Monday, May 30, 2016


Do you remember the last time you took a risk? 

Think not about the moment you took the risk, itself, as much as the point right before you made the conscious decision to try something new. Something that would challenge you. Something that would open you to being vulnerable. Something that would reveal weakness, that would expose flaws and insecurities, and that would open you to judgment and to criticism. 

This blog post is my 20th. 

When I think back to July 27th, 2014, I recall it as an important day in the evolution of my personal professional learning. This was the day I clicked "publish" on my first blog, as part of a new venture...on the road to Learning Leadership.

My first post, 5 People and the feedback I received, shifted my thinking on what it means to be a reflective school leader. That being said, I'll never forget the months leading up to making the decision to start blogging. I was roughly one year new to engaging using a personal-professional account on social media. I had been following and learning from so many educators, with so many perspectives, who were willing to connect with me. Outside of my professional circles in my local region, this was all new to me. After all, I got my start like so many others, deeply rooted in the foundations of 20th Century teaching and learning.  

My curiosity was triggered by others around me, who had either started their own blogging journey, or who were carving the path for me and for others. These people before me not only set the example, but they also invited, welcomed, and embraced my willingness to engage. I studied their platforms, merged ideas, and modeled mine style after their combined influence. I arrived at a theme (Learning Leadership) that I could consistently stand by, after reading examples set by others. And when it neared the time to click "publish", I shared my draft with great anticipation, and received honest, constructive, supportive feedback. In some cases, this came from people who I either had yet to meet or had only met or spoken with in limited context, either through social media exchanges, on the telephone, or via Google Hangout, or in-person at regional conferences. Nonetheless, the consistently high levels of generosity was all-at-once cautionary, hopeful, and inspiring, leaving me to wonder, "How this was possible?"

See, the timing of this new venture and experience coincided with an uncertain time in education. The valuable potential role of assessment and evaluation was at risk of being tainted by external influences with disingenuous motives. The threat of compromising "the good" in education was real for those who understand and appreciate it's core values. And for those who live and work outside the education bubble, our profession was at-risk of being judged for being inadequate, inefficient, and ineffective, among other damaging judgments. And it was being manipulated, in a manner that broke trust and was damaging to the reputation of the profession and any progress it had made to that point. 

So what was maybe most intriguing about taking this risk, to be transparent, to share openly and vulnerably, it seemed to run almost completely counter to an educational landscape that had been devolving rapidly, into a downward spiral, and at the hands of those who had little to do with having a direct impact on our most important "stakeholders"...our students and their families. 

In the connected education world, collaboration, support, encouragement, communication, and eternal promise of growth, and progress seem to be celebrated. And in the "real world" of education, lines were being drawn, posturing based on assertions of beliefs, political negotiation, threats, and competition would seek to determine "winners" and "losers". 

I found myself challenged, often considering, which one more closely resembled the values of a thriving learning organization?

Embarking on the journey of Learning Leadership not only kept my focus on what matters most. It made me realize, there are so many others who found solace who were inspired by hope, in this space as well. And for that, I am thankful.

July 1, 2016 will be the first day of my 20th school year as an educator. While, on some level, I am proud of the risks I've taken, I can also say with certainty, that I have also learned a great deal about the value of being reliable, predictable, dependable, and steadfast, especially during challenging times. 

I've also learned that having these qualities and being a risk taker are not mutually exclusive. 

And being a risk-taker is not only reserved for the 21st Century.

This time of year, when we welcome new teachers and bid others a sentimental farewell to embark on the next phase of life, I always look forward to retirement celebrations. I enjoy these because I am hopeful for these all-too-rare occasions when we seize opportunities to bridge generations of educators who can share wisdom of what it means to be a great teacher "then" and "now". There's one teacher in particular who I've always looked forward to seeing at these events, Mr. Peters.

As I look back on 10 years in the classroom and 10 years out of the classroom, I fondly recall regular conversations I used to have with the grandmother of one of my students...conversations about Mr. Peters. She would tell me, often, how I reminded her of him, when he taught her now-grown children. And while she'd explain, we were similar in our teaching approaches, she said we were never afraid to take risks if they were in the best interests of children.

One time, this grandmother shared a poem with me, which I keep to this day, and find myself reading every so often. It's a poem that reminds anyone willing to read it, the importance of taking risks. It was appropriate for Mr. Peters a half-century ago, it resonated with me over a decade ago, and it's as valuable, if not more, for educators in 2016.

Rudyard Kipling 

If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing their's and blaming it on you;
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or, being lied about, don't deal in lies,
Or being hated don't give way to hating,
And yet don't look too good, nor talk too wise;

If you can dream - and not make dreams your master;
If you can think - and not make thoughts your aim,
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same
If you can bare to hear the truth you've spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken, 
And stoop and build 'em up with worn-out tools;

If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it all on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings,
And never breathe a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: "Hold on!"

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with Kings - nor lose the common touch,
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds' worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that's in it,
And - which is more - you'll be a Man, my son!

Mr. Peters has not likely ever used any form of social media, nor will he ever. But I am grateful for his influence, leading the way with taking risks, to better the lives of others and to better our learning organizations. And I am equally as thankful for "My 20 Favorite Bloggers": My 20 Favorite Bloggers .  Connect with them today, and be prepared to take risks and to grow.

And if you're not blogging yet, today's the day to start. You will not regret you decision to take the risk and will be amazed by what you learn.

Sunday, May 8, 2016

Red Car Moments

This time of year, I find myself focusing on what it is that makes great teachers, great. Everyone's experienced, at one time or another, what makes for a bad experience with a teacher and we've felt it's impact, either first-hand or second-hand. Whether we encountered this experience as a student, with a colleague, or as the parent of a school-age child, we clearly remember the feeling associated with a "bad teacher" or a "bad school year". We remember the impact it left on us, on our experience as students, and in some cases, on our feelings towards school, as adults.  

But do we spend enough time focusing on what great teachers do?

Red Cars

Several years ago, I read a book called, Seeing Red Cars: Driving Yourself, Your Team, and Your Organization to a Positive Future. In the book, the author asserts this idea that you buy a red car, and in turn tend to see an increase in the number of red cars you see, wherever you go.

Why does this happen?

Well, according to the author, you see more red cars because you're focused on them. And, either intentionally or not, when we fixate on what we want, we get what we want as the outcome. By the same token, when we focus on what we don't want, that result is exactly what we get.

So I've been thinking about this concept in this last month or so, and how it applies to educators. And the truth is, I've been fortunate to encounter more "red car moments" than I can count, both personally and professionally. Some have been incidentally, doing routine walk-through observations or classroom visits. And others have come as the result of invitations to see how a teacher has taken a risk that will likely yield growth, reflection, and student success. I'm grateful for having an ability to see more red cars these days, thanks to teachers who I work with and our students learn from each day.

Dogs and Blogs

I know a passionate 11 year old. He's a talented musician. He's a creative problem-solver who enjoys a complex challenge. He's agile, dexterous, and athletic. He's got a mind like a steel trap. He's an avid kid chef, who understands how to prepare for and follow a recipe, that results in a good meal. He's skilled at building and assembling projects.  

He's also a "rule follower". He's helpful and compassionate. He's got his convictions on any topic presented. He's "good at" school, in it's most traditional form. He can be, at times stubborn and is always empathetic towards others. In short, he's a quirky, wonderful, challenging, and amazing adolescent. He's remarkable.

He's my son. 

In many ways, he is a "textbook definition" of an adolescent. And in so many more ways, he's becoming an extraordinary, fascinating person.

I used to think he was a reluctant reader and writer. But I've come to appreciate that maybe it'd be more accurate, to say he's an indifferent reader and writer. 

This is not because he's not good at it. It's because he's ambivalent about it.

In everything he does, he has to have a reason, a driving purpose. So for him, reading has never been an event, but more a means to an end. He will read manuals to fix things and to build things. He will read books because in school, you read because your teacher tells you to. He reads books because his parents bring him to the public library and they know it's important to model that for him. He will write thank you cards. He will make lists. He is able to follow several recipes simultaneously, resulting in a delicious meal. He's an independent and an autonomous learner. And he's more or less, indifferent about reading and indifferent about writing. He's yet to figure out how it fits into his overall purpose. 

Until this year.

This year, his sixth grade teacher learned of his love for dogs. And she's used it to his and to her advantage. This was the year for his "red car moment".

We don't have a dog...yet. But he wants one, and has wanted one for as long as I can remember. For as long as he's been literate, he's obsessively read about dogs. He's read books and has watched videos. He's done science projects and community service projects centering on dogs. And he's made himself known throughout the neighborhood as the local dog walker. Dogs have always been his personal passion.  

And this year, for the first time in his life, he has a teacher who has found a way to do what great teachers do. She tapped into what Dr. Ken Robinson would refer to as my son's "element". This teacher, she found a way to do what only great teachers can do: she caught lightning in a bottle. She helped him discover his purpose...for reading and for writing.

At the beginning of this school year, our typically reluctant reader/writer son came home and enthusiastically announced that, this year, he was going to be keeping a blog. And when the teacher told him he could write about whatever it was his heart desired, he knew, at that very moment, that he'd be spending the year reading and writing about his two greatest passions. 

1. Dogs
2. Convincing his parents he needs a dog.

What has developed over the course of this year?

As a writer, he has grown immensely in the following areas:

  • Development of ideas around a central theme
  • How to structure a piece so it meets the needs of readers
  • Knowing the difference the right words, tone, and structure can make
  • Using "author's voice" and having an appreciation of one's audience
  • The importance of writing with purpose
  • An appreciation for why we write
  • A willingness and interest in experimenting with words, language, and different genres
  • How to structure a piece to "hook" and interact with a reader
  • How and why good writers synthesize receptive and expressive language
  • Having a sense of confidence that has transcended the blog, the classroom, and his school experience.
Seeing this metamorphosis take place over the course of one school year has been a transformational experience. It's been a red car moment that has fortified my belief in the impact one teacher can have on one learner. It has led to other red car moments...and the pursuit of other red car moments.

So what takeaways are there for adults who work in schools?

  1. We are responsible for red car moments. Each of us. It's one of the privileges; one of the timeless gifts of being an educator.
  2. We owe it to our students to make this a value that they can see and they can feel. 
  3. We owe it to one another, that when we have a red car moment, we don't keep it to ourselves. Because red car moments beget other red car moments.
  4. We owe it to our communities to show they can expect these of us, and we we deliver them, with fidelity.
  5. We owe it to our profession to celebrate red car moments, for our students and for one another. Because as President Kennedy once wrote, "A rising tide lifts all boats."

And now, wherever I look, I can't stop seeing red cars. 

Or looking for more.