How many decisions did you make today? This week? This year?

Were they the right ones? How do you know?

Better question, when will you know?

Are we basing our answers on short-term test and assessment scores? Do they measure what we really are about?

Schools are measuring what did the students learn. I understand that. I was part of a team that worked with the Senate HELP committee while ESSA was being drafted. Our focus was on assessments, and how the new law could possibly correct what we believed were flaws in NCLB that led to SBAC, PAARC and an overemphasis on short-term, high stakes testing. We celebrated when ESSA was signed into law by President Obama. We didn’t get all we wanted, but we understood that politics is the art of compromise. While we didn’t necessarily agree with the language of ESSA, we realized that is was an improvement over NCLB, doors leading toward authentic and competency-based assessements have been created.

While schools are asking what students learned, the world we are preparing our students for is asking can students learn.  There is a bit of a difference in priorities.

Luis E. Torres, an amazing educator and leader, recently reminded me that for many of his students, as with many of mine throughout my career, education is, at best, the 5th priority in their lives. It follows food, shelter, safety, and health. That is their reality. For too many of us, we believe that education should be the 1st priority in their lives. Someday, we will realize that we have to take care of the Maslow stuff before we can really worry about the Bloom stuff. We are now raising our students as much as we are teaching them, and many of us were not trained to do that. It isn’t in the Common Core, and it isn’t assessed in the annual School Improvement Plan.

We work at “engaging” our students, hoping to excite them about our content, our interests, and curricula that we know to be important.

School is no longer about passing the tests. It’s about survival. It’s about life.

I suggest that until we see our schools as the people who need us most see them, we are never going to be able to engage them.

This was brought home to me while listening to a TED talk presented by Kasim Reed, Mayor of the City of Atlanta. He shared a story about a visit to a home located in a rather interesting Atlanta neighborhood while he was running for the office. He gave Mrs. Owens his elevator speech about the booming Atlanta economy, how the city was home to the busiest passenger airport in the world, and was proud of the many fine restaurants located all over the city.

Sidebar – as a former resident of suburban Atlanta, I can vouch for his elevator speech, I could move back there in a heartbeat. End of Sidebar.

Mrs. Owens then invited the candidate to see the Atlanta she knew. She pointed to the city park across the street from her house, noting the boys shooting dice in a swimming pool that should have been filled with water, and the gang graffitied gazebo. She told Mr. Reed that she was a pretty good cook, so she didn’t eat at any of the fine restaurants, and didn’t feel very safe riding the bus after dark. She also didn’t fly, so the airport really didn’t matter to her. Mr. Reed left her house feeling that he didn’t get her vote. But he changed his approach, and won the election.

We need to change our approach.

With apologies to those of us who follow Charlotte Danielson, Robert Marzano, et al, we don’t need engaged students, we need empowered students.

We need to see our schools through their eyes, giving them the knowledge and skills to pursue their passions, their interests, and enable them to become the architects of their futures. We need to play with them in their world, not expect them to play with us in our world.

We empower others by listening to them. We need to listen to our students. And we need to listen to those who will eventually hire them. They don’t care as much about what kids know as they care about what kids can learn and do.

Ian Jukes captured it in his book Living on the Future Edge, “In a world where change is constant, you can’t trust your eyes. You think they are showing you reality, when, in fact, they are showing you history.”

And so it goes…

Prove It

A report aired on Colorado Public Radio on March 15 about an elementary school in Colorado Springs that is part of the Next Generation Schools. The goal of the project is to creat more relevant, authentic learning experiences.

Parents at the school know that grades and test scores are part of the system students use to move on after high school. Scott Fuller, the Next Generation Coordinator for the district, hit the nail squarely on the head when he said that the system is changing, mostly because future employers don’t equate grades and test scores with success anymore. “Colleges are starting to shift what they equate with success, and are moving more towards ‘prove it to me. Prove to me that you know that. Portfolios, interviews, what have you done with this to apply it.'”

All of our students will eventually become employees, hopefully in a career rather than a job. That may happen directly out of high school, after a credentialing/certification program, a two-year course of study, or a baccalaureate/graduate program.

So in my perfect world, our assessments would no longer rate students as “novice,” “nearing proficient,” “proficient,” or “advanced.” They would describe student work as “competent,” “proficient,” or “mastery.”

Competent – having the necessary ability, knowledge, or skill to do something successfully.

Proficient – competent or skilled in doing or using something.

Mastery – comprehensive knowledge or skill in a subject or accomplishment.

In other words, it isn’t about how well you know something, it’s all about how well you can do something.

While I was working in the career-tech world, we learned about the differences between apprentices, journeymen, and masters. A master electrician/plumber/mechanic/carpenter certainly earned more than the apprentices and journeymen. Companies hired employees with the expectation that while they started at the apprentice level, they could “learn how to learn” in order to become masters, thereby earning both themselves and their companies higher incomes.

In other words, companies hired mastery, not competency or proficiency.

Put another way, do you want your surgeon to be a master, or will you settle for competent or proficient?

Thankfully, there are people creating a process that will work in my world. Two amazing educators in New Mexico, Ferdi Serim and Mike Archibeque, have created LEVERS, LEarner Validated Educational Resources and Strategies. It is a system that creates learners who can demonstrate they have learned how to learn, who can plan and manage their own work, and can make high quality products in a team.

I was blown away by their presentation at the recent ILC conference in Denver. They have captured how to develop future “employees”, learners who have exactly the skills that employers are looking for. Not just kids who possess high levels of knowledge, but who also have the abilities to apply what they know in real world situations.

Read more about it at

They, Scott Fuller, and many others like them are creating systems so our kids can Prove It. We need to listen to them, and follow their lead.

And so it goes…

Lead, Follow, Or Get Out of the Way

I came across a Simon Sinek quote earlier today, “When we tell people to do their jobs, we get workers. When we trust people to get the job done, we get leaders.”

Some school people I know need to take this to heart…we need to empower teachers and students, not engage them in what the “leadership” thinks they should be doing. As I wrote a long time ago, tell people what you want done, get out of their way, and let them amaze you with their creativity in getting it accomplished.

And so it goes…

Am I My Resume

A long time ago, in a workshop far, far away, the opening icebreaker was something along the lines of “turn to the person next to you, and talk about how you would like to be remembered after you have passed away. What would you like your legacy to be?” The responses were typical of passionate educators: “I touched the future.” “I made a difference in the lives of children.” “I instilled a love of learning.” Except mine. Think I upset the guy I was paired  with when all I told him I wanted my legacy to be, “Damn, he was OLD!”

But I was very serious. And I still work hard to never confuse who I am with what I do.

Note to presenters – most of us in the audience detest the icebreakers. At the beginning of the workshop, we are usually energized and ready to go to work. The icebreaker really serves no useful purpose except to take the air and energy out of the room. Unless you are planning on using the information gained in some useful way later in the day, please don’t waste our time with the icebreaker/warmup. As one who spent several years training teachers for over 40 weeks a year, nobody ever complained when I explained that there would be no introductory activity. Trust me!!!

This topic reminded me of a TED talk by David Brooks in 2014. He talked about the differences between resume virtues and eulogy virtues. Your resume virtues are the skills you bring to your job, and what is accomplished while you are there. Your eulogy virtues are deeper: who are you, what is the nature of your relationships, are you bold, loving, dependable, consistent? Most of us would agree that the eulogy virtues are the most important. But are they the ones we think about the most?

In our resume world, we are worldly and ambitious. We want to build, create, innovate. In our eulogy world, we want not only to do good, but also be good. We are constantly trying to balance external success with internal peace and value. And we often confuse who we are with what we do.

All of us wear many hats simultaneously. I am a husband, father, grandfather, uncle, brother, friend, neighbor, musician, golfer, educator, mentor, among other things. All are important in my life. That’s a lot of balls to continually juggle.

A lesson learned from a short, but powerful speech from Bryan Dyson when he was CEO of Coca-Cola was that we all have five balls to keep airborne. They are Work, Family, Health, Friends and Spirit. Work is a rubber ball, if you drop it, it will bounce back. The other four are made of glass. If one of these is dropped, it will be irrecoverably damaged, or shattered. It will never be the same. Work hard during the school day, but leave on time. Give yourself, your family and your friends the time they require. You will be replaced as soon as you leave your job, and someone else will do the work. You cannot be replaced elsewhere.

The opening number of “A Chorus Line” introduces the audience to a group of dancers auditioning for a show. The chorus line is the bottom rung of the performers ladder, no names in lights or in the credits. One of the characters makes the first cut and is asked to give his resume and photo to the director’s assistant. As he is looking at his professional life, he sings: “Who am I anyway? Am I my resume? That is a picture of a person I don’t know. What does he want from me? What should I try to be? So many faces all around, and here we go.” Pretty much captures how most of us feel at various times during our work days.

Through my career, I had the opportunity to be in the room with some recognizable stars and CEO’s. The stars didn’t have perfect hair without the help of make-up assistants. None of the CEO’s ever had a glitch-free project and clean sailing that the books and articles would lead us to believe. Nobody at my gym is cover material for a workout magazine.

Role models are fine, but not when they get in the way of embracing our reality. The reality of not enough time, not enough information, not enough resources, the reality of imperfection and vulnerability. Young people grow old quickly in this job.

Do you want to be remembered for what is in your legacy, or what is in your eulogy?

And so it goes…

We Just Want To Be Safe

Time has passed, and I’ve worked through my stages of grief after yet another school shooting.

Schools must be safe places, places where students feel safe to be themselves, to try and fail, to learn and grow. Students should not be afraid to show up.

But recent events say otherwise. From the tragedies to the threats intended as jokes, students are not feeling safe.

Listen to their voices.

It is not just a political problem. It is not just a mental health crisis. To cast the problem off in that light places blame. It is not my intent to point fingers at any individuals or groups. We will find a solution only when we look forward rather than look back. We must work together and stop pointing the fingers of blame.

Reality Checks:

1. Nothing we will do will prevent every school shooting. Strict DUI laws do not prevent some people from drinking and driving. But they prevent many, and they save lives.

2. Solutions take time. Let’s agree to give ourselves the gift of time.

3. We won’t get it “right” the first time, or the second. But we must do something. Then fix it, and fix it again. To do nothing out of feeling that nothing we do will solve the problem is no longer acceptable.

4. We are dealing with a paradox. Factors leading to the incidents are both simple and complex. The solutions must be also.

5. Nobody is coming to knock on your doors and take your guns away. But if you are more worried about losing your gun as a result of a mass shooting than you are about the loss of innocent lives…


In Winter, 2000, I was working for the Department of Defense Education Activity, assigned to the school district at Fort Knox, Kentucky. My primary assignment was in Curriculum and Staff Development. But I also wore the hat of “Anti-Terrorism/Force Protection Officer” for the base school system. That role required a security clearance and a lot of training that wasn’t part of my administration preparation program. Because of the nature of our system, it is safe to assume that we had some plans and procedures in place besides the fire drills, etc that every school had at that time.

I was part of the planning team for a post-wide anti-terrorism exercise that would take place in Summer, 2001. It was loosely based on the Columbine shooting. Our team spent 6 months studying the events that led up to that morning, what happened that day, and the months that followed. We were able to examine the shooters school lives, we watched the video from inside and outside the building, listened to the 911 calls, news footage shot that day, law enforcement communications and response. The after-action report was almost as long as War and Peace.

I was still in that role on September 11, 2001. Between the time of the 2nd tower crash and the crash into the Pentagon, the threat level on post jumped from the lowest level to the highest. Fort Knox was under credible threat of an imminent attack. Part of the response protocol at the highest level was the placement of armed soldiers inside each school building, and patrolling outside on each campus.

We were reacting to events, and secure in our confidence that we were as prepared as possible. Procedures were in place, and everyone was implementing our plans.

While we felt secure, we did not feel safe.  No amount of practice can replicate the emotions and adrenaline rush of an actual event. Trust me, been there, done that.

So what are your solutions, Gary? Seems like you have a bit of first hand experiences to draw from that most of us, fortunately, don’t.

This may fly in the face of conventional wisdom and/or popular opinion. So be it.

1. We do not need school staff to be armed. The worst kept secret in a school will be which staff are the winners in the “concealed carry lottery.” They will likely become the first targets of a planned event. Responders to an active shooter incident will not know who they are, and, as many have told me during trainings, “When we enter a building in search of an active shooter, anyone with a gun is going down.” They are highly trained to respond to these types of events, they don’t need marginally trained amateurs roaming the halls with a weapon. Run, lock, fight is fantastic. Don’t expect educators to become first responders in the heat of the moment.

One lesson learned in trainings with the DOD was about the physiological effects that occur in live fire scenarios. Adrenaline surges, blood pressure escalates at a rapid rate and breathing become very erratic. In times of chaos, it takes a tremendous amount of focus to just breathe. Erratic breathing leads to erratic shooting. Missing your target by an inch or two in a crowded setting can have a devastating and deadly effect. What I have seen thus far about arming teachers is that they would get minimal training and be required to certify on a target range once or twice a year by putting a few rounds into a silhouette target. Not too tough. The target isn’t moving, it isn’t threatening to shoot back, hearing protection is being worn, breathing and heart rates are normal, all focus is on the task. Staff would certify with hand guns.

The reality of  an active shooter situations is very different. The target will be moving, shooting back, and most likely will have a more powerful weapon than the handgun. The likelyhood of casualties due to friendly fire is extremely high.

We can do better.

Put another way, every school has rules prohibiting throwing rocks on the playground. Yet, in every school, there are still a few kids who throw rocks on the playground. The solution is not to give all the other kids a rock to throw back. Hence the paradox, complex yet simple…

2. Reasonable gun control legislation, including banning devices that can transform a legal weapon into a weapon of mass destruction, must be enacted and strenuously enforced. I am not going to enter into any discussion about the definition of an assault rifle, it serves no purpose. When it is your child’s school which is being attacked, and you cannot reach your child because their cell phone was left in a classroom or locker during an evacuation; when you are sitting in your office or classroom and hear the sound of rapid gunshots and the cries of victims; when you are called to the scene to help with identifying the deceased victims, the parsing of language is meaningless. The membership of the NRA is overwhelmingly in favor of reasonable gun control laws leading to gun safety. In my peronal opinion, it is the leadership of the NRA who need to listen to the voices of their members, to the majority of the American people, and the cries of those who can no longer speak for themselves.

3. Enforce existing laws. Many mechanisms and procedures are already in place, if only all of us would follow them. Hindsight is is always 20-20. Let’s all learn from the past, heed the warning signs, and act both proactively and responsibly in the future. The video really captures how the system should work, hopefully, in the future, it will.

4. The world has changed since we were the ages of our students. As I have written before, we are no longer responsible for only teaching them, we are now, in many cases, raising them. Our roles, as must the roles of others in our communities, must change to meet the changing needs. We need school counselors who spend less time building schedules and checking off boxes on college admissions forms and more time with students who need their particular expertise. Given the capabilities of our LMS, scheduling has become a clerical task, it doesn’t require an advanced degree. Every teacher at the secondary level can work with their students on the post-secondary stuff. The models are there, I was principal of one school where we pulled it off. And let’s face it, given the student/counselor ratios in most of our schools, the teachers know the kids, and their dreams, better than the the counselors ever can. We need school psychologists who spend less time testing kids, and in meetings explaining the testing, and more time with kids who are screaming for their unique expertise. We need social workers in every school who can address student and family issues rather than armed guards patrolling the hallways. We need to find ways for teachers to spend more time building relationships, teaching and guiding learning.

Mostly, we need communities to trust the decisions of those to whom they send their most valuable possessions, their children. Things must change. Life is not worth living if we have to live with the fear of what may happen simply because the kids go to school, tomorrow.

And so it goes…

Bulletin Board Material

Back when I was smart, got to hang around with the good people at Microsoft every once in a while, including Bill. Had their ad slogan posted on my office whiteboard as a reminder of what we were about in our school: “What have you done to change the world today.”

We have the opportunity to do that, every day.

Today, I would have something else on my whiteboard.

“Let’s make a memory today.”

Will will do that, every day.

Just make sure it is a positive one.

And so it goes..

Best Evaluation – EVER

The common topic for the Compelled Tribe is evaluations.

During my career, I have been Hunterized, Marzano-ized, Danielson-ized, and MCREL-ized on various models of teacher evaluation.

Yet we are still looking for the best tool.

Do we really know what we want, what we are looking for? Are we looking for teacher inputs? Student outcomes? Student outputs? Education is a life-long process, can we really measure our effectiveness during a specific school year?

My career began by teaching junior high students band and orchestra in Kansas City,  Kansas. After my first 2 years in the school, our principal was retiring. Our new principal had worked in one of our feeder elementary schools, and the “music teacher network” was buzzing about him in order to give our Choir director and I, both relatively new teachers to the district, a heads up about what we could expect. I will admit, he had large footprints to fill. My first principal understood the value of the arts and was very supportive of our music programs.

The word on the street was that the new principal, Dr. Harold Frye, “couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket, but would support the program.”

Fair enough.

Being new to our school, policy required Dr. Frye to observe every teacher, regardless of whether we were scheduled for formal evaluation that year or not. At a staff meeting early in the year, he invited us to schedule him in to observe a class of our choosing.

I signed him up to observe a beginning strings class. We had just started using the bow, and I am confident that dogs within a three block radius of our school were going nuts for a couple of weeks.

At the appointed time, Dr. Frye came into class with a violin. He spent the period sitting with the other violin students and did everything they were doing, and I must admit, about as well as they did.

At our post-observation conversation, he shared that he knew little about how to teach music, but one of his sons was taking Suzuki violin lessons. That explained everything. In the Suzuki program, the parents take the lessons alongside their children. He was thrilled that I had signed him up for beginning strings class, as he felt that his skills and abilities were at about the same stage of proficiency as the rest of the class.

Then he said something I have never forgotten, “If you taught it to me, you probably taught it to them.”

One thing really struck me that day. He was more concerned with what the students learned than he was with my teaching behaviors. That wasn’t how the “game” had been played before, my formal evaluations were about what I was doing, not what the kids were producing. In my administrative preparation coursework, the old rules still applied, let’s observe the teacher more than we observe the learners.

DISCLAIMER: I taught a performance based class. Several times a year, my students performed in front of an auditorium filled with parents. While they weren’t “trained” evaluators, they knew if we sounded good or not. And they believed that the quality of our performance was a direct result of my abilities as a teacher. Music teachers all realize that our groups are only as good as our worst player, so our worst player better be pretty good. We have a standard of acceptable performance that every player must achieve. Anything below “proficient” was not acceptable. Now we call it “personalized, individualized instruction.” Back in the day, we called it survival.

That year with Dr. Frye was truly a joy. He certainly filled the footprints. I left the district after that year as my father had been diagnosed with terminal cancer, and I took a job much closer to home in order to spend quality time with him.

As a principal, I tried never to forget what Dr. Frye taught me. Regardless of the model used in our district, it’s always about what the kids learn and can do. I hope that, like him, I was secure enough in my skills to be able to place myself in the “violin section” whenever I was in a classroom. If the teacher taught it to me, the kids probably learned it as well.

I am not convinced that there is a Holy Grail of Evaluation. We appear to be looking for a short term solution to a long term process. We seek engagement and too often confuse it with activity, never acknowleging empowerment. We give the learners answers to remember rather than problems to be solved. Life does not consist of situations with only one right answer, but our classrooms are filled with them.

We have all read volumes about what skills our students need in order to be successful after they leave us. They tend to focus on what we call the “soft skills.” But we don’t find them in our models of teacher evaluation.

You might want to try this exercise at an upcoming staff meeting, I used it in teacher trainings for years. Ask your teachers to think of the “best teacher they ever had as a student.” Then ask them to think of the one quality that set that teacher apart from every other teacher they ever had. Go around the room and list the one quality. Compare that list to the qualities you are looking at when you do an observation. I guarantee that you will find few matches.

The qualities provided by the teachers list what I have always called the “art” of teaching. It will include things like, “had a sense of humor,” really got to know me”, “cared about all of us,” things I don’t believe you can teach in preparation programs, simply because you can’t fake that stuff in front of a bunch of kids.

The qualities listed on your evaluation instrument are what I have always called the “science” of teaching. Those are things we can address in professional development.

But do they really matter, when we look at our classrooms from the “violin section?”

End the exercise by challenging your teachers, as they plan for their next class, to become the best teacher they ever had. After all, when the layers of the onion are peeled, that person had a lot to do with their decision to become a teacher in the first place.

I was honored more than once to work with staffs composed of both young teachers and some with some experience. The “best teacher I ever had” shared by a younger teacher happened to be one of the veteran teachers in the room. They had never shared that feeling with one another.

Talk about the power we have as teachers!

And that is the best evaluation – ever!

And so it goes…

Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night

Oldie but still a goodie

Reflections and Rants from the Asst Principal

With all due respect.

Row gently down the stream, unless you want to change things. Significant change is seldom gentle, and usually accomplished by swimming upstream, against the prevailing currents.

Yes, row your boat. Don’t row somebody else’s boat, and don’t let anyone else row your boat for you. None of us want to be a cog in someone else’s machine.

Gently? When you argue with, or question reality, you tend to find new solutions and fresh ways of thinking.

Is it stressful?  Absolutely! But leaders do not find that anxious, they find it incredibly exciting.  To empower others to exceed beyond their expectations, to be able to share their growth and accomplishment, to help instill confidence, this is what learning and leadership is all about!

We need more of these….

After all, even a dead fish floats gently downstream.

And so it goes…

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