Monday, December 20, 2010

Friends and Tough Questions

I tweeted Friday night that I enjoyed having dinner with members of the 2008 All-Iowa Cohort. This tight-knit group of school leaders had again gathered to celebrate their graduation.

I learned a few things that I didn't know while I had them in class, which is probably a good thing for everyone. I also learned that in one of my earlier posts I unintentionally spilled the beans about a pregnancy in the group. This apparently caused a little disappointment among some who expected to hear this great news from a source other than The Balcony View. Hmmm. And I thought no one was reading.

As I listened to them banter and tease each other, I remembered how they challenged and pushed each other as students. After just a few weeks together, it became easy to anticipate the positions certain members of the cohort were going to take on particular issues. Exploring, unpacking, questioning, and reevaluating those strongly held beliefs became an important part of the experience.

And that got me thinking about something I heard Dr. Bill Callahan, former Dean of the UNI College of Education, say in a doctoral class one time. We were discussing openness and honest communication when someone said, "I have good friends who can tell me anything." Bill didn't disagree with the point and as I remember, congratulated the person for having such good friends.

Then he pointed out something I'd never really thought of before. He acknowledged that many of us have a list of folks who make our "Good Friends List." We share history, common interests, maybe the same sense of humor, etc.  Bill challenged us to think of how many of those folks would honestly and directly challenge us if and when they thought we were really out of bounds, off track, or screwing up. How many would be truly willing to tell us things they know we wouldn't want to hear? Then he said, "Often times, my friends are my friends because they say nice things to me."

I've thought a lot about that point on and off over the years. It's such a good one for leaders. We know how lonely leadership can be. I think it was Harry Truman who referred to the White House as "the prison." New principals talk often about how lonely they find their positions. And that professional isolation often breeds a lack of communication, or at least not enough honest communication about the things that matter most.

How many of us have invested the time to cultivate relationships in which our friends (or associates) will not only forward us a joke they know we'll like but will also come at us with the awkward, unvarnished, straight forward truth we so need to hear?

How many will instead keep it light and stick to the comfortable stuff? How many will tell me, if I ask? How many of us have chosen to keep things on the " comfortable friendly level" and shied away from seeking awkward but clarifying conversations about what we're doing, how, and why? As leaders, we ought to be asking ourselves these questions.

I hope the fun crew I had dinner with Friday night will keep it up. I'm thinking they will.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Passion-Driven Leadership

It was a treat when Amy Sandvold, a former student in the UNI Principalship Program program, asked me to guest blog about being a passion-driven leader. I’ve been called a lot of things, I suppose, even today. But I welcome the label and am grateful for the opportunity. This is cross-posted at her new blog on passion-driven leadership.
I remember as a college basketball player hearing my African American teammates talk about leaving their Starter jackets in the locker room when they went home for the weekend. Some of their jackets were the wrong color for the gangs that roamed their neighborhoods. As a kid from small town Iowa, that got me thinking.
My first “real” job after college was with the Missouri Department of Mental Health in Kansas City. Though Sarah Palin would probably dismiss it in the same way she mocked President Obama’s work as a “community organizer,” my job as a “Clinical Casework Assistant 1” was to help individuals with serious, chronic mental illnesses navigate life in the city. My twenty clients suffered from a host of mental illnesses, but schizophrenia was the most common. A few years earlier, they would have been institutionalized.
Their stories were heartbreaking and inspiring at the same time. One man, Julio, who spoke no English, was one of Fidel Castro’s “boat people,” loaded onto rickety boats and sent toward Florida. Another, Ali, had been shot during constant war in Ethiopia and had cared for the bullet wound in his hip himself until arriving in America several months later.
One man, Mike, lived in a federal housing project we referred to as the “no fly zone,” to which the probation and parole department no longer sent officers and ambulances would not go unless the police arrived first. Idealistic, foolish, committed or all three, I went there all the time. Mike often talked about how his dad used a “2 x 4 to make us men.” His brother jumped into the Missouri River from the Paseo Bridge while Mike lived on to struggle through chronic paranoid schizophrenia, schizoid personality disorder, intermittent explosive disorder, and crack and alcohol addiction. It was often one step forward and a couple steps back.
Another guy, Lance, who also suffered from schizophrenia, swore he received all kinds of urgent messages from outer space, warning that Communists were secretly overrunning America. If only Lance could get someone to take him seriously, he felt the country could be saved. The same man would regularly walk twenty blocks in the rain to a disability services job that paid him a few bucks a week assembling brake lights for cars.
The only thing I saw that came close to their desire for a better life was the limit their illness put upon their opportunities. The tenacity with which they got up every day, wondering what the voices would say or whether others also heard the gunshots, was stunning.
One day at the stoplight at 47th and Main I realized that, although I was humbled and awestruck by their stories and toughness, that particular job was not where I was supposed to be. I changed course and became a teacher and coach, later a principal, and now a professor who teaches aspiring principals. If I am in fact a “passion-driven leader,” it is in large part because I am reflective enough to know that those guys would really think it a waste if I didn’t do everything I can to help others seize opportunities they never had.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Teaching, Coaching, Leading, Learning

This semester as I have done before, I invited UNI men's basketball coach Ben Jacobson to speak to my class of aspiring school principals, and not just because Panther Basketball is in my blood. The reason is there are so many parallels between teaching and coaching and leading a team and leading a school. Listening to Jake talk with my students for the fifth semester, I was struck by several things. Chief among them is how much leaders in other fields can learn from some, but not all, coaches. I'd be the first to say that one couldn't and shouldn't drop just any college or professional level coach into a graduate class and expect it to work. But Jake's message always does.

Since reading Reframing Organizations by Bolman and Deal, I've believed their assertion that, over time organizations take on the personality of their leaders, for better or worse. Jake's teams are as good of an example of that as I can think of. Focused, methodical, not prone to knee jerk reactions, fundamentally sound, very cohesive, tenacious.

He talked about the importance of "listening aggressively." Susan Scott in Fierce Conversations calls that "paying fierce attention" to each other. Talked about valuing people's time, getting to know the janitor and concession worker in the McLeod the things in their lives are just as important as the things in his and that, as people they're eager to share.

Five years ago as a rookie head coach, he talked about the importance of toughness, which is fairly boilerplate and cliche for any coach. "Not winning? We're probably not tough enough. Things not going well in life? You're not handling them with enough toughness and grit" were the answers back then. He'll get no argument from me about the importance of toughness, whatever the task. Being a principal is tough. Teaching is tough. Selling Dodge Durangos in a dismal economy has got to be tough.

Since that initial toughness message five years ago, however, Jake  now realizes how much more is necessary. Of course he still values toughness (what coach doesn't?), but the importance of teamwork and trust make up the other legs of the stool. His point was that as leaders, we have to understand the danger in seeing every problem as having one solution. That's when we become  hammers masquerading as leaders that see nothing but nails.

I almost laughed out loud when he described how he challenges assistant coaches to do more than point out with great passion and frustration what the players do poorly. He wants them to come to his office with solutions. I immediately remembered being a principal and assembling the stencils to spell out the word "solutions" above my office door. The reason for the planned redecoration was not (as some seemed to hope or expect) that the wise principal had all the answers, but rather to send the message that our problems are very well known and easy to identify. What we need are ideas, creativity, and insight about what to do about them (That I never got around to painting the word because a crisis of some sort erupted is beside the point and something every principal will understand).

Jake also talked about the importance of differentiation, though he never used the word, which is probably overused as a term and sadly underused in practice. He talked about the range of players on his team with different backgrounds, personalities, and skill levels. Some perform at their highest levels when they are aggressively pushed with tough love. For others, the issue is much more related to feelings of efficacy, building confidence, and encouragement. The need for the same kind of differentiation has been present with all the teachers and students I've tried to assist.

Finally, he reflected on how easy and clear cut things appeared from the assistant coach's office. Sitting in the big chair is different. More complicated. More difficult. Yep.

Yes, he gets to recruit players that fit his team and approach. Yes, he enjoys a very healthy salary. No question that in many ways, the emphasis placed on  athletics in America is out of whack. And no, I won't be writing a book entitled "Everything I Needed to Know About School Leadership I Learned from Listening  to Coach Jake." But when it comes to effective leadership, those who "get it" advocate and practice a lot of the same things, whether they're leading a school, congregation, family, business, or team.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Man, I've got a Great Job.

I've been on the road lately for our principalship students' portfolio presentations. At the end of their program, we ask them to deliver a formal presentation highlighting the internship work they've done around the Iowa Standards for School Leaders. We pitch the experience as one that will prepare them to introduce themselves to school districts and communities in interview settings. We also encourage them to invite mentors, family members, friends and everyone who has contributed to their success in our demanding, two year program. We hope the event feels like a cross between a formal presentation and a celebration.

On Friday, one of our excellent soon-to-be-grads who already serves in the principal's role was discussing the challenges of balancing professional and family life when she shared that she is pregnant. Some family members and friends in the room already knew, but not everyone. Several were moved to tears as the the presentation/celebration swirled together. When eyes had been sufficiently dabbed, her mentor spoke.

He explained that he'd spent more than three decades as a principal before retiring and becoming her mentor. "She is today ahead of where I was when I retired," he said. And he didn't seem like the kind of guy to throw empty praise around.

Man, I've got a great job.

That got me thinking about another of our young graduates, Mrs. Tara Estep, who is now the principal at Hansen Elementary in Cedar Falls, IA. Last year, I asked her to blog about her experiences as a new leader. And blog she did. Below is an entry she shared with my class of aspiring principals.

Subject: your week 8 reflections...I was there too. (New)

Date: November 30, 2009 10:23 AM

Author: Tara Estep

Hello everyone! I trust you had a wonderful Thanksgiving with your friends and family!

I had the chance to read through your week 8 reflections. They were great…honest and real. I remember thinking those same things! At the time, I was journaling, and I went back to see what my reflections were. Here are a few things I had written down when I was just beginning my journey…

Am I ready to be an island? Ready for the inevitable loneliness?

Am I ready to create relationships that will never turn into friendships?

Am I ready to transition to the “dark side,” and to forever be looked at differently?

Am I ready to go against the grain and no longer with it?

Am I ready to have everyone’s problems become my problems?

Am I ready to think about 400 kids rather than 25?

Am I ready to walk into the lounge and hear the once bubbling conversation come to an abrupt halt?

Am I ready to be the target…the one to blame…the one that gets judged?

These are important challenges to think about. Many of you had these same themes in your reflections. It’s great to reflect on those challenges, so you have a sense of what you’re getting yourself into. But, many have said it and it’s true…the positives far outweigh the negatives. Here is the second half of this journal…I finished toward the end of my program.

I am ready to be a visionary…to share and develop that vision with my staff.

I am ready to affect positive instructional change and always ask, “Is what we’re doing best for kids?”

I am ready to be involved in positive conversations that move us forward!

I am ready to make informed, research based decisions…I’m ready to make those tough decisions…the ones everyone expects me to make.

I am ready to be a motivator, a leader of learning, and a compassionate ear for kids and staff.

I am ready to be a trusting mentor…one who facilitates, assists, and supports.

I am ready to lead with ethical behavior…to lead by example.

I am ready to instill the importance of teaching: an opportunity to teach young minds, touch young hearts, and make a difference each day.

I am ready to take on the politics…fight for our school, and do everything ethically possible to make sure my teachers have the best resources needed to do their job.

I am ready to be involved with teachers and their learning! I am ready to be a collaborator, a listener, and a sharer of ideas.

I am ready to love my job, hate my job, care too much, work too hard, leave too late, cry, laugh, and scream.

I am ready to make a difference.

Ready or not…here I come.

Although it may feel like you are getting a lot of the “doom and gloom” right now, please know that as a principal you get to do all of the above and more! UNI does a great job to prepare you for all the challenges that are sure to arise, but once I got into the job I was more surprised by the positive outcomes I wasn’t expecting. I was pretty much expecting all the other stuff… (well maybe not all of it) :)

Will you ever be prepared enough? No. Does it feel like a blur sometimes? Yes. Is balancing really, really tough. Yup. Are you a target at times? Sure.

You will. 

Frequent readers of The Balcony View know I'm often frustrated with much of what happens around me politically, socially and educationally. But leaders like these beginning to spread their wings and share their immense promise reminds me that we've got people with talent that exceeds the challenges we face...And that I've got a great job.

Friday, November 5, 2010

See the Irony?

My kids are busy taking standardized tests at school this week. I know how the scores are misused to "show" things that the tests are not designed to measure. As a former principal, I also know the pressure that schools feel to post good scores and trend lines. Something my 12 year old said caught me this week at breakfast and it connects to so many things that are wrong in education now, from the way we overuse tests, to the way we report data, to the way we evaluate (or not) teachers, to the way we try to motivate students to do their best on the tests that are often far removed from what they experience daily in the classroom.

So he's talking about how he wants to score really well on a certain test and is really geared up for it. "That's great," I said. "What's got you so focused?"

"Well, if I can do really well, I'll be moved into the higher ____ group and won't get stuck with Mrs. X next year," he said.

Ufda. Love the motivation to do well, but how sad is it that his focus is to score well to avoid Mrs. X, who has quite a reputation?

So then I ask him if he plans to check his answers thoroughly when he is finished.

"Ooooooh yeah," he responds. "Besides, we can't read a book or anything, because they don't want us rushing to get done and then starting to read."

Am I the only one who sees the irony?

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Happy Homecoming (?)

We've been discussing the third of the Iowa Standards for School Leaders (ISSL) in class. Last night we revisited some of the vandalism and pranks that come with homecoming in a lot of places. After looking at some news video of last year's events in Knoxville, Iowa, I asked the group to envision themselves as a principal and me as a school board member who thought it best to pull the plug on the whole thing. Devil's Advocate, sort of...

I told them I felt it was a distraction to the learning environment. I told them it was ridiculous to spend time and money cleaning up the buildings and grounds after students were specifically told not to cross the line. Wearing my hypothetical board member's hat, I told them that with all of the focus on student achievement, many outdated traditions like this reinforce a nasty high school caste system and popularity contest on their best day and open the door to destruction of property and vandalism on their worst. I told them that, as a hypothetical board member, I planned to introduce a motion at Monday night's meeting to let the whole thing go away. And I asked them if, putting themselves in the position of a principal, they would support the motion.

It was a lively discussion. Some teetered on agreeing with me. Some advocated changes to the traditional homecoming, wanting to include some new emphasis on academics. Many others saw problems with ending an important school/community event, citing points in ISSL and other literature and research that they believe speak to the value of homecoming and other such school traditions. It was fun, at least from where I was sitting. I'm not a fun hating Grinch. And, ok, I was a member of the homecoming court back in the day. While I don't believe all of the things I said last night while posing as a board member, some of what I see is troubling. Quite a bit of it has lived its life.

This morning, I was sharing the experience with my colleague Dr. Dave Else, for whom I have great respect. He shared a recent conversation with a high school principal who complained she was getting a lot of calls from upset parents. When Dave asked what about, she explained that she had met with the juniors and seniors who informed her in no uncertain terms that they weren't interested in having a homecoming dance. If one was held, they weren't going to attend. Being the data driven leader she apparently is, the principal pulled the plug. And that's when the calls started coming from parents.

Isn't it interesting that, at least in one principal's school, the thing was not  a sacred event to the kids, but rather to the parents?

And so, who is all this really about, anyway?

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Living the Mission

I facilitated a panel discussion Monday afternoon entitled "Safety and Learning: Optimal School Environments for LGBT Students" in conjunction with the series of events related to The Laramie Project and Judy Shepard's visit to campus. Although there were several other events going on at the same time, we had a good turnout and great discussion. Despite the world's obsession with numbers and stats, we really learn from stories, and the five panelists shared some meaningful ones.

One student told the poignant story of how her mother struggled with her daughter's sexual orientation so much that it seemed to override everything else about the bright, social, athletic. 3.5 GPA student. It got so tough at home that she moved to a teacher's house for a month or so. Another student told about how she knew coming out didn't feel like an option in her suburban school and that only at college has she been able to hit her stride as a young woman. A third student told of how frustrated she's been when her high school teachers look at her while trying to decide just how (or whether) to respond to gay slurs from other students.

That got me wondering whether the teacher is going to address those comments in 3rd hour because there's an out LGBT student in the room, but let them go in 4th hour because he assumes all those kids are straight. I wonder if the same teacher makes eye contact with the students of color in the room while deciding just how (or whether) to address racial slurs.

Perhaps the most memorable story of the day came from Dr. Tom Narak, the excellent superintendent of schools in West Des Moines. He talked about the power of leadership at the classroom, building, and district levels. A few years ago, when students at Valley High School were preparing to present The Laramie Project,   some in the community were pretty riled up. A couple hundred folks turned out at board meetings. And you know what? They worked through it, because that's what we do. A real life lesson in engagement, civility, and the way the process works in a democracy.

This brings me back, for what feels like the gazillionth time, to a point I make in the last chapter of my book, which is that we have to summon the courage to live our mission statements. Those catchy statements look so good on our letterhead and the nice sign out front that the PTA paid for. But let's be honest: People who are paying attention can tell if they're real principles that guide our day to day actions or just catchy public relations slogans. Why bother with all the feel good prose that looks good on the website if we're only courageous enough to make it real when we're dealing with the easy stuff. Real leaders have the authenticity and integrity to make sure they're not just catchy slogans.

Speaking of real leaders, that reminds me...for those who read the Connected to Reality Sweepstakes a while back, neither Newt Gingrich or Bob VanderPlaats came to the forum, so I still have their copies of the book.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Get Out of the Wake

I had the good fortune to hear the 2010 National Teacher of the Year, Sarah Brown Wessling speak on campus last night. That I babysat for Sarah and her younger siblings back in the day is a nice bit of trivia, though it is entirely possible (perhaps quite likely) that I benefited more from the experience than she did. Sarah delivered a superbly sincere and uncomplicated message to the audience of current and future educators last night. Two thoughts stand out.

Like any good teacher, she knows that we learn through stories.  She recounted a nice tale of how her grandfather had always wanted to teach his grandkids to water ski, especially since he had not been able to afford a boat when his own kids were at home. So, every summer, there was a good deal of time spent learning to ski behind grandpa's boat. Sarah was a decent skier, but a little on the cautious side, preferring to stay directly behind the boat despite her grandpa's cajoling to get out of the wake.

For quite a while, she resisted, preferring that familiar space where the rope is taught, the water familiar. Then one summer evening, her grandpa wore her down, telling her "this is the night." Alone on the lake, he got her out of the wake, along side the boat on water like glass. And it was great, just like he said it would be.

Sarah then connected all of that to risk taking and getting out from behind our boats as teachers. She was an adequate skier behind the boat, but had an entirely different experience once she got out from behind it. We ought to ask ourselves as teachers and leaders about the safe and comfortable boats we're following now. Are we willing to take a breath and get out of the wake, where its a little choppy, smells of exhaust, but is at least familiar and comfortable?

The second memorable story Sarah told was about teaching literary analysis through The Great Gatsby. She took a phone call from a mother of student was really struggling in her class. Sarah told mom to send the girl in for some extra help. The girl came. A couple of weeks later, mom called again, asking if Sarah could help her daughter some more. "Of course," she said, graciously inviting the girl for more help. A couple of weeks later, mom called again, frustrated that whatever Sarah was doing was not working. Mom wondered why Sarah just couldn't put three things on the board for her daughter to do to somehow understand literary analysis. Sarah explained that it just wasn't that simple, she couldn't do that, and that she didn't really know why it was not working for her daughter. Click, mom no longer on the line.

She'd read Gatsby a dozen or more times and had used it to teach literary analysis at least that many, but here's the killer: She knew she needed to push herself to connect with what it felt like to be a struggling learner. She tuned in to her own blind spot. So, at the first opportunity, she locked herself in the library for some literary analysis of her own, armed with some Proust, a notebook for literary analysis, and a second notebook to record her own feelings, frustrations, and observations. I've not ready any Proust, but will take Sarah at her word that it's tough stuff.

During that week, the gifted English teacher slung herself out from behind the comfortable wake behind her literary analysis boat and reconnected with what it feels like to be that struggling learner. And once the tenacious teacher accomplished that, her struggling student had a new chance.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Calling All Slackers

This short piece by Robert Samuelson generated a lot of talk last week, at least around the places I hang out. My class of future principals will get into it on Monday. Samuelson notes some percentages about a couple of common suspects in the student learning investigation, namely teacher salaries and class size, noting that several years of political spin and rhetoric have failed to produce stunning changes. Those two ideas are worth continued discussion.

The bigger problem with his argument, however, is that it puts too much blame on the students and not enough responsibility on the rest of us. Yes, student motivation makes a big difference, but come on. We might nostalgically yearn for the "good old days" when we think students worked harder than they do now. Without question, there were some students in the 19-whenevers who were more motivated than some are now, but there were some loads, too.

Let's not confuse compliance with motivation.

Many of the students Samuelson sees as unmotivated are simply less likely to slog their way through whatever is put in front of them educationally, questioning nothing. Completing mindless word searches, reading the chapter to robotically answer the section review questions, and completing the countries/capitals matching worksheet is more of an exercise in mindless compliance than demonstration of motivation to learn, isn't it?

Student motivation is obviously important, but Samuelson's argument lets the rest of us off the hook too easily. Every generation has lamented the problems with "these kids today." Students have to work. It's not all going to be easy. It won't all be fun, nor will it all be solved by a laptop. Families have to help, and so on. But hiding behind the shoulder shrug of an educator saying, "I put it out there, it's up to them to get it" won't work, and it shouldn't. It never really did in a meaningful way.

Kids will frustrate us, cut corners, and roll their eyes. Educators know that and do their damnedest to respond, tweak, correct, cajole, motivate, awaken, and inspire. We won't turn every slacker into a Rhodes Scholar. But let's not throw the kids under the bus and dismiss them as unmotivated simply because they're sophisticated enough to know when they're getting garbage disguised as a crossword and it doesn't light their fire.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Peace in Italian

A few years ago a friend returned from vacation in Europe with a gift for me. It was a rainbow colored flag from Italy with the word "Pace" written across it. I learned that the flags had first appeared in the early 60s and had long been a symbol of the no nukes movement and that "pace" is the Italian word for "peace." Cool. When my friend was there, the flags were all the rage as a way to express concern over the impending war in Iraq.

I didn't know it at the time, but mine is actually different from the rainbow flag commonly used to show support for LGBT people. The timing was interesting, as I was in the midst of working on my dissertation which examined the school experiences of some gay and lesbian high school students, that later became the book I've offered as a free gift to Newt Gingrich (see my post Connected to Reality Sweepstakes). I'm also willing to provide one to Bob Vander Plaats, as I'm sure the topic would be of interest to him as a former high school principal. The postage is on me, guys.

I liked the gift and the messages behind both flags. And hey, that my name means peace in Italian is icing.

For some, the presentation of The Laramie Project and other important events on campus have generated a stir. The series of events has even caught the attention of an infamous gaggle of protesters who masquerade as some kind of Christian church. The crew threatened to make Cedar Falls their next tour stop, so I stopped by the Gallagher-Bluedorn Performing Arts Center Monday where the protest was to take place. The protesters were nowhere to be found, but three hundred or so UNI students, faculty, staff, and community people were there, getting honks from cars, power signs, cheers, and high fives.

Those who showed up pitched a perfect game. No runs, no bigots, no errors. And I'll fly that flag.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

...Know how Much you Care

I've always liked the old saying about teaching that goes, "they won't care how much you know until they know how much you care." Trite as it may be, it's a good reminder that this is, despite what all of those who grossly oversimplify education say, a people and relationship business. While the results of the latest  Iowa Youth Survey are generally positive, there are a few things that should concern us.

For example, many would be disappointed but perhaps not surprised to see that in 6th grade, 53% of students strongly agree that their teachers care about them. By 11th grade, the percentage has fallen to 19%, although the overall percentage is still positive. If you haven't seen it, take a look.

I drop my ninth grade daughter off at school on my way to campus. Though we should probably be riding our bikes instead of driving, it represents a few minutes each day that I have her captive and can get her talking, mostly about school. She said something the other day that needs to be added as a corollary to the old adage above.

She was lamenting and rolling her eyes about the number of her teachers who seem to have virtually no technology skills and even less desire to acquire some. She said, "If they don't even know how to turn the computer on and don't want help, you know they're just out of it."

Game stopper. Deal breaker. Evaporation of credibility. Gone. Irrecoverable.

My daughter is not such a teckie that she expects to be wowed through endless dog and pony shows consisting of little more than edutainment. But she, and I suspect many of her peers have an internal measuring stick that she uses to assess her teachers and their level of credibility and with-it-ness. What's more, she, and I suspect many of her peers, silently but certainly keep track of which teachers are up for the continual learning this case, increasing their skills with technology, and at the same time vastly enhancing their credibility. I recall hearing things about the importance of modeling that which we desire to see in others....

There are multiple ways to interpret the word "care" in the adage. At first glance, I take it as concern for the wellbeing and success of students...wanting the best for them. And that makes sense. Anyone who can't or won't do that as a teacher needs to hit the door, sooner than later. But my daughter's comment also makes me think of an alternate definition of the word in this context--one that gets at teachers as professionals. In this sense, what we're talking about is caring enough to continually grow, develop, improve, and yes,  l e a r n.

Let's take note of the students' silent scoring of our level of caring--about them as people as well as the level of care we apply to ourselves and our own personal and professional development. Otherwise, what we know won't matter because we'll never get our foot in their door.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Prude or Prudent?

My excellent colleague, Tim Gilson, shared this article on twitter earlier today about the controversy that has boiled up at some schools over kids wearing bracelets and t-shirts in support of breast cancer research and those battling the disease. In some places, administrators have banned the shirts, while in others they've created no ruckus. 

This made for some interesting watercooler conversation for the Ed Leadership gang, to say the least. Wouild I be a prude to ban the shirts or would it be prudent?

Some took the position that tatas, boobies, rack, girls, guns, and all the rest are inappropriate terms that objectify the female body and even though some in the fight breast cancer movement have embraced the term, they're not cool for school. My wife has a pink t-shirt with these and a host of others.

Others said that this was really much ado about nothing, or at least much ado about nothing that the principal needed to do. The kids are supporting people they care about and the terms are common for just about everyone. And if their use brings attention to cancer research and support of those fighting it, rock on.

Then we moved the discussion to other things...t-shirts, bracelets, caps. What about a Hooter's t-shirt. One colleague said that since Hooter's is a "family restaurant," he would have a hard time banning the shirts. Then someone asked, "So a Hooter's shirt is ok because it is a restaurant but a boobies bracelet is not because its not a restaurant? Aren't both terms objectifying women?"

Then another chimed in, "Yes, Hooter's is objectifying women, but the bracelets are helping women by embracing the term and turning it around to create cancer awareness and support."

Then another brought up the peril of banning the bracelets, while allowing the restaurant shirts, while maybe allowing other stuff kids naked, big Johnson, and so on to eternity. How much time should policing things like t-shirts and bracelets get from a principal? That makes for an expensive clothing inspector. We talked about the Tinker case and students' free speech rights...

Several of us were at several different places on the whole thing. We did agree on one point:

This is a classic case of how a principal could easily find him/herself in a difficult situation all the way around. Say I ban the shirt. Some will accuse me of being unsupportive of students' heartfelt efforts to support those they care about. Say I allow the shirt. Some will accuse me of being complicit in the objectification of women and encouraging their bodies to be viewed as sex objects, especially if there are other slang references on kids' clothes. 

It's not hard to see how this seemingly minor thing could, like so many others, develop a life of its own. How many classroom observations might be missed while dealing with this? Will the whole thing damage the principal's credibility and ability to lead on other issues? Maybe, maybe not.

We want things to be clear cut, black and white, and easy to address. Sometimes they are. More often, it seems, they're a thousand shades of gray.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Questions to Ask

We had a conversation in my class of aspiring school principals after reading an article entitled The Principal's Priority 1, (Jean Johnson, 2008, Educational Leadership (66)1, 72-6). The article focused on principals' ability to serve as instructional leaders who can help teachers teach more effectively, rather than being consumed by all of the day to day stuff that gets in their way...leaky pipes, misbehaving kids, paperwork, the Pepsi man's here, and all the rest of things that everyone who's ever spent time in the office knows so well. Johnson framed the question this way: Are communities and districts willing to reorganize schools so principals have time for this work? Ask your board member.

That important question prompts a couple others. How much time is your principal spending in your child's classrooms? Ask your principal.

Is the principal in your child's school able to help teachers improve and grow? Ask your child's teacher at conferences.

If your questions are met with uncertainty, "not much," and "not really," start asking them more.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

First Shot

I was a little slow to adopt Facebook. Couldn't quite see the point for a while. Was a little thrown off by the whole concept of "friend" becoming a verb. I had a hard time getting my head around the idea of how my wife was officially becoming "friends" with people she really didn't know very well or had hardly known way back when. Maybe I had a hard time with friend being a verb. Whatever. Though I joined FB and enjoy it, I thought what made more sense was a blog, where I could throw my opinions and ideas around, especially since my wife tells me to keep those things off FB, "because that's not what it's for." So, here's my first foray into blogging. The title of the blog, The Balcony View, comes from one of the main points I try to emphasize with the people who I work with, who aspire to be leaders of schools.

Someone asked me the other day if I was fully ready to start the school year. Told them that I wasn't really, but I would be once things got moving. And that has been the case. At the risk of sounding trite or cliche, there really is something fun about the start of a new school year. Maybe it's a little like the old saying about the start of baseball season, where "hope springs eternal." That should certainly be the case in school. And there is a sense of energy and excitement that comes with it.

A couple of years ago, I started parking in the spots furthest away from the door to my building. The goal was to spend the extra steps thinking about how fortunate I am to get to do what I do--try to play a part in people become better teachers, leaders, and educators. For the most part, I've held to using the extra steps to do that.

So, in the days to come, more thoughts.