Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Who Did You Help This Year?

A trusted friend, who works outside of education, once asked me, "Who did you help this year?"

It came during a casual discussion among a group of close friends, in the hours following the end of another school year. Instantaneously, my mind wandered to faces – of students, families, and staff members with whom I had worked so closely that year, as a Principal and member of our Middle School Team. I was all at once, proud, for those I knew we had helped, and for some, frustrated that it seemed like time was our enemy. Either way, I was reminded of the importance of relentlessly building capacity in myself: to do better, to be better…for others.

Every day, we bear a responsibility to help others, and it’s often the most important part of the positions we hold. But this summer, quite unexpectedly, I personally experienced this. I became the answer to someone’s question, “Who did you help this year?”

Saturday, September 13, 2014 was a day that forever changed education on Long Island. The first-ever #EdcampLI was held at Willets Road School, in Roslyn, New York. It started with a heartwarming welcome, and moved into a spirited live #NYedchat. There was a series of breakout sessions, some high-tech and some low-tech, populated on a blank board, starting at the registration check-in. A spontaneous “lunch and learn” with some of the best and brightest, visionaries in education happened, and the day closed with a final, adrenaline-infused Smack Down, where the day’s reflections were shared and learning, celebrated. Start to finish, the enthusiasm was non-stop. This was a day of collaboration I will not soon forget.

An equally inspiring personal backstory was ignited this summer. For those of us fortunate to play a role in the planning of this groundbreaking event, the memory of that experience still resonates. Why? Because trust was built and friendships, started.

While the event on September 13 brought together passionate learners, master collaborators, and fearless leaders, the process that led up to the actual day was as rewarding. It demonstrated the power of an invitation and the importance of our work in education for others.

The last time I experienced a spontaneous, genuine personal connection of this magnitude?

1997 was first year of teaching, a year I can fondly recall as the time when someone decided I was going to be the answer to his question, “Who did you help this year?”

On the first day I set foot in my new classroom, I was met with a firm handshake, a warm smile, and an invitation into a veteran’s neighboring classroom. After a brief exchange of pleasantries, I was given a classroom "tour" - closets, cabinets, and drawers were opened, revealing an abundance of supplies, books, and binders that were organized with meticulous precision. Then, my new neighbor shocked me – he told me to come in and help myself, anytime, to whatever it was I needed. I accepted his offer, and to this day, have a mentor and a dear friend, who I still rely on. Why? Because I was the answer to his question – I was who he decided to help that year.

That year I came to realize our purpose in education: Pay it forward. As a teacher, I intuitively believed this about our work for and with children. As an administrator, I have an expanded appreciation for this way of thinking.

Who will you help today?

Maybe it's a student, struggling to open his locker. Maybe it's a colleague, challenged in finding the right words to build or mend a relationship with a parent. Or maybe it’s a parent, trying to “solve” their communication breakdown with a troubled adolescent, their child. Each presents us with opportunities…to help others.

What are the commitments of someone who makes an investment in helping others?

1. Be a good listener. Have an acute perception for “reading” what people need: Do they need to vent, talking without interruption? Do they need to process their ability to make a decision that is right by their students? Do they need to know they’re not alone? Do they need to laugh? Become skilled at perceiving a situation, and accommodating the needs of others.

2. Invest in people and build their potential. If you have something that “works”, share it. If you see someone pursuing a special skill or passion, support it. Anticipate and build on strengths. Grow others in areas where they should be challenged to do better.

3. Invite someone to learn with you in “real-time”. Understand that, despite the risks involved, this is a place where trust is built. Learning is often messy. Sometimes, the most authentic learning happens when chances are taken and adjustments made, as the learning occurs.

4. Share what makes you, you. Transparency is a rare and special quality, because it opens us up and makes us vulnerable: to judgment, criticism, and to being put “under a microscope” by others. To grow and make progress, we have to be less concerned with being critiqued and more concerned with making decisions that represent our beliefs about what’s best for children and the programs that are created for them.

5. Place value in improvement. Don’t have a start or stop time to your learning, or the work involved in becoming better at something. Make the cycle of reflection an essential component to the work we do. And keep moving forward.

The list of what makes someone a valued mentor, and friend is never-ending. For me, it begins with selflessness, humility, and finding a place to insert humor, even in the most trying of times. I’ve been the recipient of this good fortune, more than once in my life and career. And I do my best to pay that forward.

To this very moment, the question, "Who will you help this year?" drives me to be the best learning leader I can be, for those around me.

It’s time for you to commit yourself to deciding:

Who will YOU help...today?


  1. Dennis, your journey as a blogger has begun. Committing yourself to being a dedicated learning leader is a worthy pursuit that will cause you to make a mark on others' lives. Enjoy the trails that lead you forward.

    1. Carol, you are a role model for me and for so many others; thank you for your kindness and support. Blogging is definitely a communication pathway that's underutilized and somewhat misunderstood. But the rewards in taking the risk to process and reflect openly (as you've shown so many people) is where we grow and improve.

      Thank you for reading my post and supporting my improvement as an educator.


  2. This is a great post, and I love your list of COMMITMENTS of someone who invests in helping others. Educators can help others and students in so many small ways - we don't need to overlook the small actions or think that a special event must occur. Just like your mentor you found when you first stepped in your classroom, it was a seemingly small action that meant the world and its ripples are far-reaching.

  3. Jennifer, thanks for reading and commenting! Your support has meant so much to me, since my start on social media. You have shown me and countless others that it's important that we invest time and attention in others. Why? Because it not only makes others better, but it also builds their capacity to do the same for someone else. You do that, Jennifer, and I appreciate that you show us why that's important.


  4. Dennis, the next time someone asks you who you have helped, include me in that response. This post and every interaction with you help me see leadership in such a positive way. Keep writing. We need your voice out here.