Will this be the time we change?

I read an article on CNN recently that included a picture from a classroom dated 1918.  I’ve included that photo as the featured pic for this blog post.  I was immediately struck by how similar the classrooms of 1918 were to the classrooms of 2020.  Desks in rows, desks being the same basic shape still today, everyone facing forward toward the ‘front’ of the room, each student as their own ‘island’ of learning at their own permanent seat, etc.  But then it occurred to me, “How could that be?  That’s over 100 years ago?!”  I even double-checked to make sure that the date on the picture was correct.  It seemed unreal to me that classrooms could be so change-resistant over a span of 100 years, but pictures don’t lie.

In my mind I went through a list of items that were around during that time period to see if anything else was as resistant to change.  I couldn’t think of anything that was remotely comparable.  For instance, do our phones look anything like they did in 1918?  Do cars look anything like they did in 1918?  Is the food we eat anything like it was in 1918?  Are the clothes we wear anything like they were in 1918?  Nope.

In all the nightmares that COVID-19 has created in our lives, I still can’t help but search for some shreds of positivity within this confusing and uncomfortable time in history.  It was then I realized, public education in the United States IS on the road to changingpermanently and in a positive direction…due to COVID-19.  We may not always identify it in a positive way, but incrementally, as educators and families, we’re all learning more effective and efficient skills to deliver instruction, new skills to engage students, and new skills to connect schools to families.   All of these new skills fit the time we live in, rather than the time of 100 years ago.  Whether it’s virtual classrooms, or parents becoming more involved in their child’s education than they ever have before, or the push to get educational technology in the hands of every child, these changes are happening in every school district in the United States.   The change in education has permeated everyone and everywhere, which is unprecedented in my lifetime.

Only time will tell, but I’m quite confident that in the months ahead, as we move through this pandemic, the changes we’re forced to make as educators will permanently change public education in the United States for the better.  And then maybe, 100 years from now…pictures of their classrooms will look nothing like the classrooms of today.

Flipping the Script.

As we’ve navigated through the uncertainty that surrounds the COVID pandemic, I’ve heard repeated more than once the mantra, “Live each day as if it’s my last”. I understand at the heart of that statement is the intent of gratitude, empowerment and positivity, but to me that statement always seems to have a very definitive (and implied not-so-happy) ending to it. As an incurable optimist, I prefer to flip the script on that statement and be guided by the mantra “live each day as if it’s my first“. The first day of school. The first day of a vacation. The first day with a new child. The first day of a new job. Living each day as if it’s the first gives me a sense of unlimited hope and opportunity. And ‘hope’ and ‘Opportunity’ are two words that if we repeat them enough to ourselves, we can have the courage to get through anything.

This mantra has served me surprisingly well during the time of COVID. It seems like there are so many ‘firsts’ just naturally occurring constantly in our lives, both personally and professionally. Creating virtual instructional models for first time, using various remote learning technologies for the first time, creating the best-ever COVID karaoke sessions with family for first time…the list of firsts is a mile long and grows every day. But I’ve found when I see these firsts through the lens of hope and opportunity, it creates an excitement that allows me to not only survive all the change, but thrive in it.

So as I walk through the annual ritual of transitioning from one year to the next, here’s to wishing all of you an amazing 2021 and a year in which you live each day like it’s your first!

The Intersection of Social Emotional Skill Building and Productive Struggle

The quote that’s the featured image for this blog really resonates with me.  In particular, replacing the word ‘parents’ in the quote with the word ‘educators’ reminds me how important it is that we continually find ways to influence a child’s life so that they gain “…a lifelong way to build and repair their own confidence.”  In my view, this can only be achieved through opportunities of product struggle – which to me is defined as those challenges that help students build perseverance, confidence, and flexibility.

Social-emotional skill building is one area in particular where I believe we’re still finding how best to utilize productive struggle.  I have welcomed the intentional push in education over the past decade to raise social-emotional learning to a priority that is equal to the core academic areas, but I believe as educators we are still feeling-our-way through the intersection between social-emotional skill building and providing those all important situations for students to experience productive struggle which builds emotional resilience.

Our Soaring for Success Team at Ledge Street Elementary (the team of teachers/administration leading our Social-Emotional Learning work) is currently clarifying for our school the intersection between social-emotional skill building with students and allowing students ample opportunities to productively struggle through emotions.  It’s proving to be a complicated task.  In order to be successful achieving that balance, we need to purposefully structure emotional supports for children in a way that does some of the work for them, while at the same time allowing them to struggle through parts of the problem independently.  But at what point do we do the work for them?  And at what point do we let them fail-forward based on their own choices?  That’s the complicated part.

A lot is riding on educators finding this balance quickly and every interaction we have with a child matters.  For instance, if we address a situation too heavy on the social-emotional skill building side and over-support the child, we risk ‘doing the work’ for them and robbing them of an opportunity to build perseverance and strength in the face of adversity.  Inversely, if we come into a situation too heavy on the productive struggle side and don’t support them enough emotionally, that can lead to a child feeling helpless or not feeling a sense of belonging in their learning environment.  If the thousands of interactions we have each day with children are out-of-balance in either of those directions, it will adversely affect the learning culture within a school.  That’s the urgency that is currently driving some of the change at our school.

I am intrigued by this journey we’re on to find the balance between social-emotional skill building and productive struggle.  A lot is riding on us as educators to ensure that children are supported emotionally as they learn to independently build and repair their own confidence, but we also must allow children opportunities to struggle through the social-emotional challenges they face.  If we can find this balance, I know we’ll achieve much greater success overall as a school moving forward.

I welcome your thoughts and comments!


Vulnerability…and Mistakes…and Failure.

Previously when I thought of the attributes that define a good educator, many different words came to mind, such as ‘intelligent’, ‘dedicated’, and ‘caring’.  But over the past few years, one characteristic in particular has become the first word I think of when I envision the-best-of-the-best educators.  That word is ‘vulnerable’.

In my experiences over the past several years as a Principal in North Carolina and Washington state, I have had numerous occasions where showing vulnerability has opened doors that otherwise would not have been opened to me.  One example in particular where I’ve grown comfortable showing vulnerability is when it comes to ‘failing forward’ (thanks @brendanfetters for introducing me to that mantra!)  I’m now very transparent about letting people around me know that I’m okay with showing my failure and mistakes.  This includes showing both adults AND children.  Because regardless of whether it’s a child or an adult, when I show the courage to be vulnerable, they understand through my actions that it’s okay for them to show vulnerability.  And when children and adults are unchained from the fear of failure, or fear of mistakes, and they feel free to show vulnerability, that’s when the most grand, amazing ideas are allowed to grow.

No matter what your role in education may be, it is my belief that showing vulnerability is crucial in this field.  It’s not something we ought to do, it’s something we must do.  Without vulnerability, we will never realize our potential or the true potential of those we serve.  But with it, we can do anything we set our mind to!

I welcome your thoughts and feedback!

Where the ‘Urgent’ and ‘Important’ Intersect

Summer can be an amazing time of year for Principals in many ways.  Yes, it gives us time to recharge our emotional-selves and spend much needed time with family and friends, but equally as important, summer gives Principals a brief departure from the tyranny of the ‘urgent’ (day-to-day tasks) and affords us a bit more time to focus on what’s ‘important’ (planning/reflection/goal focus for the upcoming school year).

When I began my career in school administration in the early 2000’s, I didn’t think much of the ‘urgent’ versus the ‘important’.  But now that I’ve been in school administration for close to two decades, I’m able to see how vital it is that I understand where the urgent and the important intersect/balance.  In fact, as I look back on my career, I can see with great consistency that my successes and failures are in many ways related to how I identified intersections between urgent/important and balanced (or didn’t balance!) them adeptly.

As I’m transitioning into a Principal position at a new school this year, I’m challenging myself to seek more understanding in the areas where the urgent and the important intersect, with the goal of finding better balance between the two.  So while I’m immersed in my daily routines this year and I’m faced with a choice…the urgent task versus the important task…I want to consciously pause and think to myself, “Where is the intersection and balance between the two?”  This means specifically stopping and reflecting when I’m faced with situations such as the following:

  • Time spent on emails, paperwork, office-task (urgent) versus time spent on relationship building with students, staff, parents (important)
  • Time spent outside of school on work related tasks (urgent) versus time spent outside of school with family/friends and truly being present (not checking email or voicemail!) when I’m with them (important)
  • Time spent on solving others’ problems (urgent) versus time spent skill-building with teams of staff/students/parents to solve problems together (important)
  • Time spent narrowly focused on solving one problem (urgent) versus time spent in deep reflection and taking in the whole-picture all at once (important)
  • Time spent helping others learn/build skill (urgent) versus time spent on my own PLN with Twitter, writing blogs, etc. (important)

This list could go on with several more bullets of course.  I would like to know how you view the intersection and balance between ‘urgent’ and ‘important’, so I welcome comments!

Actions Speak Loudest

There is a recent tweet by @VAeducatorRJW that really resonated with me.  He tweeted a quote from W.E.B DuBois that stated, “Children learn more from what you are than what you teach.”  There are probably more than a few ways to interpret that quote depending on if you’re a teacher or other type of educator, but in my role of Principal, I thought about that quote in regards to the relationship between ‘Principal/Teacher’.  It resonated with me so much that I was compelled to make a list of what I should strive to do, everyday, to ensure my ‘actions’ are worth learning from…

  • Go into every conversation, every interaction, assuming positive intent.
  • Personalize.  Take time to build a caring, trusting, relationship with every teacher.
  • Give kudos to teachers (or anyone for that matter!) in the moment.  Never let kudos go un-shared.  It’s important to tell teachers those things in the moment…otherwise they can be easily forgotten in the chaos of a school day…and you never know, that could be the one moment that turns their day around.
  • Show vulnerability.  Let teachers know I’m human, too, because I’m more approachable that way.
  • Speak my own truth.  The simple action of beginning a sentence with “I” rather than “you” can make all the difference in the perception of what is being said.
  • Say what I feel.  It actually feels very liberating to say what I feel and use true ‘feeling words’.  It can be reassuring for teachers to know how a Principal feels, because it takes a lot of guessing out of the intent of the conversation.

So to follow one of my own bullets above – thanks for tweeting out that quote, Rashard.  It made me ponder!  PLN at it’s best…


The Complexities of Relationship-Building

As our school has moved forward with the PBIS behavior expectations reset for 2018, I have become more and more aware of the complex nature of building and sustaining relationships with students.

I feel strongly that consistency, warmth, and a true sense of caring are the foundations of building good relationships with students.  In fact, my good friend Brendan Fetters recent blog post has some great working examples of how these foundational relationship-building skills show up most effectively in a school.  I’m also noticing that after this sturdy foundation is established, it’s highly effective to have a second level of relationship-building occur in order to ensure the relationships are sustained.  That second level involves defining ambiguous words that as adults we often use to expedite a conversation, but unfortunately they can be relationship destroyers.  They include any words that carry with them a lot of assumption in their meaning.  Assumptions that are often based on the situation or the culture of the person making the assumption.  That’s why it is crucial to define for the student (in the moment) these types of words because it helps avoid confusion and misconceptions – which can derail relationship-building in an instant.

The word ‘respect’ is an excellent example of an ambiguous word we toss around in schools these days.  That word is often one of the pillars within PBIS expectations, and frequently shows up in questions we ask students such as, “Are you showing respect?” and “Are you being respectful?”.  As educators, we often talk to students about the word ‘respect’, but rarely, if ever, do we take the time to define for the child exactly what we mean by the word ‘respect’.  As in, what is our personal working definition of ‘respect’ in that moment?

Recently I’ve changed my relationship-building practices in a very subtle, yet profound, way to include defining any/all words I sense are ambiguous or carry a lot of assumption.  In the example of the word ‘respect’, I actively define for students what I believe ‘respect’ is in any given situation.  For instance, if a student is engaged in their classroom by working cooperatively, I might say to them, “Wow, I am really impressed at how you are respecting your classmates views and opinions.  And my definition of being respectful to your classmates in this situation means you’re showing great listening skills and an ability to give constructive feedback.”  It’s interesting how the extra effort I put into defining respect adds something profound to the word’s meaning in that situation.  In my view, it tells the child exactly what I’m thinking.  No confusion.  It takes the ambiguity out of the comment for the child, as well as any chance there would be a misconception of what I might be referencing as ‘respectful’

When students are emotionally elevated, it can be even more important to clarify ambiguous words.  For instance, in challenging situations I may say to a child, “I’d like us to have a more respectful conversation about how you’re upset.  And I’m defining ‘respectful’ as showing a calm voice and calm body.  If you need time to get to a more centered emotional space, I can allow that time for you.”  In that situation, the student knows exactly how I defined ‘respectful’ in an emotionally charged situation so they don’t have to spend energy guessing what it is I need them to do.  Instead they focus on the action that needs to be taken to move forward to a resolution.

The word ‘respect’ is just one example of the hundreds of ambiguous words that we, as educators, need to define for students as we use them in conversation.  If we choose not to define these words for students, it’s likely they will derail the relationship-building process in some form (or at the very least, make it harder for us to achieve the strong relationships with students that we’re seeking).  I’d like to know other ambiguous words that need defining during relationship-building so I welcome your comments!


Thinking and Doing

I read a great blog post recently from Kara Knollmeyer  @karaknollmeyer who writes about ‘finding a sense of clarity’  (I want to thank @gcouros for retweeting her blog link – otherwise I never would have seen it!)  I had several thoughts when reading her blog post, but one resonated above all others:

“I have found out that more times than not, if I stop thinking and start DOING, I feel more resolution. I feel abundantly more satisfied. Until you DO, you might as well worry your life away because your mind alone cannot prepare you for life, only your action and experience will.”   Kara Knollmeyer, “Finding a Sense of Clarity”

Kara’s blog reminded me how important it is as educators that we place a high value on the wisdom gained through our experiences.  As educators, we are continually searching for solutions to complex problems, and more often than not we try to ‘think’ our way through them.  But it’s important to remember that we need to put equal weight on the wisdom gained through learning-by-doing.  There is much wisdom embedded in the joyful experience of our success and the frustrating experience of our failure.  And the results from those experiences come in several very useful forms.  It can give us clarity of purpose.  It can give us clarity of goals.  And it can give us clarity regarding our next steps as a school and school community.

My good friend and PLN mentor Brendan Fetters  @brendanfetters  tweeted a great Sunday Inspiration quote today from Angela Maier that relates to my thoughts in this blog post. “The most dangerous word in our language is ‘tomorrow.'”  At the heart of that quote are frequent pitfalls of too much thinking and not enough doing, such as admiring a problem or paralysis by analysis that make us feel like we accomplished something when we really didn’t.

It’s worth mentioning that the journey to find solutions through our experiential wisdom is not without its challenges.  At a recent parent forum, I explained that one of the unique aspects of being an educator is that our learning experience (the trial-and-error we go through as educators) is very public.  As in, our positive and negative learning experiences are very much in the open for everyone to see.  Supervisors, parents, students, and the community all have front row seats to our successes and failures as they play out within the school environment.  It’s just the nature of our job as educators.  And it also stands to reason that as educators we have to first reconcile emotional road blocks embedded within this process, such as feelings of vulnerability, humility, and pride.  And that’s not always easy to do as educators (or anyone for that matter!).

I welcome any thoughts or comments about how you’ve found successes or failures by ‘doing’ instead of ‘thinking’!








There is a great video that’s been around for a few years from TheFunTheory.com that shows how making something ‘fun’ can get people to do something they otherwise wouldn’t want to do.  The video is called Piano Stairs and it’s worth a second look, even if you’ve seen it before.  I’ve used this video over the years during staff professional development, as well as at parent meetings, to start a conversation about the importance of ‘fun’, and how ‘fun’ can/should be incorporated into our schools.

I would guess that when most people traditionally think about incorporating fun into school, it’s in the context of a reading, math, social studies or science lesson.  As in, “Wow, that was a really fun science lesson today!”  But I have challenged myself, and my staff, to think about ‘fun’ in a more targeted manner as we reset our PBIS behavior expectations this month.  In general, I think it’s been harder to consider the idea of ‘fun’ when we are teaching replacement behaviors or behavior expectations to students.  After all, until PBIS hit the scene a few decades ago, schools would predominantly focus on changing behaviors through a deficit-mindset or through punishment-to-change-behavior.

I think it’s easy to forget that to students, letting go of old behaviors and relearning new replacement behaviors is not only uncomfortable and confusing, it’s simply not fun.  During our PBIS reset this past month I’ve spent a significant amount of time listening and learning from our students as to what type of ‘fun’ motivates them.  Previously at our school we’ve provided the relatively common ideas such as extra recess, pajama day, crazy hat day, etc., as motivators, but you can only get so much mileage from that sort of fun.  Sometimes with the more challenging behaviors there needs to be some serious thought – out of the box, unique thought – as to what type of ‘fun’ is needed to encourage the necessary productive struggle that leads children to a change in behavior.

It’s not as easy as it seems to define exactly what is fun for students.  That process can quickly turn into a generation-gap issue.  As much as I love old Atari games, Electronic Football, Electronic Battleship, and other 80’s retro-cool fun, many of the students in our classrooms today want Ozobots or iPADs…which means I have to do my research and learn how to use these items (which isn’t always comfortable for me!).  But I recognize it’s crucial to step outside myself to accurately define what fun looks like for students in 2018.  So I’m always keeping my eyes open for the latest educational tools/tech that I can bring into the school and use creatively with PBIS.  Tools/tech that can be used in large groups, as well as ones that can be used with individual students.

It’s been reassuring to discover that some old-school fun has stood the test of time when it comes to changing behaviors.  For instance, the simplicity of a Nerf basketball hoop.  I had one in my classroom when I began my career as a 1st Grade teacher in 1998, and still have one in my office as a Principal.  I have had hundreds of conversations with students about behavior while shooting hoops in my classroom or office.  As educators, we all know the science behind physical activity and it’s positive relationship to working through thoughts/feelings, but the hoop adds a ‘fun’ component.  “Let’s shoot hoops and you can tell me how your day is going.”  “Let’s shoot hoops and we can talk about what happened in the classroom earlier today.”

Sometimes it’s just that little bit of fun that moves a child into an emotional space to embrace the productive struggle needed to change behavior.

This type of thinking has been a part of me as an educator since the first day I stepped into a classroom many years ago.

This generation of students is expecting us to provide more fun for them in school.  They are expecting that productive struggle and fun will be paired to make their very complicated work a bit easier for them to handle.  And that includes the way in which we teach/reinforce behaviors and behavior expectations.  I’m sure the thought of an educator utilizing a Nerf hoop can be described as a bit unorthodox, and in many ways I recognize that it is.  But given all the conversations and all the behaviors that I’ve seen change because of those items, it’s worth it to find the fun.

I welcome your thoughts and comments!


The Science Behind Happiness

“Unless you consciously take in a good experience, it usually washes through your brain like water through a sieve, leaving little good behind.”  page 27, Hardwiring Happiness, Rick Hanson.

The past several years I’ve found myself increasingly intrigued by the science behind ‘happiness’.  I was a bit surprised to learn that our brains are not wired to retain the happiness that occurs after happy experiences in our lives.  The quote that begins this blog is from an excellent book called Hardwiring Happiness, by Rick Hanson.  Rick Hanson describes how we need to consciously think about the happy things that occur in our lives; otherwise we do not retain much of the happiness from that experience.  So why is it important to retain the happiness from those good moments?  They add up.  For instance, when you feel you’ve had a good day (at work, at home, wherever), it’s usually because you can recount the happy things that happened…and the residual happy feelings of all those moments combined make you feel good.  But unfortunately, unlike the happy experiences we have, the un-happy or negative things that happen to us are imprinted quite quickly and permanently on our brains without much effort.  That realization was a bit unsettling to me.  It means that the negative experiences in our lives are naturally more prominent in our thoughts and subsequently we have to work harder to imprint the happy experiences on our brain.  Basically we have put work into re-wiring our brain in order to retain the happiness from our happy experiences.  Ugh.  (Insert *sigh* here…)

Children are the happiest people I know, which is probably why I’ve spent the entire 20 years of my educational career as a teacher, an Assistant Principal, and a Principal at the elementary school level.  It’s energizing working in an elementary school environment because there is such happiness being displayed constantly throughout the entire day.  And it’s infectious.  One happy moment with a student can change my outlook on an entire day.  It’s quite amazing when I think about it…the potential for happiness that is inherently embedded within hundreds of random moments throughout my school day.  So what I’ve decided to do over the past few years is consciously hold each of those happy moments with students in my head and my heart for a minute or two longer, letting the happy thoughts and feelings linger a bit so it imprints on my brain.  Believe me, the constant barrage of those happy moments throughout my school day start to add it up.  I’ve actually grown in my skill of retaining happiness throughout other parts of my life by simply taking an extra minute to be present as I’m feeling happy during the school day.  It’s the main reason why I walk around my school building with a smile.  My brain is being re-wired for happiness.

So the next time you have a happy moment, try sticking with it for a minute or two longer than you normally would.  Be present while in that happy moment, but also (very literally) think to yourself, “I’m feeling happy right now”.  Do that repeatedly for an entire day as happy moments occur.  As crazy as it sounds, it will actually help to build a happier outlook on life and re-wire your brain for happiness.