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. Innovationplaylist.org 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…

A Short Course in Human Relations

The 6 most important words are:

”I admit I made a mistake.”

The 5 most important words:

”I am proud of you.”

The 4 most important words:

”What is your opinion.”

The 3 most important words:

”If you please.”

The 2 most important words:

”Thank you.”

The one most important word is:


Be Like Ella

We have all been there. The administrator is scheduled to come into our classroom for a walk-through or the formal observation. We have planned for every contingency, prepped the lesson, prepped the kids, anticipated every question and have rehearsed multiple answers to all of them, materials “are hung from the chimney with care.” We are READY!!!

Then Murphy’s Law strikes – anything that can possibly go wrong will. Or the correlary – things that work in theory never work in practice, things that work in practice never work during the game.

A trumpet has been part of my life since 4th grade, my undergrad diploma states that my major was music, education was my minor. Before becoming an administrator, I taught kids in the band and orchestra. Given a choice, will always listen to a live recording, (captured music) over a studio recording, (manufactured music.)

Live recordings capture the passion and enthusiasm of the moment. They are raw, unfiltered expressions of the musicians and the music. You can’t put make up over the blemishes, they are there for all to see.

A lot like our classrooms, on Observation Day.

In 1963, Ella Fitzgerald and the Paul Smith Quartet were in Berlin to record “Ella in Berlin.”

Like us, highly trained professionals. They had rehearsed and prepared for hours before taking the stage that night.

Then Ella forgot the words to Mack the Knife. And being a live recording, it is saved for posterity.

She couldn’t stop and start over. The audience was there and the quartet was playing. She had to improvise and come up with something.

Enjoy what she came up with…

Ella Fitzgerald – Mack the Knife

Did the critics pan her performance? Did the audience boo her off the stage? Did she feel like a failure after embarrassing herself in front of a packed house?

Quite the contrary! Because of that rendition of Mack the Knife, she won a Grammy for Best Female Performance on a Single and Best Female Performance on an Album. The recording is in the Grammy Hall of Fame.

I try to share this with new teachers every year. Nothing ever goes as planned, and sometimes, our best moments happen when we rely on our instincts and training and improvise.

Let’s all work to Be Like Ella!

And so it goes…

Who Do You Want on Your Team

Part of my PLC is following educational groups on Facebook and twitter. Now that the school year has ended for most of us, the hiring season is on. It is interesting to see the requests posted by some for sample interview questions, and the responses to the requests.

Hiring and growing the right people is the single most critical skill of leadership. Hire the right people, support them, stay out of their way, and let them dazzle you with their brilliance. Tell them what you want done, let them figure out how best to do it. Elite organizations have the greatest teams, not necessarily the highest performing individuals.

Hiring is based on predicting future behaviors/job performance; abilities, values, personality are a good fit for both the job and the organization.

In order to attract the right candidates, you need the following:

1. Precise and specific information about the role – which skills, experiences, expertise are needed to to the job well?

2. Precise and specific information about organizational culture – what are the formal and informal rules for interaction that determine how people behave?

3. Objective tools to evaluate a candidate’s fit with #1 and #2 above – does the candidate have the potential to perform well on the job, and enjoy it? Are they candidates a minimal risk choice?

Most hiring processes are not set up to address the three items effectively. References from previous employers are rarely objective regarding the key attributes that will make the employee successful in your job. Besides, your school probably isn’t anything like the previous school. Organization tend to have distorted understandings of their own cultures. Simply because the leadership continues to confuse climate with culture. Climate is what is talked about during staff meetings. Culture is what is talked about when the staff meets in the parking lot, and leadership usually isn’t there.

Most of us default to subjective evaluation methods, relying on gut instinct on overrated characteristics known as the 4C’s:

1. Confidence. We over-emphasize the candidate’s ability to charm and impress during a relatively brief interpersonal interaction. This favors confident people who are less likely to project insecurities and self-doubt. We confuse confidence with competence. No problem with that, except that ample psychological research shows that measures of actual and self-perceived ability overlap by less than 10%.

2. Credentials. We can all agree that a diploma rarely, if ever, guarantees competence, yer we still cling to the belief that a valid license and years of experience can predict future performance. Then we spend a lot of time and money on professional development. Something is missing for me in this equation. Professional development is critical to organizational change. Shouldn’t we be devoting those resources to growth rather than remediation, usually delivered in a one-size-fits-all workshop? The focus of recruitment must shift from “what the candidate knows” to “what the candidate can learn.” When we look at “credentials” through that filter, previously unqualified applicants can, and will, emerge as superstars.

3. Conscientiousness. Being organized, structured and hard working are certainly valuable traits in most jobs, but there are drawbacks to hiring people who are conscientious. Research suggests conscientiousness is negatively correlated with intelligence and is a poor predictor of creative performance. In other words, too many people can fake it till they make it.

4. Conformity. We have a hard time admitting to this one, but we value those who fall in line with our perception of our organizational culture. While we pay lip service and try to celebrate the disrupters, it’s safer to hire people who follow our rules and do as they are told. Seriously, how many time have you counseled an employee who needed to “fit in?” How many times have you discussed, or released an employee who “wasn’t a team player,” or “wasn’t a good fit?” Conformists are generally evaluated positively simply because they are pleasant to be around and are a good “culture fit.” Just don’t expect much in the way of innovative thinking from these team members.

I learned this during my administrative preparation program, hat tip to Dr. Ed Stehno and Fort Hays State University. As a building principal, my process to fill a vacant teaching position was a team event. For example, if a third grader position needed filled, the interview team consisted of the other teachers of third graders, a couple of parents of learners who were about to become third graders, a teacher designated by our union, and myself. As principal, I alone screened the applicants to determine who would be interviewed.

The event started with a teaching simulation. The candidate was not presenting a model lesson to adults, our team behaved as typical third graders in our school. After 30-45 minutes, we would ask the same questions everyone always asks, and we would get the same answers everyone always gets. Then we would take a vote, the highest vote getter got the job.

This process took a lot of time, but it gave the teachers ownership of who was added to their group. In nearly 20 years as a building administrator, I never had to recommend that a teacher be non-renewed.

When screening applicants, I looked for the following four qualities:

1. Passion. If the candidate has a passion for what the job can become, we can teach the skills. The secret to success is sincerity, and many people can fake that in the interview. Having them walk the talk first, in the simulation, allowed us to match actions with words. I can tell some fascinating stories…

2. High Bandwidth. This is the ability to assimilate relevant data from a variety of sources. It is necessary to understand a rapidly changing workplace, make decisions, and keep momentum toward a goal. Given a choice between bandwidth and experience, I always chose bandwidth. Experience is frequently a false God. It is better to hire people who can get you where you want and need to be than people who profess to have been there before. Don’t confuse bandwidth with a bandwagon, which is something everyone jumps on after the risks are over.

3.  Ability to deal with stress and ambiguity. Working in a school is stressful because of the pace of change. If the stress isn’t enough, there is also a great deal of ambiguity. There is only enough information to cause paralysis, never enough to make a perfect decision. We must have a high tolerance for stress and ambiguity.

4. High Energy. The tasks are difficult and the hours are long. Sustained bursts of high energy are required. Make sure the candidates, spouses, and families can handle it.

The most effective leaders know that it is impossible to be good at everything, know it all, and be on top of everything that is happening in the building/district. “A” level players hire other “A” level players. “B” level players hire “C” level players. Do you have the security and self-confidence to hire the right people who can help you achieve your goals and turn dreams into reality?

Steve Jobs certainly did. “It doesn’t make sense to hire smart people and tell them what to do; we hire smart people so they can tell us what to do.”

And so it goes…