All posts by jimdetwiler1

Are They Comfortable? Be Alarmed.

His alarm clock has been blaring since before 6:00 AM. From the upstairs back corner of the house, it loudly screams a rhythmic and determined, “Get up! Buzz! Get up! Buzz!” My son couldn’t care less. There is not the slightest hint of movement behind his closed bedroom door. Although I am annoyed, I do marvel at how my 15 year-old can sleep right through that nagging alarm. How can he remain so calm, so comfortable in his bed?  He defies the science of psycho-acoustics!  Buzzers, sirens, horns – they should arouse some sense of urgency. Not for my son.  I’m not even sure he hears that alarm. Or, maybe he does hear it and simply chooses to ignore it. Either way, I don’t like it.

I sit there listening to the alarm bounce from wall to wall throughout the house. Do I climb the flight of stairs to his bedroom and pull him out of his comfortable place? My efforts will likely be met with a heartfelt teenage, “Dad, don’t harsh on my Saturday mellow,” followed by a swift brush-off roll over in his bed.  Maybe I should just hit the snooze button for him, and allow him a few more minutes of sleepy comfort? I am annoyed, but at the same time envious that he can remain so comfortable with that cacophony of loud buzzing just inches from his ear.  Amazing

I don’t sleep through alarms, and I never hit the snooze button. That alarm yells at me one time and I am up, out of bed, and making a bee line to my Keurig. Alarms, bells, whistles, and sirens: they all put me on edge.

I grew up just a few miles from the Shipping Port Atomic Power Station in western Pennsylvania. Eastern P.A.’s Three Mile Island meltdown and an exaggerated speculation that Cold War Soviet missiles might be pointed at our nuclear reactor made the daily emergency siren tests impossible to ignore.  When those practice sirens were tripped, every townie stopped, young and old, even if just for a second, to quietly ask themselves if this was IT, if this was THE siren calling the alarm for imminent nuclear disaster. Nobody would dare hit the snooze button on that alarm.

There are few alarms I would dare to ignore as a school leader. Some alarms are blatantly conspicuous, like an angry parent reporting an inconsistent grading practice, or a disengaged student who flat out tells me she doesn’t like school. There are also more subtle alarms, cued by the voice in my head warning, “I don’t think they are following anymore” or “I’m not sure teachers fully buy-in to the vision.” Hit the snooze button on any one of these alarms, and even the most seasoned of school leaders may find themselves dealing with a big hot mess down the road.

Sometimes alarms are covert and disguised as “EASY” buttons. Sometimes, like my son’s non-reaction to his morning alarm, the presence of comfort in what should be a challenging and difficult situation can serve as a quiet alarm that “something is rotten in the state of Denmark.”

We recently adopted a new English Language Arts (ELA) curriculum and program for grades K-5 in my school district. Instructional coaches from several schools have contacted me daily over the past couple of weeks with a variety of concerns and questions. Teachers are struggling with the new ELA framework, because it is a departure from the way many of them have been teaching. I am relieved that teachers are struggling, because it is a strong indication that they are knee-deep in in this paradigm shift, and they are getting messy with these new instructional strategies and materials. It means that they are demonstrating an urgency to change, to move away from ineffective teaching practices. They are making noise, because change hurts. Don’t get me wrong; I want everyone to feel comfortable with the new program. However, this early in the game, nobody should feel comfortable. Implementing any new program with fidelity should be challenging, disorienting and disruptive.

It sure is tempting to fall back on our love of comfort in the face of disruptive change. However, our love of comfort can be the enemy to greatness. In Louder Than Words: Harness the Power of Your Authentic Voice, author Todd Henry (@ToddHenry) writes, “…growth demands that you push yourself to your limits. A piano virtuoso will not continue to improve if she practices only the chords and scales that are easy for her, nor will a writer improve his craft if he stays in his comfort zone.”  For great things to happen for students in our schools, we have to step outside of our circles of comfort, take risks, shake some feathers, rattle some chains. Comfort in the face of disruptive change should be alarming to any school leader.

I went to a meeting last week where a group of educators were mulling over a rare opportunity to re-imagine job descriptions to better meet the needs of children. Change, that ugly word, drove many in the group grabbing for their love of comfort.  I was alarmed that their love for comfort might become a barrier to great potential for changing kids’ lives. The discussion focused on “what I like to do” rather than “what we must do to help kids”. Choosing comfort over student needs; choosing comfort over potential impact: these are mighty loud alarms.

What should I do as a school leader? Do I hit the snooze button and leave them be, resting in the familiar and comfortable? Or, do I turn the alarm off, “harsh on their mellow” and shake them out of their sleep and into momentary discomfort in the names of change and potential for student greatness?

The alarm is sounding. Are we choosing comfort over impact? Many educators are willing to leave the comfort and work through discomfort if they can clearly see the higher purpose. It is our job to lead them through the discomfort in the name of that higher purpose.  What discomfort are you leading today that propels your school forward toward that higher purpose and the potential for student greatness?

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I’ll Never Bounce Back

They are words parents pray they will never hear: “Jim, you have to go meet the ambulance at the hospital. Now! Katelyn’s coach just called. She said Katelyn fell from the uneven bars and that it is bad! I’ll meet you there.” Click. The voice of my wife disappeared from the car phone speaker overhead. Wait. Bad? What does that mean? I tried to ignore the frightening images forming in my head, and I quickly turned the car around. Injured on the uneven bars? She’s the State Champion in that event. This does not make any sense. Please, God. Please let my little girl be okay.

The ambulance beat me to the hospital. An attendant whisked me to an area at the back of the emergency room, and I spotted Katelyn sitting up in a bed. As I walked toward her, I was overwhelmed with relief. Swallowing the large lump in my throat, I smiled. But, then I looked at her mangled and swollen arm, then her face, and I froze. Sobbing, Katelyn took a deep breath and whimpered to me, “I’ll never bounce back from this.” Heartbreak.

I’ll never bounce back. Defeat in the face of adversity. Isn’t that how we feel sometimes as educators and school leaders? We encounter barriers or unexpected setbacks that we perceive in the moment as devastating to our purpose or vision. Wrapping up my first year as an assistant superintendent, I feel it now. As I sit here and reflect on the past year, I regretfully acknowledge that many of my plans and goals for the year were thwarted by unintentional disruptive change or simply by my own inability to get the job done. Like a raging river or a surging train, I feel myself being pulled and pushed, hurled forward, dragging alongside me all of the half-baked projects, unexecuted or poorly executed plans, and unfinished reports whose deadlines have either passed or wait impatiently for me on my summer calendar. “How will I ever bounce back from this?” The answer may be simple: don’t. Instead, bounce forward.

Bouncing back will return me to the path on which I initially started. Is that what I want? Do I want to bounce back to how it was ten months ago? Honestly, it did not turn out in the end as well as I had hoped. In many cases, I misjudged. I overestimated. I underestimated. Don’t get me wrong, there were many high points and successes, and I am happy and grateful for those accomplishments and new challenges. But, for some reason the successes are pushed aside by palpable regret. I regret that I am nowhere close to being as effective as a leader as I thought I would be at this point. Nor am I the leader I want to be. Nor am I the leader I need to be. Am I resilient enough to catapult myself forward AND lead my team toward something bigger and better? According to author Elle Alison-Napolitano, what I need in the face of this challenge is extraordinary resilience that grows, not from bouncing back, but from bouncing forward.

In her book, Bouncing Forward: the Extraordinary Resilience of Leadership, Elle Allison-Napolitano describes three capacities that enable leaders to be extraordinarily resilient in times of disruptive change, adversity, and challenges. These capacities are relationship, resonance, and renewal. Do I have these capacities? Okay, so I am going to be crazy transparent here. Truth is, I am struggling with all three. As a building principal, I honestly believe I demonstrated each of these capacities with some measure of proficiency. In fact, I would have probably included them among my areas of strength. But, as a first year assistant superintendent, I’m not sure. My work relationships are new, I lack the level of knowledge required to support and sustain resonance, and my opportunities for renewal are taking a back seat to a Herculean effort to navigate a steep learning curve. So, what should I do? Next month, I will join the other administrators in my district for an opportunity to work with Elle Allison-Napolitano and reflect upon our individual capacities for relationship, resonance, and renewal in search of extraordinary resilient leadership. I look forward to sharing my reflections about this professional learning in a future blog post.

What about Katelyn? Well, she has two permanent screws holding her ulna bone to the growth plate on her elbow, and she is making progress every day. She is eager to finish her therapy and get back to the gym. She talks about it every day. But, her training will be different from what it was before her accident, because her arm will be shaped differently. The doctor predicts that, while she will not likely be able to fully straighten her arm, she will hopefully be able to get it close, to within 10 or 15 degrees of straight. This unintentional disruptive change to her arm will require adaptive change to her training, and a new competitive plan for reaching her goals. She will have lost the ability to perform some skills that made her a champion, but the loss will only make room for new skills that will take her somewhere else exciting. It is true: she will never bounce back. But, she will bounce forward.

Educators 143, Parents 7

That’s the score? Seriously? That is the best we can do? I’m stunned, and frankly, a little disappointed. With one day to go in the Bammy race, a campaign that honors all that is great in American education, we educators can find only 7 parent leaders to honor? Really?! Come on! Where would we be without our parent leaders? They defend us, support our work, fund our programs, and most importantly, they are #GameChangers for American education. They join us in telling our school stories, drowning out the all too frequent jeers from our biggest critics. They are our raving fans. I thought we were their raving fans as well, but the score 143-7 suggests otherwise. Actually, the 143 is only counting nominations for teachers and principals. If we add in all of the other categories, that score becomes even more lopsided.

I know you all love and respect your parent leaders. I’m not questioning that. I’m just trying to figure out a way to compel you to honor them with a Bammy nomination. I mean, the nomination category is there for a reason, right? Let’s try this…Let me take you on a tour of your school campus. Close your eyes…Okay – that wasn’t very smart of me – now you can’t see to read my post. Scratch that. Just suppose you have closed your eyes. Now, imagine you are standing in your school lobby. What do you see around you? Now pretend you are standing on your school playground. What do you see? What do you see at the school field day or carnival? Chances are you see several things that would not have been possible without parent support and/or fundraising lead by a hardworking and dedicated parent leader.

American education is ONLY at its greatest when we build true partnerships with parents. We preach at parent-teacher conferences “your student will soar in school and in life if you are an engaged parent”, which is true – there is plenty of research to support that. Parent leaders are sometimes more engaged in teaching and learning than we are! Do we value our parent leaders? Of course we do. But to non-educators keeping an eye on the Bammy nominations, to the naysayers keeping score, 143-7 doesn’t reflect that sentiment. Worse yet, what does that lopsided ratio say to our parent leaders, and to all of our parents for that matter?

Here’s the good news – it’s not too late. What if every teacher, principal, and superintendent nominated for a Bammy this year rallied on this last day of the campaign and nominated the parent leader they proudly call their “partner in education”? If you do the math, that would settle the score at Educators 143, Parents 150. In my mind, that better reflects the balanced family-school partnerships we value and boast. A score of 143-150 better reflects what is truly great in American education: the collaborate efforts of educators and parents. In that spirit, I challenge you, fellow educators. Nominate a parent leader for a Bammy today, here and now at the finish line. Even the score.

www.bammyawards.org

Hey Bammy! If Anyone Can Reverse the Negative National Narrative, Parents Can!

I whole-heartedly support the concept of the Bammy Awards: “to celebrate all that is good in American education” and “to reverse the negative national narrative that dominates the education field.” The Bammy Awards weave together our collective body of work into one exhilarating story that as individual educators we often struggle to spin. This inability to counter the negativity aimed at our profession, my life’s purpose, puzzled me for years. Experience eventually taught me that the negativity was little more than a community reaction to what was misunderstood. When I was a school principal, I painfully learned that my community’s perception of me and of my school, whether accurate or not, WAS the story. Perception is reality, right? And, because the largest contingency in my school community were my students’ parents, parent perception and what they did not understand about education fueled the story they were telling.

Parents’ perceptions of school are shaped by their own education experiences, past and present. We can’t do anything to address a parent’s past experiences, but we sure can influence their current interactions with school and their relationships with teachers, those relationships that form the foundation for and strong family-school partnership. We can work to make parents raving fans of our schools and of the education field as a whole by empowering parents, by sharing with them the edu-jargon and edu-knowledge we live for, and by including them in decision-making for real issues. We can invite parents to be our true partners in education. As partners, they too will soon become compelled to reverse any negative perception of American education. In a school of 600 students, there are likely more than 1,000 parents ready to engage in the national narrative. That is a small army. If we don’t reach out and offer our knowledge and our partnership, that army may join the ranks of the negative national narrative. However, make each of them a parent leader and school partner, and watch that negative national narrative fall apart!

My school district has embraced dispositional hiring for finding the most effective teachers to lead our classrooms and to build meaningful relationships with parents. We intentionally look for teachers who genuinely want to draw parents into the education process as partners in education. Schools who hire these teachers empower parents by sharing teaching and learning knowledge and by including parents regularly in the school decision-making process.

One of my favorite dispositional interview questions to ask teacher candidates is: “Will the parents of students in your classroom be involved, engaged, or empowered, and what is your role in getting them there?” Of course, there is no “right” answer to this question. However, if the hiring committee listens closely to HOW the candidate responds, they can get a pretty clear picture to what extent the candidate values parent-teacher partnerships. For example, an answer such as, “I will ensure that my parents are involved by providing them opportunities to make photo copies and to help when I need it,” does not likely indicate a disposition for fostering true parent-teacher partnerships. On the other hand, a candidate who responds with, “My students’ parents will be empowered to join my class at any time during the day so that they might learn along with us and share their experiences with us,” is likely a teacher who values school-home partnerships.

A colleague recently lost her mind (we all do from time to time) and, while venting, complained to me, “Parents just don’t want to be engaged in their children’s education.” I could tell by the look on her face she immediately remembered my position on this topic and wished she could take back those words. “Hogwash!” I replied. (For real… I said that. I love that word.) “Of course they want to be engaged. But, we have to provide parents with the opportunities, entrust them with the knowledge, and likely give up a portion of the control to which we have grown accustomed.” We all learned from Schoolhouse Rock that “Knowledge is power!” In schooling, we educators are the keepers of that knowledge. Hiring teachers who will empower parents and who embrace school-home partnerships is essential for all students to find school success. The more we empower parents in the decision-making process, the more engaged parents will become in their children’s learning and in the school community. They will become raving fans of American education and they will take over the national narrative. I believe that.

I suspect that the one-hundred-plus educators nominated for a Bammy Award this year possess the disposition for building effective parent-school partnerships. I also suspect the four (yes, four) parents nominated as of 11:00 pm on 5/7/15 share that disposition, too. I also suspect that if you are reading this blog post, you know of a parent or 1,000 parents who share that disposition. I encourage you to acknowledge those parent voices. Lift them up and honor them with a Bammy nomination so that they are noticed. Join me in celebrating all that is good in American education by nominating a parent leader for a Bammy Award at http://www.bammyawards.org/.

The Conductor Never Leaves the Choir – A Leadership Allegory

I love to sing. Singing renews my soul on those hard fought days. Singing is my sanity home button. A little Gavin DeGraw at my piano, some Glee in the shower (true confessions – I make no apologies), and my personal favorite, rockin’ with Styx, circa 1980, in my mini-van, with the windows down. You remember Styx, right?…“The best of tiiiiiiiiimes…are when I’m alone with you…”  As an undergrad at Northwestern University, I discovered by divine accident late one night in my dorm hallway that the girl I was chasing (she was running the other direction) also loved to sing. She was humming Styx’s “Too Much Time On My Hands” and I plopped myself right down beside her. Together, we sang every lyric of every track on Styx’s “Paradise Theater” album into the wee hours of the morning. Cupid’s arrow found its mark. Our love for sappy music was not limited to Styx. While walking along Lake Michigan on campus one moonlit evening, we learned that we also shared a penchant for all things Amy Grant. Hot date.

I eventually married that girl, Gwen. Today, Gwen is a college professor of voice and a professional classical singer. During Gwen’s early years as a professor, she conducted a women’s choir. She loved each of the young ladies in that ensemble, and she was committed to being the very best conductor for them and the beautiful music they made. Each summer she buried herself in a mountain of music scores for days at a time in our living room, searching for a “just right” combination of choral pieces that would form the program for the “just right” concert. Her goal was to select music by diverse composers from varying eras and genres, and texts that conveyed an artistic conceptual theme that would uniquely fit the collective voices of her choir.

Gwen KNEW those individual voices, their unique colors, personalities, and timbres. As their leader, she was sensitive and scrupulous when combining the voices into one choir, understanding that the harmonies produced by the collection of those voices could only be as beautiful, as pleasing to the ear, as her own commitment to serving them. She made it her mission to first listen carefully and get to KNOW each individual voice and to ensure that the music and artistic expression capitalized on the unique quality each voice brought to the choir as an ensemble.

Getting the students to sing as one group rather than as 40 different voices required several rehearsals dedicated to learning to communicate by listening to each other carefully, matching pitch and singing in perfect harmony, and breathing together as a unit. In essence, they were building relationships as musicians. As a strategic conductor who had done her research, Gwen understood that voices blend and shine differently depending upon the physical placement of the individual singers within the choir. Before even distributing copies of the music to the choristers, countless rehearsals were filled by Gwen moving singers around like pieces on a chessboard while they sang scales and vocal exercises, and as she carefully listened for the “just right” collective sound that would set her choir apart from all others.

The singers themselves learned to listen and KNOW the individual voices of their choir, understanding that all of the voices needed to be respected, but blended, for the choir to ring true to their artistic message and true to the audience’s heart. Through listening to each other, they were empowered to sing collectively on their own without their conductor waving a baton in front of them. In fact, Gwen could often step down from the podium, walk to the wings of the stage, and the choir would continue to sing with extraordinary purpose and remarkable unity without skipping a beat. The individual members became so skilled at listening to each other, and breathing together, that their leader was not always needed at the podium. BUT, SHE NEVER LEFT THEM. She never strayed from the stage. She remained in close proximity, ready to assist, ready to pick up the baton if needed, ready to provide a leader’s perspective for the choir she served.

Strong family-school partnerships are like choirs. Parents and teachers talking together, and singing together, produce strong parent-teacher partnerships that ultimately benefit children, if their principal is committed to making it so. Parents and teachers may not need the school principal standing on the conductors’ podium at all times waving the baton at them to make sound decisions for the benefit of students. But, the school leader must always be present, in close proximity, ready to assist, ready to pick up the baton if needed, ready to provide a leader’s perspective for the parents and teachers. THE CONDUCTOR NEVER LEAVES HER CHOIR.

What if there is dissonance among the choir of parents and teachers? What if that dissonance stems not from disagreement, but instead grows from parents feeling intimidated by the teachers, or from the teachers feeling intimidated by the principal? Will the whole song fall apart? Should one of the voices in the choir be removed because of this dissonance? Should the conductor be removed from the performance? No. Dissonance propels music forward, and uncomfortable conversations drive communities forward. Dissonance can be a symptom of a healthy community that this growing. Dissonance, if treated properly, should not tear a choir or a school community apart.

Actually, composers intentionally weave dissonant chords into their compositions to create a tension that builds and builds, only to make the inevitable harmonious chord ring triumphantly, sweet to the ear, and a relief to the soul. It is at these moments that even the most skilled of choirs need the conductor the most. Fortunately, she is there, ready to pick up her baton and stand on the podium.

Dissonance in family-school partnerships stemming from unintended feelings of intimidation is never a time to remove a voice from the choir. All voices must always be heard, no matter how messy it may be. And, it is precisely at these times that the school conductor, the principal, is needed to provide context and support, to provide knowledge for empowering the singers, bringing down barriers of perceived intimidation. It is at these times that the conductor-principal must freely pick up the baton and lead his/her singers through the dissonant passage to the harmonious cadence. All voices – parents, teachers, principals – must be free to sing in times of harmony AND in times of dissonance. Singing is athletic, and singing through rough passages with the proper support builds endurance and stamina. Parents and teachers singing together, and building stamina with principal support through the rough passages is paramount for student achievement. Parents and teachers singing together with the principal present. She never leaves the choir.

Rogue Lenses and Miniature Elephants

rogue rōɡ/ adj.

  1. Vicious and solitary.
  2. Large, destructive, and anomalous or unpredictable.
  3. Operating outside normal or desirable controls.

Twenty three minutes. That’s how long it took me to coax my contact lenses on to my eyeballs this morning. That was a pretty good split for me. I consider taking twenty three minutes to put in my contact lenses a small, but significant, victory. Made my day!

I go to war with my contact lenses almost every morning. Rarely do I walk away victorious. Yes, the contact lenses eventually show mercy and smugly lay themselves over the pupils of my baby blues. On the very worst of mornings, however, a rogue lens will sometimes flee to the deep dark corner of my eyeball. Once, after 30 minutes of poking and pressing a lens on the vicinity of my right pupil and repeatedly missing my target, I waved the flag of surrender. I assumed the lens had escaped by jumping to my bathroom floor. Defeated and discouraged, I didn’t even bother to look for the scoundrel. I just grabbed my loyal Burberry frames and ran out of my house, late for work, tense and sweating from the battle.

Later that morning, while reading a legislative update, I felt a seismic sneeze developing in my sinus. I instinctively closed my eyes as the blow reached my nostrils, bracing for the eruption. When I opened my eyes, I flinched and then grimaced, feeling what I thought was an eyelash stuck in the corner of my eye. Irritated, I walked quickly to the restroom, poking and picking at my eye once again. Standing in front of the mirror, I grabbed each eye lid with my thumb and pointer finger and pried the lids apart. I stepped closer to the mirror. Staring at my eyeball, I spied the outer edge of the runaway contact rolling into sight from the back of my eye socket! Apparently, the lens had been hiding behind my white orb for several hours. My earth-rattling sneeze dislodged it and pushed it to the surface! “A-ha! Gotcha!” I squealed, as I pinned the lens to the corner of my eye with the tip of my finger and not so skillfully slid it into its proper place. Victory, right? Well, not exactly. One lens in in one eye and no lens in the other is useless. Defeated again.

I try to keep a diverse supply of lenses at my disposal. It’s my belief that effective school leaders look at every situation through as many different lenses as there are stakeholders. As I have just demonstrated in the preceding war story, not all lenses lay on the leader’s eye as comfortably as some. But, no matter the discomfort, no matter the effort required, all lenses must be utilized to gain perspectives otherwise overlooked. Leaders make decisions based on their own perspectives as they intersect with the multiple perspectives of stakeholders. Perspective is a function of knowledge and experience. Without knowledge and experience, the view through any lens is likely to be skewed.

I am reminded of a book I read for an Ethno-music History class during my freshman year in college – The Forest People, by Colin Turnbull. The ethnographic descriptions in this book are all about perspective. One vignette comes to mind: A boy who has lived his entire life under a jungle canopy finds himself for the very first time looking at a herd of elephants in a huge clearing just at the edge of the jungle. Having never experienced any real space, having no real concept of visual distance outside of the crowded jungle foliage, he reaches out to touch the tiny elephants that appear to be just inches before his eyes. Looking through a lens limited by lack of knowledge and limited experience, he does not realize that these elephants are enormous and in fact several hundred yards away. They are not miniatures, and he struggles to make sense of this realization. But, with a new lens through which to view the elephants, a whole new world lies before him.

I struggle at times to take advantage of opportunities for impacting student learning when the view I see through any lens is limited by my lack of experience. I am currently working with our district Family and Community Engagement team to re-focus district wide efforts for increasing student learning through parent engagement. I will limit the impact of this effort if I try to view each of our 23 schools’ parent engagement needs through one lens. My lens is bias. That bias grows exponentially when I consider the intersecting perspectives of the numerous parents, teachers, administrators, and community members who are on this journey with me. The only way to battle that bias is to utilize the diverse lenses at my disposal. Take one lens out; put another lens in. Repeat. Take that lens out; put a different lens in. Repeat.

When we talk with teachers and administrators about how parents perceive our schools (do they see partnership schools or fortress schools?) we must remove the educator lenses from our eyes and replace them with parent lenses. Some educators who are not also parents might find themselves in a lens war, poking and pressing to properly place the lens onto the pupil. When we partner with parents to ensure that all diverse students are valued and provided equitable learning opportunities, we must put an advocacy lens in one eye and a cultural competency lens in the other. These are not soft lenses. For some, these lenses are not easily worn. They are not even easy to find. Many cultural competency lenses go rogue, hiding behind our white orbs, hindering a clear view of what is real. Some lenses have to be taken captive. “Capturing the contact lens” is actually the technique I’ve developed for securely placing rogue lenses in my eyes each morning. When that sucker just refuses to go in, I literally grab the lens off my fingertips with muscled eyelids, and like a Venus flytrap, clamp my eyes shut. After a little eyelid massage from my finger, the lens, no matter how reluctant, always finds its resting place on my pupil.

We must keep many lenses of all shapes, shades, and sizes at our disposal if we are to build strong parent-school partnerships. We must constantly change those lenses so that we don’t mistake huge elephants as miniature. And, whatever we do, we must never give in to a rogue lense. Even if it takes a battle to get that lens onto my eye, and even if it is uncomfortable to wear, it must be worn. If we allow a rogue lens to jump on to the floor, never to be found, then we risk not seeing from a unique perspective that could have helped one more parent be engaged and one more child succeed.

How many different lenses have you had in your eyes today?

In My Ear, In the Moment, In 2015

They say a picture is worth a thousand words, which makes both figurative and literal sense when the picture is a photo of an actual thousand pieces. The thousand pieces you see in the picture above is from my dismantled iPhone.  Most of those pieces are not visible to you, because they are tiny. I mean tiny like fleas on a dog tiny, and equally aggravating. And by the way, some of those tiny screws are now forever lost in the forest of my bedroom carpet.  What you are really looking at is a bona fide near miss #holidaycatastrophe. But, lucky for me, I had Jason Mraz in my ear.

I like to listen to NPR on my car radio in the morning while driving to work.  My favorite NPR segment is “In Your Ear”. Guests on the program share the music they currently are listening to on their iPods, and describe why their picks inspire them, move them, or just plain make them happy.  This past week, along with the usual Christmas carols and Fa-la-la-la-las, this Jason Mraz song was in “In My Ear.”:

Living in the moment.
Living my life.
Easy and breezy.
With peace in my mind.
I got peace in my heart.
Got peace in my soul.
Wherever I’m goin’,
I’m already home.
Living in the moment.

That’s a lot of peace.  We can never have too much peace.  In fact, like many educators, I was more than ready for some peace of mind when my Holiday break rolled around last week.  Educators experience a mad flurry of “have to get done” projects and events at the end of December. My mad flurry was no exception, and to slow things down a bit, I decided to cut some Christmas shopping corners.

For a variety of practical reasons, I wanted Santa to give each of my children phones. I did not want, however, to spend any money to get there. My fifteen year-old already owned a beat-up early generation iPhone with a shattered screen that was barely held together with duct tape. My eleven year-old did not have a phone. My wife had recently purchased a new iPhone 6, and my work phone was scheduled to arrive any day. In hindsight, I probably should have just purchased new phones for each of them.  Instead, I succumbed to the evil Daddy Cheap Skate standing on my left shoulder whispering in my ear, “You can spend $30 on two new screens and a tool kit to replace the cracked screens on your phone and Gwen’s phone, and slyly pass them off as new to your children on Christmas morning! Bwwwaaahhhh ha ha! ”  Tempting me further, Daddy Santa Claus Wannabe was standing on my right shoulder whispering, “Picture it! Your beautiful grateful children on Christmas morning, wide-eyed, smiling broadly, and in perfect gleeful unison exclaiming, “Thank you Mommy! Thank you Daddy!” with Karen Carpenter crooning “Happy Holidays! Happy Holidays!” in the background.” A Norman Rockwell moment, right?  Not exactly.

Have you ever tried to replace an iPhone LCD screen?  Well, don’t.  Contrary to what the nice man on the ten-minute  YouTube video says in his best Bob Ross annoyingly calm voice, it is nearly impossible. Just to get to the tiny screws that hold the iPhone together, you have to remove each and every minuscule Silicone Valley part from the belly of that phone.  AND THEN YOU HAVE TO PUT THEM BACK TOGETHER, if you can find each of the removed screws.  Not going to happen!  In the end, one of our phones powered on, but the touch screen did not work.  The other phone’s screen stubbornly remained black, even though it did power on, as evidenced by the two short vibrations coughed from the phone when we flipped the ringer switch.  My wife and I spent seven hours – I am not exaggerating – SEVEN hours locked in a very tense room trying to create the perfect Christmas moment.  Seven hours we will never get back.  Our Christmas happy disappeared somewhere around hour three.  There was no “Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me” in that room.  My wife was crying and I was on the verge of tears myself.  Christmas was ruined.  Then I remembered…I had Jason Mraz in my ear:

If this life is one act,
Why do we lay all these traps?
We put them right in our path
When we just wanna be free.
I will not waste my days
Making up all kinds of ways
To worry about some things
That will not happen to me.

Of course Christmas was not ruined.  But, I had set myself up for failure. I had laid this trap myself and led my wife and me right into it.  I was not “easy and breezy” with peace in my mind, heart and soul.  Instead, I viewed every passing moment as a threat to a happy family Christmas.  Instead of living in those moments, taking on the challenge with joy, I batted defensively at each one and watched them fly by with despair.  Once those moments passed, I didn’t feel relieved; I felt defeated. Those moments became part of the past, lost to time, never to return again. Some argue that the past and the future are really just creations of man, ideas that cannot be proven. The only thing we can prove, they say, is that we are here right now, in THIS moment.  And, now, actually THAT moment is gone. And, THAT one.  Get ready…here comes the next moment…and there it goes.

When I think of life as a series of precious moments strung together, one after the other, it gives me a renewed sense of purpose and empowerment.  I can choose to live in those moments, even the most difficult moments, breath them in and taste them, soak in them and experience them as the gift of life itself.  This includes moments in my personal and professional lives. An educator’s day consists of a stream of quickly moving and high energy overlapping moments.  According to Shawn Achor (@shawnachor) of GoodThink, Inc. and author of The Happiness Advantage, the key to my happiness as a school leader depends on whether I live in each moment as if it is a threat or a challenge.  I chose school leadership (or did it choose me?) because of its problem-solving focus, so I know I can live happily in the moment of any challenge.  In the moment of a perceived threat, however, I just react and miss the moment altogether. Peace of mind, heart and soul will flow only from my choice to accept a difficult moment as a challenge rather than a threat to merely survive.

As I head into 2015, I’m choosing to live in each moment, viewing tiny little screws and thousand piece problems as challenges rather than threats.  Instead of trying to create perfect Norman Rockwell moments to live in, I’ll live in the moments I’m dealt.  With peace in my mind, in my heart, and in my soul!  If I get a little off course at work or at home, I’ll pay closer attention to that song in my ear.

I’m letting myself off the hook for things I’ve done.
I let my past go past
And now I’m having more fun.
I’m letting go of the thoughts
That do not make me strong.
And I believe this way can be the same for everyone…
Living in the moment.

If  you’d like to have Jason Mraz’s song in your ear, go to

 

Lost In a Daydream

“The whole art of teaching is only the art of awakening the natural curiosity of young minds for the purpose of satisfying it afterwards.”  – Anatole France
My family and I followed my wife to Europe a few summers ago while she was teaching opera students in Spoleto, Italy. Her teaching schedule allowed one weekend of free time, so we made the most of it using the rail system to see as much of Europe that we could pack into 3 days. It turned into quite the adventure. After spending an evening in a sleeper car on a train from Paris that broke down in the Alps, we found ourselves somewhere between Milan and Rome on a bullet train that was sitting painfully motionless on the track in the middle of grape vineyards. Our trip was halted  because the train terminal in Rome several miles ahead was reportedly on fire. Seriously. The Griswolds’ “European Vacation” had nothing on us.
My daughter, Katelyn, 8-years old at the time, was bored out of her mind sitting on that motionless train. I glanced at her in the seat next to me.  Her eyes told me that she was lost in a daydream as she slowly and smoothly turned a bottle half filled with water over and over.  I watched her for about 10 minutes.  Then, without stopping, she said quietly, “I wonder why the water in this bottle doesn’t just clump up; I wonder why it follows the shape of the bottle.”  I started to say something to her about molecules and blah, blah, blah, but she quickly stopped me: “No Daddy! I don’t actually want to know the answer.  I just want to wonder about it.”  And, she went back to twirling her bottle.
Wow. Out of the mouths of babes!  I learned a lot from my daughter in those 10 minutes.  I saw the seeds of inquiry-based learning up close and personal.  I saw what intrinsic curiosity and a drive to learn looks like disguised as an 8 year-old’s daydream.  I imagined how this same scene might play out in a classroom. How might a teacher huddle up next to a daydreamer, tap into her curiosity and activate inspired learning? 
I stumbled upon such a teacher – a character in a Newbery Award winning book from 1954: The Wheel On the School by Meindert DeJong, illustrated by Maurice Sendak.  I had never heard of this book, but Sendak’s name caught my eye in a pile of books a teacher put on an “up for grabs table” at the end of a school year, so I claimed it for my own.  In the story, a teacher challenges his students to wonder: 
“We can’t think much when we don’t know much.  But, we can wonder! From now until tomorrow morning when you come to school, will you do that?  Will you wonder why and wonder why? Will you wonder why storks don’t come to Shora to build their nests on the roofs, the way they do in all the little villages around?  For sometimes when we wonder, we can make things begin to happen.”
 
As the story unfolds, these children DO wonder and they DO make extraordinary things happen.  Is this true of our own students: our quiet thinkers who sit on the corner of the playground and our classroom daydreamers who frustrate us to no end because they appear to not be engaged in learning?  Maybe our daydreamers are wondering about things that are more educationally rich than the so-called knowledge we expound. Maybe they are poised to “make things happen”. How can we incorporate into our school day the freedom to daydream about the “whys?” the “what ifs?”  and then provide opportunity for daydreamers to examine ideas that spring from their wonderment?  
 
“But, the school day is short” we all say. Yes, it is. So, why would we waste any bit of it?  We should use that valuable time looking for opportunities to jump into a child’s daydream and awaken their natural curiosity. It comes down to choices about what we value about learning. Can we carve out some instructional time for the daydream, find ways to gently shake it up, and then through artful teaching satisfy student curiosity and guide students to make things happen?  I wonder…

Change Is…(You Fill In the Blank)

I am a visual person.  I like art and images with sharp angles and clean lines.  Angles are strong.  Lines are reliable, predictable.  I am drawn to Frank Lloyd Wright’s use of line and angles in his architecture and stained glass.  I can stare at long stretches of city skyline for hours, mesmerized by the tall vertical lines of the buildings and the linear expanse of horizon beneath.  A line represents decisiveness and control of self, as in “This is where I draw the line.”

I often photograph objects that are defined by prominent lines.  I took the photo for this blog’s title page (take a look above), with its clean lines defining perspective and sense of predictable destination. Some of my friends have asked me about the photo subject: “Is it a retro disco bowling alley?” No, it is not. “Is it an airport runway at night?” No. Although, now that you mention it, rows of runway lights at night would make for an exciting photo shoot! “Did you snap this photo during a near death experience as you slowly moved toward the light?” That one made me laugh. No. That didn’t happen either.

I shot this photograph in Pittsburgh.  The photo is from inside the Fort Pitt Tunnels – or, as the locals call them, “the tubes” – that cut through Mount Washington. I grew up in Beaver, Pennsylvania, about 35 miles north of “the tubes”.  Going into the city was always a treat when I was a kid. Weekend day trips to see Willie Stargell and the Pirates beat the Phillies at Three Rivers Stadium, the Barnum and Bailey circus at the Civic Arena, or the annual river regatta always began with a trip through the tubes.

As a kid, the drive through the tubes was magical. Still is. If you are from Pittsburgh, you know what I am talking about: Entering the tubes, light momentarily turns to darkness. Eyes adjust to the glow from pale yellow lamps lining the tunnel ceiling. The AM radio station goes static, replaced by the hum of the car wheels bouncing off and between tunnel walls.  Looking ahead through the windshield, a small hole of light in the distance grows bigger, and bigger, until a sudden blinding flash accompanied by the blare of returning radio music announce the majestic downtown Pittsburgh skyline and its adorning three rivers. The way the city just appears, poof!, as if out of nowhere takes your breath away.  I’ve made that thrilling trip hundreds of times, each time with obvious and absolute certainty about where the tunnel leads. Completely predictable, familiar, and safe.  Confining walls serve as guiding lines and provide a sense of control over where I am headed . Tunnel vision, I suppose. I like to know where I am going.

My mom is the same way.  My dad often lovingly says of her, “The woman knows what she wants.”  Mom relies upon predictability and control of her space. My children went to visit my mom and dad for a weekend this summer.  When they returned home, the first thing my daughter reported was a description of going to church with Grandma.  Apparently, even at church, Grandma tries to control her space.  My daughter recounted: “Dad, there was a pillow on the pew.”  I replied, “I’m not surprised. I remember those pews being hard on the hind end.”  My daughter clarified, “No.  Dad. It was Grandma’s pillow, one from her living room, waiting there for us. Dad, she saves that seat by leaving a macrame-covered pillow on that same pew each week. A pillow from her living room. Did you know that?  She leaves it there, Dad.  Each week. Don’t you find that weird?”  Aside from the macrame, I honestly did not.  It makes perfect sense to me. Grandma, like me, finds great comfort in the predictable and in the familiar.  And, if she can control her space by marking it with a tacky pillow from her living room, by golly she will do it!

The problem with permanent pillows on pews and predictable trips through tunnels is that inevitably one day Grandma’s pillow will be moved to another pew and my tunnel vision will limit a view of what could or might be.  Then what?  And, those reliable lines? Illusion. They are not really all that reliable.  There are no straight lines in life.  While I may be able drive through a tunnel and look in the rear view mirror to see where I have been, there really is no telling with certainty where I am headed.

I took this photo in the bathroom at the Pinewood Social in Nashville, TN.
I took this photo in the bathroom at the Pinewood Social in Nashville, TN. Great food!

Life is full of uncertainties.  Life is the sum of a succession of uncertainties and constant change.  Change simply IS.  And, because change IS, we can’t see the future and we can’t control what will or will not be waiting at the end of the tunnel.  When we experience unexpected change, we can choose to fold or we can adapt and embrace the change as an opportunity.

I am currently experiencing unexpected change.  Six weeks ago, I thought that I was on one path, only to find that God had a different plan for me.  In my case, the change presented a career opportunity.  And, while I struggled mightily with the absence of a clear line, I seized the opportunity.  As a school leader, I am trained to lead adaptive change, to encourage and guide my school community through necessary change for the benefit of student learning.  I feel very comfortable in that role, and I enjoy it.   But, when the shoe is put the other foot, and I am experiencing unexpected change, I find it unsettling. This is a good lesson for me as school leader.  It teaches me empathy for educators who experience disequilibrium when change, planned or unplanned, flips their teaching worlds upside down.

Take one more look at the photo of the Fort Pitt tunnel at the top of this page.  The photo is actually upside down, as if we were driving alongside the ceiling lights.  When I set up this blog several months ago, I intentionally flipped the photo to remind me that even the most familiar and seemingly predictable of life comforts will eventually, and probably without warning, be someday turned upside down.  When that day arrives, I will have to adapt to that change and still find my way to the light at the end of that tunnel.

So, filing in the blank in the title of this post, for me Change is . . . like traveling through a tunnel toward a destination I’ve chosen, and suddenly realizing that the tunnel has been turned upside town creating disequilibrium and life uncertainty.  If I view this topsy-turvy ride as liberation from tunnel vision and an opportunity to grow and learn and contribute, I will adapt and thrive.  I can experiment and take risks, and give myself permission to fail. I can redirect my line of vision and refocus my sight on a new light at the end of my tunnel.

Epilogue:   Hoping to gain some different perspectives regarding “change”, I recently asked my #PTcamp PLN, educators from across the US, to send me Voxer audio clips finishing the sentence, “Change is …”  and to provide insight regarding the change process in education. They gladly accepted the request.  You can listen to their comments on Coloring Outside the Lines at BAM Radio Pulse here.

Surprise & Delight on the First Day of School

I moved with my family from Western New York to Northern Kentucky just over 4 years ago. It was a big move for us in every way, including new jobs for both my wife and me: Gwen as a college professor and me as a school principal.  We were anxious about starting new jobs, but as parents, we were were mostly concerned about how our children, Jacob and Katelyn (10 years and 7 years old at the time) would adjust to a new school community that is literally 15 times the size of their previous school district.  
 
Everyone in the Detwiler house experienced intense first-day-of-school jitters that first year.  I was excited and nervous about meeting my new school family, and my wife and kids felt the same about their schools.  I was thrilled to be taking on the Lead Dreamer role in a new school, and I enjoyed my first day visiting classrooms, talking with teachers and staff, and meeting parents.  But, I was also distracted all day thinking about Jacob and Katelyn. Were they okay? Did Jake puke at lunch? Did Katelyn meet a boy and run away? Yes, I do tend to exaggerate.  I call it “literary license”.
 
I could not wait to get home that night to find out how the first day of school went for my children. As I entered my house and walked into the kitchen, I was practically knocked off my feet by my son.  Jacob could not wait to tell me about his Science teacher: “Dad, you will not believe what she did!  Get this:  She turned off the lights and lit a candle … a CANDLE dad, in the classroom. Then, in a soft voice (Jacob lowered his voice for dramatic effect) she said to us, ‘Things are not always what they appear to be.’ Then, she blew out the candle.  And, do you know what she did next?  (Now loudly, with glee) SHE TOOK A BITE OUT OF THE CANDLE! Then another, and another, until she had eaten the whole thing!!  Can you believe that, Dad?!”  Well, I of course said, a little concerned, “No, I can’t believe that. What was she actually eating?”  Jacob leaped out of his chair and with giddy laughter replied, “A POTATO.  She made the candle out of a potato! All of us, the whole class, were dead silent, watching her eat the candle. We all thought she might be some kind of witch. But, don’t worry, she’s not. It was a potato. Get it, Dad?  ‘Things are not always what they appear to be.'” Then Jacob said the magic words that to this day still bring tears of joy to my eyes, “I love it here! This is going to be the best year ever!”
 
Surprise & Delight.
 
I am fortunate to be part of a team of educators from my school district who is participating in the University of Kentucky’s Next Generation Leadership Academy this school year.  During our first session, we met Mr. Buddy Berry, the Superintendent of Eminence Independent School District in Kentucky. (Follow him on Twitter @BuddyBerry and #surpriseanddelight) Mr. Berry’s inspiring presentation was about the incredible transformation his school district has undergone in terms of innovation and 21st century learning.  His entire story was captivating. However, it was something Mr. Berry said toward the end of his presentation that has stuck with me for weeks.  Paraphrased, it is this, “The best measurement of student engagement is how many times our students go home at the end of the day and exclaim to their parents, ‘You won’t believe what we learned today!’ THAT is engagement with Surprise & Delight.”
 
Surprise & Delight is also a powerful hook for engaging parents.  My superintendent in Boone County, Kentucky, Dr. Randy Poe, often reminds school leaders, teachers, and staff to make parents and the community “raving fans” of our schools so that they become our strongest supporters and active partners in education.  Citing the book Raving Fans by Ken Blanchard and Sheldon Bowles, we make raving fans of our school community by discovering what our customers want and deliver “plus one”.  In public education, this requires us to talk to our customers – our students and our parents – to discover what their education needs, hopes, and dreams are, then deliver on them.  In my opinion, the “plus one” can be fulfilled through Surprise & Delight.
 
While many of you are still looking forward to the first day of the school year, my first day occurred  over a week ago. Let me share how teachers and staff in my school provided Surprise & Delight to both students and parents, before school even started, exciting a school community that is now eager and hopeful for the best school year ever:
 
– Teachers invited students and parents to summer picnics and to “Meet Me at the Playground” afternoons, and started building important relationships with families. 
– Teachers made summer telephone calls to their students and families introducing themselves and expressing enthusiasm for the school year ahead.  
– During our school “Meet and Greet” night, families were photographed in a photo booth, and the photo was attached to a card that asked the students and the parents, “What are your hopes and dreams for this school year?” The cards and photos now hang in the school hallways as a reminder that we value parent and student voice and that we are committed to seeing family dreams become reality.  
– On the first day of school, as children got of the buses or were escorted into the buildings by their parents, they were greeted by dancing teachers and staff with smiling faces, while one of our teachers, dressed as a club D.J., amplified fun celebratory music that blared all over the campus. A little unorthodox?  Probably.  Surprising & Delightful?  Most definitely!  I heard a number of parents say, “I love this school” as they were headed to their cars.  See for yourself… 
 
 
These are just a few examples of how Surprise & Delight infused into a school culture can be a legitimate strategy for building trust and relationships with families.  What about you?  As you are preparing for that first day of school, as you are aligning lesson plans to learning standards and putting the last touches on your classroom Maker Spaces, STEAM labs, and Literacy Studios, don’t forget to ask yourself, “What is my plan for Surprise & Delight?”  If your plan comes from your heart, is purposeful, and is executed with confidence and joy, you will make “raving fans” of your students and of their parents.  Guaranteed, your students will go home and exclaim to Mom and Dad, “You will NOT believe what I did at school today!” Use Surprise & Delight to fuel student and parent engagement on the first day of school and sustain it throughout the year. 
 
Note: Do you want to “Steal Like an Artist” and try the lit potato / candle trick to Surprise & Delight your students on the first day of school?  Find out how it works and the science concept behind it here.