Sunday, November 30, 2014

What If?

The start of the holiday season marks a period of deep reflection, a time to consider how experiences have impacted perspectives and progress. For aspiring servant leaders, this is the ideal time to consider how decisions and actions impact members of a learning organization and, most importantly, the children in our learning communities. It is also a period to be grateful for opportunities afforded to us, as learners and as leaders.

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A Crystal Ball

Two weeks ago, I received a handwritten thank you note that took me back in time.

It came from a student: a current high school senior, and former student at the middle school where I'm privileged to lead. At one time, this student was also a third my class.

And now, she is soon-to-be college-bound, with a bright future ahead of her. Where does the time go...

The thank you was simple and genuine, expressing the student's appreciation for taking time out of my day to attend a special event held at our high school. It was then and there that she signed a National Letter of Intent to attend a university where she will study and will play lacrosse.

Who'd have thought, just four years ago, when a new girls lacrosse team was started at our middle school, coached by one of our new middle school teachers that it would so quickly provide academic opportunity of this magnitude: for a student to continue her education beyond high school? And I never could have imagined, a decade ago, that I'd have an opportunity to see one of the children I taught, whose learning progress I monitored through four years of adolescence, go on to launch herself into the next phase of life, on the road to being an independent, productive, contributing adult.

When I think back to the time when this student was in my class, I remember she was a hardworking, unassuming eight year-old, who was serious about learning.

And...she was fast.

As part of an elementary school wellness program, all of the third grade classes started every morning with a ten-minute walk outside. But the students' favorite part was the daily culminating event, when we lined as many students up as we could at a makeshift "starting line" and had three races, in which the students sprinted and two winners declared (one girl and one boy). As a relatively new teacher at the time, I was nominated to race with the students each day. And, as anyone might imagine, I was tough to beat. I was an adult, after all. (Picture a 30 year-old, wearing a shirt, tie, and dress shoes, out-sprinting 75 children each morning.)

There were two students who, without fail, I couldn't beat, one of whom was our soon-to-be college lacrosse player. As a I read her thank you , I remembered those morning races, now smiling proudly at the thought that I lost an eight year-old girl. I just wish I knew then what I know now about her. Being able to say I was losing races to a future college scholar-athlete (and telling others that's why she was winning our races) would've been way easier for my bruised ego to take.

Having this unique opportunity - seeing students whom I taught, propel through middle and high school, has often given me cause to reminisce and to celebrate. The memories of working directly with these children, coaching them to their personal best, working with their parents, together, celebrating achievements, navigating challenges, and bouncing back from failures. These are special moments that I will always cherish and that I appreciate now, more than ever, particularly in a leadership role.

A Fishbowl

The direct impact of my efforts are no longer quite as clear or linear as they once seemed, when I taught. At times I do miss that sense of personal fulfillment, that one only gets from being in a classroom. But that experience has provided me a unique appreciation - for seeing the potential in all children. It's also given me the patience needed when implementing systems that don't always cooperate or deliver immediate results or outcomes on neat and orderly adult-established timelines.

In retrospect, I may have been able to predict that I'd someday be at a college signing day for this student. But I've also encountered many former students, who've defined their own brand of success, and in their own time. But I often wonder, what's become of the students with whom I've lost touch? How many others discovered their pathways well after their time under my care and supervision in the classroom? In the last five years, I've had the good fortune to see this, up-close, in my first years as a principal. And I've marveled at the improvement, confidence, and self-worth that students come to discover about themselves, and with varying degrees of adult support.

As Principal, I've committed myself to systematically moving an organization and all of it's members forward, and into position to impact the success of all of it's members: students, staff, parents, and community. And receiving a thank you card from a 17 year-old, serves to remind me of an important lesson...that we owe it to each and every student to have high expectations, high levels of  support for achievement, and tireless patience throughout the process. Because each child's success matters, and a child's defining moments may, or may not happen when it's right, for us.

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A Mirror

Each day, the focus of my work is intensely driven by one question:

Is this a decision that is good for children?

It is a question on which I reflect several times each day. It also serves as a filter when I am faced with a challenging or difficult situation that hinges on making a decision with which I am faced. Evidence of this can be recognized in strategic personnel decisions, goals and outcomes that represent a delicate balance of academic, social, and emotional priorities for each student and for groups of students, and a master schedule that maximizes equitable academic opportunities while maintaining a challenging, balanced, and student-responsive middle level program.

And in the end, our most important accomplishments, our results, will be measured in our communities and in our society, and will outlast our direct impact, like that of a teacher, in a classroom, with a student. This will be seen in the form of how the contributions of those on whom our decisions have made an impact will impact others.

This is what becomes the legacy of our efforts.

For the remainder of this school year, I'm committing myself to honestly answering the following "What if" questions.

What if:

1. We consistently made concerted efforts to approach new situations openly, receptive to perceiving qualities that are consistent with future success?

2. We identified such qualities in each child we encounter, keeping the option for success open, daily?

3. We approached every new situation with a learner mindset, expecting and demanding the best of ourselves and those around us?

4. We shifted our thinking, our conversations, and our perspectives?

5. We started viewing ourselves as "leaders creating leaders"?

And...consider the alternative. 

What could happen if we didn't?


  1. What a post Dennis! I actually thought it could have been 3 seperate posts. I loved the story about the speedy 8 year old girl beating you in your shirt and tie. I could clearly visualize that scene.

    The part that made me reflect quite a bit, was when you asked the question, "But I often wonder, what's become of the students with whom I've lost touch?"

    I often wonder about this.

    You got me thinking Dennis. Thanks.


    1. Ben, thanks for reading and reflecting on the post. I appreciate that you related to both the story and the question as well.

      Working in the same small town, now for 18 years, I'm fortunate that so many of these stories stay current for me. But I also find myself challenged to keep "the end result" in mind for our current and future students. The bottom line for me? I can always do better; we can always do better, for our kids. We have to keep believing this and investing in others to believe this and act on it.

      One of my favorite things to do is attending High School Commencement for former students. This is where I get satisfaction in seeing the end...and the beginning as well.

      Thanks for your feedback, Ben. It means a lot to me.


  2. Amazing post! Love the reference to Leadership Freak. Brilliant stuff all around. Keep living your dream and making a difference. Students and teachers are blessed to have your guidance!

    Great work!


    1. Craig, thank you for taking time to read and comment on the post. As a fellow Leader "in the Middle" I know that you can relate to the importance of the work we do. Transitioning students through a complex period of life is rarely easy, but when we commit ourselves to being Servant Leaders, everyone benefits. And a positive side-effect, we gain a sense of fulfillment that continues to fuel our work with students, families, staff, and community.

      I'm encouraged and inspired by the work you do!