The Mission Isn’t Impossible

Cue the Theme Song:  Mission Impossible Theme

Imagine yourself sitting on a park bench. You open a backpack and remove a reel to reel tape player. You push PLAY. You hear:

”Think about the end of the first week of school. Have you built a solid foundation of relationships with your kids? Your mission, Fellow Educators, should you choose to accept it, is to return to your classrooms after the last student has left. Clean off your desk. Take a pen and a blank sheet of paper. Without looking at a class roster or seating chart, write down the first names of each student in your home room/first period class. Beside the first name, write down something uniquely personal about that child that you learned this week. Something that has nothing to do with your class. Then greet each child Monday morning by talking about that one uniquely personal thing. This tape will self-destruct in 5 seconds…”

Yes, you can do this. You can build that kind of relationship with each student. When every student learns that the first teacher they see every day knows and cares about them as a human, they feel valued and respected. And they will open themselves to learn from you, and every other teacher they see the rest of the day. School has become a safe place, not just a building.

May your students see your classroom where all are celebrated and none are tolerated.

And so it goes…

Why We Tribe – A Parable of the Aspens

While I grew up in Kansas, I have had the good fortune to spend most of my career in the Great American West, the Rocky Mountains of Colorado and Montana. Sojourning in the woods is one of my passions. With places like Glacier, Grand Teton, Yellowstone and Rocky Mountain National Parks just off my porch, I have had numerous opportunities to relax and reflect in some amazingly beautiful places. And I have taken advantage of opportunities to learn from some brilliant people.

One of the first lessons learned upon moving to Colorado was about the role of aspen trees. That lesson has played a vital role in my career, and it is Why I Tribe.

For those of you who don’t know, you never see an aspen alone. They are always in a community, bound together by huge, incredible root systems. They collaborate through these root connections and work as a grove to sustain a healthy community.

The spirit of the aspen grove has become my Professional Learning Community and the Compelled Tribe.

Aspens survive and thrive. When disturbances happen, aspens weather the changes. Even when all above ground is wiped out by fire or mudslides, aspens spring to life when all is clear. Older trees will die, yet the root system supports younger saplings that will grow in strength.

Aspens have a fundamental approach to thriving and surviving over the long term. I have internalized it as the Aspen Rules:

1. Patience Cultivates Growth. Like aspens, we connect to expand our knowledge, collaborate to create.

2. Connections create a foundation which leads to support. We collaborate through connections in interactive, problem-solving relationships.

3. Spur Purpose. Aspens benefit more than just themselves and the grove. One example is their bark, it serves many medicinal purposes. Like them, our efforts ultimately serve our communities outside the four walls of our schools.

4. Convert to Thrive. The quaking of the aspen leaves allows each leaf to collect more sunlight for photosynthesis in our sometimes harsh climate and always short growing season. Unlike other species, the aspen bark also contributes to photosynthesis well into the fall. The process of photosynthesis in aspen goes beyond mere survival, it fosters growth and expansion. At a time when so much information is available along with ways to learn extensively about ourselves and our work, there is a danger in being buried under paralysis by analysis. A key skill we all have is our ability to convert. Learning all you can about our work and ourselves will exponentially and positively enhance our leadership when we take the next step to convert ideas and knowledge into tangible results.

I cannot thank enough my next door neighbor in Monte Vista, Colorado, a forest service employee, who enlightened me about aspens. He will never fully appreciate the impact his conversations had on the career on this converted flat-lander.

If you are looking for a conversation starter for your school culture, give some thought to the Aspen Rules.

And so it goes…

The Non-Negotiables

Responsibility and accountability are essential traits in every organization. When both are present, excellence follows. When either is questioned, or absent, excellence cannot be achieved.

In my elite schools, we had 4 non-negotiables.

1. In our school, we teach children, not grade levels or subjects

2. Everyone walks through the door every day with the desire to achieve and be successful.

3. As the instructional leader, I create the conditions that determine the opportunities for my students to succeed or fail.

4. Since I create the conditions, I am responsible and accountable for the performances of my students.

An important part of our screening, interviewing, and mentoring process with new staff was the explanation of our non-negotiables.

#1 was not a play on words, it was a statement of attitude. There is a difference between teaching second graders and teaching second grade, teaching algebra to freshmen or teaching freshmen algebra. In my first elite school, we took it a step further. Teachers considered themselves first year teachers, regardless of the number of years they had taught. They believed that since they had not taught “these” students, in the eyes of the kids, they were first year teachers. I learned a lot from that staff as a young principal. It certainly was fun watching people with the experiences of many years in their repertoires start each year with the enthusiasm and passion of brand new teachers.

#2 is self-evident. I have yet to meet anyone of any age who starts each day with the desire to be mediocre. Admittedly, sometimes we have a kid or two who want to be successful at something we would prefer was a bit different, ie. acting out in order to gain attention. But once we get to know each student and can identify their passion points, #2 makes everyone’s lives much simpler.

Given the demographics of some of the schools I led, we sometimes had a bit of a conversation about #3. When your district socio-economic demographic is 95% free/reduced lunch eligibility, and, based on a court ordered language assessment screeening of all new students every year, 10%-15% of entering students across all grade levels do not speak any language well enough for it to be considered a home language by definition of the mandated assessment, it would be easy to look at the conditions our learners faced outside of school and allow them to become excuses for what did or did not happen once they walked through our door. But as the instructional leaders in the buildings and classrooms, we made the decisions that determined if the situations “across the street” would be honored and valued, or used as excuses. #3 remained a non-negotiable.

Once you bought into #3, #4 was a blinding flash of the obvious. We did not use student performance as part of the teacher evaluation. I considered it educational malpractice long before it became legislated educational malpractice in No Child Left Behind.

On a side note, if you happen to use a form of virtual schooling, that district helped create the model. We were a founding district of the Virtual High School Global Consortium in 1995-1996. Not bad work for a district with that demographic, but great professionals with a lot of support from their community for some high but achievable goals can do amazing things.

If you are interested in further reading on the subject of personal accountability, I highly recommend The Question Behind the Question and Flipping the Switch by John Miller. You will never regret taking ownership over your responses to the events that happen every day. Life is so much better when you are no longer a “victim.”

And so it goes…