Yesterday, I visited the site of the Dachau Concentration Camp Memorial Site in Germany. It was a moving, reflective, learning experience.  Even though I am in Europe for “vacation”, I felt that it was important, for two reasons, to visit Dachau.

The first one is because of my dear friend, Holocaust survivor Philip Riteman  ( who had survived both Auschwitz and Dachau. Mr. Riteman passed in August 2018 and my biggest regret is that I can not have a conversation with him again; knowing what I know now and feeling what I feel after the visit to Dachau.  Secondly, I am a life-long learner. I don’t think that I could come to Germany and not take the opportunity to learn more about the history that has given us the life and freedom that we have today.

I know that that I write this blog every week with the intention of supporting the district leaders, principals and teachers whom I work with in the business of school improvement.  I also acknowledge that this may not directly give any advice or wisdom as you consider what to do next in your work as an educator.  I will do my very best to make an connection for you as I reflect on what I heard, saw and experienced at the memorial site.

Merriam-Webster defines “memorial” as serving to preserve remembrance/something that keeps remembrance alive. As each generation moves further away from World War I and II and the last veterans and survivors are among us, remembering is going to be up to each of us. IMG_0350What knowledge that is understood and passed on to the next generation is going to depend on the respect that we have for educating one another- for taking the time to learn, reflect and consider how the past impacts the present and certainly, the future.

The students in front of us each and every day are our future. We hear and say this often and we have great opportunities to watch them lead and take their place as “influencers” in the world.  Greta Thunberg and Autumn Peltier come to mind as two young adults who have taken risks and are speaking from their hearts to help us all understand our current reality.  Greta and Autumn were the same age as Philip when he was captured and taken to Auschwitz. His voice and influence on us may not be through the platform that Greta and Autumn can have but he and other survivors have worked hard to help us understand.

Philip spent many years going from school to school, sharing his very difficult and emotional story, hoping that students and adults could understand the need for us to “love not hate”. This was a simple but, tremendously important message, from a horrific life experience. Any time that I had a chance to talk to him, this was his mantra. He was a forgiving, loving man despite what he experienced and he wanted us all to understand and appreciate the lives we lived.

We can not erase history and what happened in the past.  With knowledge, wisdom, guidance and love, generations to come will make sound decisions. These generations are influenced everyday by the educators in front of them; sharing experiences, allowing discovery and freedom of speech and acknowledging their opinions and beliefs.  We can not and do not need to take every student to Dachau but we do need to continue to build understanding of history and our world.

Educators  do so much to help students see beyond the four walls of the classroom and this must always be part of the relevancy of teaching and learning. It is wise and necessary, as an educator, to never underestimate your power to impact and influence. Recently, I overheard a teacher telling a class that he cared so much because he never knows who might be sitting in front of him- the next leader of a country, a scientist or doctor who will save lives, or, a young person who will experience great adversity like Philip did and go on to influence hundreds of thousands by sharing his story.

This is Thanksgiving weekend in Canada.  A time to reflect and be grateful for the richness in our lives.  A time to remember and appreciate what has shaped our stories. A time to celebrate the privilege that we have to be educated and to live in a world that we can experience and share with others. With gratitude, I say good bye for another week. I appreciate you and the opportunity that I have to live and work freely; it has never had more meaning then it does this week.


Making a Difference

The sound of your own footsteps echo as you walk.  You relish in the quiet early morning moments. Doors are unlocked, lights turned on and soon the hustle and bustle of the school day begins.  It almost takes your breath away how fast the atmosphere in a school can change when the doors open and the students come in.

Every morning, in schools across Canada and the United States, about four million teachers  have the amazing potential for positive impact. It might start with a warm, genuine greeting or end with positive affirmation and celebration. Sandwiched between the beginning and end of the day are all “teachable moments”, when learning truly happens.

This week, I happened in one of these classrooms where you just know that students are being positively impacted. Ms. Byrd teachers at Robert F Morehead Middle School in Dollarway School District in Arkansas.  I spent a few minutes in her room and I knew right away that it was someone that I would want my child to spend time with if she was in middle school.  Ms. Byrd was having a conversation with the students; that was what her instruction felt like to me. She was interacting with them in a way that they were engaged. And her room told a story of what was the most important thing that she was teaching- I should say “who” because it was all about the student.

This bulletin board truly represents what  Ms. Byrd believes in her students.  The center part (it is hard to tell in my less than professional picture) is a mirror. IMG_0289 Imagine having an opportunity to look in to a mirror every day and see yourself and these reminders of what you are responsible for and control. Imagine having a teacher that expects this high level of responsibility from you and is helping you understand that you are and must be accountable for your own actions, words, choices, grades and success.  How important are these messages in building a sense of student ownership of their learning? Of their lives?

In our world of education, we talk about essential learnings for students, how we will instruct, assess and intervene on these learnings and we face many challenges and differences in opinions of what and how we improve schools.  It doesn’t matter where I am or what school I am in, the most critical factor, in my opinion, is whether or not  teachers believe that all and each  student can learn and like Ms. Byrd does, creates an expectation that the student must also have this belief.

I have been writing this blog for almost two years now. I am sure if you read back through the blogs, this will not be the first time that my weekly message is about the student.  Sometimes, I need the reminder when I am on the road and in schools and districts that this is what our work is about. Sometimes it is easier for me not to stray from this as the priority and other times, like everyone else, I get caught up in all the other factors that we know to also be true about improving schools. Ms. Byrd did a great job of being my reminder this week of what our business of education is all about.

Thank you, Ms. Byrd and thank you to all of the teachers who work tirelessly to be there for students. To not give up on them and continue to confront the excuses and self-doubt.  To make lessons relevant and engaging. To raise expectations and give students the autonomy and responsibility to direct their own traffic on their learning journey. As this week comes to an end, I invite you to reflect on your own beliefs and actions. Are you modeling an authentic belief in the ability of students to learn, no matter what? Does all mean all in your school or district? What does that look like and sound like in your halls and classrooms?  What are the messages that are being given intentionally or unintentionally? It might be a great time for self-reflection as a staff or individually. There is no time like the present to make a difference.

Thanks for reading and I look forward to being back with you next week.



Your Intention

What is the difference between saying and doing?  How many “hidden” messages do we give others when our intentions are not align with our deeds?  What really does it mean to live or lead with intention? Why is this so difficult for us? And, how many times do you hear someone say, “I had the best intentions but….”

In my continuous journey of supporting school improvement, this is still a barrier in daily leadership practices. I find myself having more and more conversations about being focused, knowing priorities and actually carving out the time to stay committed to this work.  It seems to me, that it is getting more and more difficult for school and district leaders to keep distractors at bay and truly lead as they want to.

I had a leader tell me this week that he finally figured out how to focus on the work he truly needs to lead.  He has been in his position for over a year and has felt the struggle of so many demands on his time. In my coaching conversations with him, I have felt the personal conflict he experiences; he believes he should focus on building a collaborative system with the goal of improving student achievement but most of his daily time was spent on other things.  From day one, he has told me that this is his vision.  Sadly, when I visit with him, there have been very few times that I have seen this vision in his actions.

The great part of this story is that he knows the difference between his intentions and his actions. He doesn’t need me to point out to him that his “saying” and “doing” are not aligned. He speaks candidly about the distractors and his reaction to them. He can articulate exactly what he should be doing and what he allows to take him off course.  It just took a little bit of time for him to get to a place where he could courageously take control of his time and energy and stay focused on the right work.

What is he doing differently this week? What changed? He has honestly figured out that it is all about his daily habits. He is making a plan with his time that is focused on getting to his vision and he is sticking to it. We hear about the 21 days that it takes to change personal habits and this is what he is proving with his practice. He is about three weeks in to his plan and he feels amazing. He has spent time with his collaborative teams, had conversations about student work and really examined the goals that he and his staff have set. He still has his “distractors” to think about but his mindset is shifting to keeping his energy and focus on what he knows are the priorities of his work.

If I could give all of my leaders a “pill of intention” to take every morning, I would. In fact, I would swallow that pill myself.  It is HARD work to live and lead with intention. intentionThere are so many great things we want to do with our time; people to see, places to be, learnings to be had.  Opening our computers early in the morning  can lead to an hour of distraction as we enjoy reading about our favorite sports team or celebrity.  That hour of distraction, for me, means I didn’t get out for my walk. Stopping in the hall to talk to a teacher for a minute might mean your work day goes in a totally different direction based on this brief conversation.  These personal pleasures and relationships are important and we need them in our lives. It is the alignment of time to our priorities that seems to be the challenge.

I know that this blog might sound a little (ok…a great deal) like last week’s writing about leading yourself.  I guess we can call it a continuation of a very important theme.  Or we could say that I am trying to hit you over the head with this hammer.  It just really, truly does matter that we spend the time doing what is important and what we “intend” to do. When our book, Leading with Intention (ttps:// was published, Jeanne Spiller and I were asked by a reader if it would be a quick fix to all things that were causing her to be distracted and not focused.  I wish it was as easy as that.

There is no quick fix to leading or living with purpose and intention except doing it… creating the mindset and discipline to know the purpose and intention of our work. What school or district do you envision? What do you want for your students? What are the end goals?  Mapping the actions out is one step, however, “doing” the actions is what really gets you there.  Have a great week of focus and intention. See you next Saturday.


Lead Yourself

Where did August and almost September go?  To say it has been busy is an understatement. I know that my “road warrior” friends who are reading this know what I am talking about. We have crossed paths in and out of airports, sharing some time together, getting started with new schools and districts and appreciating the opportunities that our work provides us.  I had serious intentions of getting back at this blog earlier in the fall season.  I was confident that I would carve the time out to re-establish my writing practice.  Why is it so hard to get back to habits that we know are good for us and we enjoy?  What determines our  priorities?  How do we keep distractors from becoming our reality?

I have worked  a great deal with school and district leaders during the past few weeks with this challenge.  With great intention, their districts and schools were ready to receive their students.  Lots of hard work, long hours and preparations happened before the doors opened to students and families.  Fresh paint, new buildings and shiny, clean buses are ready to welcome the year.  Open houses were planned and welcoming activities were created with energy and enthusiasm.  UnknownAnd, within a couple of weeks it is almost like a pin was used to pop a balloon… teachers and leaders quickly feel the “reality” and “busyness” of the school days.  The demands of all that it takes to ensure a district and school meet the needs of  all students felt real. And, this is the current reality… it is what school improvement is about and what the right work is. So, how do we find and  keep our focus on the right work? What are the habits that we have to get back to?

In at least three of my conversations with leaders this fall, I heard how hard that it was to get back in to the right work after the summer.  For these leaders, distractions were tough to keep at bay. The distractions were authentic requests of their time and energy. It isn’t that these things were not important it is just that it kept them away from what they had determined to be their priorities.  And, it is the same for me… if this blog is a priority for me, then I need to make the time and commit to make it happen.  Sounds simple?  We all know that the self-discipline of sticking to our priorities isn’t as easy as that.

The more time that I spend coaching and supporting leaders, the more I recognize the need to develop self-leadership.  Being self-aware of your own habits, where you spend your time and how your priorities are visible to others is leadership 101.  Carving out that time to be a continuous learner, to be reflective and to truly examine your own practices takes courage and commitment.  And, mostly, you have to know what you do see as your vision and priorities.  Do you have a personal vision and goals for what you, as a leader want to accomplish this year?  Have you put this in writing? Are you actions aligned so that these priorities are clear and keeping you focused on the right work?

If you are struggling with this, I offer this link to you for a webinar that might help you re-connect with what you truly know is important. ( Jeanne Spiller and I offered this learning opportunity this summer for district and school leaders. It will take you about an hour of your time but walks you through some great activities and times to reflect. I believe, that as a leader, you deserve opportunities such as this to continue to grow.

Have a great week of continuous commitment and learning. I look forward to being with you again next Saturday.


Eight of Eight: Community

It is tattered and torn… taped to the inside of a 5th grade locker.  Who is it from? Who was the lucky recipient? IMG_2730 Why is this letter so important that it stayed in place for an entire school year?  A year ago it was penned and now it is being taken down from the inside of the locker. This is what I learned about on the road this week…

Jackelyn Doyle is a young teacher at Cherokee Heights Elementary School in St. Paul, Minn.  I remember when I met Jacquelyn a few years ago. She had a challenging first year (as most teachers do) and maybe, just maybe, wasn’t sure that this was the career for her.  I am so proud of the teacher she has become.  One thing I truly love about going in her classroom is the sense of community that she builds with her students.  It isn’t just a room where students go for an entire year to work and learn; it is a class community built on mutual respect and care for one another.  I have never heard Jackelyn call her class “students”; they are “friends”. And, on my visit to her school this week, I learned a very real example of how that sense of community among friends starts at the very beginning of the year.

Just by accident, I overheard a conversation this week with Ms. Jackelyn talking about what the students were finding when they cleaned out their lockers.  She just happened to mention that one of them still had his letter that he had received from last year’s fifth grader.  I stopped her to ask what she meant.  “Oh, she said, my fifth graders write three letters at the end of every year; one to someone who has impacted their life, one to themselves and one to an incoming fifth grader.” She said it as if ALL teachers did this with their students… she looked completely surprised that my jaw had dropped and I was so excited! What an awesome way to welcome a fifth grader new to your class by having someone leaving the community tell about it.  What an amazing way to have students be reflective and of course, to write!

My past seven blogs have been about each chapter in Leading with Intention ( This week finishes the eight chapters and it is all about community and relationships. Chapter eight begins with the quote, ‘No significant learning can occur without a significant relationship.” (James Corner). We ask the question, which leader would you rather work with- a leader who tells you what to do, when to do it but says little about why to do it and the value of the work? Or, would you prefer a leader who takes time to build a relationship with you and understand you, and supports your understanding of why the work is necessary? Author, John Maxwell, in his book, The Five Levels of Leadership, describes leading based on permission versus leading from our positions.  In order to reach that level of leadership, you have to gain the respect and confidence of others by gaining their permission to lead.  Jackelyn Doyle embraces “leading with permission” as she builds respect and confidence with her students as she builds community in her room.

I can not write about community today without mentioning my NBA champions, the Toronto Raptors. I have been a fan for a long time and this year is a great year to love the Raptors.  I have often talked about their focus of GRIT over Given.  They have proven that hard work, respect for one another and team work creates success. They have a community within their team, led by a strong coach who leads with “permission”. Nick Nurse believes in his players and often has stated that his first job is to get to know his players and build relationships.  This year, the Raptors drew fans from all across Canada and far and away places in the world. They are a diverse team and demonstrated that building on each other’s strengths was more important than making it all about one player or another.  There is a Raptor community that extends beyond the team and the city of Toronto. They have taken their “We the North” theme and created a sense of community among 37,000,000 people in Canada.

Community is built around common purpose. In our schools and districts, learning does not take place in isolation. Teachers work in professional community, learning together and figuring out what our students need them to do next.  When students and parents are included in that community, we have effective schools. Jackelyn Doyle is a teacher who understands that relationships come before learning.  I appreciate you, Jackelyn and so do your students.

Have a wonderful week and summer. This will end my blogs until the fall.  Thank you for reading and staying with me.


Seven of Eight: Listening to Understand

Being home in Canada for a few days gave me a chance this week to watch all of the D-Day coverage of the Canadian troops seventy-five years ago in World War I.  The ceremony at Juno Beach was beautiful, thought-provoking and, most importantly, all about the veterans who were able to attend.  I took the time to watch it all and to really listen. I learned facts that I didn’t know. I understand now more than I did before, even though I thought I had a good understanding of this very historical, important day to all of us.

One of the things that really has stayed with me was the critical role that communication played in this event, and I am sure, many other important moments during this war.  I found one local story of the women who were located here in eastern Canada and  provided the quiet support as code-breakers during the war. IMG_8244The WRENS listened for hours and intercepted messages from German ships and submarines. In this story, the women describe the focus and intentionality of their work (

In chapter seven of Leading with Intention, Jeanne Spiller and I write about the important role that communication plays in school leadership ( It might not be the life and death situations that the Canadian women were responsible for in World War I but it really is a critical skill set when we think about improving schools. One of the advantages that we have when we communicate, different from the women listening to the codes, is that we can ask clarifying questions.  Good listeners ask clarifying questions to be sure that they understand the speaker fully and correctly.  Similar to paraphrasing, good clarifying questions help resolve areas of confusion or misunderstanding.

In coaching situations with school principals, our time together often leads to discussions about critical conversations; times when honest, authentic discussions are necessary. These conversations depend on a leader’s ability to listen with positive intent and truly seek to understand. One common mistake that often happens in a leader’s busy day is “assuming” understanding instead of being sure.

There are many reasons that we misunderstand or miss important facts. It takes focus and intentionality to work at being a great listener, asking clarifying questions and seeking first to understand.  We know that the women in World War I worked every single second to listen with extreme focus and intentionality.  So many lives depended on their ability to listen.  And to think that their communication was extremely one-sided; they could not ask questions or have information repeated. They had to get it right the first time just by listening… by being great listeners.

Lastly, I don’t want to end this week’s blog without saying that the biggest message communicated this week was the critical importance of all of us remembering the sacrifices made by those who served in times of war.  Hearing the stories and personal reflections truly helps us understand.  I know what I have referenced here also happened in other countries as well.  Great leaders are great communicators.  Winning a war depends on this.  So does leading a school.  Have a great week.


Six of Eight: To Teach

Honoring the educator. It is that time of the year- retirements, graduations, bittersweet good-byes for students and teachers.  A school is one of the few businesses that shuts down and starts over again every year. Once we leave, desks get pushed to one side of the classrooms, floors get scrubbed and waxed, a year of elbow grease is washed off of desks and the halls have an eerie, quiet calmness.  It isn’t about the hallways though, it is about what happens in the classrooms. All year, every day, it is about the teaching and learning…

I remember, when I started teaching in the 80’s being told that anyone could teach; that once I had my education degree I would be a good teacher.  It was as if the degree and four years of university gave me all the tools in my toolbox to ensuring learning. It didn’t take me too long to figure out that being a great teacher was going to take much more than going to my classroom every day. colored-pencils-686679__340I had to practice my craft, continue to learn from other teachers, study, read and, most importantly, get to know my students.  I should be apologizing to the students from my early days… I am very confident that I could have done a much better job of ensuring learning.  I have learned so much over the years and the most important lesson is that to have highly engaged students who are learning means much more than just teaching.  Just because I taught it doesn’t mean students were learning.

As a school improvement coach, I have come full circle.  I am confident in my understanding now of the value and importance of classroom instruction. I see the difference when teachers take the time to learn more about effective instruction and practice their craft. I appreciate authentic collaboration when teachers work side by side and figure out their next steps together.  When they use their knowledge of their students and their curriculum to decide what to do in the classroom. It isn’t about turning to the next page of the textbook and lecturing; it is about knowing what they want students to know and be able to do and working hard, really hard to ensure that what they are doing in the classroom aligns to what has to be learned by students.

In chapter six of Leading with Intention, ( Jeanne Spiller and I share our thoughts, some important research and several suggestions for how instruction can be the focus in a school. Engaging, effective classroom strategies do not just happen.  Yes, I know that there are natural-born teachers who just seem to figure out, on the fly, what has to happen next to make their lessons work. In my years of visiting classrooms, this is not the norm. Most educators, like other professionals, have to study, learn, practice and adjust when things are not working.  And, most importantly, great instruction depends on clarity about where students are on their learning journey and what they need next. It is important that we remember that teaching is about student learning; not covering content.

How can leaders support instruction? Classroom observations are important and not because principals need to “evaluate” or catch teachers doing wrong. It is really about being able to see what students are learning or what they are struggling with and helping teachers see this as well.  Principals who develop their own observation and feedback skills are able to support stronger instructional practices.  Figures 6.2 and 6.3 ( are great tools to use when in classrooms.

I know that this might not be the time of the year that you are heading in to classrooms but summer is a great time to consider your leadership practice. It is a great time to read, reflect and reset your own intentions for the next school year.  Once school starts, the “management” of the building takes over and often, the support that you can provide for instruction can be lost.  How you establish collaborative teams so that their discussions lead to improving instruction and what that looks like when it is implemented in classrooms is impacted by you, the school leader.

Take the time now, or once the dust settles, to create space for you to truly be an instructional leader. Read, study, plan.  Consider the needs of your students and teachers and create a work plan to hit the ground running when school starts.   Determine your own non-negotiables- what will you expect to see in classrooms and most importantly, how will you explain, model, support and provide continuous learning in daily practice?

To my principals reading this, I know that you know you have more work to do in this area and you are not alone.  It is a great area to focus on as you have more time to think and reflect. Have a great week. See you next Saturday.