Why Not? Why Not Me?

Urinetown

Around the end of November I was having a conversation with a teacher in our building who is also the musical director for the high school play. She mentioned some casting struggles and I jokingly said I would fill in for any part that she had available. I was joking but it got me thinking. Thinking can be a dangerous activity! Thinking is what pushes you to do things outside of your comfort zone. ‘Why not?’ is a dangerous way to convince yourself that most things are possible.

Just think about that for a moment. Ask yourself ‘why not?’ and then don’t allow yourself any easy ways out. I can help you because I went through the list:

  1. I don’t have time – Wrong, you have time. Most things are really not a matter of time but a matter of priorities. If you really  want to do something, make it a priority.
  2. I can’t sing – Wrong, someone once told me that Kermit the Frog had a top 40 hit. I haven’t looked that up but it was enough for me.
  3. I can’t get up in front of people – Wrong, you can! As I wrote previously, confidence just takes a deep breath and if you have enough deep breaths left you can do most anything. I stole that idea from the book The Thing About Jellyfish by Ali Benjamin; great read.
  4. I won’t be good at it – This was a distinct possibility! In the end I decided to audition and let someone else decide if I was good enough. That probably took more guts than anything else. Putting yourself out there for others to judge takes a strong self image which I don’t always have.

Your questions will be different based on your ‘why not?’ but the point is, you have to delineate between excuses and explanations. Humans are good at making excuses to avoid challenging ourselves. We develop habits that keep us in a safe place. It’s normal. To really get out there and change your life and impact the lives of others you have to confront those habits and make an intentional change.

The next question then is ‘Why?’. I think I answered some of those above but there is more:

  1. I am a fan of musicals. I guess I always have been. I remember my dad acting in a musical when I was a kid and directing one. I also remember watching Oklahoma, West Side Story and The Sound of Music. Growing up I never acted on this love because I was afraid to. I wasn’t very athletic as a teen and athletics was everything where I grew up. It never occurred to me to perform in a musical or, god forbid, tell anyone I liked show tunes. My spot on the teenage hierarchy was already pretty tenuous. Putting that information out there would have been a death knell. As I got older and made friends with others who were musical fans. I loosened up and began to take my wife to shows and play show tunes in my truck. Picture that, a middle aged guy in his pick up truck blaring show tunes!
  2. What I discovered from this newfound courage to watch and listen to musicals is that they brought me a lot of joy. I would sit in a theater and start smiling from the beginning of the show clear through to the end. That is my second ‘why?’. If a show could bring me joy, why couldn’t I bring that same joy to others. Would people come and see the show and leave with as much joy as I did? Hopefully. This was an opportunity to do something that was bigger than me. To participate in a group that’s purpose was to bring joy to others. To make people happy and forget about whatever else they had going on in their lives for two hours. That’s a pretty powerful purpose if you think about it.
  3. My final reason for deciding to take this on was my girls and anyone else who needed a little nudge. I wanted to show my daughters that the possibilities for your life are endless, the opportunities for happiness are out there, you just have to grab them. I’ve written before about ‘choosing yourself.’ This is a perfect example of just that. I didn’t wait around to be chosen. Waiting around to be chosen dictates our entire existence. I chose myself. I put myself out there and said, ‘Hey, you should do this.’ We should all do that more often.

A funny thing about how I write is that I never know where I’m going until I start. One paragraph leads to a thought and then I just keep writing. My intention was to write about my experience in my first musical performance and I never quite got there. Let me end with a paraphrase of the email I sent to our director prior to our final day’s performances:

Thank you…you were willing to take a chance on a middle aged guy with no experience singing, dancing or acting. When I landed a role that has lines and a solo I thought maybe you were confused about who I was.

I worked hard at this. Harder than I ever expected to…you took a chance on me and I didn’t want to disappoint you.

Initially I thought this would be a ‘one and done’ but now I hope that you will welcome me back again. I feel like I am part of something bigger than myself and that is an awesome feeling.

…I have done a lot of different things in my life but this has to be one of the most rewarding experiences I have ever had.

 

Thank you! We both chose me! Why not?

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A New Tribe

Tribes seem to be one of those 2018 things to be a part of. Everybody has a tribe. People are posting about ‘hanging with their tribe’ or ‘a shout out to my tribe.’ Your tribe is your people. The people with whom you have similar interests or goals. Your ‘go to’ group for support, jokes, questions, etc.

Recently I had a conversation with a friend that got me thinking about my tribe. Turns out, after reflection, that I’m part of several tribes. I equated my tribes to group texts. Those often hilarious and sometimes annoying transmissions between people with whom you have a connection. My wife, my daughters and I have had an ongoing group message since my older daughter went off to college. That’s my main tribe. Then I have a group text with all the wrestling guys that I hang out with. We share information that we hear or see about the goings on in the wrestling world. I’m in an ongoing group chat with my brother and the people we go to the beach with. It’s a flexible group depending on the next event. That’s pretty much my party tribe. The administrators that I work with have a group message. That one is rarely hilarious but it is definitely one of my tribes. I’m in an occasional group chat with my running buddies and one with my fellow beer enthusiasts.

The reason for this post though is to mention a new tribe that I never thought that I would be a part of. Let’s call it the thespian tribe. Fresh off my first ever theater performance I have become part of that group chat and feel pretty confident that I’ll be firmly entrenched in this tribe for some time to come. There’s a whole separate blog post coming about that experience.

My point is that I don’t know if this is normal but I am part of several tribes. The chances of those tribes ever crossing paths is slim but each one of those tribes is a part of who I am. It seems to me that many people believe that you can only have one tribe and those are your ‘people.’ Not true in my case. Individual tribes make up a nation so, in a way, my group messages make up my nation.

To paraphrase The Breakfast Club:

You see me as you want to see me – in the simplest terms, in the most convenient definitions. But what I found is that I am a father, a husband, an administrator, a partier, a wrestling fan, a runner, a beer enthusiast and now a thespian.

Welcome to my nation!

Phifty – The Birthday Post

I have traditionally written a birthday post. I started this blog on my 44th birthday, thus the name. I have been consistently inconsistent in my writing over the last six years and, reading through my posts, the blog has gone through many iterations. There were periods when I wrote for the joy and tried to appeal to an audience and times that I wrote out of anger at the system and tried to appeal to an audience. The latest iteration is me writing as a reflection on my practice as an educator. I write to get ‘it’ out there whatever ‘it’ is but for me getting ‘it’ out there makes it real. No matter how few strangers or friends read it, I have put it out there irretrievably. That can be cathartic at times but it also forces me to own my reflection and work on my foibles. As I wrote in my last post, it’s hard sometimes.

Apparently my last post may have ruffled some feathers. Some things that I said were hard for me to get out of my mind. That’s what my blog is for: to cause me to reflect and use that reflection to make myself a better professional. If a casual reader reads my post and the content causes them to reflect, that is a bonus. Sometimes what we do is hard and hearing that we aren’t perfect is even harder. I’ve said before that I don’t believe there is any learning without reflection. Truthfully, that is not just my belief, that is a truism. You may know something but you haven’t learned it if you haven’t reflected on why it is important, how it fits into the schema of your life, how you can use it in the future, and on and on.

Honest, true reflection is painful and necessary. It makes us better. It makes our schools better and isn’t that truly what we want for our kids.

So today I’m fifty. That’s a big number! And as I reflect over the last two weeks I realize that I am better at 50 but still have many imperfections. I’m a work in progress and so are you. None of us are finished. I did fail to say in my last post that I’m guilty of some of those same things that damage our culture. But that’s why I wrote it. I reflect; I learn; I work on changing. I’m working. It’s  painful. It’s hard.

Education is Hard!

Image result for Grant me thestrength to be a force of love

Education is hard! Teaching is hard! That’s got to be the center of my reflection for this week. It’s hard, it’s tiring and it’s not for the weak.

I started back to school with a renewed sense of enthusiasm and passion for what I do. I mentioned that in my last post. I felt like I could do anything for our kids. Every Kid. Every Day. No Matter What It Takes. That may sound like a lot but I think that’s what kids deserve. Quickly the people around me tried to sap that enthusiasm. People who have a vision that is different than yours can sap that energy. People who have that ‘we’ll-see-how-long-this-lasts’ attitude can eat away at your positivity. People who don’t understand the changes that need to happen in education can be a drain on your enthusiasm.

What I found this week is that keeping your head up and your vision in tact takes work. Hard, tiring work. Every day this week I went home exhausted and every day I thought of things that I wish I would have done or things that I did that could have waited. I tried to smile when people were negative and I tried to walk away when I could feel the energy meter running low. By nature I avoid confrontation. Reflecting at the end of the day there were many instances where I should have confronted the situation.

I feel like I have great relationships with our teachers. Relationships are everything in this business. Sometimes, though, I think I avoid the hard conversations because I don’t want to damage the relationships. I don’t mean addressing things that are obviously bad for kids. What I’m talking about are the small things that don’t ruin kids but also don’t bring out the best in them. One example from this week: We have a class of students who are notoriously low achievers and behavior issues. These students were stereotyped from the outset of the year. Not one teacher gave them a clean slate. They expected that they would be behavior problems and they were. Well, yes, self-fulfilling prophecy.

I had a chance this week to chat with a former colleague. Great guy and excellent teacher but also a person who has always challenged me to think. He said that there is always one person wherever he has gone who reminds him of the superintendent that we had when we worked together. The kind of person who is an authoritarian leader and runs people out of an organization due to the destruction of the culture. I tried to identify the people in our building who played that role. What I discovered is that they are not at the top but they are in the trenches. There are people who damage the culture on a daily basis by the way they run their classrooms, by the way they do there jobs and by the way they interact with people. And, I guess it goes further than actual actions. The way some people talk about kids, parents, colleagues and probably me damages the culture at the basic level.

Luckily for us there are only a small number of those people in our school so the strong keep the culture afloat. Also, even though there are some negatives, all in all we have an excellent group of ‘teachers.’ We teach well, some of us just need some work on our relationship building.

So, my reflection for this week is that it’s got to get harder for me. I have to start being more assertive and addressing each of these little items. Our culture depends on it and I don’t think there is much more important to our students than a culture that is uplifting. I’m going to continue to be tired and my wife is going to wonder why I am spending so much time in my office. I get it and I know she will understand but I refuse to be weak and I refuse to be weakened.

 

NPC17-Reflection

The National Principals Conference in Philly came at the perfect time for me. I recently completed my certification as a superintendent and had been trying to find a central office job. Unsuccesfully. I felt like I wasn’t good enough as I was passed over for two positions and not even considered for several others. Maybe I wasn’t as good as I thought I was.

At the last minute I decided to attend NPC 17. Mainly because it was close to home and also because I felt like I needed a break from the office. I was beyond surprised by how inspirational the three days were. Over the passed few years I had focused on technology conferences – PETE and C and ISTE. Turns out what I needed was a kick in the pants from my tribe. Most everyone in every room was a principal. WE all had some semblance of what was going on in each others’ lives. Many connections were instantaneous. No one had to warm up to other people because we were all in the same boat.

In my professional life I have moved around a good bit. First between teaching jobs and then pushing up the administrative ladder. I always felt as though I had made the decision to move on because I had given all that I had. NPC17 in many ways proved my thoughts to be incorrect. Upon reflection it seems that I was leaving those positions because I was scared. Not fearful necessarily but scared to push the envelope a little bit more. There are great leaders out there doing amazing things. I wasn’t and still am not being truly amazing for my people.

When I was reflecting on my admin career while in Philly I remembered all the great ideas that I had when I started as an assistant principal. I made some pretty amazing connections with parents, students and staff. Even when I became a principal I was full of passion. I wanted to do this right and impact my community. Recently I have allowed myself to be content. To be lazy. To stop pushing the envelope.

That ends this year. People are probably going to think I went around the bend. It’s going to be tough to make a pretty big change after being the same guy for eight years but it must be done. I need to bring the passion back for myself but more importantly I owe it to my students, my teachers and my community.

Thank you to everyone who attended NPC 17. I was inspired greatly by so many that I won’t even try to list.

Disruption and Capitalization

Recently I began listening to Malcolm Gladwell’s podcast, Revisionist HistoryI’m a little late to the game so I started at the beginning of season 1 and am trying to catch up. Yesterday I listened to two episodes that are part of a three part series on the cost of post secondary education and how poorer Americans fit into the past secondary puzzle: “Carlos Doesn’t Remember” and “Food Fight.” I’ve always enjoyed the way Gladwell thinks so I would highly recommend the podcast.

These two episodes got me thinking about how we serve our students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds. Gladwell talks about two concepts that I felt were relevant to the public education, K-12 story as well as to the post secondary story. The first concept is that of disruption. We all experience disruption in our lives – divorce, loss of a loved one, loss of employment, etc. In many families those disruptions can be on a grander scale- arrests, imprisonment, abuse, etc. The argument that Gladwell makes is that students of privilege not only have fewer disruptions on the grand scale but, even when they do, they are more likely to escape the disruption without issue. For example, a rich, suburbanite student gets pulled over for speeding is found to be DUI. His chances of avoiding punishment are much better than the same student who does not come from privilege. Privilege allows for better attorneys, privilege affords a possible connection in the police force, privileges can be used to ‘buy’ your way out of trouble. The poorer student has little of this ‘buying’ power. Disadvantaged students who experience these disruptions, especially the high end ones, often are pushed to the breaking point. Their lives are already so tenuous that one major disruption sends everything into a tailspin. Foster care, single parent families, homelessness can all be a reality for a student born into poverty from just one massive disruption.

The second concept is that of capitalization. Gladwell defines capitalization as “the rate at which a given community capitalizes on the human potential… what percentage of those who are capable of achieving something actually achieve it.” Gladwell’s focus here is on how well our society does in recognizing talented students from poor communities and assuring that those students have the post secondary opportunities that more privileged students have. Eric Eisner who founded YES Scholars makes an eerie point about capitalization in the episode ‘Carlos Doesn’t Remember.’ To paraphrase, he says that we are waiting too long to identify these students. If we are waiting to see how they do on their SATs, we are waiting to long. Why? For most of these students, the junior year in high school never comes. Many will drop out, many will join gangs and for some the disruptions will just be to great by the time they hit the eighth grade. Let that sink in. When was the last time you sat in your elementary or middle school classroom and worried that a student wouldn’t make it to ninth grade? The answer to that question will determine where your school sits on the continuum of privilege in this country.

So what can we do as K-12 schools to assure that our students overcome disruption and that our communities experience a high percentage of capitalization? The first answer, I believe, comes in the culture of our schools. I mean this on a national as well as a state and local scale. Are we as a nation, a state and a community focusing so much on passing a high stakes test that we have ignored the disruptions in our students lives? Funding over the past few years in Pennsylvania, my state, has been cut in many areas of human services. Can we build a culture that genuinely cares about students when our country and our state has deprioritized human services? I’ve written before about grit, bootstrapping and growth mindset. All of those things need to overcome a certain measure of disruption. As schools we need to be cognizant of the disruptions in our students’ lives and fill that into the equation whenever we speak to or about them. That would be a good start.

To better capitalize on the human potential of our schools we must start with creating a culture that nurtures students through the disruptions in their lives. We also need to do a better job of identifying our best and brightest despite the backgrounds that they hail from. We know that students in poorer households come to school with fewer skills but we also know that with a solid education many of these students catch up to their peers eventually. There are two things I believe that we don’t address efficiently. First, students who come to us from lower socieconomic backgrounds have there abilities masked by the language poor environments that they were raised in. We don’t acknowledge their gifts early enough because we make assumptions about their intelligence relative to their zip code. Second, even though we see underprivileged students gain on their more privileged peers, we also see that gap begin to widen again as the move into middle school. Students who were average or better elementary students tend to become low average or worse students when the do not come from privilege. Even in a small school where most if not all of the students will eventually graduate, the disruptions become too great for many of these students to maintain their academic achievement.

I don’t have the answers to these questions but I think being cognizant that they exist is an important step. As educational leaders we need to open the eyes of those we lead to these potential pitfalls. Brendon Burchard has this short prayer that I believe speaks to the needs of leaders in our society: “Grant me the strength to focus this week, to be mindful, to serve with excellence, to be a force of love.” Yes, let us be a force of love in education.

LMGTFY

Ran upon this site today when someone replied to a question on Facebook with a link to the site. I instantly fell in love with the site because of its sarcastic notion. Then my head spun in a different direction and I pondered how LMGTFY reflects the changes that are necessary in education. BTW, if you haven’t figured it out yet, check the link.

I get a little tired of rehashing the same old arguments about how education needs to change to better serve our youth. The 21st century competencies have been talked about now for almost two decades and in many arenas – dare I say most? – we are no further along at assuring that our students are creators, critical thinkers, communicators and collaborators than we were in 1999. In 1999 not many people were walking around with a microcomputer in their pockets.

You remember 1999. We were worried about Y2K, TLC was averring that they wanted no scrubs, President Bartlet was ruling The West Wing and The Phantom Menace was crushing the box office. Yes, that’s Episode 1. Schools that were progressive were buying the first iMac and the rest of us were pounding away on 120 MHz Pentium processors and storing our data on the Jaz Drive. I had a phone, like many in my generation, but it was too expensive to use it. More of a status symbol than a useful tool.

You may have taken your class to the lab then whereas now you may have some computers in your classroom. If your district is really pushing the envelope you may even be 1:1. Google was around then but you were probably using Yahoo! or Ask Jeeves.  Those microcomputers in everyone’s pockets? Until a few short years ago no teacher in their right mind would allow a student to use it in class and their are still some feet draggers out there. I’m guessing that was the same attitude at the advent of the calculator. Times have changed and we must embrace the new horizons that are attainable when we don’t have to worry about teaching Googleable content – yes, that’s a word!

Of course the turn of the century also saw the dawn of the No Child Left Behind Act,which ironically left a hell of a lot of children behind probably an entire generation, and the emergence of ‘teaching to the test.’ A sad time for educators that were trying to use emergent technologies and teach soft skills. A time that while technology grew exponentially, teaching muddled on in the same format.

The key point that I want to make is this:  Are you really doing anything differently than you did in 1999? Are you asking students to create with those shiny new Chromebooks? Have you allowed your students to expand their audiences by sharing content and collaborating outside of the classroom? When was the last time your students communicated with an expert or another student that is on the other side of the world or across town without leaving the building? Do your students know how to analyze ‘fake news’ – the bane of 21st century social media? If you are not, if they do not, you may as well invest in more pencils.

Instead of having students memorize states and capitals have them videochat with a peer in that state and ask them questions? Instead of asking students the significance of color in The Great Gatsby ask them to collaborate with a partner to brainstorm a conversation that they might have with Gatsby and Eliza. Instead of writing definitions to vocabulary words teach students how to use Google – like that don’t already know that – to look up unknown words that they come upon in their reading. Encourage debate over current events so that students learn to think critically rather than have them summarize an article to hand in. These are just a few easy options. By eliminating Googleable content we open up our students’ worlds to more STEM activities, Makerspaces, project based learning activities, the list could go on and on. In the process we will make them more confident people, more independent learners, more concerned citizens and more active contributors to society.

If you have any questions, let me Google that for you.