Innovation and Imagination

Fascinating conversation in my office with a parent the other day.

“Some important decisions are made in this room”, he started. “I hope they are the right ones”, was my response. “I can’t imagine all you have to think about.” “In this room, you have to imagine it.”

My district has jumped the hoops, paid consultants, sought input and ideas from all stakeholders, crafted and adopted the Holy Strategic Plan.*

We are doing our best to prepare our students for the “real world” they will enter when they leave us.


*I have had the pleasure of sitting in Mike Schmoker’s presentation a couple of times. One of his slides says that strategic plans are about as effective as dancing naked around a campfire. He is spot on. The important lessons learned happen during the planning process, not in the implementation of the plan.

This wasn’t a consideration when we were developing our Strategic Plan. It should have been.

Twenty-five years ago, I was one of fifty principals from across Colorado who were invited to spend a week with IBM. It ranks as one of the most intense, and effective, professional learning experiences of my career. One of our days was spent talking about Visioning, and planning for the future.

We thought the planning equation was really quite simple. Past + Present = Future. What we have learned added to what we are learning allows us to create the future. Every teacher wants to create or touch the future.  Except that the world doesn’t work that way. The equation should look like this: Past + Imagined Future = Present.

We don’t prepare students for the present, we prepare learners for the imagined future. In order to prepare our students for their futures, we have to imagine them. The variable in the equation is the Present, what are we going to do today. And we all know that the equation can’t be solved unless the variable is isolated.

A recent post from Greg Satell, “Here’s Why You Should Think Twice Before Listening To Business Gurus” starts with this sentence – “Probably the hardest thing in business is to innovate consistently, year after year and decade after decade.” We have all had similar conversations in various leadership contexts. None of us want to work in a district or school that isn’t “Innovative!”

One of the lessons learned during the week with IBM is that innovation is all about creating systems and processes that did not exist at the time. They called them Zero-based systems, created from the ground up, not tweaking or adding on to something that was already in place.

In my experience, the innovations started by identifying problems that needed to be solved. I have written about that experience in a previous post. As stated in that post, not many schools were invested in technology integration in 1993. We didn’t do it because we wanted to buy a bunch of computers and stuff. We did it in order to meet our identified educational goals, and we believed the new tools would help us.

It worked.

Not because we had a bunch of cool new toys, but because a very dedicated group of professional educators, playing with those cool new toys, immersed in some very intensive staff development, created new ways to solve our problems and help us grow. We were able to consider new solutions and new courses of action.

We started by identifying problems to solve, then began dreaming of ways to approach them. At that time, we didn’t have a Strategic Plan. But we had some big dreams. None of which were in our budget.

We used dreams and vision interchangeably. We believed the budget should be a tool of our vision, it should not determine the extent of our vision. You can’t put a price on vision.

There is a big difference between dreams and goals. Like most creative functions, dreams are housed in the right hemisphere of the brain, along with passion, imagination, and emotions. Goals are formed in the left hemisphere. They are rational, linear, and measurable. The dream is the ideal state and the goal is the realistic state. The dream supplies the vigor, vision and direction; the goal, a specific, short-term target and the strategies for hitting it. The goal is a step toward the dream.

The dream is a goal with wings.

A dream supplies meaning and intrinsic value. It is our deepest expression of what we want, a declaration of a desired future. A dream is an ideal involving a sense of possibilities rather than probabilities, of potential rather than limits. The passion is missing when we work with only our rational left brain. Without passion, there is little enthusiasm and vitality. A dream is a wellspring of passion, giving us direction and pointing us to lofty heights. It is an expression of optimism, hope and values lofty enough to capture the imagination and engage the spirit. Dreams are capable of lifting us to new heights and overcoming self-imposed limitations. Dreams aren’t limited by what you think can or cannot be done, or by what your rational mind tells you is or isn’t possible. It represents something that you really want, as opposed to something you think you can get. Goals are tangible, dreams are intangible.

Dr. King said, “I have a dream.” He didn’t say, “I have a strategic plan.”

Dreams can empower people as nothing else. When we have a dream and pursue it, nothing is impossible. We tap into power, personal resources, and creativity that we never thought we had. We can accomplish what had previously been considered impossible.

Budgets and strategic plans are goals. Goals have a place, second place, following dreams. They serve a purpose, they give us something specific to shoot at and provide feedback to tell us how we are doing. They are a way of keeping score. But if goals are to be beneficial for enhancing performance, productivity, and motivation, they must be guided by something larger and more encompassing, something that inspires us and infuses us with passion, creativity, and courage. The tunnel vision of goals blinds us to opportunities for innovation and creativity. It prevents us from seeing other possibilities and options – alternative routes that may appear as a consequence of change, new technologies, or an unpredicted circumstance.

Effective schools are all about relationships. Programs don’t solve problems, people do.

Effective schools are filled with people who are not interested in red tape, fixed mindsets, low expectations, or blending in. They are solution seekers, ethical decision makers, communicators, creative thinkers, collaborators and innovators. They are building something exceptional. Every day, they bring the work of their hands, the wisdom of their minds, and the discernment of their hearts.

They imagine, and they dream.

And we are all better for them.

Admittedly, A Personal Problem

Like most districts, we have posted our beliefs and core values, we have a vision statement and a strategic plan. And to be honest, like most districts, many of us have not internalized those statements. We operate from our annual School Improvement Plans and trust that our actions will reflect our beliefs and values.

Our posted Values include:

  • Students as our priority;
  • Community and families as our partners; and
  • Our community’s acceptance of diversity.

Lofty, flowery language. Inspiring words. We talk the talk well.

As for walking the talk, we may need to consider adding a line or two.

One of our focus areas this year is training all of our staff in the Run, Lock, Fight program. Evidently, we also believe that some of our prioritized students, or partners in the community, are a threat to harm us.  So now many of us are teaching behind closed doors.

For purposes of full disclosure, our posted values also include:

  • Optimizing the highest levels of respect, responsibility and integrity for all; and
  • Learning and working in a safe environment

I have internalized these more along the lines of the “safe environment” being built on the values of respect, responsibility; the emotional aspects of life more than any threat of physical harm. In other words, we will respect our students as learners, hold them and ourselves responsible for the decisions we make, and always work from a foundation of integrity. We will not harm them, emotionally or physically as learners, they will respect us as adults who always have their best interests in mind.

Just as I trust that none in our student body or community poses an imminent threat to harm us, I also trust that we will also do no harm to them through our indifference, pride, vanity, complacency, certainty, or lack of imagination and creativity. I trust that we always remember that great schools are defined by quality of relationships, not by test scores.

Continuing the theme of full disclosure, for two years while I was employed by the Department of Defense Education Activity, I was assigned to the Ft. Knox Community Schools. My primary title was Instructional Systems Specialist-Curriculum and Instruction. I was also designated the Anti-Terrorism/Force Protection Officer for the schools. The 9/11 attacks occurred while I was there. The Gold Depository was the target of an airliner that day, fortunately, that plane was grounded before it reached us. I understand how it feels to work in a place that many in the world refer to as “target.” Both our facilities and our people. We were trained to respond to both internal and external threats, and our training paid off both that day and in the weeks that followed.

We did not teach behind locked classroom doors.

Before we can unlock our classroom doors, we must unlock our attitudes, which will unlock our behavior.

Our District Leadership Team completed the Run, Lock, Fight training last August, before school opened. My session notes from that day started, with all due respect to Bob Dylan and Jimi Hendrix, with the following:

“There must be some kind of way out of here,

Said the Joker to the Thief.

There’s too much confusion,

I can’t get no relief.”

And so it goes…



Competition and Collaboration

In reading other Compelled Tribe posts on this topic, I was surprised that I did not see a reference to Alfie Kohn’s seminal The Case Against Competition, from 1987.

I started with his paper as I outlined this post, seeing it as a foundation for a reflection on competition in schools, looking at his thoughts through the filter of what characteristics separate the highly successful schools from those which are not yet highly successful.

I consider the work of Bill Daggett and the International Center for Leadership in Education an excellent resource of what works in high performing schools.

SIDEBAR – I had the privilege of being Director of High School Programs at the Central Educational Center in Newnan, Georgia, when our school was named one of thirty National Model Schools by the ICLE in the 2003-2004 school year. We were able to get to know them and their work rather well. –  END SIDEBAR

According to Dr. Daggett, the most rapidly improving schools ask themselves three important questions:

  1. What do our students need to know to be successful in the world beyond school?
  2. What must our students do to succeed in the world beyond school?
  3. What must our students be like to succeed in the world beyond school?

I appreciate  the culture of growth mindset schools and their willingness to focus of preparing their students to be ready for the world after they leave school by anticipating and meeting employers expectations in 3-5 years. During my 15 years working in elementary and middle schools, we defined our growth mindset within the same 3-5 years, but our goal was preparing our students to be successful at the next level of their education. That was their “world beyond school.”

Our ultimate goal at all levels was to produce graduates who had skills, knowledge and attitudes to become accomplished citizens. In order to meet our goal, we had to bridge the gap between what is and what should be. This is, by definition, what the literature describes as an Adaptive Challenge, which requires a response outside the usual repertoire of most schools.

Both competition and collaboration play a role in the transformation.

Our competition is not other schools or districts, vouchers, or charter schools. The competition is ignorance or what learning should be and must become. It is composed of the internal factors of myopia, resistance to change, lethargy, confusion and arrogance. The external factors include uncertainty of the benefits of the new model.

We are not competing against each other, we are competing with ourselves for our own excellence. When you compete against others, your target is too low. You have only to be as good or better than them to win, and there is an ending. When you compete against yourself, there is no limitation to how good you can be. And there is no ending.

Schools, as traditionally structured, are not designed as collaborative systems. Capstone assessments are individual events. Collaboration in the workplace is essential to complete most tasks, collaboration in most classrooms, particularly when assessing learning, is considered cheating.

Rather than assessments of outcomes as measures of successful schools, may we continue to develop assessments of process.

All of us share the common vision of creating lifelong learners, yet we feel trapped by high stakes assessments designed to measure short-term goals, ie, raise math scores by a certain number, increase the graduation rate to…

By focusing our efforts on the soft skills that are required in the workplace, I believe we will find that our short term goals will take care of themselves.

We owe it to our students to spend more of our time shooting at the rim, and less of our time shooting at the scoreboard. First, we will be our best, only then will we worry about being the best.

The Ants Go Marching

I start my morning most days with bus duty.  While some of us complain whenever our duty week rolls around, I see it as a nice way to practice for my retirement job of Wal-Mart greeter, and it’s a beautiful start to my day. I have posted about it previously here. Life as we know it unfolds every morning as the Himalaya Mountains, or at least the Bridger Range, gets conquered by a whole bunch of excited kids. You can watch them here.

Somehow, The Ants Go Marching certainly springs to mind as I watch them, but then the pragmatic realist in me comes out, and different songs find my personal playlist.

While many artists have recorded “Try to Remember” and “The Way We Were,” I don’t think anyone has done it better than Gladys Knight and the Pips on a live recording. If I may paraphrase from the lyrics:

” Everybody is talking about the good old days, right. Everybody the good old days. Let’s talk about the good old days. Come to think of it, as bad as we think they are, these will become the good old days for our children. Why don’t we try to remember, the kind of September, when life was slow, and oh, so mellow. Try to remember, and if you remember, then, follow. Why does it seem that the past was always better? We look back and we think, the water was warmer, the grass was greener, the skies were bluer, and the smiles were….bright.”

How will our students look back on their good old days? What will they remember?

I’m afraid that too many will not look back with fondness. A few of us more experienced educators rallied around a Whitney Houston song, “The Greatest Love of All,” recorded and released in 1987. We could recite the first verse: “I believe the children are our future, teach them well and let them lead the way. Show them all the beauty they possess inside. Give them a sense of pride, to make it easier. Let the children’s laughter remind us how we used to be.”

Beautiful, isn’t it.

But the pragmatic realist in me hears more and more of our kids singing the second verse: “Everybody’s searching for a hero, people need someone to look up to. I never found anyone who fulfilled my need. A lonely place to be, and so I learned to depend on me. I decided long ago, never to walk in anyone’s shadow. If I fail, if I succeed, at least I lived as I believed. No matter what they take from me, they can’t take away my dignity. Because the greatest love of all, is happening to me. I’ve found the greatest love of all inside of me.”

Have we become so focused on raising test scores, getting the loudest bells and whistles into our classrooms, that we have forgotten that we are teaching children? Have we become so caught up in the problems of teaching in uncertain times that we have forgotten how difficult it still is to be 12 years old?

Many of our memories of our good old days include our teachers, indeed, they are why many of us are in the profession. I’m sure they faced many of the same challenges we are facing today. But I don’t remember that they ever brought them into our classrooms.

Through the years, I have shared “21 Memos From Your Child” with parent and teacher groups. I would like to share it with this audience.


21 Memos From Your Child1. Don’t spoil me. I know quite well that I ought not to have all that I ask for. I’m only testing you.2. Don’t be afraid to be firm with me. I prefer it, it makes me feel more secure.3. Don’t let me form bad habits. I have to rely on you to detect them in the early stages.4. Don’t make me feel smaller than I am. It only makes me behave stupidly “big”.5. Don’t correct me in front of other people, if you can help it. I’ll take much more notice if you talk with me in private.6. Don’t make me feel my mistakes are sins. It upsets my sense of values.7. Don’t protect me from consequences. I need to learn the painful way, sometimes.8. Don’t be too upset when I say “I hate you.” It isn’t you I hate, but your power to thwart me.9. Don’t take too much notice of my small ailments. Sometimes they get me the attention I need.10. Don’t nag. If you do, I shall have to protect myself by appearing deaf.11. Don’t forget that I cannot explain myself as well as I should like. This is why I’m not always very accurate.12. Don’t make rash promises. Remember that I feel badly let down when promises are broken.13. Don’t tax my honesty too much. I’m easily frightened into telling lies.14. Don’t be inconsistent. That completely confuses me and makes me lose faith in you.15. Don’t tell me my fears are silly. They are terribly real and you can do so much to reassure me if you understand.16. Don’t put me off when I ask questions. If you do, you will find that I stop asking and seek my information elsewhere.17. Don’t ever suggest that you are perfect or infallible. It gives me too great a shock when I discover that you are neither.18. Don’t ever think it is beneath your dignity to apologize to me. An honest apology makes me feel surprisingly warm toward you.19. Don’t forget how quickly I am growing up. It must be very difficult to keep pace with me, but please do try.20. Don’t forget I love experimenting. I couldn’t get on without it, so please put up with it.21. Don’t forget that I can’t thrive without lots of understanding love, but I don’t need to tell you, do I?

If I had permission from the artist, I would insert a powerful image here. It is of a student carrying three suitcases down a hallway. One suitcase is homelessness, one is hunger, the third is sickness. He asks, “Can someone help me with these, I’m late to math class.”

Does it matter what math level he is working on? If his scores are red, yellow or green?

But then it is 8:00 in the morning, the buses are pulling in, the Ants Are Marching. And I have one more song playing on my playlist. Thank God for the Oak Ridge Boys.

Again, all is well in my world, and I’m ready for whatever will cross my life today.

And so it goes…


It’s About Pedagogy, Stupid

From one of my favorite sources on all things ed tech:

It’s always been about evolving pedagogy. Not about the “stuff”, but about how we use incredibly powerful tools to create new opportunities for ourselves and our students. Too many technology plans are nothing more than shopping lists. Most of what I see in classrooms with carts filled with tablets is nothing more than expensive worksheets, activities still devoid of connections, collaboration, and creativity. We need more education plans infused with appropriate “technologies” and the required professional development and measures that include words other than “engagement” and fewer technology plans. I have said for nearly 25 years, any teacher who can be replaced by a computer should be. Let’s move beyond the machines and keep the “high touch” in the conversation with our “high tech.”

There, now I feel better.

Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night

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…

One Word

My word is Trust.

I have seen it defined as:  “Firm belief in the character, strength, ability and truth of someone; belief that someone is good and honest and will not harm.”  Synonyms could include integrity, confidence, belief, conviction, reliance, dependable, honest and empathetic.

Every day, parents trust us with their most precious possessions, their children. In many cases, we have never met them before the first day of school. Still, the parents put their kids on the bus, or get drop them off, and they enter our schools as energy in search of adventure.  All of our parents have participated in public education, so all of them certainly have opinions about us, how we should do our jobs, and how we should conduct ourselves as professionals.

Mostly, they trust us to do the right things for their child, not necessarily for all children at the expense of their child. Not the most popular thing, not what is happening at the next district down the road, not the latest fad, or something from the most recent “10 Things Every Educator…” email or blog post that hit our inbox. Just what they believe is in the best interest of their child.

We have the responsibility to earn their trust, every day, and never take it for granted.

When they enter our classrooms or offices, do they see us as professionals whom they can trust? Maybe I’m still a bit old school, but when I am sitting in the waiting room at my doctor’s office, I get to see his/her license and credential. In my office, you will see diplomas and certificate. Hopefully, it conveys a message.

As we all know, trust is difficult to earn, and easy to lose.

What have we done, today, to earn the trust and respect of all those we are here to serve?