Thursday, May 11, 2017

I Hear Voices

I can imagine that some who read the title of this post are thinking that this is a strange place for me to reveal a psychiatric disorder!  I seek to be vulnerable with my writing, but that type of revelation is not my purpose here.  Folks in education circles these days know there is a strong push to hear everyone’s voice as a driver for our work.  When we consult students to inform decision-making that involves them, we make better choices.  Involving staff in designing changes that impact their role, results in ownership.  Honoring parent voice can increase the chance that they will advocate for our campuses and serve as ambassadors for the work we do.  How can we be servant leaders without seeking the input and involvement of those we seek to serve?  I value these voices.  What I want to explore here is something different.

Last school year we began exploring our strengths by using the Clifton StrengthsFinder 2.0 assessment produced by the folks at Gallup.  This survey identifies 5 of your top strengths from a group of 34.  The deeper I get into this work, the more uncanny I find it to be in describing the core of who I am.  While in a district level professional learning session last month, one of our district administrators described those individuals who have the “Achiever” strength as having to live with the “whisper of discontent.”  That sent me down a reflective path about how my own strengths whisper to me as quiet voices of action.  What I am realizing is that ignoring those voices is just as dangerous as ignoring the voices of the individuals we seek to serve.  What follows are my strengths in rank order, the Gallup generated descriptor, and my thoughts around them.

Strategic – People who are especially talented in the Strategic theme create alternative ways to proceed. Faced with any given scenario, they can quickly spot relevant patterns and issues.  My strategic inner voice constantly speaks to me about tweaking processes in an effort to increase productivity.  It hisses in my ear a distaste for the status quo.  It moans when the phrase, “We’ve always done it this way” is uttered.  It reminds me to look down the road to plan ahead. 

Positivity – People who are especially talented in the Positivity theme have an enthusiasm that is contagious.  They are upbeat and can get others excited about what they are going to do.  “Pollyanna” whispers her perpetual optimism to me even in challenging situations.  I have worked to project this voice to those around me who I feel are worth celebrating, in the moment I hear it.  My New Year’s resolution has been to speak the positive to others, even if the timing seems awkward.  This is a commitment I intend to keep for the long-term.

Arranger – People who are especially talented in the Arranger theme can organize, but also have a flexibility that complements this ability.  They like to figure out how all of the pieces and resources can be arranged for maximum productivity.  This inner voice warns me away from hiring others who are just like me.  It celebrates and recognizes that diversity of thought and ideas creates synergy when building teams.  This whisper speaks the virtues of connecting people for collaborative work.

Ideation – People who are especially talented in the Ideation theme are fascinated by ideas.  They are able to find connections between seemingly disparate phenomena. This voice frequently whispers the phrase, “What if…?” It can drive me down a path to question why things are done the way they are.  This voice is pleased when pondering.  In my journey to open my new campus, this voice has become increasingly vocal!

Relator – People who are especially talented in the Relator theme enjoy close relationships with others.  They find deep satisfaction in working hard with friends to achieve a goal.  This small voice always speaks of a simple story.  It articulates complex ideas in plainspoken language that others connect to and find practical.  It rejoices when I am working with my close associates on work that truly matters. 

What steps can you take to amplify the quiet, whispering voices that speak to you from your areas of strength?

1)      Purposely discover you own strengths – Aristotle is credited with the quote, “Knowing yourself is the beginning of all wisdom.”  Can you currently articulate your own strengths and apply them to your professional and personal life?  I don’t know of a better resource for this discovery than taking the StrengthsFinder assessment.  Tom Rath’s book entitled StrengthsFinder 2.0 not only contains an access code for the assessment, it serves as a perfect resource to begin understanding how to use your strengths. (Click here to find out more about the book) Specifically you will find that each strength theme has a number of “ideas for action” that will help you get started.

2)      Stifle that voice that drives you to be “well-rounded” in all areas – Few things disengage people more than working in their areas of deficit.  What engages us are the things that we perceive ourselves as doing well.  If you show me a struggling reader who can make others laugh, I can almost bet you he will be a class clown in language arts class!  Granted, there are some skills that we all must master such as reading.  In other areas, it is a much better investment in your time and energy to sharpen yourself in your areas of strength.  These are the areas where our passions lie.

3)      Discover the strengths of those around you and leverage them for success – Purposefully using the StrengthsFinder with those who you interact with is where the real power is in this work.  I gave copies of StrengthsFinder 2.0 to my wife and grown kids.  We then shared our strengths to deepen our connection and understanding of one another.  The entire staff at my new campus will be taking the assessment and we will be using this common vocabulary and understand to build our community.  My PTA Executive Board will be discovering each other’s strengths.  Even my students will take the age-appropriate StrengthsExplorer assessment to become more self-aware.  For this work, StrengthsFinder 2.0 has an area under each them that guides you how to work with others in THEIR area of strength.  The end goal is to create a strengths-based culture that drives our engagement and celebrates our diversity.

4)      Quiet the voice of busy – So often when I am not hearing my small strengths-based voices it is because of time pressures.  This loud, bullying voice sounds like the sassy quote from Sweet Brown, “Ain’t nobody got time for that!”(Click here for a smile) Rarely are issues as time-pressured as we make them out to be.  Do you find time each day to reflect?  Do you have a reflective partner that you regularly connect with?

We all have the voice of self-talk that we hear every day.  What do your small voices say to you?  If you are purposeful in discovering your strengths, you will have the discernment to know which voices to amplify and act upon.  

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

That Man in the Mirror

Inspiration for creation happens in unexpected moments.  A case-in-point would be this blog post.  Last week while shaving, my wife’s make-up mirror was serendipitously aligned with the mirror over our sink and the mirror that is on the wall adjacent to it.  The image that formed was of me from the side and slightly from the back.  I was momentarily startled by the way I looked from this angle, which was unique to me.  My first instinct was to shift the mirror in such a way so that I didn’t have to see the poor posture of this aging fellow, which was me.  I reflected on this reflection (pun intended here) and I realized how ridiculous that impulse was.  This was an angle of my true self, which everyone else is quite accustomed to seeing.  In this moment of revelation, I shifted my focus from avoidance, to really looking at my posture.  A slight shift in my shoulder position and the image improved dramatically.  In fact, my neck even felt better.  This experience sent my mind down the path of how this tendency to avoid reflection on our true self interferes with our ability to grow as educators.

With this tendency to avoid discomfort in mind, what are some small steps educators can take to begin leaning into self-reflection?

1)       Listen to audio recordings of yourself.  I still remember being a kid and listening to my voice on a tape recorder for the first time.  I was convinced that there was something wrong with the machine because of the strange way my voice sounded when I played it back.  It took a great deal of convincing from my mother and friends that this was truly the way I sounded.  With the availability of voice recording on our electronic devices, capturing your own voice is easier than ever before.  My favorite go-to app for ongoing asynchronous conversation and collaboration is Voxer.  A side benefit of Voxer is that it allows you to listen to your own dialogue.  For me, I was struck by the number of conversational tics that were embedded in my messages.  With that in mind, I am working to reduce the number of times I say “umm” and other repetitive, distracting language. 
2)      Watch yourself on video. If you are looking to really grow in a reflective way, hit the record button and sit back with a bucket of popcorn and watch yourself do the magic!  I suspect that the first time you do this, it won’t feel very magical.  I have a painful memory of the first time I watched myself on video.  It was back in the mid 1990’s when the district I was working in made the shift to portfolio assessments for evaluation purposes.  One of the expectations for the portfolio was to include video recordings of three lessons and a written reflection for each. So I fired up the 40 pound VHS camera and captured my first lesson.  Awkward!  If listening to your conversational tics is disheartening, watching one’s body language and movements is even more of a challenge.  I was humbled, yet driven to do better.

More recently, my experience into using video was posting reflections on Twitter to #EduIn30 hashtag.  I attended a conference where I had the privilege of seeing George Couros.  George is the author of the best-selling book, Innovators Mindset: Empower Learning, Unleash Talent, and Lead a Culture of Creativity. George challenged the audience to begin capturing short video reflections of our professional learning and posting them to Twitter using the hashtag #EduIn30.  It is a challenge to distill “big” learning into a 30 second clip.  Much like Voxer, this provided the side benefit of listening as well as watching myself communicate when I viewed the video.  It takes some serious courage to tweet these out, knowing that your thinking is now visible to a global audience.  Courage comes in many forms!

For teachers looking to challenge themselves to grow through the use of video, check out the work of thought influencer Lisa Westman.  In her blog post, “Mom, Can You Please Record Me?” Lisa deeply explores the why and how of leveraging video for instructional reflection.  (Click here to read the blog post)

3)      Develop reflective partnerships. As educators, we frequently find ourselves isolated in silos as we exercise our professional practice.  In the principalship, this is especially true.  I frequently receive positive comments.  What I lack is the critical feedback that will lead to my growth.  In an effort to combat this isolation, I have established a small network of people who will speak the cold, hard true that I need to hear.  These folks range from friends, colleagues, and family.  They all mentor, support and challenge me in different ways.  My relationship with these individuals is characterized by authenticity and vulnerability.  They are trusted treasures both professionally and personally.  Have you identified these folks in your life?

In a world that is dominated by the selfie, I believe it is ever more challenging to embrace a mindset in which we see our true selves.  We can edit our appearance and create stories of our lives through social media that can greatly skew reality.  I think that our integrity has been greatly challenged by this.  Until we are willing to embrace the discomfort of seeing ourselves as we truly are, we are doomed to stagnation in an imagined world that is only our perceived reality.  I would love to hear about the reflective practices you are involved in that are leading to your growth.  Feel free to leave a comment!

Monday, January 9, 2017

Lessons from the Happiest Place on Earth

“Happy New Year!”  As we enter into 2017, how many times have you heard or expressed these three words?  Like many of you, I have been thinking about my resolutions for the coming year.  Specifically, I started thinking about what would make this New Year “happy”? I couldn’t help but think of a recent experience that was joy-filled.  Last November, my wife and I took Max on a cruise to Cozumel, Mexico to celebrate his 3rd birthday.  Not just any cruise, but a Disney cruise. For those of us who have been conditioned by marketing, you know that Disney strives to create, “The happiest place on earth.”  As we set sail, it became apparent that the staff was purposefully attending to our joy.  As I reflect on the voyage, I realize that there are many lessons to be learned for creating a positive climate and culture in our schools from the folks at Disney.

     -     Maintain a relational focus over a transactional one.  They assigned us to a different dinner location each night of the cruise.  On the first night, we were greeted and cared for by a small team of servers.   They quickly learned our names and were spot on in attending to our needs.  We sat with a family with two children.  My surprise came on the second night when we went to a different restaurant.  The serving staff had moved with us!  Additionally, we were seated again with the same charming family that we met the night before.  What a great way to allow time for relationships to form!  The dining experience was not just about getting us fed; it was about making connections AND getting us fed.

How can we be purposeful about this in schools?  One way is to ensure continuity with people on the campus.  Assigning assistant principals and counselors to specific students by alpha, sets up this dynamic. Over the past few years, I have been fortunate to have three assistant principals and three counselors at my junior high.  Rotating them, as partners, through the grade levels gives three years for them to grow relationships.  They are able to serve the same group of kids and grow their professional relationship as well.

     -     Provide a range of experiences based upon interest and readiness.   Each day we were provided a paper copy of the day’s schedule of activities.  The “Navigator” was also available as an app for those who are tech-savvy.  It was easy and exciting to select which experiences we would engage in.  Disney clearly knows that differentiating experiences creates happy cruisers. 

As educators, we are wise when we use choice to motivate our learners.  Even though our learning targets may be dictated, there is no reason our students can’t demonstrate their mastery in multiple ways.  Moving beyond simply differentiating by choice, we need to level our classroom activities to meet the kids where they are.  Simply teaching everyone the same thing, at the same level, the same way, is a sure bet to disengage most everyone in the room.  Imagine if the folks at Disney only offered one standard type of arts and crafts activity that was appropriate for 12-year-olds all day.  There would not be many returning cruisers.  This type of standardization of activity happens in many schools, every day. 
     -     If something goes wrong, take responsibility and work to make it right.  On the first day in our cabin, we noticed a loud banging noise coming from the outside of the ship.  It sounded like the angry ghost of Davy Jones beating on the hull with his rusty chains!  I called the concierge to see if it could be addressed.  Within five minutes an attendant was down and in the room listening for the banging to repeat itself.  As you might imagine, Davy Jones decided to give his banging a break.  Much like the noise your car only makes when the mechanic is not around, we waited and waited.  After 10 awkward minutes, Davy began banging once more with wild abandon.  After hearing this, the gentleman left with a promise to investigate.  Shortly thereafter, we received an apologetic phone call from the concierge stating that they would not be able to address the issue until they were in port.  She offered us another room, on the other side of the ship.  Not only that, they sent an attendant to help us move our luggage, and gave us a $100 ship-board credit!  The final act of goodwill came in the form of a precious Mickey Mouse plush toy for Max.  Clearly the folks on this ship knew how to take responsibility for shortcomings and what steps to take to correct the issue.

Too many times, we fail to model ownership of issues with our students.  This is not just an issue in schools, it is widespread in our society.  The need to seem perfect and deflect responsibility for our mistakes is at the heart of many of our current struggles.  When we are vulnerable enough to say that we made a mistake, and work to correct it, we humanize ourselves and draw closer to our learners. The same is true when we work with parents.  Admitting a shortcoming and then demonstrating the courage to work through it builds respect and trust.  We only get what we model.

     -     Find joy in the journey, not just the destination. Of all the lessons that the Disney folks reminded me of, I believe this is the most important.  Because they attended to relationships, provided engaging experiences, and worked hard to make things right, we enjoyed each day.  When we arrived at that tropical paradise folks call Cozumel, it was wonderful, but not necessarily the highlight of the trip.  The trip was the highlight of the trip. 

How do you ensure that your students are enjoying their journey as a member of your classroom or campus?  Engaging students through clubs, and extracurricular activities gives them the strong sense of belonging that creates emotional engagement.  I believe that it is the job of every adult in a school to cultivate relationships.  It starts with a smile and acknowledgement every day. 

All this leads me back to how my resolutions can bring about a “Happy New Year”.  I have recommitted to my own personal health with the typical focus on diet and exercise.  Upon reflection, I realize what will really make this year happy is to bring joy to others, specifically the students and staff that I lead.  This is at the heart of happiness for me, as a servant leader.  

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Max Learning: Give a Man a Mission

"It is my mission!" This was the emphatic response to my redirection from two-year-old Max as he dismantled his grandmother’s French casement window opener.  Apparently, his obsession with the cartoon Little Einstein's was teaching him the concept of a mission. As I pulled him away, kicking and screaming, I would have never guessed that this destructive act would lead me down the path to such a successful strategy for working with him.

For those of you who read my blog, you know that Max is a high energy child. (Click here to learn about Max)  Despite his mother and I having 45 combined years in education working with kids, we still struggle with his behavior. Imagine the discomfort when we were invited to have him be the ring bearer at an outdoor wedding in Vermont. My first thought was, "That is not going to happen." I envisioned a cartoon-like scene in which Max was the Tasmanian devil spinning around eating the pillow with the rings attached and bolting off into the woods. (Click here to see my visualization) My brother-in-law and future sister-in-law pleaded that we involve him. They were willing to take the risk. After many conversations, Courtney and I decided that we would embrace the discomfort and take him as the ring bearer.

With the decision made, Courtney and I began strategizing about how we could make this happen.  During one of our conversations, we remembered how motivated he was when, “on a mission.”  For years as a classroom teacher, putting kids to work was a go-to strategy for active students who would disrupt the class relentlessly if not engaged.  It is one of those seemingly universal ironies for educators that best practice often gets forgotten when working with our biological children! Here is how we used the mission concept to set Max up for success.

Mission Lessons:
1)      Clearly define the mission objective - We told Max that he had an important mission to accomplish at his Uncle Matt’s and Aunt Rachael’s wedding.  We acquired the pillow that he was to carry and tied fake rings to it.  We showed him pictures of his Uncle Matt and told him that he would walk slowly toward him, carrying the pillow.  Once he got to his uncle, he would give Matt the pillow and get a hug.  Max would then walk to Mommy and sit on the front row.   
2)      Provide a model of excellence - To help Max visualize what his mission would look like, we searched You Tube for a video that showed a good model.  It was an intensive search since many of the videos show best how not to do it! 
3)      Break the mission down into parts - We began clearly chunking the process into parts.  We included pillow positioning and the speed of walking as his mastery of the basic skills were established. 
4)      Provide immediate specific feedback - Rather than just celebrating with a “Good job!”, we worked to be very specific as he was practicing.  The feedback sounded like, “Good job bringing the pillow to Mommy.  Next time carry the pillow in both hands.”
5)      Provide positive reinforcement - Max loves Pez candy! We used his sweet tooth to positively reinforce his behavior.  Broken in half, these little candies stretch a long way.  Some may argue that this is a bribe.  This is not true since a bribe is designed to induce someone to do something illegal or dishonest.  The reality is that reinforcers offer a powerful tool for shaping behavior.  Extrinsic motivators are often necessary to find success, with the ultimate goal of being driven from within.  
6)      Provide multiple opportunities to practice over time - Because we had the gift of time, we were able to practice this over and over again. Once we were at the rehearsal in Vermont, the distraction of people and the open woods were a small thing to overcome because he had automaticity. 
7)      Play off of their passion - Max is not a fan of dressing up.  His ring bearer outfit included multiple layers, a vest, a tie and a cap.  Max rarely wears a hat for more than a minute.  This is where playing on his passion for a mission made all the difference.  We sold him that these were his “special mission clothes.” With this approach we had to fight him to take them off, instead of putting them on.
8)      Trust and celebrate - In the end, all that was left was to trust that he would do the right thing.  Despite all the successful practice, I will tell you my heart was thumping like an excited shrew when I set him down and sent him on his way.  We were rewarded with a perfectly accomplished mission.  My Tasmanian devil had been transformed into masterful little solider.  We were so proud!  The pride and love Max felt from his family was the intrinsic motivator that I wanted him most to experience.  I was not disappointed.

As educators, we can get lost in the variability of our learners.  Students with high energy can be disruptive to the learning of others.  Too often we end up in the cycle of redirect, threaten and consequence only to find ourselves frustrated when the behavior change doesn't last.  If you find yourself struggling with one of these busy students, don’t forget to, “Give a man a mission!”

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

The Awkward Beauty of Inverted Leadership

     “Come on Mr. McCord, YOU are the principal!” This statement from an impassioned and frustrated parent still rings in my head, years after it was spoken.  The remark speaks to the belief that we have power to direct changes that many times we do not possess as educational leaders.  Rather than a top-down leadership structure, ours is more diffuse in nature.  Our power is the power to influence.  It is relational in nature.  This also applies to teachers in the leadership of their learners.

In my experience, effective leaders in education embody the role of a servant.  A servant leader doesn’t seek to sit atop of a pyramid of power.  Conversely, a servant leader seeks to be at the bottom of everything.  Balancing our leadership from the bottom can be awkward to say the least.  Sitting at the base of this inverted power structure requires mastery beyond what most executives are required to muster as leaders of their organizations.  We can visualize this type of leadership as an inverted pyramid.

With this in mind, what steps can we take to create balance as we lift others to success? 

1)      Hire for service mindset.  Education is a human business.  It is messy and filled with shades of gray.  Fuzzy boundaries are the norm.  Hiring adults that have a heart for kids and one another is critical.  When we are in service to one another we stay focused on what is really important.  For teachers, it moves us away from a strictly academic focus and toward developing the whole child.  For education leaders, it moves us away from professional development of our staff toward human development.  A sense of connection and relationship is the foundation for everything.
2)      Maintain focus on those you directly support. Balancing from the bottom of an inverted pyramid is precarious to say the least!  The majority of our time and energy needs to be on the close relationship with those that we are serving directly from below.  This is the zone of our greatest influence.  As a teacher, attention to supporting and building capacity in your students should be your goal.  As a principal, my attention needs to be support and capacity building for my teachers.  When I am struggling to get into classrooms to give my teachers the feedback they crave, I have lost focus on where I can make the greatest impact for our students. 
3)      Communicate clearly with those you support and those who support you.  In a highly interconnected pyramid, communicating effectively, above and below is critical. Actively listening is a key for success.  When we focus on understanding others rather than seeking to be understood, clarity ensues.  When communicating, remember to start with your “why” so others can develop an understanding of the direction you intend to go.  Develop consensus and clarity to avoid unbalancing your organizational pyramid. 
4)      Keep your feet a shoulder’s width apart.  One of the mantras that my first football coach repeated constantly was, “Keep your feet a shoulder’s width apart.”  What he knew was that having a broad base increased our balance.  For those of us who seek to lead from the bottom, we must have a clear understanding of our beliefs and values. These provide the broad base from which we make decisions and provide support.   We are in the best position possible when we stand firmly upon our values and embody them. 
5)      Remember who is on top.  Students are at the top. It is imperitive to remember that our decisions should be student-centered, not adult-centered.  At the top of the pyramid are the kids – we are there for them, not the other way around. Our lens should always be, “Is this best for kids?"  Many times this in not what is easiest for adults.
6)      Celebrate gains. Success in schools is all about improvement.  As we lead from the bottom, we need to provide feedback and encouragement for the things that go well.  Too often we withhold our positive feedback for some nebulous point in the future.  Commit to speaking your positive in the moment.
7)      Show struggle and strain . It is acceptable, even preferred, to let people know about your failures and struggles.  This is hard work! When we model authenticity and vulnerability, those that we serve see that we are human.  Knowing this, they are more likely to connect with us.  Showing a fa├žade of perfection only drives others away from us.  Be real and your chances for success increase greatly.
8)      Put your ego aside. This work is not about you.  It is not about me. It is all about the kids.  When issues arise, servant leaders take responsibility, even when we don’t have complete control over all the variables involved.  When things go well, we give the credit away to others. 

Without question it is difficult to make ourselves servants to others who we have authority over. Despite that challenge, this is the job of public educators at every level. If you are a "boss" in an educational setting, you will only get low level compliance that must be constantly policed.  If you are a servant leader, you will inspire others to do great things, even when you aren't looking.  

Sir Isaac Newton is credited with the quote, “If I have seen further than others, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”  I challenge you to not simply stand on the shoulders of other’s at the top of a perceived pyramid of power.  Instead, let your legacy be that of a servant leader, standing steadfast at the bottom of an inverted pyramid of support.  In doing so, you will become a “giant” whose shoulders others have stood upon. In this possibility lies the beauty of inverted leadership. 

Special thanks to Dee @DeniseToler for creating the sketchnote!

Friday, September 9, 2016


She was one of the cutest girls I had ever seen.  A big blue bow stood proudly atop her curly head of hair.  Round reddened cheeks and big doe-brown eyes showing distress and frustration drew me quickly to her side. You see, I have a propensity for rescuing damsels in distress!  Especially darling ones whom are struggling to open their grape packets in kindergarten lunch. What I wanted to do was rip open the package for her so she could indulge in her well-earned lunch.  What stopped me was the amazing modeling that I witnessed from the team of adults in the lunchroom.  Instead of rescuing these precious little people, they were patiently teaching the students how to open ketchup packets, Lunchables, milk cartons and a variety of other things. (Click here for a smile!) As I walked away in exhaustion, I could not help but appreciate the message that the Bethke Elementary staff was teaching their littlest learners.  By letting them struggle, they showed the kids that they had belief in their capability to perform.  By patiently standing by their side coaching them, they showed that this is a school full of caring adults.  The big message here was that we are not here to do everything for you, but we will teach you how to do things on your own.  These five-year-olds were becoming independent.

This experience sent me back to a conversation I had a few weeks ago with a retired high school Life Skills teacher at a birthday party.  I have the utmost respect for this gentleman and those who work with our special needs students.  As I picked David’s brain for wisdom, he shared what he saw his role to be.  Because his goal was to prepare his students to deal with life’s challenges, he was purposeful in designing challenges for them.  He was not focused on keeping the students at peace and compliant with tasks that they were already apt to accomplish.  He viewed himself as a challenge creator who was there to support the kids as they struggled.  After all, he would not always be there as their guide.   His students were becoming competent problem solvers despite their disabilities.

The third experience that tipped me over the edge to write this post came last week in a first grade classroom.  I am currently housed at Bethke Elementary while my new Jr. High is under construction.  Many of the staff at Bethke are exploring how flexible seating can be used to provide choice and create  learner-centered environments for students.  While helping to raise desks so that students could stand as they worked, I engaged the first-year teacher in a conversation about how she planned to manage which students had the option to stand, sit in a chair, or sit on the floor.  From my experience, I know that many teachers will avoid variability because of the potential student conflict it may bring.  What Sarah said was powerful.  She described the potential conflict between students as an opportunity.  An opportunity to work through a small conflict that would help them to get to know each other.  She anticipated their problem-solving conversation to include why they wanted to stand or sit or who had a turn already.  She planned to be there to support them as they worked through the conflict.  I was so impressed by the wisdom of this young teacher.  Her students were becoming social agents capable of conflict resolution.

How do we move from being enablers for learned helplessness to becoming facilitators of challenges that will empower learners?  

1)      Plan for experiences that provide productive struggle – when struggle only leads to frustration, your engagement will drop.  Being prepared to scaffold for students that are at various levels of readiness sets everyone up for ultimate success.
2)      Talk less, listen more – by actively listening, you can understand where students are to better guide their learning path.
3)      Respond to questions with questions that lead learners toward the goal – when done in a masterful way, the teacher is able to connect to previous learning or experiences that will prompt forward progress.
4)      Allow for think time when questioning students – although waiting can be awkward, processing time is frequently interrupted by the teacher.  Be patient and avoid the urge to rescue students from their thinking or demonstration of the skill.
5)      Provide guidance, walk away and then return – this cycle promotes the expectation that you expect them to get the job done, but you won’t leave them stranded without support.
6)      Celebrate the attempt despite the appearance of the product – remember that the production behaviors are what we need to be giving feedback on. 
7)   Allow for collaboration – many times the best strategy is to allow students to support each other through learning experiences. 

As educators we must be be designers of experiences that our learners struggle with and ultimately overcome.  This is how we build a growth mindset. In a world in which information is but a Google search away, educators who serve to only deliver information are irrelevant.  Educators that support learners on a path to discovery, competency and ownership of their learning are invaluable.  Are you becoming invaluable as you grow in your craft?

Monday, August 29, 2016

A Voice for Change

As a child, I hated school but loved to learn.  Straight rows and worksheets were not the way to engage a boy who was passionate about discovery and movement. For the majority of the time it felt like school was being done TO me instead of FOR me.  As a school leader, I know that the classrooms in my school are significantly more interactive and engaging than what I experienced.  Through direct observation and listening to students, I know that we still have room to improve. 

Over the past few years I have worked in a variety of ways to stay connected to what students experience and how they feel.  A couple of years ago, I selected a student and spent the entire day following his schedule.  That experience is one that I encourage anyone to opt into if you have the opportunity.  I was pleased with the overall instruction and activities that I saw throughout the day.  The most challenging part was all the seat time.  I still struggle as an adult to sit still for long periods.  A funny moment in the day was when the student that I was shadowing asked, “Mr. McCord, are you following me?!” My reply was, “That would be weird wouldn’t it!” He agreed that that would be weird.  At the end of the day I did debrief with him to let him know what I was up to.

As educators, we are in a service industry.  Successful service involves hearing the customer’s voice.  Since our primary customer is the student, opportunities to receive feedback to drive our work is critical.  Some of these opportunities I have drawn from were very purposeful, others serendipitous.  Here are some of the ways I have captured student voice:

1)      Hallway conversations – I am dedicated to the bell being my “call-to-the hall.” Early morning duty, class changes and dismissal duty are rich areas to mine for student voice.  I stole a simple but effective conversation starter from Bettendorf High School's Joy Kelly; “How’s your world?”  This open-ended question has opened up some enlightening hallway conversation.
2)      Small group lunches with the principal – Our token reward system allows kids to purchase a “Lunch with the Principal” pass.  Students also are drawn from previously submitted reward bucks to be awarded. The pass allows them to bring a friend and receive a Chick-fil -A lunch.  While they are dining on succulent fowl, I ply them with questions.  Some of my favorites include:
a.       What is your favorite thing about this school?
b.      What is one thing you would change about this school if you could?
c.       What is one thing that your teacher doesn’t know about you that you wish she did?
3)      Creation of a PTSA instead of a PTA. By adding students to our parent-teacher organization, we were purposeful in including students on the Executive Board meetings.  This ensures that students have a voice in the many ways that organization plugs into the school.
4)      Advisory class visits to conduct action research. In my most recent visits to classes, I explored their opinions about grades, grading practices and standards-based learning.  This feedback was fascinating and validated some of my beliefs and challenged others.
5)      Invitation to student leaders to present proposals to the administrative team.  This is something that we tried for the first time last year.  Bringing students into pitch their ideas to the team was validating for the students and inspiring for our administrators.  Priceless!
6)      Enlistment of your Language Arts teachers to have students do “quick writes” on a specific topic. Although there is a large investment of time involved in reading through the writing, it is well worth it.  Knowing the purpose of their writing gives strong relevance to their work and the feedback is rich!   

The conversation that sent me down the path to write this post came in May.  The young lady that initiated the conversation was my 8th grade videographer working the camera for my daily live announcements. She approached me between classes and said, “Mr. McCord, there is a video you need to see on You Tube.  Get out your phone and I will search it for you.”  As she handed my phone back, she directed me to watch the video so we could talk about it later.  Now you might think that this is pretty presumptuous of a 14-year-old to be so directive with her principal.  The reality is that she and I had built a strong connection through daily conversation before and after each announcement.  She is the kind of student that speaks directly about things in her world, good and bad.  This type of “real talker” is just what I want when it comes to capturing student voice.
As I looked down at my phone screen, I saw that the title of the You Tube video is, “Don’t Stay In School”. (Click here to see the video) My first thought from reading the title of the video was not very positive.  My inaccurate assumption was that this would be a message encouraging students to drop out of school.  I trusted my student and watched it any way.  What I discovered when I clicked on the link was a video that was very thought-provoking and had over 11 million views.  The young man was not encouraging anyone to drop out of school.  He was challenging the nature of what we focus on in schools.  His call was for the system to ensure that what we teach has relevance.  His voice was a voice for change.

I had a follow up conversation with my videographer the next day after announcements.  I started the conversation off with a simple question to her, “Why did you ask me to watch this video?”  Her response was both validating and daunting.  She said that she knew that I was a principal who cared about making our school a good place for kids to be.  She acknowledged that her experiences in school were better than what was described by the video in some ways.  Specifically she celebrated the financial literacy she was working on in math at the time.  She went on to say that things still needed to get better.  The challenging part of her response was when she said, “Mr. McCord it is your job to make this better.” I wanted to respond to her with a description of what curriculum was and my limitations, but I held my tongue.  Her voice was a voice for change.

When I think back to that conversation, I realize how long this problem has persisted.  I am a fan of comedy, especially comedy that pokes fun at life.  Two comedy skits that help reveal the depth and history of this issue came my mind.  The first was the skit “The Five Minute University” performed by the SNL character Father Guido Sarducchi in 1980. (Click here to see the video)  This performance is funny, but also saddening in its truth about many college undergraduate experiences.  The second skit came from the television classic The Andy Griffith Show. (Click here to see the video) Barney’s painful recitation of The Preamble speaks to a classic case of  “mistalgia". Many times we can be dragged back into the past way of doing things because we over-glorify the effectiveness of what went before.  Upon reflection, I see that my voice needs to be a voice for change.

So where do we start this conversation?  In a political climate that seems to support standardization and reliance on single-measures to judge the success of students, schools and districts, this might seem an impossible chasm to leap. How can content standards accurately predict what a student must know to enter a job market that is continually reinventing itself?  These are the questions we need to be talking about.  So what is an educator to do?  I believe that the biggest payoff will come through supporting our teachers in their role as the designers of engaging experiences.  It is not so much the WHAT that we teach as it is the skill set employed by the learner as they learn.  The 21st Century Skills framework is one that gives guidance to a skill set that better equips our students for what is to come.  What other actions would support increasing the relevance of our student’s learning experiences?  I would love to see your comments.  Will your voice be a voice for change?