Sunday, October 15, 2017

Achieving a Balance

When it comes to work, I have had to battle some internal conflicts over the years.   Early on in my career as a school administrator, and then again in my work in my current position as an ICLE Senior Fellow, I had to be put in place, thankfully, by those who care a great deal about me.  In the past, the challenge for me had always been putting too much focus on the job and not enough time and effort on my family or personal well-being.  I am going to try to speak about my battles with the work-life balance and attempt to offer up some sound advice for all of us that, at times, can be consumed with professional work.  My perspective always comes back to some sage advice that my mother gave my wife and me when we became parents, “You never get this time back so make the most of it.”

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The work-life balance as I see it can be broken down into three main categories: professional, family, and personal.  The first two types are self-explanatory. Personal takes into account your lifestyle, health, friends, and anything else that contributes to your well-being.  When the demands of our jobs are factored in, finding a balance between these areas can pose quite the challenge.  Add the pressure that we all put on ourselves to perform at a high level and what results are a hole that at times is difficult to get out of. 

When it comes to my professional work, I allocate my time each day to ensure tasks get done.  Yes, I am a list guy.  For the most part, I write out all tasks that have to be completed the night before.  I did this as a principal and still to this day embrace this practice.  Having a schedule and sticking to it helped me be more productive.  It forced me to prioritize specific tasks while delegating others that had no real impact on student learning. However, I am not a slave to my list.  Things beyond my control can and do come up.  That's where flexibility and patience come into play. Both attributes are instrumental in helping us achieve professional success, but also in achieving a positive balance in life.

Let me share an example of what this looked like.  As high school principal, I conducted 2-3 unannounced observations a day.  The week before I would not only schedule these on my calendar, but I would also set time aside to write each up the same day so that I could conduct the post-conference with the teachers the very next day.  I not only committed to this schedule but also made it known to my secretary that I shouldn’t be bothered unless necessary. Some might think this is extreme, but this practice helped me to focus on getting my work done at school so that I could enjoy priceless time with my family at home each evening. The work-life balance starts here. I chose not to bring work home, period. Sometimes I would stay a bit later to get things done, but the weekends were off limits.  That was family time.

Social media posed another challenge to the balance.  Twitter was a considerable time zap early on, and then the use of other tools began to take a negative toll on my time. Once I got that under control my travel began to turn the tables in the wrong direction.  In both cases, my fantastic wife took the initiative to explain how each was negatively impacting our family.  As my father always says, “There is nothing more important in life than family.” Never take for granted what you have right in front of you.  Social media has had such an incredible impact on my professional and personal life as well as many of you that are reading this post.  The key here is not to let it drive a wedge between those who depend on us the most – our family.  

When it comes to social media and writing in general, I put time aside when I am either on the road or when my wife and kids are at school.  This small shift has had a magical effect.  When they are home, I am more present, both physically and emotionally.  We also commit to at least two family trips a year.  As far as travel is concerned, ICLE has been amazing, as they have encouraged me to scale back to achieve this balance.  I can’t explain how awesome it is to work for a company who actively promotes attaining and maintaining a work-life balance.  This has enabled me to be home more during the workweek and work towards eliminating weekend travel. As a cheer dad, this is crucial in the eyes of my daughter as all of her competitions are on weekends. 

So, what about the personal component of the work-life balance?  Here is where all of us need to be a bit selfish.  Our well-being is not only good for us on a personal level, but it has positive impacts on our professional work and family life.  As a high school principal, I had a lengthy commute from Staten Island, NY to New Milford, NJ.  Each morning I had to drive through the gauntlet, which was my term for the journey that took me over the Goethals Bridge and then through a good stretch of the NJ Turnpike. If I didn’t leave early enough, I would be stuck in traffic for hours.  Thus, I left my house each morning at 5:15 AM. 

Why that early you might ask?  This is where I began to add some balance to one of the three categories above.  On a personal level, I had to make the time to work out in the morning or else it just wouldn’t happen.  I would leave at this time to not only get my workout in but to also open the fitness center at 6:00 AM for students that wanted the same opportunity. Having a routine was nice.  With my crazy travel schedule, it is more difficult to be consistent. My rule of thumb now is a minimum of four days working out each week. If I do not achieve this, then I attempt to deprive myself of something I have grown to enjoy as of late – craft beer.  

Equally as important in the personal balance category is trying to eat healthily. As a principal, I had a fairly strict eating regime that was consistent.  Now that has all changed when I am not home.  I am genetically prone to high cholesterol and am currently on a statin to control it.  With this condition life on the road becomes even more of a challenge because it is virtually impossible to eat the way I want.  Just look at the calorie counts of many salads, and you know exactly what I am talking about.  Every change matters, no matter how small.  For me I get my salad dressing on the side, avoid fried foods and desserts, and eat smaller meals throughout the day.  

I really could go on and on about my ideas on achieving a balance, but that is not the reason for this post.  My hope is if you are dealing with some of the struggles that I have encountered this post might help you get a better handle on finding a balance that works for you, work, and your family.  Below is some general advice that applies to the three main categories outlined in this post:

  • Don’t let work get in the way of what’s most important – your family and personal well-being.  Establish a schedule that works for you and be “present” during family time.
  • Take care of yourself!  Try to make some small shifts to your diet and make the time to exercise a couple of times per week. Go to the doctor and get a check-up regularly. 
  • Scale back on the social media time.  I am one of the biggest proponents of PLN’s and engaging in chats is excellent for our professional growth. However, making the time for real, face-to-face conversations with our family over a meal is crucial to the balance.
  • Get outside!  Walks with the dog, family, or just on your own to reflect can be invigorating.
  • Make time for your friends and neighbors in your immediate area.  I have been doing this more and more when I am at home thanks to the push from my wife.  
  • Find or resurrect a hobby.

I hope you all will consider sharing how you go about achieving a balance in your life as well as some of the challenges you face.  Achieving a balance all comes down to the fact that we care for those who we love, depend on, work with, and who depend on us.  When it is all said and done, I want to succeed on a professional level, but achieving success as a dad, husband, and friend in the eyes of those I care about is what truly matters. 

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Why Learning and People Should Come First

I was recently working on my slide deck for a three-day workshop that will take participants on an immersive experience into digital leadership and learning.  My primary objective for all multiday workshops is to illustrate the vital role that technology can play in improving teaching, learning, and leadership.  Most of the first day is spent on emphasizing the importance of a pedagogy first, technology second mindset. The bottom line is that if we don’t get the instructional design right first, then the chances of technology improving learning outcomes is slim to none.  

Throughout my slide deck are numerous questions to get participants to reflect on their practice and think strategically about changes that they or their school(s) need to make.  After having attendees discuss in groups their responses to each question I have them report out their thoughts using a variety of tools. For the most part, my integration of technology into workshops is to foster greater collaboration, showcase how to increase engagement authentically, formatively assess, and creatively showcase what they have learned.   In some cases, I will directly train educators on how to use various tools, but learning to use the edtech tools is the easy part.  Integrating them to support high-level learning and having evidence to support this is the challenging work. 

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As I line up my reflective questions, I also determine which tools I am going to have participants use to share out.  My favorite and most reliable tend to be TodaysMeet, Padlet, Mentimeter, and AnswerGarden.  For the first day of this particular workshop, I had also planned to use Tackk and ProConIt, two lesser-known tools that I have been using for the past couple of years.  As I went into both accounts, I was shocked to learn that Tackk had suddenly shut down on September 30 and when trying to access ProConIt an error message notified me that the site was not working.  A few days later I still have not been able to access ProConIt successfully.

Fortunately for me, I was able to swap out both tools for others that are similar.  The lesson learned is valuable for anyone using technology to support professional practice.  How would you manage if one day you walked into your classroom or school to discover that Google Classroom, Seesaw, or any other tool that was thoroughly embraced no longer existed? Technology comes and goes.  Sometimes it doesn’t work the way we want, in some cases, it fails to load, and then there is the chance that the tool ceases to exist.  

In the classroom, we must be mindful of what is most important – the quality of the learning and the interactions between people. Both of these outcomes should never be driven by a tool, device, or program.  It is sometimes hard not to get sucked in by all the potential benefits that come with technology.  Engagement is one of them. Yes, we want kids engaged. However, it is critical that engagement leads to evidence of learning.  This point comes back to my mantra of pedagogy first, technology second. Technology should never drive our work, but instead be used strategically to improve teaching, learning, and leadership. 

Technology is not a replacement for practice supported by research and what has been found to work consistently.  The ultimate failsafe is a well-designed lesson that gets kids to think while applying their learning in a meaningful way.  This is why using a tool like the Rigor Relevance Framework to develop a pedagogically-sound foundation first will help to ensure a quality learning experience with and without technology.  It is also important to understand that technology will not automatically lead to better results. We must be mindful of not only how it will improve the task(s) at hand, but also to not rely on it to the point that we can’t move beyond a tool or program if or when it ceases to exist or work.

The same advice applies to the tools that many of us use to connect, learn, and grow.  The Personal Learning Network (PLN) is fueled by the connections made thanks to a variety of social media tools, most notably Twitter. How would you manage or cope if Twitter tomorrow decided to shut its doors?  To be honest, I think many connected educators wouldn’t know what to do with themselves. My point here is not to place all of our eggs in just one tool or platform. 

Technology has enabled all of us to do some pretty amazing things when it comes to our professional practice and will continue to do so. Just be wary of losing focus on what truly matters. Without people, the tech doesn’t matter when it comes to learning. 

Sunday, October 1, 2017

Scaling Change to Create Schools Learners Need and Deserve

We live in exciting times although it is often difficult to keep up with how fast society is changing. Many of us can remember a world where there was no Internet or smartphones.  Now we not only have smart watches, but rumors are swirling that a global Wi-Fi network powered by commercial airliners is in the works that will provide people access virtually anywhere in the world.   We keep seeing major disruptions across the service sector. Up until a few years ago, there was no Uber or Airbnb. Now millions of people are hailing rides and booking rooms in ways that are more convenient and cost-efficient. With the exponential rate of change we are seeing, it is a bit exciting to think about what the future holds.

Education is beginning to experience some pretty exciting changes as well.  Across the globe, evolving technologies are being utilized to engage students in a variety of ways authentically.  Critical competencies such as creativity, collaboration, and communication are now easier to demonstrate through the use of numerous tools.  Classroom and school design are beginning to move away from what many of us experienced as students.   Flexible spaces, virtual learning options, and makerspaces are providing students with new opportunities to demonstrate what they know. Social media has flattened the world as educators have discovered how powerful this standard medium is in enabling the sharing of ideas, strategies, and resources regardless of time or place. Just like society, the future of education is bright.

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There is one caveat here though.  The pace of change in the education space has not matched that which we see across the world. Even though progress has and continues to be made, the paragraph above represents a small fraction of the education space. So, what gives? Why education needs to change has been discussed at length by authors and bloggers alike for years now.  If providing compelling reasons, research and opinions were enough I suppose education would look and feel a lot different at scale now.  We have also been exposed to all the many technology tools, programs, and pedagogical shifts that can support and enhance learning for students.  Some improvement claims are valid, while others tend to be on the fluffier side. With all this being said, change at scale still tends to be elusive. 

The conundrum painted above is not as perplexing as one might think.  I often go back to the work of Simon Sinek and his Golden Circle.  The "why" and "what" dominate conversations, writings, and presentations in my opinion.  I am not saying this is entirely a bad thing.  This is ideal for short-term satisfaction, but the "how" is the key to sustainability and scalability. In Learning Transformed, Tom Murray and I went to great lengths to unearth the why by presenting a vast research base to validate the ideas presented. The how is framed through the Innovative Practices in Action (IPA's) found in each chapter.  What often holds educators and schools back is taking great ideas and showing how they can be implemented under a variety of conditions and contexts. The video below provides a bit more insight into our thinking around this.

Change begins with you. Never forget that. The key, however, is to create a movement through collective actions that fundamentally improve learning for all.  Scalability matters if the goal is to build schools of the future by transforming teaching, learning, and leadership in the process.  Details on how this can and is being accomplished in the context of the real challenges educators and schools face on a daily basis can help move isolated pockets of excellence to scalable changes that influence all learners.  

Sunday, September 24, 2017

To Innovate or Not to Innovate

Innovation has been a hot topic of discussion for the past couple of years even though it is not a new or novel concept.  New ideas leading to improvements have been occurring since the beginning of time.  All one has to do is take a look at the evolution of the human species to see how important innovation has been leading to society as we now know it.   Leonardo da Vinci and Galileo Galilei could be considered the forefathers of modern innovators.  Their ideas and inventions paved the way for all who followed. The industrial revolution brought the topic to the forefront. Shortly after the likes of Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, and Alexander Graham Bell blazed a trail with some pretty amazing inventions that improved the lives of many.  

The rise of entrepreneurs in every facet of society, coupled with advances in technology, continue to push the conversation. With changes to current professions, entirely new occupations, and different expectations to succeed in a world that we have no idea what it will look like, the pressure is on to evolve or else.  Innovation has not trickled but instead flowed into the education space. It seems like everyone is talking about the need to innovate to improve education as a whole as well as learning for students. As a result, we have seen some pretty amazing changes in a short period in schools across the world. 

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I am all for innovation in education and played my part as a high school principal to usher in changes, both big and small, that led to evidence of improvements in teaching, learning, and leadership.  It is important, however, to pause and reflect on what we are trying to accomplish.  A recent Edutopia piece titled The ‘No' in ‘Innovate' really got me thinking about this topic.  The author challenges all of us with the notion that sometimes the best way to innovate is to say no. Innovation for many has become just another thing added to a long list of initiatives or expectations. 

Not all innovations are good for education when repeatedly packed on top of each other, and we can't assume that positive changes will always result.  It is also important to note that "saying" something is innovative and actually "showing" that it is are two different paradigms.  As the common saying goes, the proof is in the pudding.  A particular direction is needed to help align innovative change to the vision, mission, and culture of a respective school.  At the individual level, a basic need to support or enhance practice is at the core of a decision to innovate or not. It is important to consider both the short and long game as to what you hope to accomplish. 

So how does one decide to innovate or not?  To help with this decision consider the questions below. 

Why will it improve what you or your students do? 
How do you know it has led to an improvement? 
How do others determine if it has led to an improvement? 
What is needed to scale the effort(s)?

Innovation is a collective endeavor geared at not only individual but more importantly system improvement.  Research can be used to inform and influence the process but does not need to drive it.  What is important is to show how innovative practices can, and will, improve our work.  Evidence that illustrates efficacy helps move innovation from an isolated practice focusing on small pockets to scalable change that impacts an entire culture.  This is something Tom Murray and I showcase and discuss this extensively in Learning Transformed. Start small, but think and plan for big.  

Innovate with a purpose, but make sure this mission extends well beyond an individual level.  In the end, it's not about how much you innovate in education, but the resulting impact of the changes on the collective. 

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Get Your SWOT On

Leaders often find and leverage tools, frameworks, and systems to support their own change, as well as that of their school or district.  There are many great options out there.  As a principal, I in particular, found success using the Rigor Relevance Framework as a means to integrate technology with purpose in order to improve student-learning outcomes.  This framework helped us to really focus on improving instruction first before throwing technology into the mix. This then became part of a set of strategies and competencies that guided our overall digital transformation efforts – The Pillars of Digital Leadership. My work now is focused on helping leaders, regardless of position, to leverage these resources to successfully implement and sustain needed change. 

Outside of education there are other tools and frameworks that can assist with various change efforts, many of which come from the business world. Business leaders know that assessing the status of an effort prior to the change process is crucial.  Building awareness is also a key element. As an innovative leader, you are reinventing the school culture through a different lens. As such, it is important to get a sense of the journey ahead by taking stock of where you are in the current moment. Prior to leading any new initiative, you can use an adapted version of a well-known business tool to take a snapshot of where you perceive the current culture to be in its current situation. Using this adapted tool may reveal important data and insight that helps you understand the status of your culture in order to successfully implement sustainable change. 

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In BrandED, Trish Rubin and I introduced the SWOT analysis.  I will elaborate on how this tool can be used to create or enhance a brand effort, but in all honesty, it can be used to tee up any new change initiative.  SWOT Analysis is a useful technique for understanding your strengths and weaknesses, and for identifying both the opportunities open to you and the threats you face. Adapted from BrandED, here is how you can use this tool to implement a positive brand presence.
Every business brand journey includes the use of this tool, an activity known as a SWOT analysis. In conducting a SWOT, the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats to brand success are stated and examined.  The SWOT activity is done in the very early stages of development of a mission so that the brand strategy can be assured of success (Armstrong & Kotler, 2015).  
Adapted for educators, a SWOT analysis is a chance to understand how you perceive your school community and can help you articulate a brand that addresses the current state of the organization. Especially interesting to leaders will be the opportunities for growth that are identified, which can be used as tangible measures of brand success, and the threats that are challenging the school. Making those threats a target and finding ways to see opportunities in those challenges can strengthen the school’s brand. A SWOT analysis can serve you well in your initial reflections about both your personal brand and your school’s. A SWOT process conducted with frankness yields valuable information about the current state of an organization and directs decision making. Once the analysis is complete, it forms a direction for leaders as they take on their personal brand, as they can more clearly see themselves serving the needs of the community.  
As business managers have found, putting yourself through your own SWOT analysis can even further inform the building of your own brand. Why do a personal SWOT? A SWOT analysis may goad you into real action as you advance your own brand in real time. Honestly assessing your strengths and weaknesses and reflecting on any opportunities or threats that are present in your leadership style can help you assess your capacities before you build a professional brand that you own as the storyteller-in-chief. 
As you think about the changes you want to implement in your classroom, school, district, or organization take the time to conduct a SWOT analysis (see matrix below). This simple, yet effective process can help to identify potential pitfalls while building greater support for the effort. 

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Cited sources

Armstrong, G., & Kotler, P. (2015). Marketing: An introduction (12th
     ed.). Boston, MA: Pearson.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Learning from Airbnb To Create an Amazing Learner Experience

Over the past few years we have seen disruptive innovation take hold.  The entrepreneurial spirit, aided by advances in technology, has propelled the creation of new businesses that consumers are flocking to.  One of those businesses is Airbnb. I don’t want to assume that everyone knows what this company is all about so here is a summary from Wikipedia.
Airbnb is an online marketplace and hospitality service, enabling people to lease or rent short-term lodging including vacation rentals, apartment rentals, home stays, hostel beds, or hotel rooms.  The company does not own any lodging; it is merely a broker and receives percentage service fees (commissions) from both guests and hosts in conjunction with every booking.  It has over 3,000,000 lodging listings in 65,000 cities and 191 countries, and the host sets the cost of lodging.
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The concept is amazing as it benefits both the consumer and supplier while cutting costs.  However, the success of Airbnb as a company goes well beyond what many of us see or experience.  Their success as a disruptive innovator lies in the company culture that has been cultivated.  They greatly invest in their people, which as a strategy only has an upside. I recently read 3 Lessons From Airbnb on Creating an Amazing Employee Experience by Jacob Morgan. To lead off the piece he shares the following. 
Employee experience is a hallmark of a forward-thinking company that cares about its employees and wants to provide them with the resources to be successful.
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I encourage you to read the entire short piece.  In the article Morgan goes on to list and describe 3 important lessons that create a strong employee experience. Each in its own right is a pivotal component in building relationships. It all comes down to relationships. Without trust, there is no relationship. Without relationships, no real learning occurs. Here is how those principles can be embraced in schools to improve the learner experience.

Involve students and staff

Student agency is the key to building powerful relationships with the most important stakeholder group in schools.  Affording students choice, allowing them to use their voice, and providing them the opportunity to advocate will empower them to better own their learning.  This type of involvement also leads to the creation of a better school culture beyond the classroom. We can’t forget the adults in this process. Educator agency is just as important.

Be authentic

Will the real you please step forward? That is what students and staff want to see.  Mike Robbins has a pretty good perceptive on the power of authenticity. He writes:
Authenticity is what gives us freedom to be ourselves and be comfortable with whom we are, and it’s also what gives us access to connecting with other people in a meaningful and genuine way.  This is true power of authenticity and when we embrace it, even though it can be uncomfortable and scary at times, we give ourselves and those around us one of the most important gifts of all — the real us.
Be true to yourself and others. When you fail (and you will), showcasing your vulnerable side will only help to strengthen the bonds with those you work with and for. Authenticity in leadership from your particular lens and position is critical in building a thriving learning culture. 

Continually evolve

If you want to make a difference then lead differently, learn differently, and act differently. Change begins with us.  Don’t expect others to change if you don’t first. Where it goes from there depends on the momentum that is built. The process of evolving as a whole is about overcoming fear, learning from mistakes, and challenging yourself to be better. When it comes to your school or district, the system will only evolve if you continue to push the envelope.

Don’t prepare students for something. Prepare them for anything. In doing so the learning experience for our kids should be nothing less than amazing.  If this is the goal then the work culture has to be equally as amazing for the adults. This is what I have learned from Airbnb. 

Sunday, September 3, 2017

Humanity's Gift

Love and compassion are necessities, not luxuries. Without them, humanity cannot survive.― Dalai Lama

Typically, I am a very focused writer.  Each post, for the most part, contains ideas and strategies focusing on improving teaching, learning, and leadership.  I often talk about accountability, evidence, and efficacy. This post will not follow that recipe. Please excuse any grammatical mistakes. 

When I began writing this post my house was being pelted with a wind-driven rain from the remnants of Hurricane Harvey.  By the time I actually got around to posting this piece on my blog the Houston area is still drying out. This has now been the worst flood in the history of the United States.  Having road out Hurricane Sandy in New York City back in 2012 I can say that this experience was worse.  In just 57 hours Harvey went from basically nothing to a Category 4 hurricane, the strongest to hit Texas in close to 50 years. The flooding and damage in the areas where the storm hit is unimaginable.  

We received approximately 28 inches of rain in just two days. Things down here were worse than what people were seeing on the news. For a 24-hour period Saturday into Sunday, there were non-stop tornado warnings with a bunch touching down in our neighborhood making sleep difficult. My kids slept in the closet for two nights as they were scared to death. All roads in/out of our community were flooded, so we couldn’t get out if we wanted to. I was outside constantly draining my pool as the surrounding drains wouldn’t have been able to do anything with the water.  The pool could have flooded my entire house from the back.  On Monday morning the water was only a few feet from our house. I wasn't worried until then. We have a lake on the left side of our house as well as one in the front.  The lake across the street had spilled over and merged with another lake.  All I could do at that point was pray for the rain to stop. Click HERE is you want to see a video from the early stages of the storm. You can also view some storm picture on my Instagram account

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Late Monday afternoon a river began pouring into our section and the forecast wasn’t looking too good. Water levels kept rising. Since the water was only a few feet from our doors we decided to seal them using a method that one of our community members recommended on Facebook. One of our saving graces were the local Facebook pages in our community offering support, advice, and needed humor to take our minds off things.  The lake to the left of our house eventually breached.  We moved all important stuff to the second level. We had friends with boats who could get us out if needed. It was terrifying to know that no matter what you did it would not be enough if nature had its way.  

Monday night we planned for the worst. However, our prayers were answered Tuesday morning. Even though it was still raining the water began to recede. We had 33 inches of rain while south of us had over 40. We felt blessed and extremely lucky at the same time. Both airports were still closed at this time and flooding to the south of us had turned catastrophic. My hope was that the water had receded enough so I could get out of my community and help in any way I could. Finally, later that day I was able to begin to help those in need in my community. Thanks to my neighbor and his truck we made it to the grocery store to buy needed supplies for displaced families. As we were buying supplies people in line began to chip in. I began to shake and held back tears.  Humanity was beginning to rise to the occasion.

By Wednesday the water in the community I live in had receded for the most part. Our efforts were now focused on helping those around us who were not as fortunate. I teared up when I arrived at the local church with supplies and saw there was a line to drop off items. More people were volunteering across Harvey stricken areas than were needed. We saw (and are still seeing) people step up and work together regardless of race, ethnicity, political affiliations, sexual orientation, and whatever other conflicts arose in the past. Now that's humanity at its finest. Some people were surely wondering why I was posting so much about what I was specifically doing to help. It's pretty simple - my hope was that my small actions would inspire more people to take action and help. I told people on Facebook not to be proud of me for doing what was right. Be proud if a movement results. 

Shana White shared this on Facebook, "Our character is revealed to others by the fruit we produce. Adversity usually provides more character and transparency than comfortable times, but they both provide a true indication of who you are. What kind of fruit do others see from you?" Life can't always be about what we do for ourselves. It has to be equally about what we do for others. Will you step up?

Thursday was a physically exhausting day. It had been 6 days since the hurricane hit and many homes that took on water just had it recede. A bunch of us from my neighborhood drove 30 miles south to hard-hit Richmond, TX to help out the father of one of our neighbors. I in particular wasn't ready for the scale of the flooding. Watching it on TV and then seeing it in person are two different things. Mountains of debris littered the neighborhood. However, what you saw were people from all walks of life coming together to pitch in and save homes.

While I was there I kept getting email notifications that brought me to tears (again). Friends, former students, and neighbors had begun to send money to my PayPal account. This all started the a day before when a member of my PLN asked if he could send money for my supply runs. I never asked for any money to be sent and still haven't, but you cannot deny the human spirit.  I used some of the money to buy pizza for the entire neighborhood where we were helping. This was made possible thanks to the compassion of others. There is so much good in people. This is my big takeaway these past few days. I didn’t know what tomorrow would bring for me, but I do know countless more people near and far would rise to the occasion to help. 
There is no exercise better for the heart than reaching down and lifting people up.”  ― John Holmes
By Friday I couldn’t believe it had already been a week since the storm hit. This was the longest seven day stretch of my life. After helping out my neighbors with a flooded home the day before I took to social media at night. Twitter was used to build awareness and share information about where donations were needed. Facebook had been a godsend in terms of identifying people who needed immediate help. I learned of a few families who lost everything. Thanks to some generous donations I was able to purchase gift cards for clothes/supplies and hand delivered them that morning. 

On my way back home I saw local CFISD schools doing a “fill the boat” fundraiser. It's always great to see students, teachers, and parents rallying together to support the needs of others. The rest of the day was spent working to save flooded homes. Many homes were still flooded and couldn’t be tended to and the majority of Texans don't have flood insurance, which makes the situation much worse. My neighbors and I formed our own little cleanup crew. We were able to hit two different locations. What was awesome to see was how local cleanup crews from across the greater Houston community formed. Social media was being used to organize and dispatch teams to specific addresses. I even learned of a new app called Zello that many were using to coordinate efforts. So many people took off work and time away from their families to help people, many of which they didn’t even know. It was a humbling experience to see many people use their privilege for good.   
"Remember that the happiest people aren’t those getting more, but those giving more”. - H. Jackson Brown
As I continue to write I cry, something I did quite often all last week.  My family was relatively safe throughout this ordeal, but the destruction just a bit south of us broke, and continues to break, my heart.  The local news showed non-stop destruction that was unfathomable.  It also brought to light the countless stories of heroism, bravery, relationship building, service, empathy, and unselfishness. Thankfully I was home for this ordeal.  I work with some incredible people at the International Center for Leadership in Education and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Even though my flights to the Northeast were cancelled I wasn’t going anywhere even if they weren’t.  I had the peace of mind to put work and travel on the back burner to be here for my family.  You can’t put a price tag on that.  

All week I was bombarded with texts, calls, emails, and social media posts from friends and family all over the world.  People I barely know or didn’t even know at all took the time to reach out. No one really knew what we were dealing with and how bad the flooding was in my community.  As I posted daily updates on my Facebook page more and more people offered prayers and support.  Through it all everyone asked what they could do to help or wished they were in a position to do more.  The fact of the matter is if you made the effort and took the time to reach out to anyone impacted by this storm then you did all you could do.

My wife and I can't thank many of you enough for all the thoughts and prayers that were sent our way. The days since the storm started have been excruciatingly long and nerve-raking, but the messages of hope and optimism helped us get through this even though the recovery effort has a long way to go. As all the messages of support flew in so many people asked what they could do. My response was simple – “You’ve already done something just by showing you care.”  Showing you care for anyone here in TX was all anyone could do from afar. One of humanity’s greatest gifts is empathy and showing others compassion, no matter where you are

It was refreshing in particular to see social media used for a greater purpose other than just pushing out ideas, articles, thoughts, and resources.  I developed a greater appreciation (and at times cynicism if we are being honest) for how Twitter in particular was used.   When you look at life through a completely different lens you see things that you never realized were right in front of you.  By putting work, personal issues, and politics aside just for a few minutes many people rose to the occasion.  They modeled the most enduring characteristics of humanity and helped countless people (including me) get through this horrific ordeal.  This might be the most important life lesson we can impart on our students and continue to learn ourselves.  

Life is a gift. Together we can learn to better appreciate this gift. We must use our various forms of privilege, including digital spaces, that many of us have not just during catastrophe’s like this, but also in other cases when we are compelled to do the right thing. There is more LOVE here than water. You can't go anywhere any not see it. Love conquers all including any differences we have that might seem insurmountable. This is humanity’s gift. 

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Will You Step Up?

Remember that the happiest people are’t those getting more, but those giving more” - H. Jackson Brown, Jr.

A major Category 4 Hurricane hit the Corpus Christie area in South Texas last Friday leaving a path of destruction.  The worst rain event in United States history is currently impacting Southeast Texas and now other parts of the state as well as Louisiana.  Flood waters continue to rise in many parts of Houston. There is no way at this point that anyone can begin to estimate what the eventual damage will be financially. Water isn’t the only thing rising. I have watched on the news and seen firsthand while delivering supplies and donations the power of the human spirit.  People are rising up to face this monumental challenge.  Not just Texas, but people from all over the country are stepping up to help those in need. Regardless of race, religion, politics, ethnicity, and sexual orientation Houston is showcasing the best in humanity.  We are seeing the same further south around Corpus Christie. 

People still need you help. Fellow Texan Kasey Bell penned an informative post the other day detailing how you can help ALL areas of Texas that have been impacted by Harvey.  Please click HERE and see all the options that are available.  Houston Texans star J.J. Watt has done an incredible job raising millions of dollars (donate HERE). Houston ISD in particular needs help for their students.  Check out this amazing letter from Los Angeles Unified School District, which outlines what HISD needs.  You can also donate directly to the HISD Foundation. You can also find a list of schools all over the Houston area who need help HERE. If there are links to what schools need down in the Corpus Christie/Port Aransas area please post below in the comments.

"The purpose of human life is to serve, and to show compassion and the will to help others." -  Albert Schweitzer

I am currently working on a longer post that outlines what I experienced during Hurricane Harvey these past couple of days.  For days my family and I were trapped in our home surrounded by flood waters.  No water got in our home. We were lucky.  Once the storm began the true power of social media took hold. Friends, family, colleagues, and connected educators used the medium to reach out.  Even people that I didn’t think I had the strongest relationships with put any differences they might have had aside and demonstrated empathy and compassion.  With each message I teared up. Small gestures of kindness mattered to me and they matter to others. I have no problem stating that I really needed it because I did. Each message made a positive difference.

While being trapped in my home I was able to spend a great deal of precious time with my family.  At other times I took to social media and utilized my large networks to build greater awareness of the catastrophe taking place right before my eyes.  This is where a person's lens can change.  I have learned that Tweetdeck, my Twitter tool of choice, is both a blessing and a curse.  On one hand, it was great to see so many people across my network offer words of support, prayer, and compassion.  These messages were not just directed to me, but to others.  That is how social media should work.  

On the other hand, I saw silence. The power of social media is squandered if it is not used to build awareness and people up during challenging times. Influence in a box doesn’t matter much to those outside of it.  Now is the time to actually back up all the talk about relationships, empathy, and leadership on social media. Not everyone can donate money or be on hand to volunteer.  We will continue to work down here to address the physical needs of displaced families.  However, anyone can send messages of encouragement, hope, and support. I implore you to use your networks, influence, and social media channels to build more awareness as to the situation down here.  It only becomes real for some people if those with large followings start discussing it. It also provides an opportunity to deliver much needed emotional support and compassion to people that really need it right now.

Houston and Southeast Texas are watching. Corpus Christie and South Texas are watching. The world is watching. We all have not just an opportunity, but a responsibility to use this amazing tool that many of us talk about professionally to do some real good.  Sharing this post is a start. Reaching out to educators and schools to see what help they need or offering kind words is another option. Will you step up? 

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Be the Example

The world is changed by your example, not by your opinion.” – Paulo Coelho

Change is hard.  I have been writing about this fact for years now.  It becomes even harder when we are not modeling the expectations that we set for others. This was the case for me early on during my days as a principal.  When it came to technology and innovation, I was great at telling others what they should be doing. After getting on Twitter in 2009 I realized that we had to be better for our kids.  As such I did what I was trained to do and what I thought was the most logical course of action to get buy-in from my staff.   I drafted memos and emails that provided guidance and examples.  I spent a great deal of time writing numerous detailed memos on everything from technology tools to improve assessment, developing a Personal Learning Network (PLN), and embracing innovative ideas. Then I waited.

The wait for any sort of change was never-ending.  I probably would have been still waiting if I hadn’t grabbed a teacher I had a good relationship with and asked him why no one was embracing all these new ideas and strategies I was pushing out. He was pretty blunt and to this day I am indebted to him. Basically he told me that no one was integrating technology or implementing innovative ideas because I wasn’t doing any of it myself.  His words and simple advice provided a great lesson in leadership.  

Asking others to do what we are not doing, or have not done, ourselves doesn’t lead to meaningful change. Research supports this claim. James Kouzes and Barry Posner have researched the topic of leadership for over 30 years looking at thousands of leaders in a wide range of industries throughout the world. Below are some key takeaways in relation to being the example:

Eloquent speeches about common values are not nearly enough. Exemplary leaders know that it’s their behavior that earns them respect. The real test is whether they do what they say; whether their words and deeds are consistent. Leaders set an example and build commitment through simple, daily acts that create progress and build momentum.
The personal-best projects we studied were distinguished by the fact that all of them required relentless effort, steadfastness, competence, and attention to detail.  It wasn’t the grand gesture that had the most lasting impact. Instead it was the power of spending time with someone, of working side-by-side with colleagues, of telling stories that made values come alive, of being highly visible during times of uncertainty, of handling critical incidents with grace and discipline, and of asking questions to get people to focus on values and priorities.

Leadership is not about telling people what do to, but instead taking them where they need to be. Setting an example through your own practice illustrates to others that change is a shared endeavor. It is about the collective where a title, position, and power don’t give someone a pass.  When it all is said and done leadership is about action, not talk and opinion (or memos and emails in my example). Setting an example and modeling are the first step. The next is a combination of support, accountability, and evidence that leads to efficacy. When everyone sees how the change(s) actually improve teaching, learning, and leadership the path to sustainability is started.

In my case I began to learn how to use certain technology tools after which I made myself available to then train my staff after school. I made my learning through a PLN visible and used the new acquired knowledge and skills during training sessions, faculty meetings, observation post-conferences, and evaluations.  The practice of modeling expectations actually strengthened the emails encouraging my staff to improve their practice. Over time change took hold and evidence of improvement bolstered our resolve to keep pushing the envelope. Together we were then able to show efficacy aligned to technology use and innovative ideas. 

Take time to reflect on whether or not your words are supported by appropriate actions.  Change is a collaborative process if it is to be successful.  Showing others that you are not just willing to learn, but how changes to practice actually improve teaching, learning, and leadership can and will have a lasting impact. Evidence matters and when aligned with the example you set no goal is out of reach. In the end it’s not about what is said, but what is done.  Be an example that empowers others to change.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

The Impact of an Educator

I fondly remember when I was first asked to consider what my future career path might be.  Mrs. Williams, my kindergarten teacher, asked the class to draw a picture that articulated what we wanted to be when we grew up. I immediately knew exactly what I was going to draw. That was the easy part. The difficult task, for me at least, was to then utilize what limited artistic abilities I had to create an illustration that depicted my future career. To this day I still remember the image I created of a farmer tending to his crops. This was a natural career choice for me as a six-year-old having grown up in a rural area of northwestern NJ with a farm right across from our house. I had no idea how to farm, but being outside the rest of my life was good enough for me.

As I aged the thought of becoming a farmer faded as I began to focus more on careers in the biological sciences. Growing up surrounded by nature and spending each summer at the Jersey Shore helped to kindle and sustain an interest in this area.  I never gave much thought, nor did either of my brothers, about becoming an educator. Quite honestly, I told myself, and my parents, that I would never become an educator.  My response might have stemmed from the fact that I really didn’t understand what they actually did and the impact they were having on kids. All I knew with a great deal of certainty was that a career in education was not in the cards.

My mom, after taking many years off to take care of us, eventually became an elementary teacher where she had a celebrated career.  I say celebrated because at her retirement dinner I was able to witness firsthand the impact that she had on students and colleagues alike. Their stories of her passion and dedication for helping kids learn made me so proud. My father was a successful school administrator for what seemed like forever.  He held many positions, but what I was most in awe of was the fact that he was an elementary principal at the same school for close to 30 years.  When he retired they gave him a key to the city. I don’t know if you can be more successful than that. I never knew the impact my parents had as educators until after I myself became one. Hearing story after story about their work as their careers ended taught me that sometimes the ultimate reward for an educator comes years after we have had direct impact with kids or adults. 

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Herein lies the motivation behind this post.  I recently received a text message from a former student and athlete of mine. It started off like this:

"Coach Sheninger, is this still your number?"

My response was a simple yep.

He then went on to text me the following:

"Well hey, its Spenser Brenn just in case you lost my number. Sorry if it’s super early. As sappy as this is going to sound…."

I really was not prepared for what followed next, but I can tell you that his words below touched my heart and soul.

"I was just working out with my athletes and kids yesterday and it reminded of when I was in high school. You let me workout with you and would push me in the weight room, classroom, and on the football field. I have always been asked why did you want to become a teacher and coach. To be honest, I wasn't sure of that answer until I had this moment yesterday when I realized that those seemingly trivial moments of the two of us working out at lunch or study hall were more impactful than most other moments during high school for me. You were tough on me (a pain in the butt, or at least in the eyes of a stupid high school kid), deservingly so, considering I was a pain right back to you. However, you taking me under your wing and motivating, mentoring, and challenging me (whether you knew it or not) meant and still means more to me than you probably know, or more than I knew until yesterday. So I just wanted to reach out and say this - a small gesture like working out with a pain in the butt kid meant the world to him. It showed that you cared, something he, and all people, needed at that time. Thank you. I now know why I became a teacher, a coach, and a mentor to the youth."

It goes without saying that I was totally humbled by Spencer’s message.  As educators we all chose a profession that would not lead to riches in a financial sense. We chose to become educators so that we could not only help kids learn, but hopefully impact them well beyond just grades and achievement.  Education is a calling. It is a calling to make a difference.  That’s what educators do on a day-to-day basis.  Never forget that your work matters and that each day you get up in front of a class, help lead a building, or collaborate with others to run a district that you have an opportunity to positively impact kids. This also applies to your work with adult learners. 

Below is the response I sent to Spencer.

Well you just made my day, well week actually (maybe the entire summer). Life is so much more than what we are made to think is important. Everything comes down to relationships built on trust, empathy, compassion, understanding, and honesty. I really never knew until later in my education career that one of the most important things we can do is to show kids we care. It's not until much later in life that we learn of the impact we have on our students. You will one day be in the same position as me, a proud person humbled by the feedback that you receive knowing that you positively influenced others. Thank you so much for taking the time to send that text. It meant more than you will ever know.

Why did you become an educator? Who were those people and experiences in your life that led you to your current role?  In my new role, I still see myself (and other amazing speakers and presenters) as an educator. Each day is still a calling to try to make a difference.  Whether or not I make a real difference is in the eye of the beholder. Nonetheless, I am driven by the same passion I had as a teacher and principal to help others see the greatness that is within all of us.  

Thank you to every educator out there for the work that you do.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Leading is Not Easy

This post, like so many, has been inspired by something I read.  One of my favorite sites to glean more insight and knowledge on leadership is Inc.  Even though the site shares content specific to business growth and innovation so many of the articles and opinion pieces connect to leadership in the education space.  By using Flipboard I have instant access to many of the pieces that appear on Inc thanks to the fact that I have leadership set as one of my magazine categories.  If you are not using this app please download it to your mobile device.  It is one of the best ways to create your own personalized magazine based on your interests and social network activity that you can literally flip through.

The other day Flipboard exposed me to this gem written by Nicolas Cole titled The Brutal Truth About Why Being a Leader is So Hard.  The premise of the article, as the title implies, is the inherent difficulties associated with any leadership position. Cole goes on to explain the following:

"What's difficult about leadership is that nobody ever sits you down and "teaches" you what being a real leader is all about. There's no class in early education that defines leadership. Peers in group projects tend to label leaders as "overachievers" (and not in a good way). In college, leadership is reduced down to who is going to talk the most during a presentation. And even on sports teams, the leader is usually the best player--and wears a letter on his or her jersey as a trophy of their accomplishments."

His synopsis really resonated with me.  It is difficult to adequately prepare any leader for the challenges he or she will face as well as the decisions that will have to be made.  There are so many unique variables that just cannot be taught.  Learning about how to prepare a budget is entirely different than creating one on your own when all the unique challenges are factored in.  It’s tough work knowing that difficult decisions will have to be made at times, including letting staff go.  Making decisions in time of crisis is also a topic that is regularly explored in leadership courses.  The solutions addressed always sound great in theory, but their application typically isn’t very practical.  

Looks can be, and are, deceiving.  Talking the talk has to be accompanied with walking the walk. That’s the hard part. It’s relatively easy for people to tell others what they should do. However, true leaders go through the challenging work of showing how it can be done.  Here is some sage advice that I learned long ago as a new principal who started drinking the digital and innovation Kool-Aid long ago – “Don’t ask others to do what you are not willing or have not done yourself.” Modeling is one of the most impactful elements of leadership. It builds trust leading to powerful relationships.  

Accomplishments and success are earned through the actions that are taken that result in evidence of improvement.   Leaders know that it is not the work of one person that moves an organization in a positive direction, but rather the collective efforts of all.  The premise of every decision and action has to be geared towards the “We” instead of “I”.  It’s not about coming up with all the ideas, but helping people implement not only the ones you develop, but also the ones that they develop. Leading from the front is an outdated style that doesn’t foster shared ownership.  

It’s our experiences that help all of us to develop into better leaders coupled with the support we get from colleagues. From experience, we learn that trying to be right all the time only makes the job exponentially harder.  Work inside out to make leading a little easier by focusing on the why, how, and what in that order. Make the time to hone your communication skills, as you will not find an effective leader who is not an effective communicator.  Mastering this art is no easy task and takes constant practice and reflection in order to improve.

Regardless of your position leading is hard, yet gratifying work.  Keep an open mind, regularly reflect, pursue learning opportunities that push your thinking, and understand that you will never have all the answers (which is quite ok).  It is also helpful to be flexible.  I leave you with some more thoughts from Nicholas Cole that might just build greater leadership capacity in you and others:

"True leadership is the ability to communicate and effectively reach each and every person you work with, in the way that works best for them. 
It's the ability to be flexible. 
When everyone else is stressed, you're calm. 
When everyone else is out of gas, you inject more fuel. 
When everyone else doesn't know what to do next, you lead by example. 
When someone has an issue, you work with them and listen to them on a personal level."

Stealing from Ghandi, be the change you wish to see in education.  Just know that any change journey is not an easy one. 

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Avoiding Initiative Overload

As many of us know all too well, the process of change is not always a successful venture. It is fraught with twists and turns, not to mention challenges that come in all shapes and sizes. Out of the chaos excuses materialize, further complicating the process.  One common excuse, or challenge depending on your point of view, is too many initiatives at once.  In business, some estimates indicate that 70 percent of change initiatives fail. That’s right. Research has shown that up to 7 in 10 corporate initiatives have not led to sustainable change (Blanchard, 2010). 

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Initiative overload is just as common in education as it is in business. The numbers referenced above could easily correlate to education, and the percentages may even be worse. Today, schools and leaders work to juggle numerous initiatives simultaneously.  This can result in a drain on resources as well as a lack of focus on the primary task at hand – improvement of student learning. While each separate initiative is established to improve school culture, the more tasks that are added to the proverbial plate increase the likelihood that they all will not be sustained over time. For every new initiative launched, another one slows down or ceases altogether.

Tony Sinanis, a newly appointed superintendent and great friend, tackled this topic on his blog. He makes the point that many initiatives are problematic from the start.  

"I would argue that initiatives, as they are generally rolled out within education, are often doomed for failure before they even have a chance to impact educators and learners.

Tony goes on to outline four specific reasons, based on his experience as a practicing school leader, why too many initiatives can be problematic:

  • Initiatives are about a program and not about a skill set.
  • Initiatives are piled one on top of the other.
  • Initiatives are often about doing the new "trendy" thing in education and not about doing what is best for OUR kids.
  • We are shocked when educators express feeling overwhelmed by a new initiative and are in need of more time to successfully implement it.

Tony provides some wise advice for all educators as we grapple with mandates, directors, the “flavor of the month”, and a need to innovate while also increasing achievement. A general understanding that the student learning experience must be transformed has created incredible opportunities for the future yet has simultaneously caused significant turmoil. As school leaders work to redesign their schools, they must be careful not to immerse themselves, their teams, and their students in an alphabet soup of initiatives. This is something Tom Murray and I address in Learning Transformed. In our experience, initiative overload is one of the primary reasons that transformational change fails. When making investments in the form of time and money, think about where you will get the most bang for your buck. Investing in people is the best investment one can make. That’s the key to sustainable change.

Throughout the book, we present a plethora of research, evidence, stories, and practical steps to transform learning, but school leaders cannot lead change in all areas, at all times. It’s easy for leaders to get excited about what could and should be, especially for those who are most passionate about creating new innovative opportunities for students and staff. Although well intended, too many ongoing initiatives can easily dilute the effectiveness of sustainable change. Avoiding initiative overload by maintaining a laser-like focus on what evidence indicates is required and essential for sustainable growth and transformation. 

It all comes down to this basic piece of advice. Do one thing great instead of several things just ok. Leading transformational change isn’t easy. But our kids are worth the effort.