Connecting and Reflecting

Reflection has always been a part of my practice both as an educator and as a person, but it has really intensified during this time at home. I think a lot about why we do some of the things we do and when we have missed opportunities that I don’t want to miss again. I recently participated in a reunion with five of my closest friends from college. Some of us have seen each other one-on-one, but we had not all been together in at least fifteen years. We had this amazing night of laughs online that felt exactly like old times and went on for hours and hours. I loved catching up with them, being together, and hearing the great things happening in their lives as well as some of their challenges. We repeatedly asked the question many of us do right now, “Why have we waited so long to do this?”

We have also been having a regular family dinner each night instead of our usual see each other in passing as we all rush off to activities or working late and eating in shifts. Before our “safer at home” order, we ate out often and were usually able to do that together, but this feels better, more connected, more real. Our seventeen-year-old daughter recently hosted a week of theme nights for us. She planned and made the dinners, and we all wore costumes to go with the theme. We were our favorite Disney characters, superheroes, and Scooby and the Gang. We dressed in formal wear, pajamas, beach attire, and our best ripped jeans and big hair for rock & roll night. We laughed a ton and got creative about how to make costumes out of what we could find around the house. I reflect a lot on how great all the dinners have been for us and how I will keep them going when this is all over.  

My mood and my thoughts have been like a roller coaster for the last several weeks. I am usually someone who can always find the positives and keeps pretty upbeat regardless of the circumstances, but that has been more difficult as of late. It all came to a head with the announcement that schools were closed for the remainder of the year in our state. I felt this intense grief about not seeing our learners again this year and knowing how hard that was going to be for our teachers. A crushing wave of sadness came over me, and it was reading the reflections of others and feeling more connected to them that pulled me out of it.  

George Couros has been working with our leadership team for the last few weeks to develop digital portfolios. It was important to us to continue our monthly professional development sessions with our leaders to cast forward to a time when we can physically return to our schools. We have had the good fortune to work with George several times in the last few years so we invited him back as he is familiar to us, but is also someone from the outside who can keep us focussed on continuing to grow as leaders. We are trying to capture the shifts that are happening in our teaching practices given the circumstances and our reflections on the leadership it takes to keep innovative, learner empowered practice at the forefront. He joins our online meeting each week during which we learn how to organize our thoughts and ideas into a digital portfolio to share with others. We then meet in small groups to talk about our progress and how hard it is for us in a leadership role to be vulnerable enough to share our reflections and our thoughts with each other, much less the world.  

We’ve worked to create a collaborative culture within our leadership team over the last couple of years to help the job feel less lonely. Although you get a lot of time with other people, the role of a school leader is much more isolating than people may think. We talk a lot about pushing one another with the support that helps us get the job done. Leadership during “safer at home” has taken on a whole new definition with a different kind of intensity. Many of us now spend our days in online meetings talking about instructional practice or how to support learners and families who need resources from school. We have some staff who are struggling, so we are finding ways to connect to them to offer our support as well as supporting our learners each day. A lot of it is emergency management for emergency remote teaching, which is not what any of us thought we were getting into when we signed up for a school leadership role. We wanted our leaders to still have a place to connect with each other, laugh a bit, and talk about visionary leadership, so they get to think about a time beyond emergency management. They are also learning something new, with the help of George, that we can model for teachers and learners in the years ahead.  

The night I heard we were not going to be able to go back this year, the world felt pretty daunting. I started reading the blog posts our principals, assistant principals, deans, instructional coaches, and district leaders have been writing as part of their digital portfolios. Getting to share in their reflections, both the ones that cast forward and the ones that reflect on how hard this time is, really helped me to feel hopeful. There were so many positives, all collected and shared in one space, that I got to see and experience through their reflections. I have learned things about many of them through this process that I did not know and have really enjoyed watching them make their blog sites/portfolios their own. They’re capturing the amazing work I have the absolute honor to get to support every day, our team’s willingness to be vulnerable, and the power of the human connections.  

George recently said, “Here is the best advice I can give any educator right now. Focus on connection first, everything else is second. And a very DISTANT second.” I couldn’t agree more. The connections I am making right now with old friends, my family, and our leaders through their digital portfolios are special and deeper than ever. What if we spent enough time reflecting on our connections to each other, both in our work and as people, that we never forget exactly how essential they were when we needed them most? Instead of being critical of myself for why I wasn’t doing more of this before, I am setting expectations for myself and scheduling how and when I will continue my new and re-connections at this same level when we are all face-to-face again. It makes me hopeful that my new normal may be a better one.  

This is the Twitter content I’m here for..

For my first year of teaching, I was the only self-contained teacher for students with significant emotional/behavioral disabilities in a middle school.  Our classroom was located at the end of a long hallway at the back of the building with few other classrooms nearby. I was on my own most of the time with a large class of really disconnected learners with little time or reason to collaborate with my colleagues.  There were four of us that started that year in similar programs each at different schools. I was the only one who didn’t quit before the second semester. My learners and I had an amazing year, but they were tough, and it wasn’t always easy to figure out what to do all on my own.  I was missing the opportunity to network with other teachers, share ideas, celebrate successes, and occasionally vent about a challenging day. I gave that feedback to my director, and we moved my program the next year to another building where two of us in one location working together.  We spent that year working on how to be more inclusionary and collaborative within our special education team and between our regular education and special education staff. Although I still served a similar population of learners who had historically been unsuccessful in school and started the year in a fully self-contained placement, it was a lot easier as I had a team of colleagues working together to best serve and empower them.  

Since then, I have always made creating a professional network a priority for me as an educator.  I have had opportunities to co-teach with content specialists and related service providers that have made me a better teacher.  We shared a vision for what we wanted for our learners and were not trying to do our work in isolation. Once I moved into a leadership role, continuing to have a strong network was essential.  Leadership jobs are far more lonely than most people think. You are often the only principal in the building or the sole coordinator for that subject in a district. Having a network of other professionals who do similar roles in other districts or communities has been such an asset to my work and has made me even better as I get to listen to the excellent ideas of others or share some of what we do in our district.  We are starting to take that a step further and do some cross-district programming with other districts in our area. We are all trying to do the same work- to create opportunities for all learners that mean that they are ready to live life on their own terms when they finish public school. Why we try to do that work independently does not really make any sense. We have joined or created some new collaborative networks with other districts in our area that are powerful and are giving us the chance to share ideas and resources in a whole new way.  

In recent years, my online networks have become a great source of inspiration.  I never quite understood the power of Twitter until a few years ago. Now, I would struggle without it.  My ability to connect with other people doing work from a similar lens across our country and our world helps me every day.  I get tons of ideas on which blogs to read, which resources others are accessing, and new ways to create authentic learning experiences for all learners.  In a class I teach at a local university for pre-service teachers, one of the assignments I gave was to get networked. I gave them a list of people to choose from to follow online.  They had to reflect on why that collaboration can be so impactful as an educator. It was an interesting discussion when we got back to class on who they agreed with and who they did not. I encouraged them to consider following someone who had opposing views to their own as I often follow people who present a different perspective than mine. It helps me to grow when my ideas get challenged. Either I am ready to defend my belief because I really stand behind it, or the new perspective helps me to shape the belief into a new version of itself.  While my core beliefs never change, I get a new lens on an idea that gives me a chance to reflect. That constant support and challenge of an online community, which I have found on Twitter, allows me opportunities to think and grow all the time.   

I am seeing a new kind of connection and networking on Twitter that has been absolutely amazing.  We now have teachers across our district collaborating on authentic, learner-driven projects via Twitter.  It has been so fantastic to watch a kindergarten class connect to another kindergarten class in another school around a project or a way to increase our involvement with our greater community.  We have a class of high school students working with a class of second graders turning their comics into movies. They wrote a letter to the high school students that said, “We heard that you know how to make movies. Will you help us turn our stories into movies?  We can’t do it alone- we need your help.” How incredible is it that young learners will have the model of our high school students in understanding plot and theme and that our high school students will get to practice what they have learned about those same ideas by teaching them to others? Another class of third and fourth graders has “contracted” math students at one of our high schools to make them a cart for their coffee business after seeing them build real furniture out of scale models for their math class on Twitter.  The power of becoming collaborative across grade levels and schools is incredible, and it can come from something as simple as a Twitter post about the cool work you are doing in class.  

I am not 100% sure if it started with him, but Rex Chapman often posts inspirational things he sees on Twitter with the tagline, “This is the Twitter content I’m here for.”  The videos he posts are often stories of kindness or examples of humanity that are touching. The Twitter content I’m here for is the power of connection between classrooms, schools, district, leaders and learners as well as my opportunities to see, learn and grow.  That content makes the work we do together more real and far more impactful on our entire community.  

Is Your Mind in the Moment?

“True happiness comes from bringing all your attention to whatever you are doing right now.” -Mindful Monkey, Happy Panda. Mindfulness is the ability to be fully present, aware of where we are and what we’re doing, and not overly reactive or overwhelmed by what is happening around us. We are a mindfulness district, which means that all of our teachers have been trained in the practices and teach mindfulness lessons to learners through either the classroom teacher or the school counselor. Our goal is always to be sure our learners have a wide variety of tools to use to regulate their emotions and learn how to be fully present. Many of our teachers use a mindful minute to center the energy in the room before they begin a lesson or an activity. They have access to tools like breathing balls and chimes to use in classrooms. In addition, many of our elementary classrooms have Peace Corners. It is a space within the classroom filled with mindfulness and sensory tools with QR codes to short videos that teach how to use each tool so that learners can independently take a break as they need one. Many of our learners are now able to go to the Peace Corner, self-regulate, and return to class activities very quickly. It sends the message to them that we all need a break sometimes, and it is okay to take one when you need it to get recentered and ready to learn or collaborate with others.

We offered mindfulness retreats to our teachers last year on a few Saturdays to help them learn self-care strategies and often use mindfulness tools to start staff meetings. We always want to be modeling with adults what we want for learners in classrooms. We try hard to have our leaders in our schools with our teachers and learners as often as possible, so we only meet as a whole team (Principals, Assistant Principals, District leaders, and instructional coaches) once a month for about two hours during the school year. We used to try and cram as much information into those meetings as possible, jumping from one topic to the next each month. This year, we are trying to model iteration and reflection, so we switched the meetings to be an opening with some new learning, usually from learners or teachers talking to us about their experience in our schools. We spend the rest of the time in collaborative groups reviewing the professional development plans that are embedded in our school improvement plans to make sure we are continually reflecting on what support our teachers and learners may need. The teams add elements to the plans based on ideas from other leaders or from the time we use to reflect on their new learning.

Frequently, our leaders are running out of the meetings at the end as they need to get back and do lunch duty or have teacher and parent meetings. Schools are really, really busy places, and often the leader needs to be reminded to take time out of that busy day to connect to people and make time to be truly present with them. We ask our teachers to use their time to foster relationships with learners and create classrooms that are authentic communities. As the leader, do we do that enough with staff? I am working on putting down the laptop or the phone when someone comes to talk to me so I can give them my full attention, but it is a work in progress for me. We are all always trying to do so many things at once; we sometimes forget to be mindful of the interaction that is right in front of us. It may be the moment when a colleague, friend, family members, or learner needed to connect, and our distractions may have us missing those crucial moments. It takes practice and reminders for me to be sure I’m staying in the moment and not too quick to move on to the next thing or check my latest notification on my phone or computer.

We recently had the opportunity to participate in the first session of a new leadership series from Youth Frontiers called Geometry of a Leader. Our principals, assistant principals, and some district leaders came together to learn, listen, and practice being present with one another. We spent time reflecting on how we could be more present with all the people in our lives, including our staff and learners. It was a very powerful few hours of practicing our listening skills with one another and listening to some beautiful live music from one of their staff musicians. We took the time to be connected to one another and made commitments to what we will take back to our schools. We talked about mindfulness, its importance in leadership, and left with four keys to presence:

  1. Turn your body towards the person.
  2. Make and keep good eye contact.
  3. Listen to understand.
  4. Give the person your full attention.

To some people, it may sound silly that we need reminders to do these things when engaging with someone, but I certainly do. “Do you have a minute?” is something I get asked many, many times each day. I am not 100% sure how everyone else defines a minute as often I am needed for much longer than that, but my new commitment to others is to say no when I really don’t have the time with a promise to follow-up when I do. It is when I try to squeeze in the time for someone when I am in the middle of something else that I am the least present. I need to be mindful of that all the time.

Many of our leaders have sent feedback on how much they enjoyed the retreat, how they have started to use the four keys, and the impact that is having on their relationships with staff. Principals need time to learn and reflect just like everyone else. We are excited to see how the next two retreats on humility and courage influence our leaders and help them grow their skills. Presence, humility, and courage are such vital skills in leadership that help us to focus on who we are as well as what we do.

“If we don’t take the time to be human with each other, our humanity will fade away.” Our retreat leader repeated that phrase several times, and it stuck with me. Human connection is so essential in the work we do in schools. We know it should drive everything that happens in classrooms, but we also need to be sure it drives how we lead and what we model each day.

Coaching Championship Schools

I grew up in a basketball household.  My parents loved the game, my dad coached for years and all three of my siblings played throughout high school.  My dad even had the opportunity to coach Isiah Thomas, who later played for the Detroit Pistons, for part of his seventh grade year.  When my dad passed away tons of his former players reached out to our family to share how much of an influence he had on them as people through the sport.  I think about that one a lot not because it is pretty awesome and a reflection of who my dad really was, but also because it says something about the purpose and intent of team sports.  My dad knew it. It should be about having a genuine relationship with players and a common goal where everyone on the team knows they have their part and contribute in their own way to a unified purpose.  People join a sport with a goal already in mind- to win and hopefully to have fun. How you get a group of individuals to share in an approach to achieving a goal requires that it is compelling and clear enough that people are willing to take risks to get there.  My dad didn’t coach too many championship teams, but he did create some bonds and a sense of purpose that have lived on including inspiring his children to coach our own kids. Getting a whole school district to work towards common goals and yet allowing each school to maintain their own individuality in achieving them can work the same as attempting to coach a championship team.

I read a great post by Jennifer Gonzalez, who writes Cult of Pedagogy, on What Teachers Want You To Know.  It was a letter to administrators on what teachers need from them. I read it from the lens of my team’s work in supporting administrators and coaches at each of our eighteen school sites.  On behalf of teachers, she asked principals to:

  1. Treat teacher time as a precious commodity.
  2. Differentiate your leadership.
  3. Give specific feedback.
  4. Regularly check in with your ego.
  5. Fight for us.

On behalf of school leaders, I took it as good advice from them to district office staff as well.  Those five embody the work of great coaches and leaders. How do we respect people’s time? How do we recognize that schools are in different places and need us to support them in different ways? How do we more regularly give feedback? How do check our egos by promoting the ideas one school may have and honoring them by recognizing them publicly so others can learn? How do we ensure leaders at the school level and district level are listening to our learners and our teachers to align our work and not put too many things on everyone’s plates? 

We have a strategic plan developed by a committee of staff from all departments, parents, and community members that set our specific goals in four building blocks so that our expectations are clear and our work is focussed.  We meet as a leadership team (principals, assistant principals, deans of students, instructional coaches and district office staff) once a month to professionally grow and ensure we are implementing our strategic plan effectively.  In our first year of the plan, we worked on a variety of topics each month. We spent some time in small group discussion on the topic and started each meeting with an opportunity to personally connect. Everyone would leave these sessions energized to do the work, but just like when you go to a professional development session without the time to process and plan not much was carrying over into schools and our relationships between school and district leaders were not getting deep enough to help push the work.  A good basketball coach watches the playback, analyzes what went well, sees what needs work and adjusts their plan to better help the players grow. We needed to coach in a new way because we were having awesome practices through our meetings, but not consistently applying the strategies and the plays in the game.

When we really thought why that was happening, it became clear that we needed our district level support and coaching to be far more specific to the work that was being done at each school site and how it connects to our district goals with a lot more time for reflection.  Just like Jennifer suggests, we needed to check our egos, give (and get) more feedback and differentiate our leadership. After that first year our Leadership and Learning team, which at that time consisted of a Director, a Coordinator of Instruction, a Coordinator of Special Education, a Coordinator of Student Supports, a Coordinator of Innovation, and a Coordinator of Career and Technical Education, adjusted how we approach our work.  We moved from a siloed system of individual roles that each had a specialty to a support role of working with the school leadership teams on a weekly basis at the school sites on every aspect of our work. We added something we call school supports wherein each member of our team partners with a few schools to help connect all our work and align it towards the levers that will create a true shift of culture to empower teachers and learners to try new things and take risks through authentic, learner driven practices.  We planned to be there for about two hours each week meeting, doing classroom walk-throughs together to share bright spots of learner driven practice and looking at areas where it needs to grow. It was a great opportunity to develop deeper relationships between a school based leadership team and one member of our Leadership and Learning team. As a team, we learned how to differentiate coaching between schools, hear from learners at each school site to be sure we are fighting for them, and get and give feedback. Getting specific feedback from leaders at eighteen schools helped us as a team to plan professional development and our leadership days to align them to really push the right work, but with the right support.  If open lines of communication, strong relationships built on trust, opportunities to share ideas and reflect, a common goal, and time for skill development makes a great sports team, it can certainly help to make strong schools.

It worked pretty well in the first year, and we certainly learned a lot.  We added a summer professional development series for our leaders based on what they shared they needed, adjusted the format for our monthly leadership team meetings to go deeper on a few key messages instead of a variety of topics, and added some elements to our district-wide professional development to better meet the needs of teachers.  One thing that didn’t really work as it was intended was me having a few schools for support as my time was not always able to be consistent and by the nature of my role I add a different dynamic to the walk-throughs. We were able to add a member to our team this year and adjusted the school support assignments with me working with everyone more globally.  

We also learned that our format for school improvement plans needed improvement (pun intended), so we adjusted our playbook again.  This year the school improvement plans are made up of short term markers aligned to a continuous improvement cycle with concrete action steps and a purposeful professional development for teachers and leaders.  The plans are intended to be discussed regularly with the staff at each site to be sure they have input and adjusted after reflection many times throughout the year. Our monthly leadership meetings have become times to review parts of those plans in small groups with other schools, share progress and get feedback from others school leaders, which is also reviewed during the school support meetings with the district partner.  

Good sports coaches adjust the plan over and over again while remaining focussed on the goal. They push people in ways that make them better. Michael Jordan said, “A coach is someone that sees beyond your limits and guides you to greatness.”  Valuing the time we have together to make it meaningful, working on feedback, checking our egos, and fighting for the right work through differentiated leadership is hopefully pushing us all to embrace change and take risks with and for our learners.  We have seen some amazing bright spots over the last few years with instructional practice across our district that is learner driven. We will continue to look for ways to grow that to scale so we have wall to wall, bell to bell, empowered classrooms, schools and learners.  It is our hope that listening to what everyone wants us to know, continuing to reflect and adjust our practice is a good step in coaching up a championship for our entire district and guiding our learners to greatness. 

Finding Your Music

George Couros recently spoke to our leadership team about the importance of creating authentic learning experiences that extend beyond the four walls of the school.  We practiced posting videos to Twitter about the day in order to make our learning visible and connect to our audience. While live Twitter feeds each day are likely not going to be my platform, a blog where I can take our work public, get constructive feedback, and maybe create an opportunity to provoke thought is how I will carry his message forward.  So, here it goes… 

One of my favorite days of the year is our first day of new teacher training.  I love the nervous energy and enthusiasm in the room as we welcome new teachers to our district and many of them to our profession.  We used to have a new teacher training that was twelve days long. Yes, you read that right. It was cram packed with everything we had worked on for years with an in-depth look at every part of our organization.  We have scaled it back considerably in recent years to one full day and two half days with just enough information to know what is happening within our strategic plan so that they understand our vision and what we hold in common across eighteen schools without getting overwhelmed at the idea that they need to know everything on day one.  As a district leader, my learners are our teachers, administrators, and instructional coaches. Part of my job is to make the pieces of our work cohesive so that staff can connect our vision to action steps that ensure our learners get what they need to be successful well beyond high school. I get the opportunity to develop relationships with and support them, much like I used to do in my classroom, to do their best work to empower others each day.  Our first interaction needs to be one that invites them in and connects us to one another, so we welcome them with a Purpose Retreat.    

We opened the day with a Youtube video from Michael Jr. In it he asks an audience member to sing Amazing Grace and then asks him to sing a second time with some context and purpose.  The first rendition was really good, but the second blows you away. Michael says, “The first time I asked him to sing, he knew what he was doing.  The second time I asked him to sing, he knew why he was doing it. When you know your why, your what has more impact because you’re walking in or towards your purpose.”  My purpose pushes me each day to be the best mother, wife, and learner I can be. It grounds me in the why of our work which keeps me going on our tough days and makes me want to come back, try again and maybe even do better.  

Our hosts for the morning were from Youth Frontiers, a company based in Minnesota, that does retreats with staff and students on purpose, respect, and honor.  They do an awesome job of engaging our teachers in skits and small group discussions to find the “one thing” that inspires them. We spent a lot of time talking about the “music” of our work which is the sweet spot where our purpose comes through and our learners feel a sense of belonging that inspires them to create.  We also talked about our “static”- every thing that takes us away from our purpose and our sense of happiness. My static comes from budgets and state reporting, both of which I need to do, but neither of which make me feel inspired. I set aside particular times to do that work that are surrounded by learner showcases and professional development so that my static never drowns out my music. On the really long days, I go home and spend time in my kitchen baking and cooking with my children.  Sometimes the best way for me to reconnect to purpose is to distract myself by getting lost in something completely unrelated to our work.    

While I watched our new staff participate in the workshop, I felt incredibly hopeful for our learners.  The energy in the room told me that this group already knows how to drown out their static and that their music sings loud.  I asked them to share their purpose statements with me so I could use them throughout the year to check and connect and help them stay grounded.  These are a few that I got back:

  • My purpose is to bring out a smile, to help you know your value to the world, accept you as you are, but drive you to persevere toward your dreams.
  • My purpose is to form a safe space where students can create, express themselves, and form a more positive outlook on themselves and the world. 
  • To make a positive impact on as many lives as I can.
  • I want to help them find a path of interest toward a career and teach them the importance of lifelong learning.
  • My purpose is to be myself and encourage others to do the same!

I couldn’t share them all, but the others have a common theme of developing meaningful relationships and inspiring your people.  Our learners are in great hands. It is going to be an amazing year!