Sunday, December 27, 2015

7 Questions

As I look back on 2015, I will forever remember it as a year that proved most challenging to me, both personally and professionally. I look ahead, with two takeaways that will drive my learning into 2016:
  • We are doing better than we think.
  • We must always strive to do better.

I invite you to apply these two principles to the learning organizations to which we belong. Contemplating these ideas has left me with 7 takeaways from a series of memorable learning experiences I had in 2015. Each experience leads with a question, which I challenge readers who, like I, are engaged in Learning Leadership to answer. 
Are we, as school leaders meeting our communities where they are?  

In February 2015, I was fortunate to attend my first-ever National conference, #NASSP Ignite, held in San Diego, California. As a Connected Educator, this experience was as personally fulfilling as it was professionally nourishing. If you'd like to read more about my takeaways from the event, which led me on a professional learning journey, you can read about it here: Coaches.

The Ignite Conference affirmed an important aspect of leadership, having the ability to see things from both the macro-level and the micro-level. Many of the sessions featured a focus on an overarching leadership-theme; and high-impact actions that yielded large-scale results. While this appeared substantial and, at times, overwhelming, my most meaningful takeaways were building-blocks that focused on small, intentional decisions and actions that impacted one conversation, one relationship, or one priority.

These were the things I brought back to my school and now share daily, weekly, and monthly, with our teachers, our community, and our students. But can we ever really be satisfied with how well we deliver meaningful best practices that positively impact our learning communities? 

What can we do to preserve, protect, and grow the good things happening in our learning communities?

In October 2015, it was my privilege to return as a member of the organizing team for the 2nd annual #Edcamp Long Island. This is one amazing example of friends...yes, friends...who join together, in celebrating our collective commitment to sharing best practices in learning, teaching, and leading. Our inaugural event in 2014 had it's share of excitement, since we had all wondered about the relative success of launching an event like this, for a community of learners in the Long Island area. You can read more about my first impressions of Edcamp here: Who Did You Help This Year?

The 2015 version had an even more profound impact on my thinking. I realized that the relationships that have been formed with the core group of people who are fully invested in both active self-reflection and serving the greater-good of education became the foundations for helping others see the value in collaborative practices of Edcamp. However, this year, I was particularly moved by one session that continues to challenge my thinking. It was entitled, "How Can We Keep the Edcamp Model from Jumping the Shark?" The notion of Edcamp experiencing a premature decline in value and in quality, even before it has the opportunity to evoke a much-needed paradigm shift, is an actual concern I have as an educator. 

Knowing who is involved in such a movement on international, national, and local levels provides hope that this grassroots movement will remain pure, while continuing to push the traditional educational mindset. Knowing what is valued and why it's important will keep the focus on progress steadily moving forward. Clear your calendar for Saturday, October 1, 2016 and secure your ticket now: Edcamp Long Island 2016 is sure to resonate with you and with your team's personal learning, teaching, and leading, in the new school year to come. Join us!

Where do opportunities lie in balancing an open invitation to learning, while nourishing evolving mindsets and practices?  

In July, I discovered a new-found appreciation for professional development and professional learning. Each is important to the work we do in our school systems. But while professional development is a necessity to meet foundational public school requirements and mandates aimed at school improvement and success, professional learning is about a human connection that deepens our abilities to synthesize what we learn. The more active our learning processes are, the deeper and more meaningful our learning is. And that, I find, is as true for adults as it is for children. For more on the #EdcampLdr experience in New York, please read here: Let Learning Lead .

For me, this fuse was lit at #EdcampLI, a flame was fed at #EdcampNASSP, and the fire of professional learning continues to smolder, spark, and burn bright with every interaction I have with generous, student-centered and learning-centered professional learners.

How do we model appropriate use of technology as tools for professional learning?

In the days leading up to what's referred to as Winter Recess, I was made aware of the opportunity to be part of a great experiment, uniting educators using a combination of three powerful vehicles of professional learning: Edcamp, Voxer, and Twitter.

Voxer and Twitter are two tools that I've come to appreciate. As a school leader who is dedicated to reflective leadership, goal-setting, improvement, and exchanging best practices with others, each has provided an "any time, any place" means of connecting with the best human resources across the state, the region, and the globe. 

But of late, I find myself challenged by the question as to whether Twitter and Voxer are tools...or communities. After much thought on this, I can say these remain tools. In my opinion, and in my experience, the communities that exist come as a result of the relationships that we form as a result of initial and varied use of the tools. 

As an example, with regular use of tools like Twitter and Voxer, we often encounter other educators who face similar circumstances, achieve similar successes, and in some cases, navigate comparable struggles. And often, we are challenged to look deeply and differently at sides of a situation and allow it to push us past our comfort zones, driving us to be better, for others. But something I wonder is, are we growing comfortable with using these tools as a means to validate our work or are we using these tools to synthesize our learning push our thinking further?

I am edging ever closer to finding balance in my personal and professional life. But I've always viewed being an educator as a lifestyle, not a job. As a result, carving time for professional learning has added quality to my lifework. Portions of my daily commute are allocated for professional interactions using Voxer. And segments of my waking hours are scheduled for one-way (reading and sharing) or two-way learning (a Twitter chat, for example). I am reminded often, when I come across someone new to these tools, that they will always be available to us, and we shouldn't sacrifice real-time meaningful personal engagement for what we mistaken for this same thing. And we should commit ourselves to resisting the urge to succumb to the superficial tendencies that these tools (or those people who use them) sometimes invite. The best way to do this? Hold ourselves accountable for actionable outcomes based on the learning dialogue in which we choose to engage.    

#CELI15            #TWTSummit             #LILIT15
How do we create safe spaces to celebrate the great things happening in our classrooms and our school communities? 

Within our schools, our teacher leaders are opening classroom doors and welcoming visitors to join them in sharing the success of our students. Beyond our classrooms, these educators are investing time to tell a story, of what's happening in their classrooms and in their schools. Three events this year in which this was evident was the Long Island Connected Educators Summit in March, the Talks With Teachers Summit in October, and the Long Island Literacy Leaders' Forum in December. 


The Long Island Connect Educators Summit, held in the Howitt Middle School in Farmingdale, New York, fulfilled it's promise to inspire. The 21st Century could very well be a time in which competition could very easily prevail in schools that lead. This day, with this team served as yet another example of how collaboration trumps competition. On a snowy Saturday morning, Dr. Bill Brennan (@DrBillBrennan)
and his team hosted a day focused on sharing how innovation can positively impact student engagement and achievement. Best of all, on day when all attendees were willing to sit and learn because of the captivating style and format of the day, the afternoon was opened up to workshop participants, so newcomers could experience, first-hand, how, as author David Weinberger expressed, "experts are everywhere" and "the smartest person in the room is the room". This balance of leadership, community-building, and innovation undoubtedly served as a springboard: to relationship-building.


Several years ago, I was fortunate to meet Brian Sztabnik (@TalksWTeachers), a high school English teacher from Long Island, and co-founder of Talks With Teachers. As an avid consumer of his podcast, I found myself listening to his interviews with his guests, while on my daily work commute or while running on the treadmill. This fall, I was fortunate to attend the Talks with Teachers Summit. If you know Brian, you are familiar with his warm, genuine, and authentic message: to inspire, to share, and to build community. Brian is a role model in teacher-leadership, as he models the impact one teacher can have on both an individual learner and an expansive community of learners, whether in a high school English classroom or a collaborative learning space established for adult learners. The work that Brian does continues to resonate deeply with me. Follow the work of Talks with Teachers on Twitter by listening to the podcast, and visit the  Talks with Teachers website.


JoEllen McCarthy (@JoEllenMcCarthy) is one of the most passionate, positive, humble, and learner-centered people you will ever meet. And my final "official" professional learning experience of 2015 involved learning with and learning from JoEllen's example. She's got a way of wrapping us around the most important themes in our schools - safety, trust, relationships - through the written and spoken word. This is a rare and inspiring quality that we can all associate with "the best teacher we ever had". So why not commit ourselves to becoming that teacher for our students, in 2016? What's stopping us?

How do we expand the open invitation to learn? 

As we close out this calendar year, and open our new chapter in 2016, we are proud to have identified nearly a thousand connected educators in New York. If you are a New Yorker and you are reading this, please visit our growing list and refer other New Yorkers to subscribe to our diverse list of New York Connected Educators: NY Connected Educators.

Why is using Twitter to curate a list of educators of value to our work as educators? As a region, New York faces challenges unique to our region. Social media can and should be used in the following ways:

  • to support our professional learning community that understands and appreciates these unique challenges 
  • to meet challenges with a tenacious growth mindset
  • to create a community of support and a space for resource sharing
  • to promote the constant and unwavering pursuit of the personal best for our unique learning organizations.  

If you are focused on growing your own region-specific connected educator communities, I urge you to do so in 2016 - Together Everyone Achieves More!

Why do we lead?

The 2015 school year leaves me feeling impatiently optimistic, that in 2016 we can have an intentional focus on the potential of our students, our Faculty, our schools, and our school systems. But while Simon Sinek urges leaders to "Begin with the Why", I would add, that our "why" is actually our "who". And our who, are the most important learners in this complex equation, our students in our schools.

In Hampton Bays Middle School, this value is shared, expressed, and spreads daily throughout our Middle School Learning Community. Our Leadership Team works closely and tirelessly to communicate, collaborate, and to learn each and every day. We focus on matching strengths and passions, bringing people together under optimal conditions, and removing obstacles they may face, and contributing to the overall progress of our entire organization. And we use social media to invite our parents and community to join us in celebrating, sharing, and showcasing the good work of our students and teachers every day. Visit our school via Twitter @HamptonBays_MS and #HBMSPride

In closing out a year of Learning Leadership in 2015, I can feel reassured knowing that like learning, leadership is a journey not a destination...and I can't wait to see what challenges lie ahead in 2016!

So these were my takeaways from 2015...and my questions, heading into 2016. 

What are yours?

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