was filled with exceptional leaders.  To hear their stories and think about how it would translate to the kids in Fall Creek was both exciting and exhausting.  Their teams were doing incredible things in the area of digital learning.  The opportunities that were given to students in their districts were amazing and their ability to cultivate more leaders in their districts was well noted.  The passion and purpose shared throughout the summit was undeniable.  The leaders in the room were confident, yet understood that we were all in this together.  I think seeing the President speak had a lot to do with that outlook.  The conversations about how to make school better were at the forefront of every interaction, and that was absolutely inspiring.

It’s about Teachers, not Tech
I am inspired to work in a place that knows kids are different.  Our teachers make great connections with kids and families.  We got into teaching to change lives.  We teach because we had someone who believed in us long ago and saw value in what we could bring to others.  We need to understand that the feeling we received from someone instilling that confidence in us has to be transferable.  We have a responsibility to make kids feel like there is someone in the building who believes in who they are, but more importantly, who they will become. As a profession, we also have to understand that a number of us got into teaching because we experienced some success in school.  That also makes up a very small percent of the population of kids in school.  If we teach the way we were taught, it will only resonate with a very similar population.  I may not have been the brightest kid, but I could “do school”.  I knew what I needed to get by, and often did just enough.  We don’t want kids to just “do school”.  We want kids to be inspired to do something different, something bold, something that will make life better...and we need to understand that “doing school” will not get them there.

Most importantly, it’s about Students
The theme was clear throughout the day.  Future Ready is about kids.  Schools are about kids and the adults in that setting have a responsibility to ensure that the spaces reflect that notion. At the heart of that responsibility is the willingness to connect the adults and kids so quality instruction can happen and kids see the value in the learning.  If they own it, they will learn.  If they feel a connection, they will learn.  If they know you trust them, they will learn. We owe it to them to provide a better opportunity than the one we had. The connection leads to discussion, the discussion leads to confidence, and the confidence leads to change. Everyone in our building has the ability to change the world.  They all have a passion.  Finding that can be difficult, but it always starts with the connection.

I think we have all been in a room where there are discussions about how to change things and we leave knowing that nothing will.  I honestly could not have been more excited about where this group could go.  The regional meetings set up across the country will be a great opportunity to discuss what Future Ready is and what it is not.  Future Ready is about learning, not about tech.  It is about creating opportunities for kids, not what is convenient for adults.  It is about developing our staff members to ensure they are growing in a digital age, not about teaching the way we were taught as kids.  It is about creating capacity for all of our schools to ensure all kids leave prepared to take on whatever their future holds, not what the past held.  It is about the Future...and together we will be ready. Go Crickets.

Monday, August 25, 2014

The Issue with Comfort Zones

Comfort zones are interesting to me.  We all work so hard to get to them, but once we get there, we are really scared to step outside of the peace that they offer.  They provide us with a sense of calm, but I question whether or not they help us to grow.  If we spend too much time in the comfort zone, it is much harder to take risks and step outside.  I completely understand it.  There is rarely time where we take on a new activity and it turns into awesome right away.  Take a pen and a piece of paper…write your name on the paper with your non-dominant hand.  How are you feeling? Clearly the more you practice the better it would get, but if we are constantly reminded that we’re not good at a particular task, we are much less likely to continue doing it.  Having said that, there are not too many things in the world that we could do right away.  In essence, the learning always came from outside our comfort zones.

Some people step out of their comfort zones and try something new.  I am currently involved in an activity that doesn’t just fall a little outside my comfort zone, it resides miles away.  We are a few weeks away from Dancing with the Eau Claire Stars.  I was asked to be one of the contestants, and it has been quite the experience!  Now…I don’t consider myself a star, a dancer, and I don’t live in Eau Claire.  So…this could not be more outside my comfort zone.  The dancing portion of the activity is difficult and well beyond my level of expertise, which was clearly a switch for me.  I tend to pick activities where I feel like I can experience a relative level of success.  I had no idea how I was going to have that feeling in a choreographed dance.  Inevitably, everything I do tends to get my wheels spinning about how it relates to schools, students, staff, and professional growth.  So…here are a few thoughts going through my head as the process has rolled out…

Don’t waver
The longer it takes you to make the decision, the less likely you are to do it.   We tend to talk a lot in education…we discuss and discuss and discuss before making a decision and sometimes forget the most important part…actually making one.  Do your research, but when you commit…go.  Once you know you are in you will feel much better about the process. 

The Impact of Peers
As administrators we can lead the process of challenging staff members to grow outside their comfort zones, but when it comes down to the ownership of the process, the value of peers is incredible.  The support from peers as you take a risk in your practice can be a true motivator when it comes to confidence.  People want to be acknowledged for what they do, and that includes attempting to try something different.  This has to be the culture of classrooms as well.  Students will not go out on a limb if they feel like their friends are going to insult them or their teacher won’t support them.  I know really intelligent kids who do not participate in class because they are afraid of what their friends will say.  I know kids who knock others down emotionally because it is easier than admitting that they don’t understand or know the answer.  I have worked with staff members who don’t want to extend themselves for fear of what their colleagues would say.  I am lucky to work in a place where the support for peers is really solid, but even in that space it can be hard for people to step out of their comfort zones.
Have Fun
Find the fun…these dance rehearsals are hard for me because every time I try to do something I am constantly reminded that I am not good at it.  I feel awkward and frustrated when I can’t get the steps right.  I have really amazing teachers.  Allie and Amber are great dancers, and better people.  They have made this process so fun for me.  We laugh, shrug our shoulders, make things up as we go, and at no point have I felt like I am a burden to their evenings (though Amber may have a few bruises!).  We are having a blast…and I am so glad I decided to take part in the process.

I am so far out of my comfort zone.  Allie and Amber are fantastic teachers.  They ask the right questions and push me to get better, while understanding the concept that I am way out of my league.  I feel like I am accomplishing more every time we rehearse.  This feeling has to be a staple of what happens in schools.  Adults need to feel like they can grow, and not be stuck in a rut of their own professional development.  Kids need to feel like they are getting better and have ownership in how they grow. As you get ready to start the year, understand that you will be asking kids to step out of their comfort zones to maximize their learning and you can be an incredible model if you step out of your own.  Have a great start to the year, everyone.  Go Crickets!

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Digital Leadership Day

Here are a few thoughts as part of Digital Leadership Day...

Over the course of the last 2 months I have had the incredible opportunity to meet face to face with phenomenal educational leaders across the country.  A few years ago I wouldn’t have even considered the thought of traveling across the country to connect with leaders from different states, talk about how we can change the educational landscape and create better environments for kids.  I didn’t think the power of 140 characters would lead me to Voxer conversations that have made me laugh, cry, and want to be a better leader because of the push I get from my friends across the world.  I didn’t think a simple conversation would turn into a session at an Edcamp that would grow into a radio show that would balloon into writing multiple books.  All of those things may have happened at
some point, but the impact of being connected digitally has made it substantially easier. The digital leadership journey, is just as it indicates…a journey.  We go down many paths that we don’t really know throughout our careers.  Some work out and some don’t, but all help us to grow.  The use of digital tools in the development of leadership skill has been a game changer for me.  The tools have allowed or conversations. Those conversations have challenged my thinking and grown a network that expands well beyond location.  The best and most connected leaders in the country are literally a tweet, post, or vox away.  The internet has changed school for students.  They have access to any content at any time.  The same holds true for leaders.  The opportunity for growth is out there.  If we are leading learning organizations, it is incumbent on us to model that learning.

Leadership and Management
The digital portion of leadership may not be essential…but it certainly has made me want to be a better leader.  We often get stuck in the day-to-day operation of what school looks like…and to be honest that is a critical piece to leadership.  Curt Rees and I were talking a few months ago about the difference between leader and manager.  The discussion veered toward the idea that great leaders have both vision sense and management ability. Philosophical discussions that happen in every social media forum are just dreams if you do not have a process in place to make change happen.  We can talk about how it should look or how we would like it to look or fawn over the latest infographic…but the attempt to move forward is where the new path for staff and students will be cut.

As I have indicated before, I live and work in an unbelievable school district.  We have unwavering support for our school from the parents and community, the staff is beyond wonderful, and the school board allows us to take risks and try new things.  We are a very small school so as we move into the future the use of digital tools will certainly be needed to provide opportunities for our students that they can’t get due to limited course offer
ings.  We use social media in our building on a regular basis.  Could we use them more often…of course.  We have some classrooms that have active Twitter feeds and connect with other classrooms across the world.  We have some classrooms using Remind to connect with families.  Our school district app has been very successful in communicating with our parents and families.  CricketTV has brought HS extra curricular activities to life for extended family not living in Fall Creek.  These are just a few examples.  As a leader, modeling the process for staff is essential, but it clearly does not hold the biggest card in terms of influence.  The staff in our building who have utilized the communication tools and connected to the outside world do it because of the feedback they get from students, parents, and colleagues.  If the positive comments are coming from any of those groups the motivation grows and the initiative starts to move.

Digital tools of today will be replaced with newer, faster, and more productive tools in the future.  The gold is not in the tool, but the process.  As leaders, we have an obligation to seek out and model opportunities that could help our students, staff and community.  We need to provide resources and time for people to dive into the process and grow through ownership of learning.  Self-guided exploration of learning is great for both students and staff.   We don’t need to have all the answers and often won’t, but if we are seen as leading the learning, we will be in a better place.  Go Crickets!!

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Learning to Lead

My friends Joe Mazza and Tony Sinanis often talk about the impact of being the lead learner in a building.  They live this title to the fullest extent.  I hold them both in such high regard, because they are truly leading the learning in their area.  If we are going to lead learning organizations, we need to lead the learning as adults.  We need to consistently push ourselves to learn new things and model for our staff the importance of continuous professional growth.  
Having said that, being the Lead Learner should also encompass Learning to Lead.  At a very young age I was told that I had “leadership ability”.  To this day I don’t really know what that means, but I knew it gave me confidence to get in front of a group of people, provide some energy and enthusiasm, and attempt to get people headed in a similar direction.  The confidence that was instilled was great, but I think it also had a negative effect.
We consistently tell kids in Fall Creek that they work hard.  We do not tell them that they are smart.  The theory behind that is that at some point all kids will run into something that they view as too hard.  For those who have been constantly told that they are smart, it may be a let down when they can’t figure something out.  For those who have been told that they work hard, it may be a just another task that they know they can achieve with additional work.
I think I always felt smart when it came to leadership.  Things came easy and I could get by with energy and enthusiasm.  Sometimes I feel like it has been more of a curse than a blessing.  Working to become a better leader is hard.  When things got hard and difficult decisions needed to be made, I often felt like the kid who has been told they were smart for years.  Now what? What if it doesn’t work? What if people start seeing me in a different light? What if the decision is wrong and it impacts everyone’s lives? 

People are often placed into leadership positions because of great interview or because  they had experienced some success in a different role.  The fact is…being a lead learner means taking the process of learning to lead seriously.  Certifications, degrees, and experience can all play a role in that development, but the process has to take you out of your comfort zone and help you move to a different level.  I recently had my leadership teams fill out a survey for me through the Franklin Covey training.  The results were honest, and clearly identified areas that I need to improve.  I am so happy that I have a group willing to tell me I need to get better in certain areas.  The challenge for leaders is we try to get better at too many things and subsequently get better at none. We discuss how we can improve in an area, but rarely find the time to dig deep and get better in our leadership practice.  
We read books and think of ways to implement, and then the day to day operations take over and our growth timeline gets pushed back.

Every year I ask our staff to come with “My Three”.  They find 3 things that they can look to after a day, and when accomplished, walk out feeling good about what happened.  There will be days that they struggle to meet the three and others that they will have them met by the time kids arrive…but it is a constant reminder that little victories can bring big success.  As the year starts, I WILL work on the following as I continue to LEARN to LEAD…

1. Be a Leadership Builder
2. On Time…Every Time
3. Listen More…Talk Less

I am so lucky.  I live in a school district that allowed me to take a Superintendent position with no experience. I live in a school district that allows me to SCREAM the great things happening here in every social media forum I can find.  I live in a school district that was willing to give me time to grow.  We have an incredibly supportive community, a wonderful school board, and a staff that has never said no to an initiative.  They all deserve the best leader, and one willing to work hard at learning to lead.  I could not be happier to call this place home…Go Crickets!

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Principals Are People Too

A group of fantastic principals have connected on writing a series of blog posts to get some perspective on a few topics...I am happy that they pushed me back to writing...thanks folks!

“Are you out of your mind?” I was coaching golf and I told one of the coaches from a rival team that I was moving to Eau Claire, WI to become an elementary principal.  I was leaving a counseling position in a fantastic school district, where I was able to coach basketball and golf, two of the activities I loved most in the world. He asked if I had thought it through and laughed a little bit.  I was really excited to be a principal.  The building I was moving to seemed to be a good fit for me, and I was happy to get my wife back to an area of the state that she really liked.  We packed our stuff, moved across the state, and started a leadership journey that has proven to be life changing. 
My first experience as a principal was incredible, considering I had little to no idea what I was doing.  The transition to the area was great!  The school was wonderful, the families were very supportive, and I was one of 12 elementary principals in the district, so there were a number of people who I could lean on in my first year.  I was able to make some connections, had a great mentor, and felt like we were making a difference in the lives of kids.  We often referred to our school as the “Little Slice of Heaven on the West Side”.  It was really my first adventure in the area of branding our school and telling our story, which has become a clear passion to this day.  Kids would ask me if I had a house, or if I had kids, or if I slept at school.  When I told them that I had kids and a wife my favorite response was… “Wow, that’s weird”.
When we moved to Eau Claire we purposely chose a house on a particular side of town so our kids would go to a different school.  I really wanted them to have their own identity and not be “the Principal’s kid”.  We came to find out that it didn’t really matter.  Everyone knew they were “A Principal’s kid” even if was at a different school.
The social piece of being a principal was harder than I thought.  I found myself wondering what people thought of our kids, our house, or our cars.  I wondered if being a principal meant I had to hang out with other principals.  I wondered how long I had to work to make sure people thought I was doing a good job.  I did a great deal of wondering.  Every year we sat our kids down and told them that they may be looked at differently because of what daddy does for a living.  Was that fair? Probably not.  Was it real?  Absolutely.  Administrators are people too and I think sometimes the daily grind of what this job means can take over a family. 
Fast forward to this year.  After 5 years in Eau Claire and 4 years in Fall Creek, this was my last as an elementary principal.  I have been able to split the Superintendent and Elementary Principal role here for the last 3 years. As I move into the Superintendent job full time, our school board and community have been so supportive.  Fall Creek is truly a special place.  We have a number of staff members who have students in our building.  That has really helped our kids.  With so many families who have connections to the building, our family feels more at home.  The connection and pride to a small school resonated from the first piece of Cricket gear our kids put on to today where our closets are mostly green.  We could laugh when my oldest son tied my daughter to a tree and someone got it on camera.  We cried when our team lost in the sectional semi final.  Our kids envision what they will look like on stages, fields, courts, and hallways.  Maybe it is time that makes me think the lines between being an administrator and community member are not as defined or maybe it is the ages of our kids.  The only thing I know is that the place has definitely played a role.  We all want what is best for kids here…it doesn’t matter if you are on our staff, an administrator, or a community member.  Fall Creek Pride is real…and our family has bought in 100%.
We chose this profession…we chose it because we wanted to see kids succeed and we thought we could make a difference.  We chose to be parents for the same reason.  Sometimes the administrator and community member line can get blurred.  Part of being a good administrator is being a good person…and being a good person means taking pride in what you do and where you are from…and I could not be happier to say that we are from Fall Creek…Go Crickets.