Rules for Game Changers

In a recent post, All The Right Notes, Jon Wennstrom brilliantly captured what all of us believe when he wrote, “There are so many good teachers in the world of education. Those that do the right thing at the right time. But there are also great educators out there too! Educators that challenge the status quo, who take risks and try new things, and whose passion for doing whatever it takes to make students successful is evident in everything they do. That’s the kind of educator I want to be and that’s the kind of educators that I want to encourage ALL our teachers to be!”

He followed it up with, “You don’t have to be bad to want to get better.” I commented on his post that “game changers don’t necessarily break the rules, they change them.”

Early in my career as a change agent, I found a fantastic book by Roger von Oech, A Whack on the Side of the Head – How You Can be More Creative. The lessons of this book proved invaluable in my work.

Educator Rudolph Flesch described it as follows: “Creative thinking may simply mean the realization that there is no particular virtue in doing things the way they have always been done.” It runs as follows”

1. We make rules based on reasons that make a lot of sense.

2. We follow these rules.

3. Times passes, and things change.

4. The original reason for the generation of these rules no longer exist, but because the rules are still in place, we continue to follow them.

To follow up on Jon’s post, Beethoven challenged the rules of composition that Clementine, and others, followed. Music was forever changed. Think about it, almost every advance in art, cooking, medicine, agriculture, marketing, politics, education, and design has occurred when someone challenged the rules and tried another approach.

In my organizations, part of our culture was that Every rule here can be challenged except this one.

What rules exist in your organization that need to be challenged???

And so it goes…

Let’s Get Rid Of The Status Quo

I’m constantly amazed at the number of items that appear in my inbox and social media feeds on a daily/weekly basis that attempt to address the topics of change and innovation in schools. Well meaning and certainly qualified authors post and share articles with titles like “10 Characteristics for Innovation…”, “5 Things Everyone Needs to Know About…”, as if changing the status quo can happen by checking off boxes on a checklist.

It isn’t that easy.

Based on my experiences, it starts with a personal commitment to fundamental change. Second Order change, if I may use that term. Not First Order change, which is usually what I read about. Simplistic definition for those of you not familiar with the terms: First Order change (strategies) – things like smaller classes, site-based councils, 90 minute teaching blocks, small learning communities, and teaching teams with common planning. Things that exist within the status quo. Second Order change (philosophies) – things like changing relationships and teaching philosophies, collaborative ownership,extended teaching and learning opportunities, new interactions/relationships, and coordinated focused curriculum and instruction. Things that exist outside the status quo.

A somewhat poor analogy in these changing times, the difference between doing things right and doing the right things.

What follows is a paper I wrote in 1993 for a class I was taking to earn my Superintendent of Schools endorsement from Colorado State University. My attitudes have not changed since this was written.

At the time, I was Superintendent of a rather small, rural school district in Southern Colorado. Our demographics were rather unique, 95% of our students qualified for free/reduced meals, 85% were Hispanic surname, we were definitely a minority-majority district. As part of a settlement of a lawsuit in Federal court in the mid-1980’s, every student new to the district was required to take a language assessment screener to determine home language, upon which we had to base further instruction. Based on that screener, approximately 10% of our entering students in a given year did not speak any language proficiently enough to consider it a home language.

Our parents had the same hopes, dreams and aspirations for their children as did parents in the most affluent districts. In order to achieve them, we had to change the rules of the game. The playing field was not leveled to benefit our kids.

The following was my crossing of the Rubicon:

“Professionally, we spend a great deal of time trying to “identify ourselves,” and use that knowledge as a foundation for further professional growth. As was probably obvious (during a classroom discussion), I have become somewhat frustrated because where I have “found myself” professionally is very much at odds with the general system of public education in which I work. As core beliefs, I believe”

1. We teach children, not a subject area or grade level;

2. Every child comes to school with the desire to achieve and be successful;

3. As a teacher, I control the classroom conditions which determine student success or failure; and

4. Since I control the conditions, I am responsible for the success and failures of my students in my classroom.

However, there are inherent constraints within the system which make if difficult to effect significant, positive change. We need to start asking the fundamental questions about what we do and more importantly, why we are doing it. Activities which run counter to organizational objectives are often seen as “perpetuating the bureaucracy” rather than the system impediments they are. It would be nice if Collective Bargaining Agreements and Accountability Reports shared a common Table of Contents. We have paid so much lip service to “restructuring” and “change”, yet we do so little beyond the rhetoric. At what point will we start doing what we have been talking about? As long as we stop just with the rhetoric, we will continue to “do things right.” When we start questioning the fundamentals and aligning our systems’ activities and objectives, only then will we start “doing the right things.”

As I mentioned in class, I believe it is time to tear at least part of the system down, and I am at a point where my core beliefs are being challenged and the question being raised at the personal level is whether or not I am willing to make the sacrifices necessary to “do the right things.” I guess the gut check is whether I will, in essence, sell out professionally to protect what has become a very comfortable lifestyle for my wife and family. Put another way, am I hungry enough to challenge the system or too fat and comfortable to want to change. I am reminded of the film “Teachers” and the conflict between the assistant principal who has been prostituted into the system and the teacher who challenges it. I sincerely believe that the harder you work at something, the harder it is to see it fail. But I am wondering if it is worth staying in the system if restructuring stays at the rhetorical level. Effective change cannot happen from outside the system, but will the system allow it to happen from within? In a nutshell, I passionately want the system to work and want to be part of it. But am I willing to place my family on a sacrificial alter in order to achieve a set of professional goals?”

As for the rest of the story, I took the plunge, went all in, and risk my life and career to to the right things, not necessarily doing them right. I had reached my limit of attending meetings and conferences where we talked a lot about things that should happen, but never did. And we have all attended too many of them. In the fall of 1993, we initiated the Student Centered School Project in that district, which included an immersion into technology enhanced curriculum and instruction, with the requisite staff development. An uncommon event in 1993. Two years later, we were a Founding District of the Virtual High School Global Consortium, and helped invent the model of virtual school currently in use in nearly every state in the US. We changed the rules of how the game is played. And at the same time, using the Colorado Board of Education Accreditation Guidelines in place at the time, we went from being one of the lowest performing districts in Colorado to becoming one of the highest, particularly among minority-majority districts.

The hopes, dreams and aspirations of our parents for their children were becoming reality.

My point is simple, fundamental, lasting change cannot be accomplished with the help of a checklist. It requires a deep, personal commitment to make a difference, the willingness to fail greatly with your career on the line. To light your professional path by the light of the bridges you burn along the way. First Order change cannot be confused with innovation, however comfortable it makes us feel. Second Order change, what our profession and our students are crying out for, cannot happen in the course of a school year, and cannot be described in 240 characters.

More of the same, only louder, is no more acceptable today than it was in 1993. How many of us are willing to step up and give us the future, rather than just talk about it?

And so it goes…

Remembering The Lessons Of September 11

17 years ago today, I was working for the Department of Defense Education Activity, assigned to the Ft. Knox installation schools. My primary duties were as a curriculum and staff development specialist. College prep programs set me up well for the tasks that were expected in that role. I was also the Anti-Terrorism/Force Protection Officer for the post school system. That was the hat I wore on this day in 2001, and for the next couple of weeks. The Gold Repository at Ft. Knox was a target of an airliner, fortunately all flights were grounded before it could be hit. Neither college prep programs nor subsequent trainings with law enforcement, etc. could adequately prepare me for the challenges of that day, and the days that followed. We were surrounded by the best trained professional soldiers in the world. We knew we were secure. But we were not safe. We can practice for all kinds of crisis situations, but until we are forced to deal with the very real and human emotions of an actual event, the practice is just like another fire drill. We have a false sense of security that we can handle whatever is happening, but it is just that, a false sense of security. In schools, we deal with people. But we practice dealing with situations. We can’t practice looking into the eyes of our people during and after the event and assuring them that they are safe. Not just that they are safe today, but that they will also be safe tomorrow. Many decisions were made that day that I never imagined I would be a part of, reacting to events that none of us could have anticipated. I was very proud of the team I was part of that day, great people who didn’t do what they could that day, we did what what we had to be done. Wish I could forget some of what I learned that day. I pray that I never have to put that learning into practice again.

What Is School For

As we either finally go back to school for the new year, or get serious about it if we started before Labor Day, something to think about!!! Much of what we talk about in “school reform” and “innovation” is nothing more than a conversation about the cosmetics, not the fundamentals of schools that can actually make a difference and matter to our students. Too many school improvement plans start with “What?”. Too many meetings that purportedly are about increasing student performance start with “What?” Or “How”?. They seldom start with a conversation about what school should be for. They should start with “Why!” What is important in student lives and their futures is not measured on a series of assessments or a single high stakes one. But we typically don’t ask our kids what is important in their lives, neither do we ask those who work with our kids after they leave us what they consider important for our kids to know and do. If you are a school leader and want to know where to start to make a meaningful difference in your school, I suggest you look at the allocation of time, particularly in the roles of your student support staff. To be blunt, let your counselors be counselors, not the builders of student schedules, not doing the jobs of college admission intake. Let them counsel kids. Before you hire another teacher, think about hiring another counselor or school psychologist or social worker, someone who will work with the serious issues challenging your students, not someone who will help teach them something else they will soon forget. Someone who will prepare them to pass the test of LIFE, not the test of ESSA. is waiting for you, are you confident enough as a leader, and secure enough in your beliefs about what kids really need, to accept the challenge of really making a difference in your school, or will you continue to examine only the cosmetics?

What is School For

And so it goes…

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…