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.

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!

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.



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!