Wednesday, April 8, 2020

Are You Hurting Your School by Helping it Survive?

How focusing on the finish line creates a negative school culture

January 2019
LINK to Published Story on Medium

The intersection of American political culture, sexual misconduct, and schools

Justice Kavanaugh was at the center of another sexual misconduct conversation, and we barely noticed

Racism or coincidence?

If you think talking about racism is difficult in the age of Trump, imagine our future if today’s students can’t recognize racism

Teachers have earned the benefit of the doubt

Be patient during the COVID-19 pandemic

By Nick Gregory 
As schools throughout the nation close for the remainder of the year, take a minute to consider what this will mean for thousands of teachers who are doing their best to educate our children. School leaders and local officials are scrambling to “flatten the curve” of the COVID-19 pandemic. This is our top priority, and as we retrofit our education system on the fly to meet the needs of millions of students, we ask for your patience and understanding. 

Schools are not designed to adapt quickly 

Be kind to teachers who are on the front lines navigating school closures in an education system that is, like so many institutions, incapable of meeting the demands placed upon it by the outbreak. At best, the expectations for most teachers right now are loosely defined by school leaders. Many teachers are trying to patch together inadequate distance learning programs without guidance. This is not the time for parents to use social media platforms to compare teachers or to publicly complain about a teacher who is slow to adapt. Our nation's teachers have earned the benefit of the doubt, so please show some grace if you are irritated.
During normal times, school districts take several months, even years, to institute changes in curriculum and instructional methods. Expecting teachers to do this at a high level, with no time to prepare, during a national emergency is ridiculous. If you feel the need to share feedback with an educator, consider what would be helpful before you hit send. Negativity toward a teacher at this time will bruise deeply and could limit the creativity of teachers trying their best to meet student needs. A measured tone is imperative if you feel discouraged as a parent and wish to share your frustration. Trust me, teachers wish they could meet the needs of every student and family they serve. 

More than the internet

Connecting and teaching students in a distance-learning environment is not akin to a teacher simply jumping online and presenting academic material to students. Conducting meaningful virtual instruction requires dedicated professional coaching for staff, and it also requires significant training and practice for students and families. Most teachers have never been expected to integrate remote learning into their curriculum. The instinctive knowledge teachers have spent their respective careers amassing has a vastly different application online, and most educators have never been trained to deliver robust instruction in that format. In addition, the inequity of student access to technology and broadband internet service is woven into the challenge of teaching students remotely. 

Teachers are pros at building relationships

Teachers are well versed in building relationships with students so be grateful for the teachers who are trying to maintain their connection to students. This connection — virtual or in-person — is critical for academic and social-emotional growth. Our best educators specialize in making those human connections and they are experts at molding positive relationships, devoting their talent to create a culture of learning, and contributing to the school culture. Those indelible skills for expressing care and demonstrating a commanding presence may translate online for some teachers, but it is unfair to expect it to happen naturally. 

Teachers are stuck waiting

Many of our teachers can’t share with you that they are at the whim of school leaders and state mandates that are not always communicated to them effectively. While teachers are on the front lines of most communication with parents and students, they are not always armed with the information parents seek. Your child’s teacher understands your concerns about assessments and grades, your child falling behind and your desire to have access to more resources. Teachers are trying to be flexible and they do not want to throw their school leaders under the bus by voicing their misgivings to you and fueling the anxiety parents are feeling. 

Uncertainty and sadness  

Educators lament the loss of the celebrations, getting that last high five, hug or final word of encouragement to students. Teachers have been working hard to get your child to the finish line, and in a career that has always included clear beginnings and ends each school year, this new reality is bewildering. Many educators are helping their own children cope with the loss of a traditional school year while they also cope with the same reality as a professional. Not being able to grieve the loss of the school year together is tough on the children and the adults who serve them. Teachers wonder if their current efforts are making much of an impact on students. In some cases, only a handful of students are still connected to school and that is disheartening. Teachers are used to receiving regular feedback from students and adjusting their teaching strategies accordingly.

Moving forward 

The best thing you can do to help teachers is to unite with them and let them know you appreciate them. If you feel the need to share your concerns about school district policies and local programs, reach out to school leaders. Our educators are committed to serving all children and we know that we’re in this together. Teachers and school leaders throughout the country care deeply about the health, safety, and engagement of their students. Right now our teachers need your support.

Thursday, February 27, 2020

When Teachers Reach Their Breaking Point

Pushing through isn’t easy, but the alternative is much worse

One of the best teachers I know recently told me that she feels depleted and exhausted at school. The work is piling up, she’s tired, and she said the staff had reached their breaking point. She wondered aloud that if she was losing her way as a veteran teacher, how must new hires feel.

Photo by Nate Neelson on Unsplash
Teaching is tricky. A bad stretch in the first semester could be fleeting, or it could spiral beyond winter break. Less experienced teachers are more likely to fall prey to a drawn-out collapse, but experienced teachers are not immune.

I was not completely surprised by my conversation with this respected and talented teacher. In our world, the month leading to Thanksgiving represents the second leg of our marathon. With falling temperatures outside, we show up to school in the dark, leave in the dark and fall into routines. By Halloween, the anticipation and excitement of the new school year can give way to disillusionment and anxiety. Staff meetings seem longer, grading demands ramp up, and parents start checking in more.

The wins, the bad days, and the average days meld together into a fragile normal.
For teachers who stay in the profession long enough, some school years feel heavier, more taxing than others. When teaching feels constricting and burdensome, hitting the reset button requires a personal resilience that is tough to access when doubt lingers all the time. Sometimes November feels like an uphill trek into gale-force winds, and that’s what I saw in this teacher’s face when she admitted there was nothing left in the tank.

Her desperation and sense of defeat gave me pause, and I thought more about my role in the school culture where I serve as an administrator. While it is dangerous to accept the notion that “everyone” is feeling one way or another in a school, the culture is the thread that connects everyone in the school. At any given time, the ebb and flow of how one feels as an educator can be vastly different from one teacher to the next or from one week to the next.

Since that conversation, I have checked in with teachers and members of our administrative team to get a better pulse on how people are feeling where I work. My discussions, along with my experiences as a teacher, brought some big ideas into focus for me.

We are allies

We all need to lean on our colleagues from time to time, and that vulnerability and willingness to seek help rather than to go it alone will make a rough stretch more tolerable. Sometimes as a school administrator, I feel like I am caught in the middle, trying to balance my ambition to make gains in specific areas while also understanding that some staff members lack the stamina to dive in on some challenges. High-quality teaching and adapting to challenges requires a unique skill set and a team-first approach. We have work to do, and we need one another to make it happen.

Compliments are not scarce commodities

The best superintendent I worked under taught me that a perfectly timed compliment could do more to help a teacher or student than anything else during a rough patch. Giving sincere, positive recognition to others is easy, and it’s free. Sometimes, I think we hold back on compliments unnecessarily, or we assume that people know we appreciate the value they bring to the school. Let’s face it; frequently, we don’t have a sense of how we’re doing in this profession, and it can become disorienting. It never hurts to remind people about the difference they make for us and others. The worse we feel, the more gratitude we ought to dole out to others. It helps. A little love at the right time can go a long way.

Lean on your “go-to” people

We all need our go-to people who will straighten us out, give us the truth, and hold us to account. Tired, sad, happy, mad — our go-to people keep us upright and never let us off the hook. If your go-to people start to poison the well, be careful because that type of toxicity is a tough spell to break. If you don’t have positive go-to people, you better find them because it’s only a matter of time before you will need their support.

Remain student-centered. Always.

When all of that effort to stay afloat during challenging times comes back to one center — students — the rest will work out. Sure, educators have to take care of themselves to serve students, but I am talking about the work. Our struggle is anchored in the people who matter most when students are the focus. We can build out from that point.
In my career, I have endured times when I felt overwhelmed, bored, underappreciated, and not supported. The only constant that saw me through all of it was my commitment to the students and families I serve. The only thing more exhausting and counterproductive than excuses in the education profession is assigning blame to every challenge. Give yourself a chance to pull through tough stretches by focusing on students rather than getting swallowed up by negativity and cynicism.
#   #   #  
* This story is based on a composite of experiences throughout my career, and it was originally published on Medium in November 2019.
I am a fierce advocate for education. I taught for eighteen years, and I am currently serving as a high school assistant principal. I am a fan of ideas, bold action & learning from failure. Views expressed here are all mine. I am not repping my employer.

Monday, November 19, 2018

The Spark for my Civic Engagement

In a world where plenty of people have something to say, my mom finds something to do

My brother (left) and I joined my mom at her most recent
School Board Election Night celebration. My mom has 
earned people's trust because she listens and is clear about 
what she thinks. There's no mystery about where she stands.  

I suppose some people operate unconventionally by necessity and for others, it’s just who they are. My mom wants you to believe that her unorthodox nature is due to necessity, but I’m not buying it. I am qualified to call her bluff and tell the world that one of my mom’s greatest gifts is that she unabashedly does things her way and the world is more colorful because of it.

On this Thanksgiving weekend, I would like to share a tribute to the most compelling person I know. My mom influences me to follow my passion and serve others.

When it came to raising us, my mom was poised to try just about anything. In elementary school, there was a phase when she dressed us for school the night before so getting out of the house in the morning would be less stressful. As a parent, she operated like a mad scientist. At one point she gave up trying to keep me and my brother from fighting and set up a ring in our living room and refereed until we tired. I remember being bent over the arm of a chair squirming for air in my brother’s headlock while he argued with my mom about the rules.

My mom’s entire parenting experience was a case study in resourcefulness. 

The grandkids are building their own collection of 
KK stories that add to the lore.
I think she was entertained by finding new ways to teach us life lessons. Or maybe she was just flying by the seat of her pants? When I was twelve, my mom basically made us join her in assisting elderly blind people around the Grand Rapids Art Festival. I’m pretty sure she waited until we got to the volunteer tent to check-in before she told us how we would be spending our day. Then there was the all-nighter she pulled completing my brother’s high school biology project by finding and pinning insects to a pizza box and swearing every step of the way. My mom’s entire parenting experience was a case study in resourcefulness.

Growing up under my mom’s watch meant that we spent time with people from different walks of life. Whether it was having dinner with the elderly parents of her out-of-town friend or going to a Michael Jackson concert with her black friends from Grand Rapids, I grew up noticing there wasn’t anything that made my mom uncomfortable. And the best part of all - we tagged along on a lot of her adventures.

My mom and her trademark sun-
glasses. My mom has always had a
flair for style. Uniquely KK.
I guess I have never known anyone who balances a little bit of crazy and a lot of devotion the same way as my mom. We get to joke about the crazy, but it’s the devotion that makes my mom special to so many people. Truly.

When I was a boy about Kavaun’s age my mom would shoot hoops with us and play H-O-R-S-E. She never hesitated to grab her ball glove and call balls and strikes. It’s just what she did, and most of the time it was her idea. My mom was the perfect match for two boys with a lot of energy.

My most colorful memories growing up with KK involved sports. I have shared the golf course with my mom and on occasion, I winced as she would exchange golf tips with my brother. I remember snickering at her frustration when she would play tennis with Ryan and I would marvel at how the pins would jump when she punished them with her bowling ball.

Bowling alleys. Softball and baseball fields. Golf courses. Gyms. For most of the 80’s that’s where you could find our family when we weren’t at my grandparents. Listening to my mom and grandpa carry on passionately is something I miss from my childhood. For me, it reinforced that having some fire is a good thing.

Given my mom's fierce sense of advocacy, my most valuable lessons about civic engagement were learned watching her when I was a teenager. Intensity, determination and an unwillingness to back down - that's my mom. 

We all have stories about my mom that make us
laugh, and most of them reference either her re- 
sourceful nature or her intensity.  Here, I brought 
my mom to tears by reminding her about one of 
her creative parenting methods.
I have a ton of memories that reveal a spirit and energy that is unique to my mom. The best part is when my children and my nephews unwittingly reveal KK’s special brand of vitality.

With my mom, there is a push and pull dynamic at play. She is hard-wired for independence and on the other hand, she is deeply devoted to friends and family. Her friendships and love - especially for her grandchildren - are as much a part of who she is as our funny stories about the questionable babysitters she hired and her tendency to fall asleep on the couch. In the dozen or so years when my brother and I played organized sports, my mom never missed our games and I am a better parent because my mom was so dependable. I appreciate the remarkable difference my mom’s dependability has made in my life.
This photo of my grandparents was taken ten 
years before I was born. My grandparents taught 
us about the value of giving back to others and 
serving your communityI am mindful that their 
lessons can reach my children by the example we set.

When I suffered a serious knee injury in junior high my mom reached out to college and pro athletes so they would send me autographs and words of encouragement. She endured my mood swings and prodded me to become a better student. Because of my mom and grandparents (my entire extended family really), I always knew that whoever I was at any given time - including when I was a smartass teen - I had enough space to grow and enough eyes on me to stay grounded.

My mom ran her first school board campaign when I was sixteen and she won.  She has strung together five or six election victories over three

In 1992 when my mom was elected to the school
board for the first time, Bill Clinton and George
HW Bush were campaigning for president.
My introduction to politics came at an
exciting time.

decades, evidence that she is a trusted voice in her community.  In a world where plenty of people have something to say, my mom always finds something to do. She is the most determined person I have ever known. Given her resolve and her fierce sense of advocacy, and my front-row seat for all of it - it makes sense that my most valuable lessons about civic engagement were learned watching her. Joining her fight for meaningful causes and witnessing how she engages in the political fray continues to make an impression on me.

On this Thanksgiving weekend, I proudly acknowledge that my mom taught me why it is critical to care and how to use my talents to help others. She showed me very early in life that my voice matters and fighting to be heard is worthy of praise, not condemnation.

Bigger than the struggles and more meaningful than any single mission, my mom has shown me that taking risks and challenging the status quo requires humility, grit and the commitment to stay true to yourself.

Monday, June 4, 2018

Taking Bold Action on Difficult Issues is Required to Lead

Reflecting after a job interview: Tackling Chronic Absenteeism requires Strong Relationships and Making a Meaningful School Experience for Every Student the Top Priority

In a recent job interview for a role serving as an assistant principal I bungled an opportunity to highlight my expertise about a topic close to my heart.

The gist of the question concerned chronic student absenteeism and how I would aim to help the school improve in this area. The question lingered long after I hung my suit back up in the closet and it compelled me to find a better answer in preparation for a leadership role. 

"How would I, as the new assistant principal in a school plagued with student attendance issues, prioritize and implement a program to improve?" 

Everything connected to any answer about the topic of student attendance comes back to three key principles: 

1) Relationships are the most important aspect of any school. Engagement in school begins with relationships.

"The conditions that students living in poverty face exacerbate poor attendance. 
And slipping school attendance often leads a person back down the poverty 
path. The good news is that by taking an all-in approach to the problem, we 
can begin to close the attendance gap, bend the overall attendance curve, and 
help our most vulnerable students and families."  Ned W. Lauver     
PHOTO: Nick Gregory
2) Focusing on instruction and learning guides staff and students in their effort to rally around meaningful goals.

3) Doing nothing is not a wise option, especially when we can drill down to the root of the problem and help children succeed.

Sharing my philosophy and theorizing about possible solutions in my interview was sincere, but my response never got beneath the surface. My answer lacked the type of bold ideas necessary to support lasting change. (I can only hope that a second interview will provide the opportunity to articulate my ideas better.)

My devotion to equity demands that I think more about student attendance as a leader and not merely as a candidate for the job. 

As a leader, I will need to put my heart and passion into actions aimed at addressing student attendance because it is one of the foundational principles for education reform. We know that poor attendance in school leads to lower achievement and negative outcomes for children after high school. The research indicates that socioeconomic status and health problems predict poor attendance so how we approach our understanding of both of those topics in our community requires expertise and a team effort. Leading with empathy will help me understand the complexity of the challenge, and leading with courage is necessary to work toward changing outcomes for children. 

"A national rate of 10 percent chronic absenteeism seems 
conservative and it could be as high as 15 percent, meaning 
that 5 million to 7.5 million students are chronically absent."  
SOURCE: Balfanz, R., & Byrnes, V. (2012). Chronic 
Absenteeism: Summarizing What We Know From 
Nationally Available Data.    PHOTO: Nick Gregory
There are so many factors tied into student attendance including the sense of belonging in a school community (for students and teachers), the family backgrounds of individual students and the past school experiences for individual students. With knowledge about about different learning styles and the onset of technological and social media advances, educators are charged with evolving to meet new needs for an ever changing student population. By the time we add employee engagement and confidence in the building leadership to the mix, it is inescapable that positively impacting student attendance involves a myriad of factors. All of this needs to be acknowledged as a part of improving the building culture. Staff and community buy-in requires bold leadership that is equipped to adapt to the changing school landscape.

There is not a one-size-fits-all answer so knowing what is currently being done to tackle the attendance challenge and the history of successful efforts will help me hone in on specific actions and align any new initiatives with best past practices.

Seven of my ideas to begin the brainstorming process are included below. These are the key points I should have stated in my interview.  (Sources are cited at the bottom of this blog entry for your review)

Prioritize the specific needs of the school 

With guidance from the principal, counselors and teachers, figure out the specific problems in regard to chronic absenteeism. Agree on the problems before working on the solutions. What is the priority?

The home of every student at-risk of missing out on graduation gets a personal contact from the school before we start the school year

As the AP, most of these calls would be made by me. By finding out how many students in next years senior class are in jeopardy of missing out on graduation and tracking attendance data to find important trends among that population, we can begin to get a clearer picture of how to set realistic and ambitious goals.

The "Welcome back to School!" phone call includes an introduction, the reason for the call and the interventions in place to help the student succeed. The call will include our interest in enlisting ideas from parents and guardians. This is also a great time to make a personal invite the school open house, take note of any concerns, etc. This information comes in handy as the year progresses. This could be just the beginning of something more that includes check-ins with mentors and regular contacts to homes. These students are on my radar as a building leader and noticing positive attendance trends and improvement will become a major part of what I do each day in my leadership role. We will determine measures for positive recognition and spread the opportunities among staff to deliver the good news to our students and families.

Invest time and resources in a simple communication system 

A system that makes parents aware of absences in real time can help the school deliver on its mission of reducing chronic absenteeism. Communicating the importance of attendance to students and parents as part of the school culture will improve attendance, and it may take some time to see the results of these actions. Communication involves celebrating successes and building on struggles with regular feedback to staff. Educators struggle when being asked to implement strategies that are not couched in a specific vision with measurable goals. An initiative like this one will involve the entire staff working on this and a tireless effort by me to monitor and evaluate so I can lead our improvement.

Monitor new students to develop strategies and check our impact

By collecting data on all of the chronically absent eighth grade students from the previous year, we can identify and begin a process of tracking attendance and other measures for success in real time.

We should add a second tier of incoming ninth grade students who are close to "chronically absent status" in order to broaden our reach and invest the resources necessary to assist those students and families before they might fall through the cracks (school leadership can determine cut-off points).

We will begin the process of specific interventions with the incoming ninth grade class before school begins in August. Just like with incoming seniors, these students get a phone call and invite to the open house. This means my July and August just got a lot busier, but the payoff will be students and families recognizing that we care about student success and attendance. We serve our students when we show them we are invested in their success.

Many students feel that school is not relevant in their 
lives. "While having dedicated mentors to work with students 
and families on school connection is one strategy for improving 
attendance, mentors are not the only adults in the building who 
can be a part of the solution. There is a role for classroom 
teachers." - The Hamilton Project          PHOTO: Nick Gregory
We can track cohorts from previous years using the same "chronically absent" criteria and we can measure whether our interventions appear to be having an impact. Naturally, this process requires staff input and the expertise of experienced leaders in the school district. Reaching out county-wide at the ISD level and even statewide to discover best practices will become a critical part of my responsibility and it is a charge worth leading for our kids. With a seminar class and other possibilities for mentoring at the high school, we could eventually scale our communication plan to work with students and families and also include their input for strategies.

Provide mentorship to students who are chronically absent 

Through a seminar or student resource class in which students are assigned to a specific teacher for four years important relationships can be built in the school setting. There are models in existence to learn from and we can choose to implement plans that meet our needs and budget. Our goal is constant: Increase the likelihood of student success by decreasing the level of chronically absent students.

Give the experts in the school district a voice! 

Reform efforts warrant the space and time to bounce ideas around, leaving out the "buts" and reasons/excuses for why success is unattainable aside. These conversations are not confined to administrators. In my experience teachers and other staff are waiting to be asked for ideas. Education will always be a team effort and those who "go it alone" rarely succeed at bringing solutions to scale.

Chronic absenteeism among students usually endures over a long period of time so the pattern is predictable for many of our students. A cursory review of best practices reveals that we have to find the root of the problem, learn from trends and create realistic goals and strategies that can be effectively measured. 

We cannot lose sight of the fact that we are working together to reverse a negative attendance trend that seems to have gained momentum in recent years. Improving in the area of student attendance has an impact on everything we do in our school.

Measure the impact and share the results, even if the goals are not met

If the initiative is done with fidelity and the support exists to succeed then the staff and community deserve to see the progress. School improvement goals should reflect the priority of reducing chronic absenteeism and the message about attendance leading to success needs to exist year round, not just when we notice dips and slides.

The cliche, "what gets measured gets done" applies to the attendance challenge. Our progress will require more than a measure to understand if we are solving this problem however. We will need to look at metrics that provide a baseline for us to make comparisons. Reviewing performance metrics and outcome metrics will be a necessary and important part of the leadership mission. Collective responsibility for progress should be noted and celebrated as we make progress.

As a leader, I will be prepared to take ownership of our shortcomings and give credit to the staff and students when we are successful. My role is to keep trying and to move the needle on progress by working with others with a focus on student learning.

Sources that inspired my ideas are included below:

Source: Attendance Works

ABOUT THE AUTHOR of CIVICS ENGAGED: Nick Gregory has been a social studies and journalism teacher in Michigan since 2000 and he has been a National Writing Project Teacher consultant and a junior varsity basketball coach since 2003. Gregory is a Michigan Education Voice Fellow and he has exhibited photography related to Detroit and social justice causes since 2011. Gregory, who has a Masters degree in Educational Leadership, believes that building positive relationships helps students find their passion for learning. You can follow him on Twitter @CivicsEngaged.

Sunday, May 6, 2018

Ideas to improve education

Creative solutions to systemic challenges facing our schools

I am offering to my audience a few stories on a bi-weekly basis that promote good ideas and demonstrate bold leadership. I have been inspired by great ideas that often make their way into my classroom or into my leadership journal. The more good ideas we share, the greater the chances for improving education policy and practices.

When I get a little down and feel like I am delivering a twentieth century education to my students, I turn to reading about innovative thinking within the profession. When I feel like the status quo is winning, I search for inspiration. Usually I quickly snap out of the funk to deliver the best I can for my students and school.

There are some pretty cool ideas out there - too many to count - but my mention here is worth the effort. These writers provide reporting that could be the creative fuel and inspiration needed to creatively solve our problems.  Please read and share.

Each headline is an active link to the original story.

Many Detroit educators have never worked in a high-performing school. This program imports coaches who have

Photo By Nick Gregory

This article featured in Chalkbeat by Erin Einhorn lays out a super ambitious plan at work in Detroit to improve Detroit Mumford Academy. It is clear that a blend of innovation, best teaching practices and clear goals are pitted against several challenges.

It's not that the leaders in charge do not want to face the uncertainty, it's just that they are so determined to win that they do not spend time wishing for outcomes. Instead, they are taking action with a bold approach. Part of the premise is based on the fact that winning in Detroit is tougher because many of the teachers and leaders in Detroit's school system have never worked in high-performing schools. With that fact in mind and with incredible support from the Team Fellows Program funded by the Detroit Children's Fund, a new model for leading and teaching is emerging as you read this.

The work of the education leaders featured in the story is couched in a clearly defined mission and they are setting out to cut "shadow missions," a term for all the work that takes away from their priorities. The ideal Detroit Children's Fund Leaders Institute candidate characteristics:
  • A track record of positive results for students
  • A clear vision for an engaging and rigorous culture of instruction
  • A growth mindset and the ability to translate feedback into action
  • A desire to take personal responsibility for every child’s success
  • A sense of urgency and dissatisfaction with the status quo
It is refreshing to see a new approach in an effort to move the needle on progress. Obviously there are all-star teachers and leaders on board, and their challenge is one that most suburban teachers cannot relate to due to inequity and circumstances. The lessons on innovation apply to all education systems however. You will read this story impressed by the effort, nervous about whether it can work and most of all proud to see a laser-focus approach to give every child and teacher a school where learning and preparation for the future are the priority.  I badly want to be part of an initiative like this one!

When Administrators Keep Teaching - Teaching keeps school leaders connected to students and other teachers and lets them feel the effects of their own decisions

With subheads like, "Walking the Walk" and "Recharging the Batteries" this interesting idea written by Heather Wolpert-Gawron of Edutopia is worth reading for school leaders looking to step-up the learning in a stagnant school culture. Heck, it's also worth it for schools that have a proven record of taking risks in order to serve students. These risk-taking schools are most likely to seek imaginative ways to increase collaboration among staff and administration and this article will start you on that journey. 
Why is it that so many schools fail to give teachers and leaders room to grow? Too many schools lack creativity. Imagine how much could be gained for everyone if building administrators actually taught students.
Lately I have been spouting off to my colleagues that my dream job would be to teach at least one class and assume an assistant principalship role simultaneously. Then I am usually quick to follow-up with a complaint about the archaic nature of most schools and the fact that path does not exist yet. Well, I could not have been more wrong. This is quick read at less than 800 words got me thinking about how to find a leadership position with the capacity for a hybrid role. Thank you for Ms. Wolpert-Gawron and Edutopia for giving me hope!  

What Happens to Student Behavior When Schools Prioritize Art 

This article is not just for the die-hard fans of the arts. It's also for visionary leaders and anyone who appreciates a good risk.

By Nick Gregory
In a tale of nothing to lose the featured school, Orchard Gardens Elementary in Roxbury Massachusetts may have even exceeded their own expectations by scrapping the old way for something better.

In an age of cookie-cutter attempts to improve test scores, this piece from You, Your Child, and School: Navigate Your Way to the Best Education by Sir Ken Robinson & Lou Aronica sheds some light on good ideas that harken back to the good ole days. The basic gist: the arts and providing space within the school culture for students to find their voice is a win.

(Now, if we can just get schools to understand that recess and enough time to eat lunch will also help schools meet the learning needs of students)
"Innovative schools everywhere are breaking the mold of convention to meet the best interests of their students, families, and communities. As well as great teachers, what they have in common is visionary leadership." 
- Sir Ken Robinson & Lou Aronica
Be inspired.

Please message me your ideas and interesting reads using the "Contact Me" tab on this link.

Sunday, April 22, 2018

Coaching high school sports is an awesome opportunity to lead

With more than 700 games on the bench as either the head coach or an assistant, my leadership journey started with organized sports

I absolutely love coaching so when I began seeking K-12 leadership positions last year, it hit me that I will be stepping away from coaching high school basketball. This fact makes me sad. In addition to leaving the classroom at a time when teaching brings me incredible fulfillment, coaching has been a major part of my professional identity for more than 15 years.

Trading team huddles for something new leaves me conflicted because my involvement in high school athletics has given my life so much meaning. After all, the joys and challenges of coaching were factors that pushed me to explore my interest in advancing a career in leadership. Educational leadership is a career move that excites me and I am ready for the challenge.

This was the scene after a last second basket to beat our top rival. 
We are the team in white. The basket came after a timeout where 
we designed a play to score. As often happens, the players adjusted 
when our plan was not working and the unlikely shot won the 
contest. The picture was sent to me by a parent.

My growth as a classroom teacher has gone hand in hand with my development as a coach. Many of the parallels are obvious - a shared community of like-minded people working to help others. In addition to working on the craft itself, through coaching I have learned how to gain trust, communicate more effectively and listen better.

I am proud of my association with hundreds of parents as well as dozens of coaches and referees throughout my career. Most of all, the student-athletes in my charge have been at the center of my pride. Since I began working toward the next chapter on my career journey, I have enjoyed coaching at a deeper level. The thrill of coaching in big games and the connections made with young people on the hardwood never gets old.

In coaching, the drawbacks are humbling and failure is on public display. Those failures steel a coaches approach to leadership and simultaneously make us vulnerable. That realization led me to these nine takeaways from a coaching career that includes buzzer-beaters, raucous locker room dancing, season-ending injuries and even hostile parents demanding I be fired.

I often tell people that coaching is just teaching with a ball and just like classroom teaching, reflecting on the lessons learned is a valuable exercise.

1. Being right is overrated; losing is underrated

Most of the time it’s not worth it to be right. In fact, it usually doesn’t even matter if you're right because the failure to understand and validate people’s perspectives comes at a greater cost than being wrong. I wish I had figured this out sooner. Whether dealing with student-athletes, parents or even my athletic director, not being right has liberated me to focus my energy on building stronger relationships. The time wasted fighting to be right is better spent listening. Regrettably this lesson usually materializes in losing scenarios when it is most difficult to properly evaluate the situation.

Sometimes it takes a loss to recognize weaknesses that were present all along. A loss at the right time can lead to more success in the long run. We have a saying on my teams that when you win it doesn't mean you did everything right and when you lose it doesn’t mean you did everything wrong.

Coaching requires leaders to distinguish the process from the the results. Striving to win is great, and my teams remind me not to be fooled by scoreboards or other people's measures of our success. Losing is a necessary and healthy part of growth. This lesson is directly linked to lesson number nine, it ain't about me.

2. Respect is given, trust is gained and confidence is earned

From the whiteboard in the locker room - I enjoy 
delivering pre-game speeches and this one was 
especially intense. We won a close game and the 
celebration is one of my favorites. When step back 
from coaching I am not sure how I will fill the void
Despite popular lore, the notion of people having to earn respect is outdated and backwards. My student-athletes do not need to prove to me they deserve my respect. I do not want them clamoring for my appreciation and approval. Each player takes a risk by trying out for the team, they sacrifice their time, meet immense physical demands, fail repeatedly throughout the season and bounce back over and over again. Who am I to determine whether they deserve my respect? Commitment to our team comes with a mutual understanding that each player is naturally respected.

My teams have shown me that we are better off putting forth our effort to gain mutual trust rather than trying to prove we're worthy of respect from coaches and teammates. If we can build trust both collectively and individually then it becomes safer to take risks, exert maximum effort and get to the business of improving. We begin earning our confidence in a culture where trust is acknowledged and valued every single day. Self-confidence and confidence in teammates comes with hard work, repetition and discipline. There are no shortcuts to earning confidence - it requires effort, respect and trust.

Two of my players after a game. They hurried 
out of our locker room to perform in a concert 
and I got to see part of the show. It is rewarding 
to coach well-rounded players. I stay in touch 
with dozens of my former players. 

3. Relationships make the experience

One of my most successful seasons came later in my coaching career. While we lost 70% of our games, I learned how to adjust and focus on building stronger relationships with my players. Winning teams thrive on trust and losing teams depend on it in order to stay together. I was constantly working on forging a positive culture by starting with personal relationships with and among members of the team.

Relationships have always been critical to my fulfillment as a leader but this was different because my competitive nature could have made the process miserable. We were not a good basketball team and I had grown accustomed to coaching teams that won a vast majority of our games. My struggling team helped me learn how to adapt and coach with a winning mindset. We developed meaningful measures for our growth and we hung on to high expectations. Success and failure are never by accident and both are a function of relationships.

4. Learn to follow

Some problems have a lot in common and others are so unique they leave your head spinning. The common denominator that has spanned nearly every one of the headaches in my coaching career is that people have an unwavering need to belong. A condition of that fact is that players and their parents ultimately want to be heard and understood. When I have lost sight of these simple common denominators, my ability to lead has suffered.

We should not expect people to understand what we want as leaders if we fail to listen to what they need as players and parents. From the most disgruntled to the most valuable, everyone wants to belong. In roles outside of my own leadership, I have witnessed good leaders helping others and bringing meaning to the experiences of others and it reminds me that all leaders benefit by learning how to follow. I have had to learn how to get out of my own way so I could grow into a better follower. Coaching has taught me how to adapt to the various leadership styles of authority figures in my school. Leading a team provides great opportunities to build rapport with diverse parent groups and establish that I care about the young people in our program at a crucial time in their development as adolescents. There is no better training ground for learning how to follow than coaching children.

5. It is a marathon, not a sprint

This is the mantra I repeat most often during the season. I love planning and leading our practices because I know the reward for the entire process is in the journey. The annual basketball banquet at the end of the season is a highlight of my year both personally and professionally because it marks the celebration of our team and our seniors in the basketball program. As coaches, we invest so much in our teams that it naturally becomes part of our personal life. Coaching has never been a hobby for me. It is an extension of my teaching.
Over the years I have gained a better appreciation for 
all the people involved, even the refs! I have a lot of 
respect for referees and have gotten to know quite a few.

Devising practice plans, evaluating our team needs and helping fellow coaches gives my long winter days a little extra punch. The whole process is a series of steps and unexpected challenges that keep my team engaged. Injuries, opposing teams, road games, the referees, rigorous practices - so many unknowns to contend with every week makes the process alive.

There’s also something about the daily work that brings out my best energy. I love working with my players. I enjoy the details and the drills. I love building habits and teaching our system. When my players simply feel prepared they are more likely to have success. Sometimes that feeling can go a long way, but actually being prepared is critical for teams trying to get to the next level. That is the marathon part - stringing together days and weeks of working our tails off to be better today and at the finish line.

Whether it involves the promise of the early season or the late-season grind, my coaching experience has taught me more than any other leadership endeavor that the process is the result. Focusing on the marathon keeps my leadership in perspective. I love a strong finish.

6. Making the experience uniquely ours

My student-athletes have spent their youth hearing and seeing all kinds of motivational quotes about how to be great. The slogans are plastered on t-shirts, placards in locker rooms, in song lyrics and all over social media. Being great is marketed to kids as a product they can have by simply watching motivational YouTube videos. I don't buy into the hype, but I do intentionally find moments to share motivational stories with my team. I try to create those moments in my pre-game speeches to set a tone. Those pre-game speeches and motivational lessons always have a basis in our shared experience and that's what makes them meaningful.

I thoroughly enjoy when those special occasions emerge in a season and they become part of how we define our team experience. I refer to this collection of events as "honest moments" and like my best coaches, I have learned how to harness the power of those unplanned parts of a team experience that are consequential to our story.
Each November, our boys and girls basketball
programs lay wreaths at the graves of military
veterans as part of our community service
initiative. This is part of our program culture.

My student-athletes have taught me to appreciate the authenticity in the moments we experience together as a team and build our lessons around our struggles. They have also helped me remain mindful of the togetherness outside of practices that help define us too - the times when we do community service, joke around after practices, and go through shared experiences like final exam week together - all of that is part of the team story.

I learned how to shape the stories we tell and the strategies I employ for practice around the qualities that make each team unique. My players taught me how to leverage our unique story to inspire them rather than depending on general platitudes.

7. Who gets your water?

If you want to see how a high school team is really doing, look at the bench during games. My best teams have always included players who were willing to fill up the water cups before timeouts and deliver them to players in the huddle. These small selfless acts, often by the players who play least, contribute to a culture of lifting others up.

Your team culture reveals your values. A culture includes a lot of elements and often times the guys pushing others in practice despite a lack of playing time are central to the culture of a team. Expressive cheering and shows of support are part of it too, but even those things can be fleeting. A culture is built in practices and in the habits, the body language and the approach taken by players and coaches every day.

The cool thing about a winning culture is that it remains constant in times of struggle or great success. Everyone can embrace the culture because it’s based on who we are and our commitment, not unpredictable conditions.

8. Space required

I am so grateful that 
my wife and children 
support my coaching 
commitment. The 
experience is one that 
we share and it means 
the world to me. (By 
the way, my team is 
the Tigers - hence the
striped costume)
Great teams dance with risk and failure and balance it with security and predictability. We need space to grow and that means we should expect and embrace some discomfort. My teams have helped me accept that uncertainty and frustration are a necessary part of our growth. My players have helped me learn how to let go of futile stubbornness and old ideas in the face of new evidence. In order to become our best as leaders and teammates, we need space to grow. This space encourages all team members to own mistakes, honor the team and remain mindful. As a coach, I learned to embrace opportunities to model this ownership and the response from young people and parents has been overwhelmingly positive.

9. It ain't about me

It seems that at anytime in my coaching career that I began to lose focus of this lesson I was humbled and realized quickly how much I don’t know. The games, the team record, the big wins or tough losses - none of it is about me. Admittedly, it took a few seasons to realize that not only is it not about me now, but that my success leading others in anything will never be about me. The positive relationships with young men and women (I have assisted with high school girls basketball too) that I will keep forever leaves me feeling grateful that I am aware that none of this is about me.

Coaching has accelerated my professional growth and the realization that my passion revolves around improving the lives of others. My life is richer because of a career spent in education.

Coaching lineage is often referred to as a "coaching tree" and I have always been grateful that I can trace my roots back to some remarkable men. I am hopeful that as my players approach adulthood, they will feel the same way about me.


My junior high basketball coach Steve Walter made the 100 mile 
trip to watch me coach. We are pictured here with my children. As 
it turned out, our team completed a come-from-behind win on a 
last-second shot after trailing the entire game. I was so proud my 
coach came to support me. I was truly fortunate to have a lot of 
special coaches in my life. 
I would like to dedicate this entry to the special coaches in my life.

  • Starting with Kyle Henry who introduced me to baseball, which I still love. Now I share that love and coach my own children.
  • Phil Agostini who taught me how to be a part of a team and stuck with me as a kid when I had a tendency to challenge authority.
  • Steve Walter is the coach I wish my own children could have because he was such a great teacher.
  • Mitch Mercer with his incredible ability to relate to kids and see the big picture.
  • Darin Magley, a remarkably patient and kind role-model. Great for kids.
  • Jim VanSyckle & Chris Booth - Both men spent a lot of time helping me learn the value of patience and hard work as I sat the bench trying to earn playing time. A lot of coaches don't talk about sitting the bench, but I share the experience with my teams every season. These two coaches helped me grow through the challenge and I am a better coach because of them.
  • Scott Swinehart - the most prepared and detail-oriented coach I ever had as a kid. Our team respected him and responded to his demanding expectations. A master of consistency.
  • Jim Graham - Skillful deployment of the pre-game speech and motivating his players to go all in. Fired up and proud.
  • Jerry Reams - One of my all-time favorites. "Old Dawg" was the finest assistant coach a young man could want. He always encouraged us, made us laugh and kept the game of baseball a game. I appreciated him at the time because his calm approach to coaching and his kind heart kept some negative influences at bay for me. He always found the positive and we knew he respected the game. More importantly, he cared about us as players and we knew it.
  • Joel Leipprandt was my JV basketball coach and I still call him each season before big games. I knew early on how lucky I was to have him in my life. He was a selfless leader, an authentic man with high expectations and integrity; on my coach's Dream Team.