never waste a good crisis

Ledge Street Elementary is a school of opportunity. It has 450 intelligent and emotionally-resilient children. It has 70 staff members who excel at relationship-building and have unwavering faith in the children they instruct within Ledge classrooms. It has parents who view the school as a their extended home where a community of love and respect is fostered. I am the proud Principal of Ledge Street Elementary and it is a privilege to serve each student, parent, and staff member. I believe in Ledge Street Elementary and the positive impact our school has on the world.

These are words that I say to myself in some way, shape, or form each day I walk through the doors of our school to keep me positive and emotionally focused. Sometimes I use it as a mantra, repeating those words verbatim. And in other times it appears through a simple action, or interaction that starts my day with a student, parent, or staff member. Making sure I reaffirm my purpose in this manner every day has helped me keep a positive perspective as a leader during this time of great change, but reaffirming my purpose is not an end in-and-of-itself. It’s actually a means-to-an-end. Navigating times of significant change takes ’emotional bandwidth’. For those who are new to the idea of emotional bandwidth, it is the ability to productively handle your own emotions as well as those of others. The stress and effects of the pandemic have challenged and even narrowed our individual and collective emotional bandwidth. At Ledge we are not allowing this to happen, but instead, we are using these challenging times to come together to expand our emotional bandwidth.

During the pandemic, we have all felt the stress and pressure of isolation, change, illness, etc., from within ourselves and outwardly from those around us. We’ve been with people in our families or at our workplaces dealing with these same stressors. It is unfortunate, but one of the easiest and least productive ways to deal with our current stress is to suppress our emotions. That only serves to paralyze our creative thinking and stifle our positive thoughts, which can be toxic to a school culture. At Ledge, we actively work to push back against this not-so-productive survival instinct. Instead of ignoring our emotions which can lead to the impulse of seeing the world negatively, we are fostering a community where we are leaning into this discomfort by feeling more emotion, communicating more purposefully, and showing more vulnerability. Below are a few examples of what this looks like at Ledge Street Elementary:

  • Go into every conversation, every interaction, assuming positive intent.
  • Personalize.  Take time to build a caring, trusting, relationship, with every person you encounter, adult or child. Get to know each other. Ask questions. Listen.
  • Give kudos in the moment.  Never let a positive thought go un-shared.  It’s important to tell adults and children these thoughts 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 someone’s day around.
  • Show vulnerability.  For many, sharing our emotions is uncomfortable and anxiety inducing. At Ledge, students, staff, and parents are encouraged daily to share what they’re thinking and feeling in a non-threatening environment. This is the basis for building strong relationships through empathy and trust. It’s like a muscle, the more we do this, the easier it gets and the more comfortable we feel with the process. The morning meeting that we have in every classroom to start our day at Ledge Street Elementary where we get in a circle and talk about how we feel about our day, is a great example of formalizing a routine to talk about our feelings and practice showing vulnerability.
  • Use ‘I’ statements.  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.

Toward the end of WWII, Winston Churchill was quoted as saying, “Never let a good crisis go to waste.” That idea is as applicable now as it was then. As we come toward the end of the COVID crisis (and yes, I do believe the end of this crisis will come sooner than we think), Ledge Street Elementary will come out the other side in a way that we not only survived, but thrived, during this difficult time. We will be more emotionally resilient, able to show greater empathy towards ourselves and others, and feel even closer as a school community. And for that, we can credit our consistent and dedicated focus on mindfulness, that like a compass, guided us through.

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!

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.

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!

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’!







Finding the ‘Bright Spots’

DSox-8GVQAAOZVA In a conversation a few weeks ago with Bellevue School District Superintendent Dr. Duran, he suggested that I check out a book called Switch.  It’s an excellent book by authors Chip and Dan Heath about ways to navigate change, but I also noticed the book provided many other strategies that related to our Positive Behavior Intervention Support (PBIS) behavior expectation reboot we started January 2nd.  As I’ve been synthesizing some of the information from the book into my daily routines, I’ve found this particular part of the book very helpful.

Finding new, positive, and innovative strategies to address behavior challenges in a school can be a complicated process.  In general, one of a school’s main goals is to provide effective and sustainable replacement behaviors for students.  The process of finding new behavior strategies traditionally involves looking at the child who is struggling with behavior, reviewing what they’ve done in the past (or the negative experiences they’ve had in the past), and creating new behavior strategies based on that information.  It’s what Dan and Chip Heath call in their book an “archaeology dig”.  It’s the process of digging in a child’s past (recent past or further back in their childhood) to “excavate the sources” of behavior.  In these situations, according to the authors, we tend to focus on what is going wrong, or has previously gone wrong, in a child’s life, and subsequently create systems/strategies of support based on that analysis.  But Dan and Chip Heath offer an alternative path to take in these situations.

What if our search for behavior strategies began with focusing on the bright spots, i.e. the times when a child feels love and a sense of belonging.  That thought process is a bit counter-intuitive to how we’ve historically addressed behavior challenges, but follow the thought process that Dan and Chip Heath propose.  In a scenario where a child is struggling with a certain behavior, we can often make our search for effective behavior strategies more fruitful by investigating what is going right for a child, rather than what is going wrong.  The authors suggest using a specific line of questioning that ensure children understand they are empowered to solve their own problems, and adults focus on the potential of a child rather than their history of behavior when developing behavior support strategies.

This philosophy will play a key role in our current PBIS behavior reboot…and beyond.  Creating positive behavior supports within a school is not just about positive-expectation-setting and reinforcement systems.  It’s also about changing our thinking so we focus on the bright spots, which I believe will make us more efficient at developing truly effective behavior strategies that support all children.

Breaking away from traditional ways in which we conduct discipline and purposefully focusing on the bright spots when looking at behavior challenges can at times take us out of our comfort zone as adults. However, in my opinion, the potential for student-empowerment and a more positive culture far out weigh the discomfort.

Your thoughts on this blog are welcomed and appreciated!

Staying Balanced on an Incline

Last March my wife and I were able to take a weekend trip to San Francisco (it was where I took the picture shown above).  Living on the east coast all my life, this was my first ever venture to California.  There were many things to be amazed at as we walked around the streets of San Francisco.  The food.  The people.  The bridges.  But I was struck most by the architecture.  But it wasn’t the shape or size of the buildings that amazed me.  Instead it was how the structures were built so balanced on the continuously inclined streets.  I imagined how much thought surrounding the laws of physics must go into building such structures where gravity is pulling so intently in one direction.  In the end, I imagined that it all comes down to understanding balance.

I learned early on in my career that being a Principal means that I’ll be on an ‘incline’ in some form or another most of the time.  It’s rare that as Principals we’re not being pulled very intently in one direction or another (like gravity pulling on the home in the picture above).  As I’m now only a couple years from my 50th birthday, ‘balance’ has taken on a more important role in my life.  I’m becoming much more aware of how my body, heart, and mind need to be balanced in order for me to be my best-self every day for the kids, staff, and parents who depend on me as a Principal.

The reasons for us as educators to stay balanced are easy to think of…kids/adults depend on us, we need to stay physically healthy, etc.  But it’s understanding the specific actions we need to take to stay in balance that’s tricky.  I took time over this past winter vacation to read a book called, “Trauma Stewardship” by Connie Burk and Laura van Dernoot Lipsky.  It shed light on so many ways in which we can, and should, as educators keep balance in our lives.  I highly recommend it for those who think they need balance and for those who think they have perfect balance in their lives.

So to all my colleagues in education, I wish you an amazing 2018 full of joy, happiness, and balance.

Your thoughts on this blog are welcomed and appreciated!