Sunday, July 31, 2016

A Back-to-School Checklist for Educators

For many of us, the first day of school can not come soon enough. For those in the northeast, no worries, you still have until Labor Day to get in the many important summer outings. However, for those across the midwest, the south and to the far west, we will heading back to school in the coming weeks. And, we are getting excited to do so!

Back-to-school means so many different things to students, teachers and leaders alike. It is a new opportunity to explore new experiences. Relationships will have an entirely new starting point, slates are wiped clean and the learning that will take place is endless. We are our only obstacle and we can control how the year begins and where we will go throughout the months ahead.

Now that back-to-school is closing in, here is a checklist for educators to start the year:

1. Relationships First. The excitement heading into this year is powerful. The staff I am fortunate to work with has committed to starting their year like never before. We are committing the first three days of school to forming, fostering and embracing the relationships with our students, parents and community. "The content can wait", is what we have agreed to and is our slogan out of the gate. Investing every ounce of energy in to getting to know the community of learners we are going to work with for 180+ days can not. I look forward to sharing out about our #1st3Days in mid-August. We challenge you to hold off on diving into specific content. Instead, get to know those that you will spend an amazing amount of time with in an intentional and meaningful way.

2. Bring Patience. Just as much as this is a reminder for you as the teacher and leader, this is also to be kept in the forefront of your mind as students and parents enter the building. Whether a first-time kindergarten child or parent, a high schooler heading off to their freshman year or a teacher just starting their career, the first days of school can be full of angst and stress that we can collectively work together to ease. Deep breaths, lots of smiles and the sounds of laughter abound should fill your first days of school. Be patient and find the bright spots even in the most difficult of moments as the stresses of back-to-school arise.

3. Think Foundation. Whether working with staff, greeting parents at open house or standing by the front doors on the first days of school, the back-to-school experience means the start of a new journey in teaching and learning. Each moment of each day should build upon the next. What you do today will prepare your audience for tomorrow. Very little of what we do happens in isolation so think foundation as you begin to build those essential relationships. It's worth starting one brick at a time and being the mortar that holds it all in place.

4. It is a Story. Just like the first days are the foundation of your year, each day there after is a part of the story that has yet to be written. Different characters will take shape as the story unfolds and the setting will be your classrooms and school buildings in which we learn collectively. As the teacher and the leaders in our respective buildings we hold the key to whether our story and the story of our school community is a best seller or not. Just as an author has to make revisions to their work, we too have an opportunity to make corrections in our teaching and learning. Be inspired by the story you are writing.

5. Celebrate Day One. In our #1st3Days we are not only going to focus on relationships and think foundation, we are also going to celebrate our students and our staffs return to school. What many educators think to be end-of-the-year activities, we are putting them at the beginning. Instead of sitting and hearing syllabus upon syllabus, we are going to set a tone of expectations and excitement to our journey together. Nervous middle school students will be welcomed by eager teachers ready to explore endless learning opportunities. We will celebrate day one and every day there after.

As you think about all of your back-to-school items on your checklist, don't lose sight of the amazing responsibility we have as educators. There is so much that will be accomplished as long as we are intentional and purposeful in how we return. And, if you are dreading your return to school, then please weigh your options and consider not coming back at all. We need teachers and leaders that are overflowing with anticipation and excitement to welcome a new school year. Be ready to make a difference in the life of a child and an educator.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

So Much to Learn

Later this week I head off to Boston to present at the November Learning, Building Learning Communities Conference on the invitation from Alan November. This is an amazing opportunity to share with a fresh audience of educators about my passion for teaching and learning.

I often ask myself how I have ended up in the place that I have. A kid growing up in upstate New York and having attended a small university in Ohio, I feel like I have finally found myself as an educator. I take great pride in being fully invested in my school community and that is essential for me. Also, I am fortunate to work in the school district that I do that not only embraces innovation, it demands it.

The reality is, however, I made some significant errors along the way to get where I am today. In fact, for a period of time I felt like I had mastered the art of "failing forward". Without that period in my life, however, I would not be heading off on a jet plane this morning to connect with passionate educators from across the globe to share my story.

My learning has been powerful. My story is about how I picked myself up, recognized my errors, accepted my need for growth and how I bought into the notion that I needed to increase my own learning which in turn would evolve me into a better practitioner, a better leader and a better person.

Keep the following in mind as you fail forward:

1. Embrace the uncomfortable. Just 4 years ago I was having some tough conversations with my colleagues about my direction in this field. While in my seat in, I sat and squirmed and felt like the walls were closing in. Those were some rough days in my journey. My decision that day was a simple one. Instead of running from this tough moment, I embraced it. I looked it dead in the eyes and demanded more of myself. The growth began immediately.

2. Own it. When failing forward the hardest part of the process is to own the errors. If your colleagues, community or even harder to accept your superiors are giving you the impression that you are losing your way, you can respond in one of two ways. My advice is simple. Own that there are improvements to be made and commit to seeing it through. The sooner you own it, the quicker the path to success.

3. Let down your guard. Too often when we fail we build up a wall of trust, or lack there of. That is natural and instinctive. As hard as it is, try not to leave that wall up. You can't get better on your own just as you didn't fail forward on your own. No, you were not pushed. However, at some point others may have stepped away on your journey. I understand being cautious just don't be resistant. Allow others to be a part of your improvements.

4. Have a plan. Now that you are owning your errors, moving forward to being a better educator and embracing the reality of your situation, make sure to know the direction you are heading. For me I had to reach out to my most trusted colleagues and friends. I owned my missteps and dove in to seeing my improvement. I created a plan, set some goals and put my eyes forward to the potential that was there to be had. For me, the plan is what made all the difference. Going in blindly just leads to more failing. Having a plan is essential.

I am not finished with my journey in teaching and learning and especially leading. I have more to do and there is a passion within me to share my story with each of you. We are unique. Our paths in life are independent of each other. However, at the end of the day, we have one goal in common. Simply, we want to be better today than we were yesterday. There is so much to learn.

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

You Can't Fake It

Either you lead or you don't. At the end of the day, you can't pretend and you can't fake it. People are looking toward you with all that they've got. They have chosen this profession to make a difference. The last thing they need is someone with a title that can't make a decision for the sake of the organization. Educators need a leader who can be honest and transparent and a leader that embraces all that comes with the role.

Leadership is an art. It takes more than just a few courses at the local university or through an online class or two. It is not for the faint of heart and it is not intended to be a responsibility that just gets you on more notch in the belt. If you want to be any good at this thing called leadership, then you should consider the following:

Get Off the Fence. For every book I have read, meeting I have attended or conversation I have been exposed to, one sure way to find a leader that has their head in the wrong place is one that can't make up their mind. Yes, there are times for pause, for reflection and for ensuring you are doing what's best for kids and your community. However, when push comes to shove leaders have to know when to get off the fence and make a decision. Due diligence is one thing. Procrastination is another.

Follow Your Gut. Leaders have been given hours of upon hours of life experiences in the real world. We don't get these positions lightly. Believe it or not, whether you want to or not, someone actually looked at you, handed you the keys to that building and said something along the lines of, "You'll be great. Now go lead your staff and students to do amazing things!" Now that you have that shiny key and walk those academic halls, remember that the thing on your shoulders and that pit in your stomach actually can go hand-in-hand. Follow your gut and do what's best for kids, for your staff and for your community. It's not always going to be easy, but it will always be worth it.

Surround Yourself With Really Smart People. We have all heard the expression in regards to "the smartest person in the room is the room". Well, if that is the case then I will darn well make it a priority to surround myself with super smart people when it comes to teaching and learning. They will be at the door, peering in the windows and clamoring on the roof. Many of us fall under the umbrella of "jack of all trades and a master of none". My honesty puts me there. I know my strengths and weaknesses. I would like to think that knowing this is half the battle. At the end of the day, I find those that are not only smart at what they do but also a compliment to how I lead. Too many of the same minds leads to little progress. Get out of your comfort zone and find others that will help you be a better leader yourself.

Give Credit Where Credit Is Due. Truth - most of the really great things that I do in my leadership role in my building I had very little to do with when it comes to the inception. Truth - most of us get our ideas from the endless amount of resources in this global, digital age. If you come across a great idea or concept and want to implement it in your own institution, do us all a favor and let us know where the idea came from. As a leader who depends on trust and honesty, don't get caught with your pants down when a colleague learns that your "brain child" of an activity or lesson really came from someone up the street or across the globe.

Be a Closer. If there is one thing I have learned on this leadership journey it is that you have to close on your ideas and your desire to lead others. Charm and charisma works for a while. However, when the smile no longer does the trick and the handshakes have worn out their welcome you had better be able to close when it comes to all things in leading others. Holding others accountable, being transparent with your staff and being committed to your community are just a few examples of how you can close in on your relationships with others. Build the connections and do the right thing(s).

When it comes to leadership, you need to be "all-in" or you need to get all-out. The reality is that when push comes to shove and teachers are in the trenches or administrators are in the buildings you need more than just a shiny key to the front doors in order for others to believe in you and buy in to you. If you can't lead in a way that does so, move over, let someone else give it a go. and as always be truthful with yourself and don't fake it.