Category: Community (ISLLC 4)

A school administrator is an educational leader who promotes the success of all students by collaborating with families and community members, responding to diverse community interests and needs, and mobilizing community resources.

My Kids, Your Kids, Our Kids – The School Family

It all seems to start with my kids these days.  I think it’s because the little guys (and gal) are at the center of my life right now.  It makes sense that so much of my reflective growth comes from lessons that I’m learning from and with them.  Regardless, they are truly wonderful partners in collaborative learning and growth.  In fact, it’s all they ever do!  They’re amazing.  If you spend any amount of time with children you know that they’re constantly looking at the world through an explorer’s lens.  “Bright eyed and bushy tailed” is an understatement; and boy do they love to share it!

I had the opportunity to guest teach for a few classes yesterday afternoon.  I took my second-graders on a leaf hunt so that we could do crayon leaf-rubbings as scaffolding for some integrated art/literacy learning.  I’ll admit that a stroll around the grounds on a beautiful autumn afternoon may have been my primary inspiration for planning that particular lesson, but we did get to the art/literacy part too:).  Anyway, these amazing little ones never disappoint in the enthusiastic and joyful exploration department!

“Look at the leaf I found…it’s shaped like a dinosaur!”

“Why are some so big and some so small?”

“This one’s dry but it’s floating in a puddle!”

“Mr. Berg, look what I found!”

“Mr. Berg, guess what I did!”

“Mr. Berg, watch this!”

And so on.  So excited to learn.  So excited to share.  So excited!  Kids are great partners in learning and growth.

Just before we were closing down shop for the weekend one of my parent partners gifted me with the words, “Thank you for caring so much and being so involved in (my child’s) progress.”

I was honored and humbled, and a realization swept over me like the blustery wind outside – all of the kids belong to all of us.  It all starts and ends with the little ones in mind.  Every one of us gives everything we have day in and day out, with the expectation that each of them will be happy, safe, and successful.

I would argue that there’s no educator or parent in our wonderful school community that doesn’t care about the safety, wellbeing, and achievement of every one of the students we serve.  While the kind words above will ring in my ears and conjure feelings of joy each time they do, I genuinely believe that they could have been directed at any Meadow Brook stakeholder.  “Thank you for caring so much and being so involved in (my child’s) progress,” describes what I see from our faculty and parent partners each day.

I have the greatest job in the world.  I work with a community of people who are deeply dedicated to and engaged in ongoing collaborative learning and growth with one another and our collective children.  In any given moment we each consider every student we serve quite like we would consider children in our own families.   Sure, we all understating the real and important distinctions between the nuclear family, the extended family, and the school family, but in the hallways, in the classrooms, and on the playground of our school, every adult is there for every child, with the same compassion, caring, and kindness that they would extend to their own.  I see it all the time.  Sometimes I feel like an uncle to hundreds.

Our school is more than a workplace…it’s a village.  It’s the village referred to in the saying, “it takes a village to raise a child.”  Again, we have our nuclear families and we have our extended families.  In the past month I have learned that without a doubt, we also have our school family.  With that in my, I offer a deep and sincere ‘thank you’ to my Meadow Brook partners for caring so much and being so involved in our children’s progress!

Live. Lean. Lead.

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Dream Big. Work Hard. Be Well.

A Principal’s Note to Self: Please Stow Your Baggage in the Overhead Compartment

Among the many conversations I had yesterday was one with a kindergartener who had been engaged in some play-gone-wrong at recess.  A group of boys were playing, it became energized, and it ended in some pushing, hitting, and crying.  I see this every day in my very own home (the brothers Berg are especially energized!).  There was no malice, no one was hurt, and it was truly an opportunity for learning, growth, and relationship building.

Anyway, this student was upset enough that he decided to ignore multiple requests from his teacher to join the class as they moved back into the building.  Because of the safety implications therein, I decided to enlist his parents as partners in facing the challenge.  As always, parent partners are invaluable collaborators when it comes to the learning and growth of their children.

After he and I processed a bit on our own, I asked, “Who should I call, mom or dad?”  This clever child thought for a moment, then looked up with all sincerity and replied, “Are those my only two choices?”  I had to smile.  It was a productive interaction that ended in some wonderful progress.

Over the course of the past month I’ve heard countless deli counter references.  “There should be a number-counter outside of your office,” or “Next!”      Now, those references are both humorous and apropos, but they’re also great fodder for serious consideration of important leadership and communication approaches.  If you’re in education, no matter what role you play (student, teacher, parent, admin, etc.) you’re in the business of people, and if you ask me, people in the business of people should focus on…you guessed it…people!

Unlike deli counter practice, educators can’t exactly ask those we serve to “take a number,” nor do we want to.  Whether we’ve come to terms with it or not, I believe that most of us thrive on (and even enjoy) the high-octane, fast paced world in which we work.  We’re energized by the hustle and bustle of school life…it’s exciting!

This is where the overhead compartment comes in.  Each interaction is different.  The daily communication needs of our partners in the classroom, the building, and the community exist along multiple spectrums including: informal to formal, casual to critical, guarded to collaborative, deteriorative to generative, diminutive to empowering, and so on…in all directions.

I leave some conversations feeling as though I’m on top of the world.  I leave others feeling as thought I’ve been knocked down a few rungs.  Some interactions are indicative of positive progress while others produce outcomes that suggest a need for focused repair efforts.  How do we, as parents, students, educators, community leaders, and partners in teaching and learning, move from person to person or group to group without dragging the remnants of each interaction with us?

The fact is, we don’t truly know what energy is needed for productivity in any given situation until we’re engaged in it.  Furthermore, I’m finding that in order to be fully engaged in each, I have to enter each with an open heart, an open mind, and a degree of clarity that would preempt lingering energy, regardless of the nature of that energy.

I have to stow my baggage in an overhead compartment during my travels each day so that I’m holistically available to each person I interact with along my daily journey.  As I frequently note regarding most leadership and learning challenges that are addressed throughout the pages of this blog, the fact that I’m human prevents me from hitting that mark every time, but it’s a focused aim, and in so being, I’m getting better at it each day.

Alongside the wonderful, “Are those my only two choices” interaction from yesterday, were a couple of fundamentally crucial conversations that led to some shifting for myself and for some of my partners at school.  Nothing terribly intense, but change is a process that requires great patience and is often met with some initial discomfort.  I will need to process those interactions further.  I will have to reflect on them in concentrated to maximize my learning and growth.

As you might guess, I will use my reflective writing practice as a part of that processing.  But, and equally importantly, I needed to not process those interactions right away.  I needed to move on the next.  I would not have been well served to toss the “baggage” from those interactions, but I would also have been remiss to carry it around with me for the rest of the day.  I needed to stow it…and with a focus on effective leadership and communication, stow it I did.  It felt good.  I felt productive.

As always, some of my best learning seems to come from the genuine expression of kids.  I’ve heard it suggested that when we face difficult challenges, we are facing a choice between immediate processing or opportunity loss.  I would suggest that we look at our daily challenges a bit differently.  Reflective processing is critical, but we simply don’t always have time in our busy days to attend to it immediately following any given integration.

The next time you face a challenge that leaves you stuck in processing mode when you really have to move forward, if you’re thinking that you have to stop in your tracks or sacrifice the learning, consider asking yourself, “Are those my only two choices?”  Then consider stowing the baggage in the overhead compartment and retrieving it at the end of the day, or at another time when you can truly give it the attention it deserves without allowing it to become a distractor to the great work you need to engage in with the many other people you serve each day.

Live.  Learn.  Lead.

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Dream Big.  Work Hard.  Be Well.

Follow The Amazing Leader: Learning From My Partners

Yesterday I participated in a second summer reading event designed to encourage/model literacy learning, to provide a platform for new and veteran families to get together in anticipation of an exciting school year, and to introduce new school leadership to students and parents in a fun and comfortable way.  The events were conceived, developed, and brought to life by the amazing Kelly Dessey.  Kelly is the principal of Long Meadow Elementary School and therefore one of my administrative partners in Rochester Community Schools (RCS).

This is my second year with RCS.  One of the most impressive and important ideas that comes from our central office team and permeates through every school and every classroom is that idea of teamwork and togetherness.  I’ve been amazed and energized by the level of encouragement and support that consistently comes from all directions.

Each of the twelve other elementary principals has reached out to me multiple times, offering assistance, perpetuating dialogues about teaching and learning, and simply checking in.  As have principals and partners at all levels.  At the end of the day yesterday I was wrapping things up in my office when the phone rang.  It was Debi Fragomeni, our wonderful Assistant Superintendent.  I’m quite certain that Debi’s to-do list is considerably lengthier than mine, but somehow, “call Seth just to see if there’s anything I can do to help,” is on it.  Great modeling, great support, great stuff!

After talking with Debi for a few minutes, I headed out to the summer reading event.  Principal Dessey was there to greet me, snacks were out, parents and students were engaged in a scavenger hunt, and people were strolling around, introducing themselves, and chatting joyfully.  Appropriately, the event was held at our neighborhood Barnes and Noble.  After a crowd formed, Principal Dessy took the mic.  She talked about partnerships in learning, she expressed appreciation and excitement, she shared her passion for reading and for learning, and she welcomed our students and parents with a smile.  We read some stories, engaged in a few fun activities, and shared some thoughts about our collective vision.  Kelly rocked it!

Having partners who go out of their was to perpetuate a district-wide culture of authentic collaboration, who joyfully invite and include one another in the development and implementation of community events, and who overtly go out of their way to support one another, is wonderful.  It’s truly wonderful, and it makes everyone involved better.  As educational leaders, it’s our job to bring out the best in those we serve.  I could not be more excited and appreciative of partners like Kelly and the whole RCS team, who work hard to bring out the best in me!  It’s an example that I intend to learn from and live out as I move along my leadership path.

Live.  Learn.  Lead.

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Dream Big.  Work Hard.  Be Well.

Blame Boosting: Reframing Fault for Functional Forward Flow

I find it extremely easy to turn to blame when I’m frustrated.  In fact, learned or otherwise, it’s almost an instinct.  When something goes wrong, blame tries to force its way into the mix.  But blame doesn’t do anything to perpetuate solutions.  It simply distracts from progress.  I recently revisit “Hatchet” by Gary Paulsen, an extremely intense, but amazing piece of literature.  If you don’t know the story, Brian is a kid who goes down in a plane crash over a remote and dense forest.  He’s on his way to visit his father in the North of Canada when the pilot of the small plane suffers a heart attack.  Brian survives the crash and is left to fend for himself, hundreds of miles of course, alone, and with only a small hatchet.  The book is an incredibly well written account of his thought process through the unimaginable challenge of being isolated in that way for over two months.

One of the most poignant scenes for me was when Brian realized the futility of self-pity.  After being nearly killed by a moose and torn apart by a tornado, self-pity tried to work its way into his mind.  He let it distract him for a moment, and then, like a light bulb going off over his head, he understood and appreciated that self-pity is not useful.  He could see clearly that it simply doesn’t work.  He needed to rebuild a shelter, he needed to generate a fire, he needed to remake tools and find food, and he needed to stay alive.  It didn’t take long, especially in the predicament he was in, to see very clearly that self-pity wasn’t going to help him do any of that.  In fact, at the very least, it was going to slow him down.

I feel the same way about blame.  We’re not stranded in the north woods with only a hatchet, but we do have significant challenges that demand solutions, occasionally with limited resources.  I don’t believe that blame is going to help us attend to the wellbeing and achievement of the students we serve.  I believe instead that blame can be stifling.

I do however understand that every challenge comes complete with people, and that each of those people plays a role in the perpetuation and/or the resolution of the challenges they’re connected to.  I think that we can reframe blame/fault if we come at every challenge as an opportunity for learning and growth.  As a principal, it’s my job to bring the best out of people.  Through collaboration and the intentional focus on joyful teaching and learning I’m charged with the task of supporting all stakeholders along their individual and collective developmental journeys.  When blame comes into my mind during those aforementioned moments of frustration, I find it useful to reframe the blame with functional forward flow in mind.

There’s a flow to everything.  There’s a flow to the culture of a school community, there’s a flow to the development of best instructional practices, and there’s a flow to the growth of each learner.  My job is to do all I can to have that flow functionally moving forward.  When I set blame or fault against the process of learning and growth, my ability to facilitate forward flow is enhanced.

Sometimes I’m a manager, sometimes I’m a coach, sometimes I’m a mentor, sometimes I’m a student, and I’m always a learner.  Turning to progress in teaching and learning as I work my way through the initial pull of instinctual blaming helps me to move through it ever quicker.  Like Brian shaking off self-pity in favor of survival, I’m coming securely into my ability to boosting blame into fodder for understanding next steps toward a functional forward flow.  This school year I intend to continue growing in that area.  I would suggest that keeping that frame of mind is helpful in multiple capacities.  Especially as I partner with the amazing students, teachers, and parents in my school community through our continuous work toward excellence in education.

Live.  Learn.  Lead.

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Dream Big.  Work Hard.  Be Well.

Bug Them. It Shows You Know What Matters: Them!

Yesterday I was working at school by myself.  In between tasks I took a short break from the office and walked around the building.  It’s a regular practice of mine.  It’s been a beautiful summer.  Strolling around the grounds has helped to catalyze energized resetting for me as I’ve transitioned from task to task.  Maybe it’s the fresh air, maybe it’s the beautiful scenery, maybe it’s the strolling, I’m not sure.  As they say, do what works for you…so I do.

Along the walk I noticed a family on the playground.  I wondered if it was a Meadow Brook family.  Simultaneously, out of the corner of my eye I noticed a bug.

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Not only had I never seen a bug quite like this one before, but I thought to myself, this is just the type of bug that kids might like to see; not too big, not harry, kind of cute, almost like a decorative lima bean with legs.  What an opportunity!

The family was within earshot.  I called out, “Are you a Meadowbrook family?”  They were.  A Meadow Brook mom was playing in the park with her two daughters.  One of the girls will be entering first grade this fall.  They were walking past me on their way home.  I introduce myself as the new principal, and I asked, “Do you want to see a really interesting bug?”  As fate would have it, they did.  Imagine that, I had access to a really interesting bug at the very same time that these kids wanted to see one; very fortunate for all involved.  Kismet, if you will!  Here’s a useful tip for elementary principals: interesting bugs are good icebreakers when meeting and engaging six-year-olds…just saying.

Together, we explored the interesting bug.

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After a short exploration we released him into the wild unscathed; possible a tiny bit disoriented, but certainly no worse for the wear.  Maybe he even considered it an adventure.

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It was a brief, but very nice spontaneous shared learning experience.  I met a student and part of her family, a student and part of her family met me, and even though I mixed their names up a few times, we got to spend a bit of time together exploring and having fun.  By the end of the outing I had their names down, and they knew mine.  We learned a bit about each other and made a cool connection.

When we meet again in the fall we can ruminate over the interesting bug that we found this summer!  Was this the most significant, momentous, earth shattering interaction in the world?  No.  Was it a good way to perpetuate a culture of enthusiasm, collaboration, and joy?  I think so.

I suppose time will tell.  At the very least, I would suggest that it doesn’t hurt to find and take opportunities to authentically reach out and get to know those you serve at every turn.  In fact, I would suggest that it should be among an educational leader’s highest priorities.  Building trusting relationships feeds positive progress.  So get into the hallways, get into the classrooms, get onto the playground, get into the community, and just get out there and bug them…it will move everyone involved in the direction of learning and growth!

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Dream Big.  Work Hard.  Be Well.

Conversations Are Wonderful Processing Mechanisms

I had a great conversation with the woman who works the desk at my community gym this morning.  It took longer than I would’ve liked, so I tried to rush it at first (and I definitely presented in that way – a lesson in manners that I plan to learn from), but as the conversation went on it proved to be incredibly worthwhile…maybe even a gift.  She pushed me to think about and process my leadership practice as it relates to student achievement and wellbeing.  Eventually, I did have to excuse myself in favor of a short swim so that I could get to work, but I was able to integrate that conversation into my reflective learning routine.  It helped me grow.  I need to remember that any and every experience is just that…an experience.  None should be overlooked or trivialized.  I can be learning in every moment.  Conversations are especially viable learning opportunities because they hold me accountable in a unique way.  They hold me accountable to the person or people I’m conversing with.

This particular woman knows that I’m in education.  She’s struggling to prepare her fourth grade son for the coming school year.  Neither of them is thrilled with his placement.  They feel strongly that the teacher he’s with is going to affect him in negative ways.  She told me that the teacher is extremely negative and that she’s outwardly suggested that the child is a “troublemaker.”  This mother feels as though her child is typecast in this classroom.  She doesn’t think he’ll have opportunities to feel successful.  She insists that this teacher is not capable of respecting or believing in him.  She was very emotional about it, and reasonably so.  Imagine feeling completely helpless about an entire school year for your child.  Whether or not she has an accurate picture, perception often feels very much like reality.  So much so that some folks say it is reality.

Intensifying the other horrible feelings was that feeling of helplessness.  She told me that she wanted to transfer her son to another school, and that it’s been extremely difficult because the “school of choice deadline” for the neighboring district had past.  She asked me to advisor her on how to get around that challenge.  I couldn’t.  She thought that I would know of a loophole.  I don’t.  She asked me what I would do if it were my child.

I told her that it might be a good idea to look at these challenges as opportunities for learning and growth, then, if she feels the same way next year, to meet the deadline.  I waited for a moment to make sure I was headed in the right direction.  That kind of advice can be received in a variety of ways.  She smiled thoughtfully and asked me to go on.  She needed some tools.  She needed some encouragement.  She needed some hope.  I told her that in my district we work hard to provide a joyful learning experience for every student, and that we do so in an effort to maximize their potential.  I insisted that we try to help them explore & discover pathways to achievement, and that I’m certain many educators in her district think along those lines as well, possibly even the teacher in question.   Appropriately, she told me that if she were a parent in my district she’d ask how we do that.  I thought it seemed like a reasonable question.  Possibly even a really good one!

There I stood, the principal of an elementary school, engaged in a conversation with a parent, albeit from another district, but still being asked to explain how my team and I maintain a joyful culture of learning for the students we serve.  It was kind of exciting, not only because I enjoy this dialogue, but also because as I mentioned above, it was opportunity for me to reflect on something I’m extremely passionate about.  And, it an opportunity for me to get analytical feedback from the real-life parent of a fourth grader…someone well equipped to provide really good feedback on the subject.

We talked about communication and the lack thereof.  We talked about assuming positive intentions and being patient with progress. We talked about celebrating that progress and highlighting triumphs.  We talked about looking for opportunities to communicate concerns in compassionate ways and being willing to meet in the middle at times.  We talked about a positive presence and working to foster independence through the release of responsibility.  We talked about advocating for connected services and building trusting relationships with an open mind.  We talked about boiling every decision, every action, and ever interaction down to questions like, “How is this going to help my child grow?” and, “How will this perpetuate a joyful learning experience for my child?”  We talked about that fact that life ain’t easy, and that when children have opportunities for guided practice in facing life’s challenges, they’re often better equipped to face similar ones with fortitude later on (This will not be the last person who challenges her in these ways).  We talked about the situation as an opportunity that might turn out some authentic and meaningful growth for everyone involved.  We did not solve the world’s problems, but what a start!

She thanked me, I thanked her, I thought about it as I swam, and now I’m processing it through reflective writing.  Conversations are wonderful processing mechanisms, and if you let them, they can lead to positive progress in unique and import ways.

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Dream Big.  Work Hard.  Be Well.

A Happy Thing

I belong to a small neighborhood gym.  It’s not much, but it’s plenty for me.  Something unique about the morning locker room population at this gym is that I’m among very few men under the age of a hundred & twenty five.  While that might be a slight exaggeration, there really is some serious senior socializing happening.  I love it.  These guys are wandering back and forth from the lounge to the steam room, wrapped in little white towels, talking about everything from politics to pizza, shrugging their shoulder, flapping their hands, and rolling their eyes at one another.  In the midst of that shrugging, flapping, and rolling, they seem to understand, appreciate, and enjoy the nuances of their little old man banter.  I enjoy it too.

I mostly listen.  However, knowing that in the relatively near future I myself am likely to be a towel wrapped, shoulder shrugging, hand flapping, eye rolling, little old man, I do try to work my way into the conversations every so often; for practice.  Isn’t it amazing, almost unfathomable?  I’m not complaining.  I know there are many joys that go hand in hand with aging…increased wisdom, enhanced knowledge, the early bird dinner special.  It’s just that there’s something mind-blowing about knowing that if I manage to last another forty years, I will undoubtedly be reflecting on what I now know as “today” with statements like, “it seemed like yesterday,” and it will seem like “yesterday,” only it won’t be “yesterday,” it will be forty years ago.  Time moves pretty darn fast.  I recently had cause to remember that every moment is precious, and that maximizing happiness is a good idea if you’re looking to live a happy life.  The undeniable truth is that each of us is happiest when we’re happy.

One of the guys at the gym is named Fred.  Yesterday Fred stopped me and asked, “Did you hear about Herman?”

I had not.

Fred told me, “He had a heart attack.

I asked how he was doing.

Fred said, “He died.”

My heart sank.  Last week Herman was going on about his grandchildren.  He was beaming.  He was filled with joy.  Herman was always filled with joy.  It billowed out of him like steam from a fog machine.  Wherever Herman was, so there was the joy…flowing from him, seeping out, spreading, attaching itself to everyone in its path.  Herman wouldn’t allow anything but happiness.  He smiled in the face of bitterness, offering the jelly donuts and bagels with cream cheese (which he brought to share every morning).

If someone said, “I’m having hip surgery next week,” Herman would say, “Oh…have a jelly donut.”

If someone said, “My sciatica is acting up,” Herman would say, “Oh…have a bagel with cream cheese.”

He would smile when he suggested these things.  He made the others want to accept his offerings.  He made people understand that it really was that simple to focus on joy.  During the moments Herman spent with you, you knew how to countermand the negative with the positive.  He was always quietly teaching an important life skill.  Maybe it was his mission.  I never realized how impactful Herman’s message was until I found out that he had passed.  Once I did, that realization was instantaneous.

Friends come in all shapes and sizes.  I never hung out with Herman outside of the locker room.  His children are old enough to be my parents.  We never talked on the phone or met up at the mall.  Regardless, Herman was my friend.  I hope he knew that.  I believe he did.  I will miss him, but to honor his legacy, I will do so with happiness in my heart.  I will carry Herman’s message with me, and work to exemplify his joyful spirit as I tread my path.  For me, old man-ness is but the blink of an eye away from right now.  I intend to be a joyful old man.  I will do my best to be joyful in all of the moments from now until then, and when I fail…I will do better.  I will find the positive stuff among the negative stuff, because I will focus on it.

I think that Herman was suggesting that our moments as we know them are fleeting and limited.  He thought that eating jelly donuts and bagels with cream cheese was a better use of time than complaining or feeling sad.  He thought that smiling was better than frowning, and he showed what he thought through his words and his actions.

Commendable, brave, and wise.

There’s a proverb that suggests, “Just when the caterpillar thought the world was ending, he turned into a butterfly.”  Fred told me that the last thing Herman said, with his friends and family at his side, just before he passed, was, “Don’t be sad, this is a happy thing.”  He said it with a smile.

Dignified.

I don’t know what happens to people when they die.  I wonder if caterpillars know what happens to their caterpillar friends as they loose them to cocoons.  I wonder if they’re scared when as they watch their fellow caterpillars embark on that journey, or as they prepare to take it themselves.  What do they think is going to happen?  Do they ever get to know?  Does it matter?

This reflection is dedicated to my friend Herman, and to his endless pursuit of happiness, even in the face of life’s many challenges and mysteries.  Thank you for sharing you gift of positive energy, and for always reminding me that happiness is the way.  Wherever you are along the pathways of your journey, I hope that peace and joy are with you.  Having known you for even a moment, I have to believe that they are.

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Dream Big.  Work Hard.  Be Well.

When You Can’t Be Certain, Be Positive

I’m about to wrap up my first year as a public school administrator.  While there have been many incredible challenges to overcome, a multitude of remarkable moments to celebrate, and seemingly limitless opportunities for reflective growth, in many ways, I feel as though the school year began about ten minutes ago.  As with any job in education, mine is filled with long and fast-paced workdays, that are chalk full of excitement.  Sometimes that fast pace is energizing, and other times it’s exhausting.  At all times (energized and exhausted), I feel truly fortunate to get to do this work!

One of the more delightful confirmations I’ve been repeatedly reminded of this year is that we in K-12 public education are doing good work for children!  We are helping them grow.  We are keeping them safe.  We are providing joyful spaces in which they are poised to thrive, and we are offering abundant opportunities for positive learning and growth.  We are not perfect.  I am certainly not perfect.  However, a building administrator’s lens has been an incredible and rewarding perspective from which to witness this outstanding process.  Furthermore, the “not perfect” part is the part that has been most valuable in my ability to build capacity.  For me, there is always something to learn, and always some direction in which to grow.

Coming in this past fall, I understood that the middle age learner experiences unreal development over the course of a relatively short period of time.  I knew (as has now been substantiated with sharp clarity) that children in the fall of their sixth-grade year are all but completely different people from who they become by the spring of their eight-grade year.  Essentially, they arrive as elementary students and leave as high school students.  It’s truly an amazing transformation!  What I didn’t fully understand at the onset was the magnitude of transformative growth that takes place over the duration of just one middle school year.

I am awed by the development that gets packed into ten and a half months of each of these amazing children’s lives.  What a remarkable test for them and for us.  It’s a wonderful, but confusing time to say the least.  Among the many positive aspects of engaging from a new perspective has been that all year long I’ve felt a heightened connectedness, due in large part to the fact that, like the students I serve, I’ve been growing at an accelerated rate too.  I’ve needed to.  My learning curve was quite steep (still climbing).  Like the students, I had to take what I knew of myself and actively transform with each step along a critical and challenging path.

It’s been an exhilarating and sometimes frightening course of action, and here’s some learning that hit me hard: during intense periods of growth it is not always possible to be certain.  Here’s a suggestion that’s been invaluable to me in the light of that learning:  even (and arguably – especially) when you can’t be certain, be positive!  The bad news (which technically doesn’t need to be articulated because of its obviousness) is that I am still not able to remain positive during every situation.  Ironically, I’m close to certain that I never will be.  Being a flawed human being isn’t always easy.  However, I am getting better with each moment that I actively put my mind to the task and reflect on my progress.  I’ve found success at building capacity through that mindfulness and reflection.

Possibly even more ironically, one situation that really pushes me to the limit is when others insist that they can’t, or don’t want to see though positive lenses.  Even worse (for my ability to remain positive) is when people actively decide not to grow (though they know we all do, whether we like it or not).  Just the other day someone looked at me and insisted, “I’m doing the best I can…this is who I am, and that’s what I’ve got to work with” with reference to a situation that’s negatively impacting a child.  It really didn’t sit well with me, so I insisted, “Well, you’re going to have to do better!”  That didn’t sit well with either of us.  For the person I was talking to, it probably sounded presumptuous (actually, probably not probably…but actually).  For me, I know there’s a better path to fostering understanding and growth than a short, frustrated outburst.

I appreciate the essence though.  The “doing the best I can,” part seems positive when it’s looked at in any given moment.  What gets me piqued is the “this is who I am, and that’s what I’ve got to work with” part.  People are living things.  All living things are constantly growing, changing, developing, and building capacity for new and augmented competencies all the time.  Especially when it comes to the wellbeing of the children we serve, we have to believe that our enhanced ability to serve them has a coaxial relationship with our consistent building of capacity.

We’ve got think positively about it.  Why not believe that we are each becoming something we might not be able to imagine?  I don’t exactly remember, but I would guess that as an incoming sixth grader I couldn’t have imagined what I would will be/feel/know, or what capacity I would have developed upon becoming an outgoing eighth grader.  Likewise, I couldn’t have known how this first year would transform me as an administrator, and I certainly don’t know what capacity I might build/access in the upcoming years of my career in educational leadership.  Because I can’t be certain, I’m going to be positive.  I am going to put myself out there, stretch my comfort zone, remain committed to reflective growth, and believe that the possibilities are limitless.  For me, it feels right, and so far…it’s proven at least a decent way to live, learn, serve, and lead.

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Dream Big.  Work Hard.  Be Well.

Rolling Out The Warm & Welcome Mat

I was not warm and welcoming to the first person who stood in my office doorway this morning.  In fact, I was somewhat curt…an unpleasant admission to say the least, but a true one nonetheless.  Incidentally, curt isn’t a good thing to be when you’re trying to grow positive relationships.  Also, I’m guessing it didn’t feel good to the person who experienced me being it.  I really was busy, and on a time crunch, but I know better.  I know that having taken even two minutes to acknowledge and appreciate a valued colleague would have been better for both of us than the thoughtless dismissal I executed this morning (a perfect ten though it was).

Could I really have been too busy to stand up for a moment, walk around my desk, approached a person who went out of her way to greet me, and say something like, “‘Good morning!” or “How ya doin’?”  Could I not have added something to the effect of, “Did you have a nice weekend?”  It was Monday morning after all.  Some might argue that Monday morning is a perfect time to ask about someone’s weekend!  Was I thinking that she would want to have an extended dialogue with me five minutes before school started?  That she would hold me up for some momentous amount of time with some extended diatribe about this or that?  How presumptuous!  In fact, she was probably walking by feeling obligated to say “hello” rather than averting her eyes and speeding past.  She was being nice.  I was being ridiculous.  I was not leading from my core values.

I wish that I were better at taking my own advice.  I’m constantly suggesting that a warm and welcoming attitude, with connected actions to match, is the way to go in fostering a positive culture of collaborative learning.  I am always saying that no great leader was ever venerated by his outstanding productivity, but rather his positive presence, and his ability to communicate authentic compassion for, and caring toward those he serves.  A great leader takes the time to show that he values people, and that’s because – he truly does value them!  And, in spite of my complete and utter lack of warmth or welcome this morning, that sentiment is a core component of my leadership philosophy.  It really is.  What is it about human beings that we can wholeheartedly subscribe to an idea, but not always adhere to it?  Darn moments of weakness…frustrating to say the least!  That’s where reflection comes in.  I didn’t do so good the first time, but believe you me (whatever that means) I made up for it during round two!

The very next person who stood at my office door might as well have been standing on a “warm and welcome” mat.  I even invited the poor fellow in!  Right in the middle of some extremely important typing that I was diligently fixated on, I stood up, walked around my desk, and sat down at the table…all the while, motioning for my colleague to sit down too.  He did.  I listened to some odds and ends about this and that for approximately two minutes before he excused himself.  Not only wasn’t it so bad, but I enjoyed myself…and we both felt good about the interaction.  What a nice injection of positive energy.  Furthermore, I think I may have been a more productive typist of extremely important stuff…and possibly even a more diligent fixator – take that earlier “too busy” self!

I sought out opportunities to spend a few minutes listening and talking to various people throughout the day.  I even extended an authentic apology to the person I “curted” out of my office this morning, and told her about this reflection.  She was probably thinking, “When will this guy stop talking…I’ve got things to do!”  She told me not to worry about.  We had a good laugh, and I decided not to (worry about it).  What I will do is continue reflecting, focus on developing myself as a leader, and work hard to learn from my experiences.  Worry wastes time.  Reflective growth is worthwhile (for me anyway)!  I’m ready and excited to roll out the “Warm and Welcome” mat tomorrow morning.  Join me if you think it might enhance your Tuesday!

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Dream Big.  Work Hard.  Be Well.

Hey, What’s Your Problem (And How Will You Solve It)?

This past week I was charged with putting together a presentation on Cognitive Learning Theory to deliver with a partner who would be doing the same, only on Constructivism.  In the end, we worked to draw parallels in a combined effort at outlining learning theory in practical ways.  Our intention in doing so was to inform best instructional practices from an educational leadership perspective, both for adults and children as learners.  We delivered our presentations on Wednesday evening.  I know what you’re thinking…my invitation must have been lost in the mail.  Please don’t feel left out.  While you were walking your dog, eating a lovely dinner with your family, or catching up on some pre-recorded episodic television, seven lucky educators were excitedly engaged in our riveting presentation.  That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

Regardless of the visceral enthusiasm that you may or may not feel upon hearing about the event, there was some content that might be useful to you, whether you’re in educational leadership…directly responsible for the ongoing learning and growth of various adult stakeholders in your school community, or a classroom teacher…responsible for the same with regard to your students.  Below are some summative thoughts from our take on how Cognitive Learning Theory and Constructivism might inform instructional design (for my reflection and your consideration).

How are you delivering information?  Learners come with some degree of knowledge, some individualized skill bases, and unique levels of readiness.  To varied extents, with care not to pigeonhole or limit, children at any age should be viewed as developmentally ready or not for processing further information and attaining certain skills.  Adults, in part because they have complex lives, filled with distractions, frustrations, interests, and aversions, can similarly be thought of as developmentally ready or not.

For adult learners, it could be argued that the intake of particular information, and the development of particular skills, is sometimes preempted by frame of mind.  For example, considerations like emotional availability, political culture, and relationship structures can be viewed as motivators or deterrents, and should not be overlooked when designing professional learning structures in school communities.  Also, even in ideal, collaborative school climates, knowledge of assorted learning styles is essential.  Some adult learners receive information well through lectures and presentations, others are better served to read articles and process on their own, while a third group might benefit from experiential, hands-on activities.

Are you offering tools and time to process?  Do you include structures in your lesion planning (classroom or PD) that give learners the opportunity to reiterate or clarify information that is being delivered.  Children and adults tend to come into learning situations with a framework that is in many ways unique.  Whether individually, with partners, in small groups, or through the facilitation of whole group discussions, it can be beneficial for learners to reflect on the intake of information, and to consider the reflection of others.  In what ways do you work to solidify the consumption of information, for individuals…and for the group?

In what ways do you perpetuate the making of connections?  When content isn’t relevant to the learner, the learner tends to be less engaged…or not engaged at all.  What is the meaning of any given learning or developmental scenario?  In what ways will the learner be able to incorporate new knowledge and skills into his/her paradigm, and make them useful in his/her daily life?  This is where the problem comes in.  “What’s your problem?” is an essential educational question.  We learn in the name of progress.  Educators are charge with the development, implementation, and maintenance of programs, systems, and structures that help stakeholders move along pathways of next steps aimed at achievement (students first and foremost, but all stakeholders to that end).

Problem solving is a key ingredient in forward progress along those pathways…and, in order to solve problems, we need to have problems to solve.  One approach to critical processing with regard to relevant problem solving is the incorporation of problem finding into the learning process.  What structures can you put in place that will allow your learners to think of and explore problems that are relevant to them and their individual and collective developmental pathways?  How can you help them put the learning into play, in real time, and in meaningful ways?  What can you do to provide experiences that parallel, or even resemble the experiences for which the learning is intended to inform and enhance?  Again, what’s your problem?  What’s their problem?  By what processes can it…and will it be solved?

What’s the bottom line?  Through a relatively basic lens, when combined, Cognitive learning Theory and Constructivism contend that our brains are hard wired to make sense of the world in which we live.  We are always in the process of construction new knowledge and developing new skills.  Our brains take in information, process it, make sense of it, store it, and access it when needed.  Additionally, there is a social component of learning and development that, when incorporated into instruction can add depth to development and enhance the process/outcomes for everyone involved.  The social component, when accessed effectively, can build comprehension by adding multiple perspectives to an otherwise individual experience.

This post is filled with questions rather than answers, in large part because I’m much better at asking questions than I am at giving answers.  It’s how I learn.  My hope is that considering these questions will assist me (and anyone else who cares to consider them) better design learning opportunities to meet the relevant and connected needs of my school community (and theirs), and effectively address the many meaningful ways in which we each contribute to the progress of the world at large.

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Dream Big.  Work Hard.  Be Well.