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Monday, December 19, 2016

Promise Keeper

As I watched the snow fall and carpet the ground one recent Sunday evening I found myself thinking of that famous Robert Frost poem, "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening." Though the snow would eventually accumulate to the point that it produced hazardous conditions and an unexpected day off from school, it provided a beautiful picture as it draped a white shroud over the land.
Interestingly, Frost wrote the poem while living in nearby Shaftsbury, Vermont in 1922. Furthermore, Frost created this profound and enduring poem in just one sitting. Perhaps most unusual, Frost authored the poem in June, far removed from any vestige of snow.

What does this poem have to do with school, other than the fact we enjoyed a day at home because of the snow storm? Well, the poem emerged from a strong mental image rather than a concrete visual of falling snow. It shows the impact of a commitment to his craft and his ability to develop a personal vision powerful enough to pen one of the most memorable poems in American literature - a poem he wrote in the summer about a scene and setting that takes place in the winter. Finally, his last three lines evoke a dramatic pledge - "But I have promises to keep/And miles to go before I sleep/And miles to go before I sleep."
What better reminder of our calling as educators. We have promises to keep - a vow to promote success for all learners, at all ages and stages. And, while our burden often leaves us weary, we must sustain our progress with the same perseverance as Frost, when he ended the poem - "And miles to go before I sleep."

Social activist, Mary Harris Jones opined that " is a journey, not a destination." We are involved as a component in a continuous thread that brings form to the tapestry of civilization and supports its very existence. We have a professional responsibility to help build a better future by growing life-long learners. We are displaying our efforts toward that goal in multiple forms. Discipline referrals have decreased each month of the school year, which implies less time taken way from instruction to attend to inappropriate behaviors. Several grade level teams have constructed data walls in Math and/or ELA to offer a visual graphic to guide improvement. A review of template summaries of collaboration meetings reveals the teamwork necessary for us to stimulate increased performance among our learners. review and follow norms to begin the meetings. Keep the discussion and focus on path. End each collaboration meeting with the creation of the agenda for the next such meeting so we don't drift off and wander away from our purpose and direction.

Please read Frost's poem below.

Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening


Whose woods these are I think I know.  
His house is in the village though;  
He will not see me stopping here  
To watch his woods fill up with snow.  

My little horse must think it queer  
To stop without a farmhouse near  
Between the woods and frozen lake  
The darkest evening of the year.  

He gives his harness bells a shake  
To ask if there is some mistake.  
The only other sound’s the sweep  
Of easy wind and downy flake.  

The woods are lovely, dark and deep,  
But I have promises to keep,  
And miles to go before I sleep,  
And miles to go before I sleep.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

School Improvement Tipping Points - Symptoms vs. Causes

There are few sights more perplexing than watching a dog unwittingly chasing it’s own tail. Around and around the dog races in a chase that, while often fruitless, is even a greater disappointment when the poor dog finally realizes that it only caught itself.

Sadly, many people find themselves in a similarly misguided endeavor when they spend energy and effort pursuing solutions by chasing symptoms instead of causes. This is true in school improvement efforts. But, before we examine school improvement, let's look at the notion of identifying tipping points and differences that make a difference.

Let’s take a look at an example of an ever-present issue of concern to many people everywhere – crime. In the 1970-1980’s New York City was a poster child for crime induced fears of mayhem, mugging, and murder. The obvious intuitive response and knee-jerk reaction would focus on decreasing crime by increasing the number of police on the streets as well as the penalties for criminals.

That wasn’t the answer, and the lack of police presence wasn’t the cause.

In his best-selling book, The Tipping Point, author Malcolm Gladwell explains the “Broken Window Theory” developed by criminologists James Q. Wilson and George Kelling (pages 140 – 151). The reduction in crime in New York City during the 1990’s was attributed in part to this proposal. The basis of this theory rests on the belief that crime is contagious and spreads like an epidemic if uncontrolled. But, how do you control it???

Wilson and Kelling suggested that crime emerges from disorder, and an environment that tolerates graffiti (as opposed to public street art) public disorder, aggressive panhandlers, and broken windows (hence the “broken window”) eventually suffers from an accumulated neglect that becomes inviting for would be criminals – “Minor, seemingly insignificant quality of life crimes were tipping points for violent crime.” (page 146).

Gladwell went further and advised that epidemics can be reversed by identifying and adjusting leverage points that tip the balance of factors in an equation. In the case of crime in New York City, it was borne of minor details in the environment, such as turnstile jumping (avoiding subway fares) aggressive squeegee men (washing car windshields of cars stuck in traffic and demanding payment) and assertive panhandlers… Once those concerns were addressed it changed the environment and the context of social behaviors.

In matters of analyzing and reforming the problems of public education, we are quick to label “obvious” factors (insufficient funding, arcane policies, lack of technology, poverty, apathetic parents, underpaid staff… and the list goes on) and just as quick to confuse symptoms and causes.    

What are the educational equivalents of fare beaters, squeegee men, panhandlers, and broken windows? What are the environmental factors and leverage points that fly beneath the radar of those searching for solutions to the obstacles for success in our public schools?

Molly Stark Elementary School has suffered from the burden of low performing achievement on state measures of accountability. One website that ranks public elementary schools has identified Molly Stark as the 172nd school out of a total of 175 schools. The first response most would exercise likely addresses instruction, as in more time in Literacy and Math, new textbooks, more professional development, and replacing staff members perceived as incompetent.

That would be like adding more police and setting harsher forms of punishment for criminals in the case of our New York City example mentioned earlier. It makes sense, but not success.

Instead, I believe improvement will grow from the same staff, the same learners, the same budget, and the same policies that existed before I arrived this past July. And, let me make it clear, I am not the difference or the answer. Nor is the answer found in some silver bullet of a new series of textbooks, additional staff, expansive professional development or any other “off the rack” solution.

School improvement warrants a tailor fit. It requires a genuine commitment of a critical mass of staff members acting in concert in a cooperative organizational culture of distributive leadership, with the clarity of a credible and purposeful vision, based on an enduring mission of shared meaning, in pursuit of common, measurable goals.  In other words, most schools already possess what they need for precipitating improvement, it becomes a matter of providing the support and conditions and leadership for success, then getting out of the way of staff members once momentum builds.

It’s like the Wizard of Oz (mentioned in an earlier Blog post) when he deferred from magically granting Dorothy, the Tin Man, the Lion, and the Scarecrow, their wishes and encouraged them to discover that they already possessed what they were searching for – the Lion was courageous when fending off the flying monkeys; the Tin Man displayed his heart when he showed Dorothy compassion and care along the journey; the Scarecrow used his brain when he helped outwit their assailants; and Dorothy always had the means of returning to Kansas simply by clicking her ruby slippers.     

Maslow claimed that the self-actualized person was not someone with something added, but someone who had nothing taken away.

In summary, school improvement can be achieved by identifying the essential tipping points in the effort and observing the what, why, and how of Maslow and the Wizard of Oz.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Prepared and Ready Wins the Game

Throughout my career as a soccer player in high school, college, and beyond, and extending my view as a spectator, I have noticed something peculiar about goals tallied in certain time frames of a soccer game.

I have come across statisticians that have confirmed my perception. That is, there are a disproportionately higher rate of goals scored in the first and last five minutes of each half of a game. What does this mean? And, what does it have to do with education and instruction???

First, there are many possible reasons for this anomaly in soccer goals - and we will transfer that perspective to a school setting later in the Blog. 

However, one primary attribution points to preparation and readiness. Teams that are well prepared for the game, mentally as much as physically, and  focused at the sound of the opening whistle to start the game or second half, will have an advantage over an opponent who is prepared but not ready. In other words, teams at risk for winning may begin the contest with an objective and strategy, but aren't at peak alertness in the first minute.

That may account for the percentage of goals scored in the first five minutes, but what about the last five minutes of the half or game?

During that time, goals scored are largely a function of which team is yearning for a break at halftime as a refuge for the physically exhausted and/or an escape for those emotionally weary of the persistent attack or momentum of their opponent, and which team exhibits endurance physically and a relentless commitment to pursue success.

It's a difference between a team playing "not to lose" as opposed to a team that "plays to win." They both reflect an aversion to losing, but their perspectives reveal their potential outcomes.

How does that work in school?

At this time, schools are all preparing for the fragmented November (Veterans Day and Thanksgiving and half days for Parent Conferences) and entering December within view of an eagerly anticipated holiday break of at least a week.
The school staff that limps through this time period, hoping to make it to those days off, is less likely to achieve the gains made by a staff at a school that recognizes the advantage of consuming every minute as an opportunity to advance learning experiences and leverage progress toward instructional goals.

Conversely, how schools re-start after a weeks vacation, be it holiday, winter, or spring break, determines how far they will go toward attaining yearly objectives. Does your school instantly re-focus and pick up where it left off before the break, or do they slowly assemble and eventually stumble to the starting line? 

The moral of the story is to be prepared, ready, and willing to optimize success in school by sustaining focus and intensity each and every day without wasting the valuable resource of time by resting and easing into these breaks in the school calendar. The most affluent and high performing schools have the same limited amount of time as the most impoverished and lowest achieving school. Among the distinctions between the two is how they use that available time. 

Be game ready! (but enjoy the holidays too) 

Monday, November 21, 2016

Facts and Figures - Faces and Feelings

I once read someone muse that nobody gets inspired by charts and graphs. These conveyors of data inform, but they lack the emotion that comes from a narrative or story.  
There's much to be gleaned from educational data, particularly if we can breathe life into the inert data and convert it to informed decision making that makes a positive and constructive difference. Yet, the more compelling forms of motivation that provoke people to invest their full energy and effort emerge from personal sources, like the faces and feelings of those involved with, or effected by, a crisis or a need for improved services/products...

Schools must avoid allowing facts and figures to obscure the faces and feelings behind that trove of collected data.

Understand the stories behind the faces. Be sensitive to the feelings of those embedded in the graphs and charts. Don't lose sight of what's most important, and remember - "Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted."

Thursday, October 6, 2016

The Sights and Sounds of Learning

Spy novelist John le Carre once opined that it's dangerous to view the world from a seat behind an office desk.

I would agree that a comfortable chair behind a grand desk in the principal's office is not a great vantage point for assessing the atmosphere of a school. I try to be in the office as little as possible. Interacting with staff and learners increases visibility, accessibility, and relationship building. These are all important elements for anyone leading a human service organization.

Walking through the hallways of Molly Stark Elementary School affords me an opportunity to experience signs of teaching and learning. I most assuredly do not station myself outside a classroom to collect information. That's "snoopervision." However, by merely walking along the hall (Tom Peters and Robert Waterman introduced the concept of "Managing by Walking Around" many years ago) I can hear exchanges among teachers and learners as active participants in learning, and see engaged learners who are not merely slouched in their seats as passive receptacles of lectures.

Walking the halls, visiting the lunchroom, attending recess, welcoming children to school each morning and supervising dismissal all provide a reassuring experience.

Friday, September 30, 2016

Don't Clown Around

I guess I shouldn't expect to say, after an educational leadership career reaching four decades, that I've seen everything. The latest trend or issue emerging in news reports and spreading over social media is, however, a new one.
Reports of scary or creepy clowns have popped up like a skin rash all across the nation.  This new phenomena has gained traction through various social media sites. Unfortunately, it has raised anxiety of children and grown larger with their fears. So, we ended up posting the following narrative in our weekly newsletter and school facebook page.
 We are asking that you speak with your children about the growing rumors of creepy or scary clowns that seem to be everywhere. There were a number of children talking about the subject at school yesterday at lunch or recess.
Unfortunately, the media reports of a supposed sighting in Georgia, or another one in Ohio,... have led children to believe that they may be around the corner, or in every cluster of trees. ...
A recent report in the New York Times indicated that 12 people have been arrested in different areas around the country for perpetrating hoaxes and adding to the fears associated with these clowns. One police chief labeled the trend a "national prank."
Sit down with your children and talk to them about how they should react to concerns about this topic or any other issue that sparks fear or worry or anxiety. Encourage them to speak to a trusted adult and share their concerns. Discuss the differences between fact and fiction, jokes for laughter and pranks that harm.
It's difficult for a child who sees a news story about something like this, or a murder or bombing, happening hundreds or thousands of miles away and not understand that the film or pictures supporting the story do not mean that danger lurks down the street or behind every tree

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

A Call from the Principal

I remember reading about a television game show, called Family Feud, that was popular a number of years ago. Contestants were asked to respond to statements that were also posed to the audience members. The contestant with the most answers that matched the responses of the audience won the game. One statement in particular has stuck with me over the years. The emcee of the show explained that, "You just received a call from your child's school. What was the purpose of the call?" 

The most frequent replies of the audience all used the pronoun "he" in their response - and all revealed negative perceptions. For example, "He was bad in school" or "He wasn't doing his work." The reactions reflect two important points. First, that schools only appear to call with bad news. Second, that boys are usually the subject of, or recipient of, bad news. 

I recently asked our classroom teachers to identify a single learner among their classes that was deserving of recognition for contributing to a positive classroom climate. It was not a request to distinguish the highest achieving learner, or the  most improved. Instead, I was interested in learners who were manifesting the four pillars of expectations at Molly Stark Elementary School: safe, kind, respectful, and responsible.

Similarly, every bus driver delivering children to and from our school was asked to identify three or four passengers who exhibit cooperative and constructive behavior that minimizes distractions and increases safety on board the vehicle.

Then, last night I took the combined list of children and phoned their parents or guardians to share the reasons why each child was recognized by either their teacher or bus driver.  

The reaction of the people, after registering shock and anxiety from an evening phone call from the principal, was well worth the time it took to retrieve phone numbers and make the calls. I could hear pride and happiness in their voices. The conversations were pleasurable and offered me, as a principal new to the school, an opportunity to enhance my relationship with community members. 

One of the teachers emailed me this morning to let me know that a child burst into her classroom at the start of the day and, with a beaming smile, announced to the teacher that Dr. Mugits had called her dad last night with good news about how she was doing at school. The girl then went on to relate what a great evening she shared with her dad. I also fielded a call this afternoon from a proud grandmother who wanted me to know how much my call meant to her grandson.

Longfellow once said that the culture of an organization is but the lengthened shadow of its leader. I have to model what I expect from others who work at Molly Stark. If I hope for an improved climate at school that reflects care and compassion, then I must practice what I preach and set an example.

I'm hopeful that staff members will perceive the benefit derived by a simple investment of time and choose to personally reach out to the parents and guardians of children deserving of positive reinforcement, call them with good news, and enjoy the resulting conversation. It's good for everyone! 

Monday, September 26, 2016

On Our Way

Improvement often consumes resources. That's certainly true at Molly Stark Elementary School. Perhaps the most critical resource is time. Our path toward lifting performance results will likely require time; and sustained commitment, sacrifice, persistence, and parent engagement. Another ingredient in the process involves recognizing small victories as we move forward.

Here are two encouraging signs regarding parent involvement.

Our Open House attracted over 200 parents who signed attendance sheets at the event. The Open House was changed to promote opportunities for teachers to address parents in an informative presentation explaining classroom expectations and grade level requirements. The evening began with a welcome form the principal and featured an exciting and entertaining video of a song and dance routine performed by a number of staff members. There were ten door prizes of gift cards, each worth $10.00 and redeemable at the school's book fair. In addition, one lucky winner received a $25.00 gift card at Walmart when their name was drawn at random from among those in attendance.

There was another sign of progress. The school's Parent-Teacher Group recorded their highest attendance in memory when the gathering was forced to relocate to the Library to accommodate those present. that's a great problem to experience. We're hopeful that our next monthly meeting (October 13th at 5:30 pm in the Library) will reveal an even bigger turn-out. In an effort to attract fathers to become involved in the Parent-Teacher Group, we are providing a gift card to raffle off if at least five fathers attend the meeting.

We are confident that this will be a successful school year at Molly Stark Elementary School. We'll reach our goal of increasing proficiency results on the state's accountability measures by at least 2.5%. Hopefully, there will be many positive benchmarks along our path that we can share. 

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Mark My Words

Molly Stark Elementary School in Bennington, Vermont is named after a revolutionary war era woman who was, according to Wikipedia, "known for her success as a nurse to her husband's troops during a smallpox epidemic, and for opening their home as a hospital during the war." While she evidenced a sincere commitment to the pursuit of independence throughout the war and understandably earned notoriety, her contributions were somewhat obscured over time to the point that inserting her name into an internet search engine is more likely to produce a reference to her in a quote attributed to her husband, General John Stark, commander of troops in the pivotal Battle of Bennington. 

On the eve of the important battle, General Stark declared to his soldiers, "There are your enemies, the Red Coats and the Tories. They are ours, or this night Molly Stark sleeps a widow!" Those words reflect a willingness to sacrifice and a firm conviction of  either achieving victory or dying in the effort.

As the leader of Molly Stark Elementary School I approached my responsibility with a similar attitude. The enemies we face are the doubt and despair that impede progress in schools serving an impoverished population (71% of the learners qualify for free or reduced lunch). Though I will not offer the extreme and personal example of General Stark's clarion of victory or death, I will exercise a professional example of "victory or death." If our school's performance metrics have not increased by June of 2018, I will accept that my leadership was insufficient to promote success and tender my resignation so someone else can assume the role and provide the leadership the staff and learners deserve.

That is my vow to the Molly Stark school community.

Fifty-Seven First Days

This August 29th marked the fifty-seventh year I have readied myself for a first day of school. Since I enrolled in Kindergarten all those years ago I have sustained my connection to the school year from high school through college and a four decade professional career as an educator.

There is a rhythm to a school year. There is a clear beginning and a clear ending to the calendar, interrupted by regularly scheduled breaks for the winter holidays as well as the winter break in February and the customary week long break in April.

It is that clear beginning and definite ending that distinguishes work in public schools from work schedules outside of education. Rather than a continuous year (I realize there are fiscal years and reporting cycles as well as calendar years) that guides many other work areas, there is a specific starting point like the change of seasons in the calendar at which staff and students alike can start anew, with fresh hopes and goals. In that sense I would liken the first day of school to the first day of spring, when signs emerge of growth in the form blankets of grass covering lawns, trees sprouting bright green leaves, and colorful flowers pushing up above the ground.

Similarly, after a dormant two months, school comes alive. Learners pour out of busses, strolling up the sidewalk sporting new school clothes, their backpacks laden with school supplies, and their minds full of personal dreams and hopes.

The challenge of educators everywhere is to nurture and maintain that sense of optimism throughout the school year. The first few weeks of school have yielded sufficient evidence that the staff at Molly Stark Elementary School is prepared for that task. They have welcomed learners by embracing them with care, compassion, and commitment.

Monday, August 29, 2016

Looking Inside

Noted psychologist Abraham Maslow is best known for his research on what he referred to as a hierarchy of needs among humans. Wikipedia explains this theory: "Maslow described human needs as ordered in a prepotent hierarchy—a pressing need would need to be mostly satisfied before someone would give their attention to the next highest need." 

The ultimate level of satisfied needs is reached and satisfied when an individual meets their potential and is considered "self-actualized." Maslow later suggested that a person who becomes self-actualized is not necessarily someone who has been the recipient of qualities added along their path in life, but rather someone who has been free of obstructions and has not had qualities taken away.

My lengthy career as a school leader leads me to suspect the staff of a school has a similar, collective arc. That is, for a staff to meet their potential as a team, they must not depend on someone or something contributing additional resources to their effort. Instead, their progress is aided by the absence of interventions that sap their energy, distract their vision of a preferred future, and misdirect their route to reaching their mission.

As the principal of Molly Stark Elementary School I adopt the manner depicted by the Wizard of Oz at the end of that famous film. No, not the part whereby the Wizard projects himself as a larger than life figure with mystical powers. I fashion myself the type of leader he reveals himself to be when confronted by the disappointed travelers who yearned to reach the Emerald City and obtain the ability for Dorothy to return to her native Kansas. It was when the Lion, Scarecrow, Tin Man, and Dorothy reacted with anger at discovering that the Wizard was in fact a simple, ordinary man who had enlarged his status and power, misleading them into undertaking an arduous journey beset by wicked witches and flying monkeys - all for nothing!

That's when the Wizard revealed his true power - a power we all have. The power of insight, empathy, optimism, and belief. At that critical point in the story, the Wizard explains how the Lion, who was searching for courage in his quest on the Yellow Brick Road, had possessed that attribute all along, and demonstrated it when he fought off the threats of the flying monkeys. The Tin Man, looking for a heart, had also displayed evidence that he already had a heart, and exhibited it when he committed to helping the lost Dorothy seek her way home. The Scarecrow joined the group, convinced he had no brain but the Wizard explained how the Scarecrow already had a brain and proved it when he helped outwit the Wicked Witch. And Dorothy? Well, she already had her ticket home in the form of the ruby red slippers she wore on her feet the entire trip. All she needed to do was click the shoes together.

The Wizard performed one of the most valuable of leadership skills when he helped others see what qualities they already possessed. He didn't have to add anything to the growth of individuals to help them reach their potential. They were not dependent on him to imbue them with additional skills or knowledge in order to meet their goals. They just needed someone to hold a mirror up to them and reveal the existence of their potential. With that, it was amazing how ordinary people working together could perform at extraordinary levels.

That's my task at Molly Stark Elementary School. It is a charge that I have accepted at each leadership position throughout a career that approaches forty years of experience as either a principal or superintendent. It's a responsibility I embrace because of the satisfaction gained while observing people discover their identity and optimize their capacity. It's a rewarding journey.     

Sunday, August 28, 2016

The Role of a Teacher

Robert Fulghum remains one of my favorite authors. I recommend his work to everyone (check out his facebook page and his web journal). His books are a series of collected essays and observations that are amusing, profound, and thought provoking. I can't recall exactly which book contains this particular narrative that forms the basis of my Blog entry today, nor can I commit to the exactness of my memory, but I can remember the essence of the story. Here it is:

One such experience that Fulghum shared with readers involves a class taught by a wise professor who closed a lesson by asking if there were any questions. A member of the class attempted to upstage the teacher and steer the lesson off course with levity by asking about the secret of life. 

The sage instructor reached in his back pocket and pulled out his wallet. From within his wallet he gently extracted a small shard salvaged from a broken mirror. He held it aloft and redirected the sun that peeked into the classroom and cast the reflected light into a darkened corner of the room. The professor explained that when he was a young boy in Greece during the second world war, he discovered a dead Nazi laying on the road next to a wrecked motorcycle that the soldier was riding when he was shot by a member of the resistance army. 

The boy picked up a piece of the shattered motorcycle mirror and saved it. As the boy confronted life in a war torn country littered with the vestiges of death and despair, he struggled to make sense of life. While contemplating the trauma of his life he found that by manipulating the mirror and capturing rays of light he could bring light to darkened areas. 

That was the secret of life - how humans have the capacity to enlighten, with hope and dreams and projections of what could be. That is my challenge as a school leader. Bringing light to those shrouded in the darkness of doubt and despair. And, that task begins tomorrow when 400 learners open the school year by filling a building short on space and long on promise. A school that has been under-performing and mired in misery associated with low expectations, burdened by assumptions and perceptions of demographics, stereotypes, and surrender.

In researching the school and Bennington prior to applying for the vacant position of principal at Molly Stark, I came across a quote attributed to General John Stark, commander of American forces in the area during the Revolutionary War. On the eve of a battle that would prove to be critical in preventing the British from reinforcing their troops in Saratoga, thirty miles away, Stark declared - "There are your enemies, the British and Tories. They are ours, or else this night Molly Stark (his wife) sleeps a widow." That was a clear commitment to the goal of victory. He would win, or he would die trying.

As I addressed the staff of Molly Stark Elementary School days before the start of another school year, I echoed Stark's words, though with far less sacrifice. I stated - "There are our enemies, doubt and despair. They are ours, or else Molly Stark will have another principal in two years." 

I concluded that if achievement levels did not rise (according to the website, School Digger, we are currently the 172nd ranked elementary school among 175 in the state of Vermont) then I would accept that I am not the right leader to guide our improvement and would step aside so that someone more skilled can replace me and breathe life into the hopes and dreams of the children at Molly Stark.

We'll see....

Ben Franklin and Thomas Paine

The last three days of professional development activities have provided me with several opportunities to engage with the staff at Molly Stark Elementary School. The staff is impressive, and the members reflected a desire to inspire. These experiences were productive and served to cultivate the direction, scope and meaning for our collective efforts this year. We will make magic, meaning, and memories on Monday when we open the school year.

A teacher asked me why I chose to accept the position of principal at Molly Stark, rather than search for a role at a more accomplished school. My response echoed a remark made many years ago by one of my heroes, Thomas Paine. Paine, the author of many profound essays that sparked the spirits of Americans during the revolutionary war era, such as "The Crisis," was confronted by Benjamin Franklin's statement - "You will find me where you find liberty." He responded by saying, "You will find me where there is not liberty." Paine was committed to liberating those who were oppressed and denied freedom. In fact, after spurring on the populace in America with his passionate and patriotic words Paine went to France and promoted the efforts of the French to overthrow the ruling monarchy.

My career is a documented path of work designed to elevate the performance of under-served school populations burdened by low expectations, depressed levels of confidence, and untapped potential. The prospect of experiencing success and observing the personal growth that emerges from improvement is motivational. It's an exhilarating experience that I look forward to celebrating with our staff in the not so distant future.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

That Back to School Feeling

The "Back to School" sales advertising is fading as we near the approach of the opening day of school in Bennington this coming Monday, August 29th. That first day is always accompanied by surging optimism associated with the start of another year. Children boast new "school clothes" outfits, hair styles, and shoes as they amble into school armed with notebooks, pencils, and backpacks full of hopes and dreams for the future. There is a collective sense of renewal as staff and learners alike begin again with a clean slate and restored energy, anxious to meet each other and develop relationships. The "newness" is exhilarating.

This is my forty-first start of a school year. I love the feeling of the first day of school. It recalls the positive spirit that emerges just prior to Thanksgiving and seems to have an emotional shelf life that expires as soon after New Years Day as most resolutions. During the holidays, there appears to be more positive interactions among people. People are more patient and cheerful, more accommodating and generous. 

I've often heard others remark wistfully about how nice it would be if that attitude prevailed throughout the calendar year instead of just around the holidays. I maintain the same hope regarding the impact of the first day of school. Why can't we pledge ourselves to sustain the hope and optimism, and the renewal and excitement of that opening day - throughout the entire school year?

Thursday, June 2, 2016

Selling Education

No matter how many years of experience I have enjoyed as an educational leader, I always strive to look around corners and over horizons to learn something new. Someone once suggested that if the leader of an organization doesn't grow, or learn, then the organization will not prosper either. As part of feeding an appetite for personal and professional growth, I have recently re-read best selling author Daniel H. Pink's book, To Sell is Human

The main premise of the text explains that rather than confine perceptions of sales to those people officially titled as salespeople, one must expand the notion of sales to include people who engage with others in conceptual transactions. For a better explanation, I have included an excerpt form the book:

"If you look outside the category of 'sales worker' you will discover the many people who 'persuade, influence, and convince others (selling ideas and concepts). For example, physicians sell patients on a remedy, lawyers sell juries on a verdict, teachers sell students on the value of paying attention in class... We now go online to sell ourselves - on Facebook pages, Twitter and Linkedin accounts, or profiles."

I might add, people even Blog in an effort to persuade, influence, and convince others!

When you examine his proposition from that perspective, many of us are salespeople at one time or another, as we try to influence others. Pink references a study that revealed that people spend approximately 40% of their time at work involved with non-sales selling in ways (influencing, persuading, convincing) that do not include purchases. Furthermore, those surveyed consider this skill ( he labels it "moving others," as in transforming their view, opinion or interests) to be critical to their responsibilities. This is interesting because there is a considerable amount of data that shows that people tend to have a less than positive view on the sales process and salespeople in general. 

Pink contends that the basis of this less than positive opinion is rooted in the typical sales process. He discusses "information asymmetry," in which the seller has more information than the buyer, thus putting the buyer in an imbalanced and weaker position. For example, think about buying a car. The dealer has much more information than the buyer regarding actual costs, capacity, performance, technical details,... 

Let's take a look at his reference to teachers, or educators for that matter, as salespeople. For many years, the dynamic in the teaching and learning equation was information asymmetry. that is, the teacher's authority was often predicated on their command of knowledge content that the learners had not yet acquired, and needed in order to achieve desired outcomes (good grade, course credit, graduation,...)

However, with the rise of technology and increased access to information (Google searches, Yelp, 4Square,...) the sales exchange has approached parity and a more level playing field for participants in the sales process. Returning to that car purchase scenario, the buyer has ready access through multiple data and opinion sources to nearly match the knowledge of the dealer.

This democratization of knowledge, borne of expanding storage, access, and retrieval of information, also impacts the sales process within schools. No longer is the teacher the sole gatekeeper of content. This is particularly true when one considers the exponential growth of information in the last decade. Learners are now capable of casually accessing information at a greater breadth and depth of reach than what they receive in the classroom - instantly via the ubiquitous hand held devices, like cell phones. This signals a shift from a passive receptacle of knowledge and skills delivered by the teacher, to an engaging interaction with countless resources that can be converted to into information, and subsequently skills and application.

Teachers are confronted with a daunting task of attracting the attention of learners in a stimuli-rich environment to curate knowledge and cultivate opportunities to apply what is learned. In other words, in order for the teacher to "move" (influence, persuade, convince) learners, the teacher must transform from a leader based on the authority of knowledge/content, to a facilitator and coordinator of empowered class members. 

Here's how Daniel H. Pink describes it:

"Today’s education and health care professionals can no longer depend on the quasi-reverence that information asymmetry often afforded them. When the balance tilts in the opposite direction, what they do, and how they do it must change. When simple transactional tasks can be automated, and when information parity displaces information asymmetry, moving people depends on more sophisticated skills and requires as much intellect and creativity as designing a house, reading a CT scan, or, say, writing a book."

The three vital attributes necessary to be an effective "mover" are:

Attunement = Empathy, the ability to understand the perspective and context of others. Use your head and your heart.

Bouyancy = The ability to keep your head up amid a world of rejection or disbelievers of those not willing or ready to accept or accommodate what you are selling.

Clarity = This skill relies less on problem solving and more on problem finding to assist others in recognizing different perspectives and solutions.

In summary, I have read over one hundred different business/leadership books like Pink's in an effort to discover new ideas and fresh vantage points. I have a compendium of excerpted highlights from each of the books that form a valuable reservoir of knowledge that informs my decision-making and direction as a school leader. I though I'd share this reference as a means of reflecting on our role as educators charged with selling/moving people in a vast and competitive marketplace. 

Thursday, May 26, 2016

The Last Chapter

       (This represents the end of the series of posts that began on March 21st and chronicled the story of a school improvement process at an inner-city junior high school)

     One aspect of the conversion of junior high schools to middle schools was captured in the surveys that the district’s central office anonymously administered to parents, learners, and staff throughout the city. These instruments were designed to obtain feedback on what people thought about their junior high school in an effort to create baseline data in the form of a pre-test and post-test with respect to what they felt about middle schools after the following year. 
     The results, published throughout the school district, provided convincing evidence that Mann was held in much higher esteem by it’s parents, staff, and learners than any other school was by their similar constituencies.xiv 
     One of the most personally satisfying moments for me during this wonderful experience was the opportunity to model praise and reinforcement with the staff. There appears to be some general misunderstanding among secondary level educators that the warm and fuzzy notes of praise for learners is something that is confined to little kids at the elementary level. Mysteriously, the need for such a tool disappears during the summer between sixth and seventh grade. 
     A climate where everyone recognized the need to work together was necessary if we intended to stimulate significant change. An important aspect of such a goal includes a healthy exchange of recognition and praise. As in most cases, the leader must accept the responsibility for inviting change by willingly demonstrating the desired behavior as an example. 
     With that in mind, I sequestered myself in my office one Sunday afternoon with the names and addresses of the parents of each and every staff member at Horace Mann. I composed personalized letters of praise that acknowledged the tremendous success of our school. In addition, every letter contained a specific contribution made by the particular individual. These notes were then forwarded, unknown to the staff members, to their parents with a concluding, “thanks for instilling the values and beliefs in (insert name of staff member) that have resulted in significant contributions here at Horace Mann Junior High School.”  
     Very soon thereafter I was visited by a succession of individuals, several with eyes welled up with tears, who came by the office and described their surprise when contacted by their proud parents with news of receiving a glowing note about their “child”, many of whom were in their forties and fifties and long since confused as a kid anymore.  
     I still keep the gratifying letters I received from the parents of staff members who wanted to share the pride they felt about their offspring. One parent letter in particular stated that although their son was a hardworking and successful person he had never distinguished himself to the degree that he excelled at anything in high school,… but they always knew he was special and the letter I had sent to them confirmed this belief – even though they had to wait until their son was in his thirties. 
     Two heartfelt notes were received from a couple of custodians. One was an admission that disclosed how she had always been embarrassed to admit where she worked. But not anymore. She was so proud of the progress at Mann that she now brags about where she works. The other was by a custodian whose father was a bus driver with the school district. He claimed that on the day his father received the letter he went into each and every school he picked up children and broadcast the message to all who would listen.    
     Needles to say, there was a dramatic increase in notes of praise sent home by our staff members to their learners. It proved to be like a small pebble dropped into a pond, its ripples of concentric circles expanding far beyond the point it was dropped. 
     Another sign of our acceptance by the greater community was the reference that the mayor of Amarillo made at a breakfast meeting of civic leaders sharing an interest in revitalizing the economically beleaguered city. He cited the specific accomplishments of the school (academic pep rallies) in transforming itself and claimed that Horace Mann Junior High was an example of what could be done across the city.xv  
     When everything was done at the end of that first year we had a school we would want to attend if we were teenagers, a school we would want to have our own children attend, and a school where we were proud to work. Most of all, we had, as one student proudly declared in the school survey, a “school of hope.” 
The End 

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

ACADEMIC Pep Rallies

There were a steady stream of events orchestrated and rituals developed in reshaping the culture of the school. A list of local dignitaries was compiled to serve as prospects for academic pep rallies. Yes, academic pep rallies. Those ceremonies conducted at the end of each marking period to renew our vows to Aim HIGH. Bands played, cheerleaders cheered, erstwhile rap artists performed raps related to the 4A’s, and speakers urged the kids onward.  
     These volunteers signed on and pledged support in various ways. We hosted Elisha Demerson, a graduate of Mann and the first African-American to be elected a county judge in the history of Texas. There was a former Olympic quality downhill skier who was paralyzed in a ski accident and fought her way back to the victory circle – this time in the international competitions held for the handicapped. One of our own teachers, a young woman who fled from Uganda and the treacherous regime of Idi Amin, shared how she had overcome misfortune and met with success. The editor of the local newspaper offered worthwhile advice. John Marmaduke, the progress, civic minded CEO of Western Merchandisers/Hastings Books not only shared his personal philosophy on success but also supplied hundreds of dollars of gift certificates as valuable incentives and rewards. Texas Panhandle oil tycoon, T. Boone Pickens, was another tremendous source of support. He took notice of our billboard mission advertisements and the stories of success in the media and provided thousands of dollars to improve the school’s appearance. Mr. Pickens sent his company’s horticulturist over with a proposal to landscape the grounds of the school. In addition, dozens of employees from Pickens’ Mesa Limited Partnership combined with hundreds of our learners one Saturday morning to actually perform the task of digging and planting all of the plants, shrubs Each of the speakers, without prodding, focused their personal presentations on how they had Aimed HIGH in their life. 
     We were fortunate to be adopted by a number of businesses. The more success we encountered and the more publicity we attracted, the more partners we experienced. However, holding our hand out was not going to solve long term problems. In fact, dependency upon outside sources would only reinforce enabling behaviors that would not empower us for the future. Therefore, we took the unprecedented step and adopted another school! That’s right. We adopted the elementary school down the block. Our Student Council supplied met with the administration of the elementary school and submitted a proposal for a mutually beneficial relationship. They provided the school with $500.00 to fund a recognition and reward system fashioned after the 4A program. In this manner, they reached out to our “vendor” or “supplier” in an effort to indoctrinate the kids who would eventually come to Mann. 
     One of our Adopters was the fast-food seafood chain, Long John Silvers. They had a store near the school and offered certificates as incentives and extended their facility as a casual meeting place, complete with free refreshments, for the Student Council. Again, to avoid the perception of needy kids looking for a handout, we insisted that Long John Silverslike all of our partners in the adopt a school program, receive services from us as well. It would be a two way street. 
     It turned out that the store had a need for placemats. Specifically, placemats of a utilitarian design that would serve a purpose beyond the obvious. They wanted something that could occupy their patrons so the wait for their food was not noticeable. Our Art department organized a contest for attractive and functional designs. Kids created representations depicting a seafood motif, together with crossword puzzles, word finds, and mazes that were directly related to the Aim HIGH and 4A programs at Mann. 
     I was surprised one day to receive a phone call from a regional marketing representative from Long John Silver’s who happened to be visiting the local store and expressed an interest in buying one of the designs. I referred him to the young man who was responsible for the work and they negotiated a settlement that included a job.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Cultivating a Culture for Change

Cultivating a Culture for Change 

     Shortly after that first six week marking period there was a district wide staff development day set-aside for the eight junior high schools. The objective of that day was to become involved in a plan to convert to middle schools. I had planned something in preparation for the first opportunity for our staff to interact with their colleagues following the announcement of academic improvement. 
     I took the staff roster and went to a local printing company. Letterhead and business cards were made up for each staff member. These items were practical because our staff, be they teachers who meet with parents,… or custodians who meet with supply salesmen,… have a need to exchange information via personalized school stationery. Another benefit was promoting a sense of pride in who we are. 
     It worked! During that staff development day our teachers proudly distributed business cards to their colleagues as a means of encouraging communication within the district. The looks on the faces of those handing out the cards and those receiving the cards spoke volumes. Teachers appeared unashamed to show they taught at Mann. The recipients appeared both puzzled and envious. Before the day was concluded two junior high principals who wanted to know where I got the business cards printed contacted me. 
     To meet with success we realized that we had to take an alternative road. We had been stuck behind all the other schools like a car stuck behind slow moving tractor trailers on winding, hilly country roads lacking a passing lane. We were so far behind that we would never get ahead by doing what everyone else was doing. 
     On the evening of Open House something happened that would not have been better if it had been purposely orchestrated. Not only did the school enjoy a greater turn out of parents than it had in memory, but the parents assembled in the auditorium reacted with a standing ovation after the introduction of the staff. This remains one of the most memorable moments in my leadership career. 
     Copies of encouraging news articles on the school began cropping up everywhere in the school, around the staff lounge, the copy machine, bulletin boards, and the main foyer. It was like a snowball gathering mass as it descended a hill. 
     I spoke at local, regional, state, and national venues and shared with pride the work at Horace Mann. We had regular visits by contingents representing schools in and out of Texas who had heard of Mann and desired more information. 
     Before the end of the first year we were receiving inquiries from parents of children in other schools who wanted information on transferring to Mann. Teachers no longer requested transfers out of Mann. Instead, as the district approached the move toward middle schools that would change from a grades 7, 8, 9 configuration to a 6, 7, 8 format we had transfer requests from 6th grade teachers who wanted to come to Mann.