Forget Perfect and #EmbraceTheMess

I ran across a fantastic blog post this past week written by a 9th grade teacher who mused over the idea of perfection in our profession.  In her post she reflected on the perspective that a set of recent visitors may had after leaving her class and observing a lesson that wasn’t exactly seamless.  Upon reflection the teacher said this:

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Sydney is dead right; we need to drop this idea of perfection as a goal when we are talking about education.  Working with kids is reality and reality is messy.  We need to #EmbraceTheMess, rethink our expectations, and recognize what working together to develop learners is all about.

There is no such thing as the perfect student.  Granted, there are some that make better, more consistent, choices than others but I’ve yet to run up against a student who is error-free.  Part of growing up is sorting everything out and as a wise educator once said if you aren’t making mistakes, then you probably aren’t trying hard enough.  To expect perfection out of students is like asking them to perpetually play it safe, to never take risks, and to fear what happens if things don’t always work out.  We want our kids to be brave, not operate out of fear of a misstep.

There is no such thing as the perfect parent.  As most of you know I have a 3rd grader and an 8th grader and among the many words I would use to describe my journey as a parent, perfect is not one of them.  We do the best we can with what we have, right?  We raise our kids the best we know how, we tell them all the right things, but when we drop them off at school there will be 7 hours when we hope they make all the right moves.  Sometimes they don’t and we sort it out but it should never a referendum on what type of parent we are.

There is no such thing as the perfect school year.  My 11 years in the classroom and now 9 years in admin have been instructive, to say the least.  I have earned 2 master’s degrees, worked on 4 campuses, taught 4 different grade levels, in 2 different districts, and did a short stint at the administration building; one lesson I continue to learn is that each year will have successes and setbacks, each year is a special kind of rewarding, and none of my 20 years in education, in any capacity, have been perfect.  We strive for better, to learn from our mistakes, to be proactive in looking for pitfalls, to care for each of our kids, and to do our best to grow them as learners, and we will never expect that 180 day process to be perfect.

My Cat Chat articles this school year started out talking about embracing the new as we moved into a brand new, different type of building and from there I have thought about being a marigold, getting it wrong, and seeing things as nails if all you have is a hammer.  I passed the midway point in the year and moved on to difficult conversations, being empathetic, being more dog, and doing things specifically because they’re hard.  Do you sense a theme?  The difficulty of the work we do is only surpassed by the importance of the work itself.  I know what’s at stake and because of that thinking of the way we go about things matters.  A lot.

I’ve run out of time, and Cat Chats, this school year and there is little left to say other than enjoy your summer.  I can’t wait to see everyone in a few months when we kick off the 2017-2018 school year; it’s going to be perfect. 🙂

The Easy Way Is Overrated

At a recent meeting I attended with fellow Leader in Me administrators there was a video clip shown that struck a chord with me. Have you ever listened to, or watched, John F. Kennedy’s speech at Rice University? On September 12, 1962 our president outlined, in great detail, how we would get to, walk on, and return safely from the moon. In talking about the why he tells the crowd that we will go to the moon and do other things “…not because they are easy, but because they are hard…” Pretty good stuff, right?

I think it’s important to make a distinction here – doing something because it’s hard doesn’t mean that there is no guarantee of success. I ran a 100 kilometer race this past fall, and I knew full well that 63 miles was going to test me in a way that my previous running adventures never had, but I didn’t going in expecting failure. After spending 12 hours and 46 minutes covering the distance I can assure you, it was hard 🙂 The way I see it, that is no different than learning to play a new instrument, learning a new language, or even learning to read; the value is in the process and the process is what will empower us. You may not become a master guitar player or a fluent speaker of another language, but you will likely gain some amount of skill and be better off for the experience.

We do things that are hard because we see value in the struggle. It’s not about winning, it’s about doing something so difficult that it provides perspective for when we are in a situation to win. Life isn’t always like sports; it’s rarely as neat at 9 innings, 12 rounds, or 4 quarters.   Ask yourself this question: do you seek out experiences that you know will challenge you, or you do simply wait for challenging situations to find you? I know that there is an element of proactive vs. reactive to this question, but there has to be more to it. As a child, I remember complaining about something to my parents and at times their response would be something along the lines of it’s character building. Looking back that may have been the case, but I don’t remember anyone ever telling me to find challenges that would build my character and I wish that would have been the case. If we get into the habit of doing something because it is hard, it provides context for all the things that land at our feet that we do not seek out.

By time you read this summer will be right around the corner and we will be enjoying our last few weeks of the 2016-2017 school year. I encourage you to spend time this summer doing something that you know is hard and reaping all the benefits that come with it. We may not be going to the moon this next school year, but I’m certain there are great things ahead and hard work that goes with it.

#conditproud

Dan

Have we become more dog?

I recently read an inspiring blog post by an educator who shared an experience her principal gave the staff at the beginning of this past school year.  The experience centered around this video  which I believe started as a super bowl commercial a few years ago, but I’m not 100% on that.  Underneath the obvious humor of the clip there is a very important question – why settle?  Do we do things the way we’ve always done them because it’s comfortable?  Maybe even expected?  Or, do we follow our passion and ‘be more dog’?

The video appealed to me on two very different levels.  The first being that I’m a dog person and not a particular fan of cats, so I got a kick out of the contrast between the two 🙂  The second level is one of much greater importance and it connects to a recent experience I had when our new building was a finalist for the Learn By Design competition at SXSWedu.  Allow me to explain…

When the folks at VLK Architects submitted our building for the inaugural SXSWedu Learn By Design it was a distinct honor to just be a part of the group of five finalists.  Our building was in the experiential category, which meant the design of the building itself impacted the experience of the students, and adults, that used the space.  Being a part of the presentation team was also an honor, but perhaps in hindsight it was more of a challenge.  Trying to explain how the design of our school has changed the experience of learning and teaching at 7000 S. Third was tough.  The panel that was judging consisted of three architects and one educator, so explaining our ideas in both of their languages was important as well.

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During the Q&A section I was asked about the design of our learning spaces and how it has impacted test scores.  My answer was something along the lines of we acknowledge the importance of test scores but we are much more concerned with the student experience.  As I reflect on the question that was asked that day, and the answer I gave, I think it underscores the philosophy of our building committee; we never sat down at the design meeting and made design decisions based on what would result in better test scores.  We didn’t know it at the time, but what we were doing for the nearly 1 full year of design was asking how do we become more dog?  How do we go about creating a building that doesn’t settle for what has always been, rather focuses on what learning can be?

Our Project Advisory Team wasn’t looking back, we were looking forward; we wanted to make sure our new building was one that would keep up with our kids and drive our teachers.  We wanted our learning spaces to flex and evolve as our children did the same.  We wanted the spaces to bend to the needs of our learners instead of forcing us to constantly devise ways to teach beyond what a building would allow.  We weren’t willing to settle for the way elementary schools have always been built, we wanted to be something more.  That is what the SXSWedu design competition was about, but more importantly that is what Condit’s design team was about.

So have we become more dog?  I’d like to think so.  We are utilizing our flexible learning spaces in ways that we weren’t able to before, we are improving upon the practices we were utilizing under the relative constraints of our old building, and kids are having learning experiences previously not possible.   While I don’t expect to go before a panel of experts each year to describe the innovation happening in our building, I do expect to have 750 very discerning young people each year who demand innovation to happen.  I look forward to working as a school community to make sure we don’t let them down.

#conditproud

Dan

Channeling my Inner Betazoid

I suspect there are lots that folks don’t know about me. We all have bits of unimportant, somewhat trivial tidbits about ourselves that might surprise people. For example, did you know that I am a Star Trek fan? I don’t think I would qualify as a full blown Trekee since I’ve never attended a convention, I don’t own a uniform, I don’t have Star Trek ringtone, nor do I have any pieces of memorabilia in my office, but I was pretty big fan of the show growing up. The original version with Captain Kirk was before my time, I had to play catch up on that one, but beginning with Star Trek The Next Generation and into Deep Space Nine and Voyager I was dialed in, but I digress.

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On Star Trek the Next Generation there was a character, Deanna Troi, who was an Empath which meant she could sense how others were feeling. I seem to recall this skill came in pretty handy when they were dealing with hostile enemies who were attempting some sort of ruse that would lead the crew into danger. Convenient, right?

While my interactions aren’t generally of the interstellar variety, often I find myself in a situation where I do my best to channel my inner Deanna Troi. I have zero chance of actually reading the minds of the people I deal with on a daily basis, but I have found that leaning heavily on empathy serves me well. When I divorce myself from my personal point of view and assume the perspective of the person I’m speaking to I have found that it is nearly always productive.

I think this exercise takes Habit #5 Seek First to Understand then to be Understood one step further. When we practice true empathy we are trying to not just understand what the other person has to say, we are literally trying to assume the thoughts, feelings, and sometimes wishes, of that other person. Being empathetic means going beyond simply discerning the message and waiting your turn to talk; it forces you to ask yourself the question what would I do if I felt this way?

My friend and colleague Sandra Menxuerio recently shared an article on twitter (https://goo.gl/mSvBSN) that discusses four different definitions of empathy, the third definition is about the way you can imagine the world, or situation, from someone else’s point of view. This is the type of empathy I try to practice each day. When a teacher comes to me frustrated, a child comes to me upset, or a parent has a concern, I do my best to not just listen, but to assume their perspective. The article goes on to describe how empathy is not just part of what we say, but part of what we do and how we act.

Do you know what happens when we stop using empathy? Have you ever seen video footage of two rams smashing their heads together in an effort to establish their social dominance? Well, that’s pretty much the equivalent of a conversation between two people who have no interest in budging, no interest in trying to understand a situation beyond their personal perspective. Spoiler alert: these types of conversation don’t end productively, and at an elementary school they do nothing to further the growth of our students.

So, until we travel far into deep space and make contact with our Betazoid friends, I will continue to hone my personal empathic abilities, do my best to seek first to understand, and remain #conditproud.

Make it so!

Dan

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#OneWord2017

If you’ve been watching the twittersphere you may have noticed the trend over the last few years for folks to participate in the my one word movement.  The idea is to eschew a list of new year’s resolutions in favor of a single word, a single focus that you will center on during the upcoming year.  I kicked around the idea of participating last year, I even picked out a word and everything, but by the time I was ready to act on it enough time had gone by that I figured I had waited too long and kept the idea to myself.  This year, with a little inspiration from a principal down the street @m_squaredBHS I’m going to give mine a share.

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Unfeigned. The idea of being genuine and sincere is important to me.  I have the good fortune of being in a position where I get to work with all different types of people, of all different ages, that carry very different lenses on how they believe the world around them should work; I want my interactions with them to be real.  This isn’t the same as simply being direct, but it does mean that the idea of ‘sugarcoating’ an important idea is one that I want to work to avoid.  

I am sometimes guilty of taking the scenic way around a topic, this year I want to focus on making that trip shorter.  Difficult conversations, or discussions when there is obvious disagreement, shouldn’t undermine my ability share my concerns in a way that is honest and heartfelt.  The thought of someone walking away from an interaction with me and disagreeing I can live with, the thought of that person believing I was being insincere I cannot.

There is a deep connection between being genuine and Habit 3 putting first things first; when we focus on what matters most and we make that the focal point of conversation then our sincerity shows through.  When I think of the worst type of conversations I think about a person who is dismissive, I think about a person whose main goal is to prove themselves correct and/or to end the conversation as quickly as possible.  Discussions tend to go sideways when there is an obvious lack of investment.

Is this whole #oneword bit going to be a game changer for me?  Not sure.  You can count on me to let you know, sincerely.

#conditproud

Dan

Hammers and Nails

The conversations around social and emotional learning have been a focus both at the district level and on our campus this year, specifically the ways in which we help struggling learners.  In fact, our district created a brand new arm of support services specifically around this concept and to support schools as we work with struggling students.  After a conversation we had as a staff, a teacher passed along a book that she had used the year previously that changed her mindset and practices she used in class to support her kids.  It wasn’t long into the book that I came across this quote from Abraham Maslow.

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Pretty good, right?  Let’s look at this from two different perspectives:

  1. If we only have one tool, no matter how creatively we try to use it, it likely won’t be completely effective.  While I’m sure you could show me the several ways you can use a hammer the reality is it makes a painfully inadequate wrench.  If you’ve ever tried to take a bolt out with a hammer you have likely ended with a hot mess and bolt that is no longer useful. Perhaps it’s human nature to avoid real change; we sometimes try to stretch our current practices beyond their limits as opposed to engaging in new learning.
  2. When folks only have one tool, they discount the idea of using anything else.  If all you’ve ever used is a hammer, and the hammer has always worked, why would you even entertain picking up an allen wrench?  If the hammer doesn’t work, then there must be something wrong with bolt that has a hexagonal socket, right?  Wrong.  Just because something worked in the past doesn’t mean it is always the right tool for the future.

So this is what I’m left wondering: why is it so hard for some folks to figure out there are times to set aside the hammer?  Maybe it’s pride, the hammer was always the right tool in the past and for that axiom to hold true it must always be the right tool in the future.  Perhaps it has something to do with fear, some adults can’t manage the idea that after so many years of knowing what to do they might find themselves in a place that requires new learning.

I do want to add this, and it may infuriate those of you who have been nodding emphatically while reading this so far: let’s be careful that we don’t let the pendulum swing too far and decide that there is no such thing as a nail anymore.  A hammer might not always be the right tool, but sometimes it will be exactly what we need, let’s not lose sight of that fact.

It seems like there are no easy answers when it comes to working with humans, especially those ages 4-11, but we will continue to do the best we can, fill our toolboxes with all the right tools, and remain #conditproud.

Dan

#shadowastudent

As you ma have heard, I had the opportunity to participate in the #shadowastudent experience with the other principals form the Bellaire High School feeder pattern on October 26. For just one day I became a 3rd grader and from 7:30am to 3:20pm I lived the same experience as the rest of our students.   I didn’t go into the day with any preconceived notions or any special agenda, and here are a few big ideas I came out with.

  1. A rolling stone gathers no moss. I was sitting, standing, kneeling, on the carpet, at the small group table, on the floor with classmates, walking the room, and working with a teacher outside the class. If movement is the key to learning then I had it in spades! I didn’t check the number of steps that I took, but I suspect it would have been significant.   At the end of the day I had a sense of satisfaction; what I believed to be true on my campus was largely confirmed and the idea of flexible learning spaces and movement was one of them. When we designed our new building this is what he had in mind and it was gratifying to experience it in action.
  2. It was real. Third graders don’t have poker faces, and if there was some sort of dog and pony show going on because I was in class that day they would have been the first ones to ‘tell’. What I experienced was exactly what they usually experience and the smooth transitions and unspoken understanding of expectations clearly indicated that this was just another day in 3rd If I had heard someone say something like ‘why are we doing this’ or ‘we’ve never done this before’ I would have know something was up, this was never the case.
  3. What’s next? At the groundbreaking for our new school 2 years ago our trustee, Mike Lunceford, mentioned that our school had been living 21st century teaching and learning for a while and we were finally going to get a building that matched that. I found myself reflecting on this idea as I finished my day. The teaching and learning that I saw, during my day as a student, was a better version because of the physical space that we now have.   The pedagogy was sound, but I keep wondering ‘what’s next’? Perhaps it is a latent fear of stagnation that I have, but with out new building come new possibilities, so instead of settling for a space where our current best practices can live, I’m wondering how we can push our practices forward for our students. At the end of the day, I believe this was my biggest takeaway, not a solution, but rather a new challenge to consider.

As a quick aside, having the experience concurrently with the other 11 principals in the feeder pattern allowed some interesting conversation and reflection the following week. I’m not sure where this little experiment will go, but I’m grateful for the opportunity.

For a little entertainment value check out my pictures from the day on my twitter feed @texasbuckeye.

#conditproud

Dan