Saturday, February 14, 2015

Is Leadership Style Born...or Made?

This post originally ran as a Guest Blog in EdWeek Teacher on 2/13/15.

Is Leadership style “born” or is it “made”? This is a question that has always challenged me: first, as a classroom teacher, and today, as school leader.

Remember that first “big break” as an educator?

Mine came in the latter part of the 20th Century. I’ll never forget my first classroom, set in a portable building, away from the main school building. Bearing a strong resemblance to a one-room schoolhouse, in all honesty, it was aesthetically unspectacular. The building’s exterior was grey and drab. And the interior had paneling walls that had yellowed, and a subtle musty odor that was more pronounced on rainy days. Anyone who didn’t know might suspect from the outside that it was an equipment storage space.

But what happened inside…that was pure magic. That classroom was where children came to exceed their potential and their expectations they had…of themselves. And every day, I held myself responsible for designing conditions to promote opportunities for their success.

Roughly a decade after I got my start, my first classroom was leveled by a bulldozer. A scrap of materials from a half century prior lie in a pile of unrecognizable rubble. It was cleared, as was a path...a path, for progress.

A brand new, state-of-the-art middle school was built in its place. And the office of the middle school principal is within steps of where my first classroom once stood.

Today, that’s my office.

I pause often, appreciating that my life’s work as an educator feels serendipitous. To this day, my core values as a learning leader are not far off from my first year as a classroom teacher. Thanks to a room full of children and now, a school community, these five values have shaped my leadership style:

  1. See people as they are, but also how they can be. The best classroom teachers and school leaders are perceptive. They have a heightened sense and ability to simultaneously identify strengths, assess and target needs, and draw out potential in individuals and in groups of people. If you’ve ever taught a student to read, you can relate to the elation associated with this feeling. If you’ve ever coached teachers on improving classroom management, lesson design, or how to engage students at a high level, you understand this.
  2. Connect the dots. Having the ability to see a “big picture” view provides school leaders and classroom teachers with limitless opportunities to create conditions for success. Beginning with the end in mind, we can pursue goals for sustained incremental improvement that are one, three, and five steps ahead. The most insightful classroom teachers design lessons or units with intentionality, empowering students to take the reins on their own learning. For school leaders, our best work comes as a result of being purposeful. Empowering teachers to work collaboratively builds successful initiatives, productive teams, and new partnerships. It also maximizes results for the greatest number of learners possible.   
  3. Rise to the Challenge, together. Preparing children to succeed as lifelong learners, done right, is hard work. A learning organization cannot, and will not thrive if its members work in isolation. Educators must deliberately reach out, relentlessly connect, and offer and seek support, for students, families, one another, and to our communities.
  4. Pay It Forward. The best educators remember where they’ve come from. That first “big break” continues to drive their daily work. They think, “What better way to honor my past and cherish my legacy, than to approach each day with a sense of obligation?” We owe it to our profession, our learning organizations, and our communities to do as much (and more) for others as was done for us.
  5. Approach learning with an open mind, every day. In life and in education, we must always remember, we are learners first. An educator’s experience, habits, routines, and instincts are paramount to fostering a productive classroom climate. But having the courage to embrace a “learner-mindset” shows all learners that improvement and growth is personal, individualized, and that it’s never-ending.      

So, is Leadership style “born” or is it “made”? My answer is…I don’t know.

What I do know is that the best educators have always understood the obligation we have: to celebrate schools, showcase teamwork, and elevate all learners. How we approach this is what defines our leadership.

For me, one thing’s for certain. That first experience, in my first classroom proves we can never predict and should never put a ceiling on how things may turn out.

Sunday, February 1, 2015


2015 has presented a new challenge for me - committing to one-word...

One word?



Just one?

One-word on which to focus for 2015.

This was not going to be easy.

For those who know me, once I get started on a topic about which I'm passionate, I'm never really at a loss for words. While a 140-character limit imposed by Twitter has helped recalibrate my disproportionate word-to-idea ratio, Voxer has re-enabled my tendencies. I can be loquacious and verbose...and sometimes, just flat-out, blabby.

I've also never really been a "New Year's Resolution" kind of I hesitated, procrastinated, and grew impatient with myself.

In my pursuit of one-word, I "successfully" narrowed it about ten words. Then five, then three, and finally, one.

As the days and hours of 2014 ticked down, I sensed a mounting make a decision. I told myself, "Pick one word, commit to it, and 'announce' it." Just do it.

So I haphazardly composed a blog post, to tell the world my word, and why I picked it. And I went to click publish.

Then I stopped. I realized...

That's not the point. That's not what perspective is about.

It's NOT about telling. Or sharing. Or impulsively purging words, spewing thoughts, and rambling.

Perspective is about listening. And reflection. And contemplation. And process. And revision. And growth. It's about seeing a situation through someone else's eyes. It's about walking in someone else's shoes.

Perspective is enhanced when we notice subtle details; facial expressions, body language, intonation, word choice, and when and how a speaker pauses.

And it's about empathizing.

A recent experience brought the importance of perspective into personal focus for me.

Following a late night school meeting, I stopped off at a local roadside eatery to grab a quick, long overdue bite for dinner. I had passed this establishment dozens, if not hundreds of times through the years, a local Latino place, easy to miss if you're not looking for it.

I approached the front door, held by a greeter who was no older than 20 years of age. He smiled, nodded, and welcomed me inside. I returned the smile, thinking, this was how I start and end each of my days as a middle school principal. (I've always loved holding the front doors open for our students, because I feel it sets the tone that I'm glad to be there for the start and end of their days of learning.)

As I entered a warm, dimly lit nook, the soft soothing sounds of Spanish guitar filled the room. A muted soccer game played on the flat screen television. Several couples and small groups of people were dining by candlelight and a group of men were sitting at the bar, eyes affixed on the game, as they ate. The faint murmurs of conversation suggested I was the only native-English speaker in the restaurant. There was a warmth, a tranquility to being there, at that moment. It was the first time I had sensed stillness that day.

While a man dried glasses and a woman waited tables, I watched two young children, each under the age of ten, chase one another around a podium where a hostess stood.

In only a few short moments of "people watching", I could easily surmise that I was seeing a glimpse of life. And while unfamiliar to what I was accustomed to, past and present, it was comforting.

Waiting for my food, amidst my best conversational Spanish, and the waitress's best conversational English, I learned that this was a family business. The young children were there, because their parents were both there, working. The children were dressed in school clothes, and appeared to be happy, fun-loving siblings. Situated at one of the quaint tables sat a small stack of picture books, an iPad, and a large box of crayons, spilled all over the place mats, next to two small half-full glasses; one of milk and the other, apple juice. I quickly gained the sense that, the children were familiar with this routine and the restaurant. They were at their home away from home.

I spent a few minutes thinking: How was my "broken Spanish"? Did I effectively express my point, which was, in part, to make "small-talk" and to show that I was relatable and comfortable in my own skin? Did I choose the right words? And did I say them the right way? Was I "being myself"?

Drifting back in time, I remembered my own childhood routines. My dad, leaving for work in the morning and returning home, always in the dark. My mom, running the house, preparing every meal, every day, for my sisters and I.

And then I considered my own everyday life, starting and ending each day at home with my own family members. I marveled at how I get to connect with so many different people throughout each work day. I was amazed, thinking how each person has his or her own story, the details of a life that I don't know.

Last week, the mother of a middle schooler whom I've known well for a long time, shared a video with me, telling me, "You've got to watch this!"

Viewing this clip confirmed for me that perspective was the right one-word for me.

It also made me think about the frenetic speed at which the education world is moving and changing, these days. Despite the pace, I wondered, do we stop often enough to hold a door, to offer a smile or a generous ear, to empathize, or to appreciate someone's life circumstances before we act? Before we...judge?

As a person who values relationships, communication, teamwork, and connectedness, I often wonder...

  • Am I listening to others' perspective, in my life? In my work?
  • What might I learn and how might I grow if I was more receptive to expanding my perspective, and even shifting my perspective?
  • What could happen if I invested in listening more closely and intently to the perspectives of…
Our students? Our families? Our teachers? Our leadership team? Our learning communities?

So in 2015, I've decided to recommit myself to considering others' perspectives.  Like the restaurant stop, I'm committing myself to slowing down, seeing more, and investing more time to understand what's inside.

If more of us did more of this, for our students in our schools and our communities, what may be the result?

I'm going to take my chances...on opening the door, holding it open, and understanding what's beyond it.