We are Where We are Until we Move (and sometimes that’s okay)

Before I attended my first EdCamp, I had been versed in Open Space Technology – an early version of an “unconference.”  The premise is similar in that it is participant driven.  There are four principles that guide the OST and I often find comfort in the first which is to say that whoever attends is exactly who needed to be there.  I try to remember this and share it with others when there is a session held or meeting planned and we have less people show up then hoped.  One could quickly view it as a disappointment.  Or you can choose to see it as a reminder that those that did come are exactly who needed to and that, as long as they have a positive experience, then that is the measure of success.

During our two weeks of professional development with teachers this past August, my school was selected by Dr Brene Brown to pilot their new Daring Greatly Educator Program.  Two full days of training with her team including the first day with Dr Brene Brown leading the work.  What a coup, right?

Upon confirmation with her team in May 2018, we bought Daring Greatly and Rising Strong for each of our 225 team members that would participate.  We could not believe our good fortune and, as others kept asking us how it happened, we kept focusing on how it would reshape our work with kids and each other in the coming school year.  I asked them all to at least read Daring Greatly and be ready for the two days in August.  IMG_4775Here’s the thing, not everyone is ready to dive in to the kind of work on themselves that Dr Brown requires.  Shame & vulnerability are not easy to access no matter how willing you might be.  And thus as the days approached for these two days of learning, we began to get nervous.  While most had at least taken their books home for the summer, there were some that left them at school in their mailbox all summer.  They didn’t even pretend!

Cut to the chase and overall the two days went very well.  As a whole the faculty and staff were engaged and asked questions, shared with others at their tables, and had positive things to say.  Yes, there were also many that went through the motions, may or may not have come back from breaks on time, and resented the two days not in their classrooms.

But this is when I got back to my OST experiences and remembered that everyone is at their own place.  And that is okay.  If those that were ready soaked up the learning then that was fantastic.  Surely there were others that likely got more out of it than they expected and I’m excited for how their kids will benefit this year.  And there were some that did not engage at all.  And that’s where they are right now and that’s okay.  Those that “showed up” were exactly those that needed to.  IMG_5187Sometimes we wait for consensus.  Or we poopoo an idea or initiative because some won’t engage or will be negative about it.  The conclusion I draw from that is two fold:  (1) If you wait then that’s really more of a reflection of you & your poor leadership than of them; (2) When you hesitate to move forward with something because you don’t have 100% on board then you are giving all the power to others.  Don’t do that.

We are all at our best for students when we remember that leaders lead and managers manage.  Figure our which one you are and be that.

What kind of learning have you done when faced with similar situations?

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Coaching Teachers Without Asking Why

At the end of last school year, one of the areas of learning that our faculty/staff identified was feedback.  Teacher to student, student to student, leadership to teacher, etc.  The campus wanted to learn more about how to offer feedback that was useful and could be leveraged for improvement.  Having this focus enabled me to return to some training I had received years ago based on the work of Carolyn Downey and the 3-Minute Classroom Walk-Through.  Click here for a strong description.

So what I find most valuable from the Carolyn Downey work is the reflective question.  Essentially, the idea is that after you complete your walk-through, either via email or a planned “bump into”, you share what you observed and then leave them with a reflective question.  Follow that with built in time for them to reflect on it.  Perhaps you tell them you’ll check back in later.  Or simply leave it open-ended.  The purpose is to have them reflect.

John Dewey

I find this most powerful when I focus on a decision that they made.  Perhaps its the strategy they used to check for understanding; or maybe its a choice they made to use segments of a video; or merely directing students to either work independently or collaboratively.  The point is that they select their next steps, they consciously decide to do something.  For many it is muscle memory.

I strive to ask the question in a manner that focuses them on an instant – a decision point.

“When you decided to have the students work collaboratively on the lab, what outcomes were you striving to achieve?”

“How do you think your lesson would have gone for the students if they had been provided guided notes for the video you showed?”

“When introducing a new concept, what do you consider when choosing a formative assessment tool or strategy?”

Each of the questions above works from a premise that they were fully prepared and thoughtful with the questions they asked, or the lesson they designed.  It then moves from there to a choice they made and asks them to reflect on it.

Could I have sought the same information by simply asking “why did you have them work with partners?” or “why did you or didn’t you provide guided notes?”  Maybe.  That’s certainly more direct.  However the word “why” is incredibly powerful.  Generally speaking, it leads the receiver of the question to take a defensive position.  And that is the last thing I want to do when building rapport for feedback.  Asking “why” can lead them to narrow their thinking just as I want them to expand it.

baby pondering

As you work toward having teachers understand the effects of the decisions they make, of the plans they develop, what strategies do you employ?

What would it look like for you to not use the word “why” for the next week with your students or your staff?

Movie Popcorn Can Bring Inspiration

This last weekend I was able to breakaway from some of the stress and see one of the Academy Award Nominated Best Movies – 3 Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri.  I enjoyed the movie yet during a particularly climactic scene, there is a line shared that has continued to resonate with me.

_Cause you know what you need..._ Love. Because through love comes calm, and through calm comes thought. And you need thought to detect stuff sometimes...It's kinda all you need_ - WoodyThere’s a whole lot of stuff happening in my school district right now.  We’ve lost 17 school days on my campus this year to Hurricane Harvey, Ice, and an Astros Championship Parade.  The stress on everyone has been palpable.  Toss in that our school community was particularly impacted with more than 600 families displaced, and you can get a sense of how we’ve all arrived at the description of “it’s just a crazy year.”

It’s February which means the plans for next year are being hatched, and for many reasons our school district is facing a financial challenge that’s not been seen before in this district/city/state.  How we come out of it is yet to be determined.  What is certain is that we have students this afternoon, this week, this month, and this semester that need us at our best.  So how do we navigate through tumultuous times?

Previously, I wrote, in this blog post, about the advice my mentors had for me as a new campus Principal dealing with struggles.  However as I look to make my way through this spring semester, I am choosing to take a different approach.  For me to have the needed clarity to steer through these challenges, I am going to focus on love in all its forms.  Perhaps it’s a thoughtful card received at the right moment, or a smile in the hallway to someone feeling lonely.  Maybe it’s attending the Lasagna Dinner for the Band or simply cheering on your students at the Girls Basketball game.  Or it could be as simple as visiting a teachers classroom, sharing fist bumps with everyone, and bringing value to what we do.

Chalkboard - LoveRemembering what we love brings the needed calm that leads to thought.  Yeah, I think my trip to the movies with a large popcorn, SnoCaps, and a Cherry Coke just brought me my plan.

What’s the latest quote from TV or Film that has brought you inspiration?

We All Need Our Spot

New shoes have it rough.  They are added to a closet not knowing anyone; they can be a bit stiff, and how long they’ll be in favor is not clear.  Yeah, maybe they are looked at with great optimism and perhaps they’ll remain shiny and exciting for awhile.  But it’s difficult to mix in with the preferred running shoes, or the dress shoes for fancy occasions, or the last “hopefully cool” pair that now seems to have found a “permanent home” in the back corner.  It’s a life that few would ever seek.

The Chuck Taylor All Star II
The Chuck Taylor All Star II

The first week back from winter break is always hectic as its the start of a new semester.  With that comes students checking in while others are checking out.  The first day back I was cruising through our counselor suite at lunch.  This area is always hectic as our nine counselors work with kids while others may simply hang there as its their spot on campus.  And I’m totally good with that.  This past Monday I came across a big guy standing with his dad, and they both had that “new student look” to them.

“Hey, are y’all new?  Welcome to Bellaire.”

“Yes, we are checking in today.  This is my son Brandon,” said the dad.

“11th grade?” I asked

“No.  I’m a senior,” said Brandon.

“Changing schools senior year.  Thats a big challenge,” I said.

“I’m not worried.  It’s gonna be great.”

After assuring them they were in the right place and letting them know to reach out if they needed something, I kept moving on my way.

As I cruised through the following day, I saw Brandon in the suite again, this time kind of hanging by a bookshelf.  We exchanged pleasantries and he said he was doing well.

Two days later I came through again, and Brandon was fully exchanged with the boys.  Laughs were being shared and a couple awkward high fives were also tossed in.  As I injected myself in to the conversation, I asked the regular fellas how it was going with Brandon.  They said it was going fine.  Brandon then shared an incredibly insightful statement.

“Out of all the places where I’ve been the new person, this is the first school where I wasn’t made to feel bad because I wasn’t at the homecoming game sophomore year.  Or whatever big event that they have deemed was a “must attend” in order to be relevant.  I love it here because people have just accepted me.”

Wow!  I was in awe of his awareness of potential high school mores.  It was clear that Brandon had endured on multiple occasions being the new person.  He had likely felt joy and had clearly felt the sting of not being able to quickly find his place.  I want to think that his quick transition and the expedient manner in which he found “his place” was because of our school.  Truthfully, it may have been a piece of it yet I have to believe this kind of warmth is in pockets of schools across the country.  I felt it significant because of his awareness of what could be.  He entered the first day with promise of this time being different and he was able to find his group – join his tribe.

Guys finding each other

Finding your place in this world can be tough.  And in schools it can be emotional and draining and scary.  While schools have transition plans for kids who enter in August/September, I needed this reminder of how critical it is that we not lose sight of those that enter later.  And that when your group of “regular fellas” step up and embrace someone new, let’s be sure to recognize them as well.

How are you supporting your students as they all search for their spot?

My First ISTE Conference and It Hurt My Brain

In high school I loved to write fiction. In college I continued but it was harder. I realized that it was work – that for it to be quality it took lots of time, effort, reflection, and perseverance. It’s not easy to commit to all of that so I stopped. Yet as I reflect on my learning from #ISTE2017, and especially the opening night keynote from Jad Abumrad, the creator of the Radiolab Podcast (Check it out here) , I realize that when I gave up on the process, I cut myself off from many other opportunities.  And I realized that my desire for it to be better wasn’t a detriment.  Rather it was the challenge I needed; the push that each of us need when we try something new, as we strive to find our voice.  

More than 20 years since college, I now find my desire to identify and develop my voice stronger.  Whether it is with this blog or my latest LEARN project where I started a podcast focused on seniors at my high school, I more fully understand that I need to stick with the process of continuing to work.  It’s not great yet and I’m okay with that.  


Additionally, during the same keynote, Jad shared with us a great piece by Ira Glass where he speaks about the Taste Gap.  I’ve included a link to the 2 minute video here: The Taste Gap.  This spoke to me in a powerful way in that it reminded me of the fact that the work must continue.  And that being aware that it’s not good enough yet is important as that is what will keep you working. Imagine that – the very idea that may seemingly stop us from continuing to create is instead exactly what we need to persevere.  The idea that we think it’s not good is the fuel we need for the journey.  Personally, I t was not uncommon for me to reach the point of it not being what I wanted it to be, and the conclusion I reliably drew was that it just couldn’t be any more that that.  Yet ISTE & Jad showed me there was more value to be had by simply “fighting through it.” 

So as I recover from the end of the school year and refresh through my learning at my initial ISTE conference, I find my brain throbbing like the overworked muscle it is.  Thinking and working at another level leave me both exhausted and motivated.  I am excited about engaging again in my own learning through both blogging & podcasting.  Neither is where I want them yet; I get that.  Yet ISTE helped me understand the power in the process & that you must keep plugging along.


What are you struggling with right now in terms of your creativity?  Where does your Taste Gap currently reside?

Turning the tables on interviews

Todd Whitaker said that there are two ways to have an amazing school: Hire great teachers and improve the ones you already have. Now I’m not here to focus on the best means to improve the ones you have as that requires personalization and is work I continue to strive toward each day. However I have always been a firm believer in the importance of hiring well.  And have been surprised over the years by the number of school leaders that delegate this responsibility. It’s far too critical to both the health and success of every school. 


I love interviewing candidates. The main reason is that it allows you to be unapologetically aspirational. You have the chance to find someone that will make your school stronger than you may have imagined and someone who can take your kids to the highest levels. Now I’m not saying that you offer any deception about your current reality when seeking a best fit or job match among candidates. I am encouraging you to focus during an interview on those days when “we are at our best.”  Seizing the opportunity to engage in affirmative inquiry allows you to reflect on your wins without being discouraged by your areas in need of growth.

My campus has strived for excellence since the doors opened in 1955. For a large urban high school, the stability with leadership exceeds expectations and when coupled with a large core of veteran teachers committed to keeping a high standard for everyone, I know we are normally blessed with a sizable pool of applicants.  That being said, the evolution we have undertaken of late has been the means by which we have had to adapt and develop our strategies to impact that work toward similar lofty standards.  We haven’t done this work without struggle, doubt, and a lot of honest reflection. Our learning the past five years has pushed me toward this different slant when interviewing people to join our team.  Largely it is that we really should be the ones that sweat a bit as we search for that person that will make us better.  When sitting across from a strong candidate, it really should be us that is sweating a bit. Rock star educators aren’t everywhere, and so it’s at that moment that I feel the tables switch.  

As a team we now better understand that we aren’t looking for someone to remark that they are a quick learner and willing to “fit in” to our school.  I make it a point to let them know that I am not looking for someone to sit at the end of the bench for a year and wait their turn. Every hire must include a belief that the new team member makes us stronger and will push our thinking and thus the overall learning on campus.  And so we are really the ones that should be nervous that they won’t choose us.  We should wonder whether the learning that we emphasize for both our students and our adults is enriching enough to bring along the best. 

The clarity with which I have seen this over the past 6-8 weeks has excited me in new ways. And I think it may even remind all members of our school community that they have agency each day.  Finally, it reminds others of our vision as a school community. We get the chance to tell our story and our responsibility to do just that is paramount to every school community.  If we ignore or miss this chance, then we leave others to either tell their version or permit a suspect version to gain credibility (as there is no contrary response or narrative). 


Screening candidates, scheduling interviews, checking references, and then working with HR to bring on a new person is work.  It’s an invstement and deserves the same due diligence we would exercise within our personal lives.  The timing for most hiring couldn’t be harder as it’s at the most hectic juncture in the school year. But, I mean, c’mon, is there anything better than landing that rock star addition to your team.  What interview practices might you consider shifting this summer?

Spring Break 2017: Stepping out on to my Skinny Branch

As I stared at the lid and wondered what waited for me inside, I remained a bit dazed at the prospect that I was across the world from my family.  Chopsticks near my right hand and a tall glass of water near my left hand, I lifted the lid of the Bento Box and my eyes opened.  I was no longer in the comforts of Houston, TX; rather I had just checked in to my hotel in Kyoto, Japan.  Spring Break 2017 was definitely going to be an adventure and little did I know how much it would impact my life as an educator.

Bento Box

Just before Thanksgiving break, two impassioned (and persuasive) teachers approached me about serving as a chaperone as the student tour of Japan had grown in popularity and they needed another adult.  What’s important to know at this point is that I can be a real homebody.  I love to be outside, i love to see friends and go out to eat.  Yet the solidarity and predictability of home also has an allure – especially during the few breaks in the school year for a high school principal.  So I said I would have to check with my wife and kids.  Secretly, I figured they would be my “out” and offer me “cover” to not be able to go.  Aw shucks, I would say.  Right?  Wrong.  My wife, my daughter and my son all said I would be silly to not go.  I protested that the food would be tough for me to handle (I’m not picky, rather I’m boring – ha!).  Again, they took away that excuse and every other one I tried (long flight, family time, currency exchange rates, etc.).  Where I was wrong in how they might respond, I can now say that they were so right in knowing that I needed to do this adventure and I needed to do it now.

Bigger Shrine

I won’t go in to all the shrines we saw, the temples we visited, and the lovely vistas we soaked up.  Suffice to say that Japan is incredibly clean, safe, polite, and they could not have been better hosts.  Our 23 students were spectacular in the questions they asked, the foods they tried, & the manner in which they represented themselves, their school, and, in some ways, the United States.  I could not have been more proud.  And while it was an educational tour for them, I have not been able to temper my enthusiasm for how much learning I did on the other side of the globe.

This trip completely pushed me out of my comfort zone.  And yet I tried my absolute hardest to completely embrace the adventure.  I tried every type of food placed in front of me – sushi, tempura, whitefish, natto, flounder, swordfish, lots of rice, and many more dishes I can’t even remember.  And while I feel I can fairly say that Japan has a lot to learn about breakfast, I did feel much better as a result of the food being so fresh.  I did not use a fork for the entire week and resisted Cokes as well (thankfully coffee is a staple everywhere for that caffeine fix).

Trust

Finally, I would be remiss if I didn’t share that, upon further reflection, I have realized that when you take a risk, and push yourself in to new arenas of learning, you can surprise yourself.  And when we allow ourselves to genuinely trust others then our worlds really open up.  I trusted my family, I trusted the adult chaperones, and I trusted the kids on the trip.

Me in Kimono

Next year the same chaperones are headed to Greece and they’ve asked me to tag along again.  I don’t know if it will work out however I know that whatever the outcome it has nothing to do with fear or anxiety.  The walls of international travel have crumbled for me and I’m excited by what my future experiential learning may include.

Finally, I did resist American Fast Food throughout our travels in Japan – until we reached the terminal at the Airport heading home.  Then I had a Big Mac, Fries & a large Coke.  And it was glorious.

Final McDWhat have you learned from your travels?