Lessons from a Principal

To be mentored is a gift. And, when the experience is with someone who truly cares that you learn and grow as an individual and a leader, you are double blessed. Little did I know when I accepted my very first school administrator position in the late 80’s that I would forever use the lessons I learned that year. Eric Peters, this one is for you.

How exciting it is when we get a job we really want. I sure remember that first for me. I was named vice principal of Beaverbrook School in Moncton which sits boldly on busy Mountain Road amid food establishments and businesses. It has always been (and still is) a school with a heart and soul. If you have taught there, you know what I mean. The students who attend Beaverbrook often need a little more TLC and taking the time to build relationships within the community has always gone a long way to increase student success. (I am sure, to my principals reading this, it sounds like every school.)

Prior to my appointment as vice principal, the school had been well served by a long-time female principal, Mercy Pond. She had a reputation as a strong leader and it was well known that Beaverbrook was her school! When she announced her retirement, her vice principal, Eric Peters was named principal and the search begun for his VP. I was teaching English at Harrison Trimble High School (with Carmen, who married Eric a few years later) and really wanted to be a school administrator so I threw my hat in the ring. When I learned I had the position, I drove to the school and sat in the parking lot. I was in awe of the position that I was offered and that it was at Beaverbrook School. Mercy’s school. Now Eric’s school. How could I possible step in to those big shoes? How could Eric and Karen be the team that Mercy and Eric were?

My administrator lessons started on day one. Eric loved to talk things out and he always included me in his thinking. Some days, I didn’t agree with him. (I think that he liked those conversations the most!). There were very few (if any) decisions made that we didn’t make together and with care and due diligence. Eric insisted on this approach and I must admit, at the time, I thought it slowed down our decision-making but over the years I recognized what a valuable skill he had taught me- I learned the value of daily conversations and reflective thinking my career, I may not have always done it as well as he did, but I knew that to be a better leader, I had to share leadership. I am sure Eric didn’t say to himself, “I have to build shared leadership with Karen”, he just knew the value of authentic discourse and including others in his thinking.

The second lesson learned from Eric was the importance of trusting others. From the very first day, Eric empowered me to lead. I remember being so surprised the first few times that he asked me to take care of significant issues and that special first time he left me in charge of the building. That day will always be engrained in my mind because an upset parent came in right after Eric left and I remember thinking, “what would Eric do and say now?”. I was so glad to see Eric return that I am sure I met him at the door and threw my arms around him! The building was still standing, all students accounted for and teachers were still teaching! I had made it through my first day alone as an administrator.

The third enormous lesson learned from Eric was the need to find humor and joy in our days. Eric could always lighten the moment and find humor in things. His timing was amazing…just when I was taking myself and my position a bit too serious, he would find a way to bring me back to reality. He noticed the small things and the joy in our work. He saw the parents, students and our staff in the very best positive light. Eric always put relationships first and expected that of me. There have been so many moments in my leadership journey that I needed to call on this lesson. Reflecting now, I know I should have done it more than I did but through Eric’s modeling, I always knew this was the best approach.

As my leadership journey continued to a principalship and superintendent in the district, I am sure I didn’t always practice my lessons as well as I should have. I made mistakes, however, the foundation was laid for me, by Eric, to truly understand essential qualities of a leader. As I work with schools and districts now, I look for these skills and work to impact them through my coaching. And, that leads me to the most important lesson learned from Eric… that we must never underestimate our influence and impact…

Here I am over thirty years later, writing about very clear memories about my work with Eric. He had tremendous impact and influence on me both personally and professionally. I know I grew both as a young adult and as an administrator. And, Eric’s impact is still reaching so many others. In fact, this week, I was coaching a principal who is struggling to keep her head above water. She is exhausted and overwhelmed and what we brainstormed about was the need for her to build a stronger team. She is trying to do it alone. She is not using others’ skills and expertise and she has not empowered her assistant principal. And, she definitely needs to find some joy and humor in her days. She needs Eric’s great lessons to show her the way.

Sadly, I learned last week, that Eric died on November 4. I have been living away from home for several months because of a family medical situation so I was not able to attend the celebration of life for Eric. I heard from many educators and friends at home and know that the tributes to Eric are many. His family and especially, his wife, Carmen will miss him dearly. His impact on others was far-reaching. He was a good person. And, that is the leadership quality that matters most. Thank you, Eric, for all you taught me. Taught us. Teach us. Rest in peace, my friend.

What Matters Most

Over the past couple of years, significant events have caused us to pause and consider what matters most. Many of my friends and colleagues have been negatively impacted by COVID-19, directly or indirectly, and of course, all of us have had adjustments to make and plans to change. As life evolves, we continue to have reminders of what is most important and challenges that draw on our strength and courage.

Personally, I am dealing with a family member’s sickness that is requiring all of my daily strength and energy. Throughout this, I am amazed at the inner courage and positivity that one can have when sick and I am in awe of how quickly adjustments are made. The true meaning of “one day at a time” has become most critical in our lives and prioritizing what we spend our time on has never been more important.

As I continue to provide some virtual leadership coaching to schools and districts, I am equally in awe of the resilience and adjustments that are being made, once again, to open and keep open schools as centers of learning. I see teachers and administrators every day working tirelessly to keep students safe in areas where COVID-19 cases are increasing and teachers and support staff are falling ill.

This is what I want to celebrate in this first blog in a very long time. I want to honor the commitment to understanding what is important – in professional and personal lives and I want to celebrate the joy that we can find in having clarity on what matters most.

In schools, students matter most. Accelerating learning and focusing on what are the most essential learnings are providing schools with much needed direction right now. Being clear on what we want students to know and be able to do is the only way to stay true and strong to guaranteeing learning when so many challenges face teachers every day.

A principal told me this week that she is so focused on making sure her teachers and support staff understand the need to focus on learning as their state and district struggle with keeping her school open in these unprecedented times. She spoke of the need to clarify each and every grade and content so that teachers are not confused on what they can spend their precious instructional time on and she is having those conversations daily with teachers. What matters most to her is that she stay attuned to the needs of her staff and students and that she is able to keep learning at the center of their world. What a nice way to say learning matters.

And, of course, the adults in the building matter too. Personal self-care has been more of a focus for educators this past year. Finding a balance of giving so much every day with meeting personal needs has been a difficult and, some days, impossible situation, for many. However, I have witnessed the collective strength when others wrap their arms around each other, virtually, in person and in spirit to provide support and love. I know the impact of friends and family who reach out and genuinely care and I have seen this same dynamic in schools in districts everywhere. Collectively, we are stronger together. No one wants to deal with complications and challenges alone and thankfully, schools continue to develop a strong sense of professional community to meet the needs of both staff and students. A favorite quote of mine is from author Peter Block (2008) who asks, “How are we going to be when we gather together?”.

I leave you with this challenge- How are you when you gather with others? Do you balance support with seeking support? Are you able to ask questions that guide thinking and focus to what is important? Are you there for others? Can they be there for you? Are you clear on what matters most to you and those who you impact with your daily actions? Is that what you spend your time on? Are you taking care of yourself so you can take care of others?

As this school year begins, reflect and clarify your daily purpose. You deserve this intentional time to consider your needs and what matters most to you. Have a great week.

Teach

To teach. A job or a profession? A vocation or a choice? Gifted or requires learning? Boring or stimulating? Challenging or a piece of cake? It truly depends on who you ask. Your own school experiences; good or bad will influence your view of the word teacher. Or perhaps it has nothing to do with school and everything to do with the “teaching” that you see every day in your personal life.

Over my forty years in education, I have had numerous conversations about being teacher. I have been teased by friends when I had the summers “off” and reminded how lucky I was to be a teacher. I recall so many times trying to explain my days as a teacher, principal and eventually superintendent but it was hard so I stopped. As time passed and I became more “seasoned” I stopped reacting and tried to understand that unless you have walked in the shoes of an educator, truly experiencing a daily life that is controlled by a bell schedule that never seems to provide ample time to meet the needs of all the students in front of you, it would be hard to see past the snow days, March break and summer down time.

Yes, I was one of the teachers who did a snow dance in our Canadian winters and then when I was superintendent, I got up early every morning to make the decision to close for our thirty-eight schools. I never took that part of my job lightly and knew that the safety of our students and staff was my first responsibility. I always smiled later though when a teacher would send me a message thanking me for the day off. I knew a battery was being recharged and that was a side benefit. I was also the teacher who couldn’t wait for the last day of school and for summer vacation to begin. It typically started with a beach vacation on Prince Edward Island with my two young daughters. It was exactly what I needed to relax and rest.

As much as I enjoyed my time away from school, it wasn’t what motivated me to stay in education. And, as I think of all of the teachers who I have worked with, especially this past year as a coach, I am confident that it isn’t the summer vacation inspiring them either. How do we explain our “why”? What creates the synergy for continuous learning and improvement? And, on the flip side, why do so many great young teachers leave the profession in year one?

I am confident that each and every educator reading this blog understands that there has been a tipping point somewhere in their career that was that defining moment that kept them in the profession. Perhaps it was the aha moment with a particular student (mine was with Edward) or a leader that has empowered you to be the best teacher that you can be. It might just be the community that you find yourself apart of; the one that exists within the four walls of the school that is truly a family of support and caring (for me that was Lewisville Middle School).

Cutting to the chase, in my opinion, the real motivator for educators is purpose. When teachers and leaders understand the why of the work and can stay intentionally focused on this, teaching becomes more about the learning and less about the teaching. Leading a school becomes more about the students and teachers and less about managing the facility. Purposeful community is about interrelatedness versus trying to do everything for students in isolation. Collective efficacy and ownership is a powerful driving force when, together, we understand our why.

In school improvement coaching, taking teachers and leaders back to their why is a necessary activity to move forward. Time for reflection, discourse and understanding is needed to truly build common understanding of why we teach, why we lead and, mostly, why we want to be in education. This is a great time of the year to consider your why. As a staff, celebrate and reflect or as an individual teacher or leader, create space to understand the purpose of you, the educator. Consider the lives of students whom you have impacted and the professional support that you have provided to other educators. Think about the parents who truly needed a connection with you, especially this past year and understand that you have made a difference in their lives. Know that your intentionality and focus have influenced many.

This past week, I said good bye to a teaching staff who I have worked with for the past three years. I have watched the teachers and leaders grow as professionals and as we celebrated their accomplishments, one of the grade level teams reminded me that they were first-year teachers. They acknowledged how hard it was to begin a teaching career in the middle of a pandemic and that they found the year exhausting, rewarding, frustrating and inspiring- all at the same time. At first, they were overwhelmed by the needs of their students and the curriculum expectations but as a collaborative team they supported one another as they learned together. I said good bye to them this week confident that they are well on their way to long careers as amazing educators.

Forty years or year number one- purpose is just as important. Whatever stage in your career that you find yourself today, consider why you are in education. Remind yourself of this when days are tough and you are easily distracted. Reconnect with your why.

Build the Bench

Every leader needs a back-up plan. Yes, as leader you are ultimately responsible but isn’t it nice to know that there are some people who can step up and share the load? Too many times, leaders are carrying the weight of the entire organization (or team) on their shoulders. When you think about how you lead (or- how you live your life), is it with a back-up plan, a support system, or are you trying to do it all alone?

In sports, this is referred to as “building the bench”. You know, when you have five stars on your basketball team and as the year progresses, they are injured or just worn out. They welcome a chance to sit out a few minutes or a game and they are comfortable doing this when the “bench” can step in. If you have been a Toronto Raptors’ fan as long as I have, you know what I mean. Kyle Lowry and Fred VanFleet need the bench to step in now and then and give them much needed breaks. They cannot carry the team on their shoulders every game. Even though they are the leaders on the floor (and, most likely off the floor), they count on the bench. The coaches have wisely ensured that there are players who, even though they do not play every night, they can be counted on to understand what they have to do when they get a chance. They become part of the success of the team in reaching goals that have been set. These players have been included in all training, practices and completely understand the culture of the organization, vision and expectations. They have been part of every aspect of the team from day one.

In schools/districts and business, this is a shared leadership model. It is the intentional steps that you, as leader, take to “build your bench”. Who will be part of a guiding coalition/leadership team? What will be the focus of the work of this team and how will you consistently build common understanding of the expected outcomes? These are some of the questions that you can consider as you build your bench.

If you are a district or school leader reading this, it is a great time to consider how you will create a shared leadership model for the next school year. As a school improvement coach, I can honestly tell you that it is one step that is often missed by many educational leaders. I know that for many principals, it feels like one more thing that has to be be done and it sometimes seems that it might just be easier to do the work yourself rather than to take the time to build common understanding and share the work with others. I get this… I just don’t agree that it is the best way to lead your school or district.

Once you select your guiding coalition/leadership team, it is time to plan how you will work together. Meeting at least once a month (twice is better) to focus on building a strong collaborative culture, aimed at improving learning and results, is what the work is about. Getting clear on “tight expectations” so everyone knows what the role of the “bench” is will be important. This team can learn together, problem-solve with you and most importantly, help facilitate the important work of school improvement. It is critical that you establish the team that you need. Select and build a team based on the expertise of your staff. Consider how you want this team to lead collaboration and a focus on student learning throughout the school. One template that I recommend to you as you reflect on who should be part of a leadership team is https://cloudfront-s3.solutiontree.com/pdfs/Reproducibles_LWI/figure3.1selectingandreflectingonguidingcoalitionmembers.pdf?_ga=2.74190930.1555533958.1618620895-1551575592.161737480.

I strongly recommend that you reflect on what your vision is for the next school year and what team you need to get you there. This has been a difficult year for school and district leaders everywhere. I know, for a fact, that leaders who had strong shared leadership plans in place feel a little less tired and overwhelmed right now. It has still been a challenging year but they have not done the work alone.

As I continue to watch the Toronto Raptors this year, (yes, it is a difficult year to watch),I am grateful that their coaching staff understand that sharing the leadership load, especially when times are tough, is a better strategy than someone doing all the heavy lifting alone. Consider this as your next step as you prepare for 2021-2022.

Relevance

It has been a few weeks since I last blogged (is that a verb?). I haven’t been away or really not even too busy to write. Perhaps I was waiting for the perfect topic. I am not sure. What I do know is that it is hard to write when I am distracted or when it does not feel purposeful. I need to give the time to myself and clear space in my mind. I need to be confident that what I write will have meaning to an audience. In other words, I guess it needs to feel relevant.

As I continue doing school improvement/leadership coaching, I think a great deal about how difficult it has been, this school year (and the end of last school year), for teachers and students. In particular, how difficult it has been for students to feel engaged in their learning and for teachers to embrace and support instruction with so many different expectations. One thing that we know about student engagement is this; students will engage in their learning when they understand what is expected, have an opportunity to be part of setting goals for the outcomes and when the lessons and tasks are relevant to their everyday world. The Cambridge English Dictionary defines “relevant” as connected with what is happening or being discussed. For example, it might not be “relevant” for me to include this picture of the snow on my back deck if I didn’t explain that I live in eastern Canada and it is now winter weather (and I may be starting to tire of it!).

Too often, building relevance in to the task at hand is out of a teacher’s control. For example a state or provincial assessment arrives with a question that is truly irrelevant to the student- for example- students live in a downtown, high poverty area of a large city and have had little or no opportunity to travel are presented with a mathematics word problem describing a corn maze. It might not be the mathematics that cause the students the issue but trying to work through the concept and visualize the problem as part of a corn maze when they have never seen one or experienced this. Other times, teachers have full control over how they present content to students and assess student learning. They have full autonomy, to consider the examples that they provide, the text that is read and how students might see the learning task through their own real life experiences. And, as great as this sounds, it has been a challenging year, with many students only able to learn through a virtual platform, for teachers to feel confident as they build engaging opportunities for students.

Rising to this challenge (and many others) is what teachers do. And, it is my absolute pleasure to share a video with you from a third grade team at Samuel Walker Houston Elementary School in Huntsville, Texas. “Out of the mouth of babes”… just listen as the third graders explain how “relevant” the learning is for them. It may seem like a young age to introduce this content to them but when you hear the excitement and enthusiasm in their voices, we know how engaged that they have become in their learning. And, during this year of so much stress, grief, sadness and frustration for many teachers, what a gift this third grade team is giving all of us (and, especially their students). Principal Natasha Simmons is bursting with pride and she knows that high expectations for learning are alive and well in her school. Teachers feel empowered to be creative and stretch their thinking while at the same time ensuring that they are teaching grade level essential learnings. COVID is no excuse at SWHES (or anywhere in Huntsville Independent School District!) as these teachers were able to think outside the box and truly find a relevant way to engage their students.

Watch, smile, laugh and just know that behind the masks of these young students, they are smiling. back at you with a love of learning. Here is the link and a tremendous thank you to Ms. Simmons and her teachers for allowing this share. Link: https://drive.google.com/file/d/11-YVuGCzHCvszz0zoHVTrhwpcdt0Njbu/view?usp=sharing

Have a great week!


Shoes on the Wrong Feet

As days go by, the 2020-2021 school year continues to challenge, exhaust and even thrive despite the pandemic. It may not look like what we thought improving schools would be this year and it may not feel as positive and rewarding as other years. Some schools have been open with mostly face to face learning since fall, others are a blend of virtual and in person learning and some are still 100% virtual. We all know that none of this is perfect or what educators want for their school year. In this week’s blog, I want to share some stories from my week of leadership coaching and bring a smile to your face…

Let’s start with first-year teachers. WOW. I mean really WOW. So this is the year you start your career? This is the first experience you have as a teacher? I want to let you in on a little secret. If you are new to our profession…. please hang in there with us. It isn’t always this messy, difficult or exhausting (well, maybe exhausting). I have to say that I love the energy and positivity that these brand new teachers bring to our schools. Despite a global pandemic, they are so eager to grow as professionals. I have had so many great conversations with them this year.

One I loved in particular was with Brittany. She is a born leader and doing an amazing job of leading her collaborative team through the PLC process at Rivercrest Elementary School. Imagine the trust and confidence shown by her principal by asking this young, new teacher to be a team lead. We want to share ownership and leadership of the work of improving schools. And, this energetic, young teacher is hard at! She understands her role and is able to focus her team on deep discussions about student learning. If she can do this with all the distractors a pandemic brings, what will she accomplish when even more attention can be focused on learning?

The other conversation that made my heart warm was with a very accomplished principal, Sarah Stobaugh, who leads her school with passion, commitment and all the heart and soul that you can pour in to your job. When I was talking to her this week, she was sharing how hard it was to stay connected to everyone in her building this year. Because of COVID restrictions, they cannot meet together often and they also have such a limited number of substitute teachers that it is very hard to release teachers for professional learning or leadership opportunities. She gets that this year is different but she misses what they cannot do-both for the adults and the students. At one point in the conversation, she said, “Some days, I am not sure if my shoes are even on the right feet.” That was her sweet, southern way of saying, there are times, things are a bit much… even for her.

My week ended with an opportunity to talk with her leadership team. We focused on what they are accomplishing, identified challenges and we ended with suggested immediate actions. It was a “so what, now what” conversation. What are you going to do to help address the challenges that you identified? Most importantly, the ones that you can control. Their list included celebrate more student successes; taking time to acknowledge the small wins. They know that it is a year that we really need to notice the positives and they are committed to doing more of that with their students. They also addressed the emotional well-being of their students and know that it is time that they, collectively, consider how increase this aspect of their culture. As with all my conversations with this group of teachers, their care and concern for their students is evident. They have an unwavering desire to meet the needs of each student in their school. They are evidence-driven and are working extremely hard to grow their students. Honestly, they could have signed on with me and complained about how so many things are different and difficult this year but they didn’t. No excuses made. It is about continuously working through their challenges and digging deep to collectively have the energy needed for this difficult work. They know that to continuously improve their school, they have to tirelessly move learning forward- whatever it takes. Even the days their shoes are on the wrong feet.

Your Intention

As the ball dropped in Times Square and we said good bye to 2020,  the ‘new year’ felt hopeful and full of possibilities. With renewed energy and enthusiasm, we embrace 2021. We talk excitedly about resolutions and set intentions. Common sense and realism keep us grounded; we acknowledge that we are living through a pandemic. Times are still difficult; our worries, struggles and frustrations did not end with the the flip of the calendar however, there is  room for optimism and renewed sense of purpose. This week felt good for  many reasons. Here are a few…

In my role as a school improvement coach, I have learned to respond and adjust my work as needed. It is about figuring out what the current reality is and doing all I can to provide timely support. For most of 2020,  adjustments included only being able to provide virtual coaching rather than face to face and not having the opportunity to work side by side with others. I have missed the personal school and district visits; seeing first hand the transformation that takes place when continuous, targeted improvement strategies are implemented. I have missed working with other coaches, shoulder to shoulder, to support a school. And, by the middle of December, I was honestly worried about the principals and district leaders who I have the privilege to work with.  Leading through this pandemic was more than any of them signed up for. They had not received a course at college titled “Here is how to keep a school safe and healthy and make sure learning takes place during a pandemic.” By December, the wind was out of their sails. it wasn’t their intention to run out of energy- it just happened.

As I reconnected with leaders the past two weeks, I was so pleased to see personal energy and enthusiasm return. I heard about goals and we developed plans.  Intentions were set and school improvement continues. They are still adjusting as needed; spending hours doing contract tracing, reminding students and staff to wear masks, monitoring health and safety protocols and following other public health practices. This has not gone away; these leaders are just not allowing a pandemic  to be in the way of focusing as much time and attention as they can on student learning.

I was asked a great question this week- “In your opinion, what is the biggest obstacle to  successful leadership?” I love being asked that question. It doesn’t seem to matter how many years I work at leadership coaching; my answer remains the same. In my opinion, the biggest obstacle to being a successful leader is struggling to commit to intentions ( or, perhaps, truly knowing what your intentions are).  I am confident that I learned this the hard way (in fact, I still can make a mess of this at the best of times). Distractions come and go in our lives and it is what we do with them that creates (or doesn’t create) obstacles to successful leadership. It is about understanding what you intend to accomplish and how you must go about your business to get there. It is about positively impacting others to do the same.

Sometimes it is the “aha” moment when you, the leader, has clarity about what you envision your school or district to become. This vision becomes the foundation for establishing collective commitments of how you (and others) will work. It might mean that you establish “tight” expectations- the non-negotiable actions that align to vision.   It is an opportunity to revisit how we actually know if we are staying intentional -what will we use for artifacts and evidence to progress check our own goals?  It means celebrating our small and big wins.

But first, it has to start with an intent. “This term, I intend to spend more time doing___________________”  “Next week, I will intentionally_do this -_______________________________to improve student achievement.” During several coaching calls this week I felt the intention of school and district leaders to take specific actions to improve the academic lives of their students. I heard commitment to students and I felt strong support for the professional development of teachers.

Challenge yourself to have intention in 2021. Take time to consider what is really important to you. If I check in with you a few months from now, what evidence of your intentions will you share? How will we know that you have kept distractors away and stayed the course?  If you are leading a school, know that your intentions will make the difference in the lives of your students. If you are leading a district, never underestimate your impact on student success.  Use this complimentary book study to motivate you: https://www.solutiontree.com/leading-with-intention-book-study.html.  And, if I can help in any way, please reach out. You’ve got this.

Words Matter

I have started and stopped this week’s blog post a hundred times. I want to continue to write about school leadership and improvement. I want to help others stay focused and encouraged through these challenging leadership times. I want to say the right things. I know that words matter. What we say to others, how we say it and when we say it has impact. In our personal lives for sure. And, when we are given the honor and responsibility to lead others, words critically matter.

This week, I had planned to write about setting intentions. You know, reflecting on your goals and what you want to focus your time on in this new year. The book that I coauthored in 2018 is called “Leading with Intention” for a reason; knowing what your intentions are and how important it is to stay focused on the right work is a significant part of successful leadership. If you follow this blog, you are acutely aware that my writing often centers around this theme. I can’t help myself.

This week, however, we are taking a slight detour. Let’s call it a “teachable moment”. You know, when you are in the classroom and a student asks a question or something happens when you just have to pause and use the opportunity for teaching and learning. On Wednesday, January 5, watching the news in Washington unfold, I felt so many “leadership” teachable moments. And, in my own Canadian province of New Brunswick, I watched and listened as government and health leaders made quick decisions and provide consistent and clear messages about behavior expectations to contain the spread of COVID-19 here. This week’s experiences definitely reminded me that “words matter”.

Let’s backtrack for a minute. Do your remember a time in your life when someone’s words significantly impacted your life? Perhaps caused you to truly change your actions? Set you on a career path? Created a “teachable moment” for you that has had major impact? I can and often talk about a one of these times in particular. It doesn’t matter that 40 years have now passed, I will always remember what was said to me. It was a student by the name of Edward and he changed the course of my life forever.

I had another one about ten years ago. I was sitting in a restaurant having lunch when the waitress asked me if I remembered her. Apparently she was the student that I had found under my desk when I returned to my office as as a young school administrator. She had a tendency to misbehave and found herself in the office many times as a young kindergarten student! Once she told me that, I did indeed remember her. And, twenty years later, she reminded me that “words matter” by reciting exactly what I said to her when I found her under my desk. Apparently, I told her- “I like you but I am not liking what you are doing right now.” She said that she now says that to her young toddler all the time. I have no recollection of saying it but she remembers. As a school leader I did that without truly knowing the life long impact I could have. It is a bit scary to think what other impact, good and bad, my words have had throughout my life.

Once we are in positions of authority- of responsibility for the lives of others, we become role models. As a leader, whether we think about the “modeling” we do everyday with our actions and words, it happens. And, when we lead, others follow. They wait to see the direction that we will set, the culture that we will create, the expectations (high or low) that we will have for their own behaviors. With our positions of leadership comes positional power. It doesn’t matter if we personally accept this responsibility and respect our own position for what it is, the power comes with it regardless. Others accept it. And follow our lead. Good or bad.

As a consultant, I mostly work with school and district leaders. My goal is to help them be stronger, courageous and more effective leaders. Without great leadership, it is impossible to have great school systems. Their actions matter. Their words matter. I learned many of my lessons in life the hard way. I wish I had treaded more carefully as a leader. I wish I had always, every second, thought about how my words would matter. In a perfect world, leaders are perfect. That is not realistic but it is very realistic to understand the impact that we have. It is important to speak with intention. We can intentionally influence others negatively or positively. We can set direction in the right way or wrong way. And, we have to understand that we always are having impact.

We saw great examples of how words matter this past week. Good and bad. We witnessed how others follow leaders. We have teachable moments that we can grow from as leaders. Edward and my waitress are my reminders of my own impact and have helped me grow as a leader. I know that my words matter. What I write here matters. How I coach others matters. How I personally build relationships matter. I have to continue to accept that responsibility. How can you use life’s teachable moments to build your own leadership skills? What will you do to acknowledge your personal impact on others?

With Hearts Wide Open

“Vulnerability is not winning or losing; it’s having the courage to show up and be seen when we have no control over the outcome. Vulnerability is not weakness; it’s our greatest measure of courage.” (Brené Brown, 2018). Leading with hearts wide open, showing up day in and day out and courageously doing “whatever it takes” has been the mantra of educators in 2020. “Showing up” has meant figuring out how to teach virtually from home or pivoting from virtual to face to face to virtual; whatever learning had to look like this year. Leading this work are the courageous district and school leaders who had to put their hearts and souls in to ensuring the health and safety of their students and staff. It has not been easy to lead through a pandemic and it isn’t over. As the holiday season is upon us and schools are closing for a much needed break, it is a good time for reflection and consideration of what comes next.

During a school improvement coaching call this week, I asked a principal what she was looking most forward to over the next two weeks. Without hesitation, she told me that she could relax knowing that the responsibility for the health and safety of everyone in her building would be off her shoulders- well, at least not a 24/7 worry as it has been for the past ten months. She admitted that she would still think about her staff, students and families but it would be nice to be on vacation from the brave, courageous, organized and problem-solving administrator expected of her everyday. She reflected that she felt so vulnerable so many times this school year; knowing that behind her mask she wasn’t always smiling and in fact, she was nervous and fearful that she wasn’t doing all she could to keep her building safe from COVID and being closed.

Zooming in with another school administrator, I was greeted with her always pleasant smile and endless energy. I asked her how she was doing that this year; keeping her energy up when everyone else seemed so exhausted. She told me that she was “faking it” and that extreme exhaustion had taken over. And the one thing that really stuck with me was this, “I am mad at myself because I let my vulnerability show too often this year.” You can imagine what a great opener that was for me as her leadership coach. Through our conversation, we explored why she felt that being vulnerable was something others shouldn’t see. We talked about the courage that it takes to truly connect with others by allowing them to see our needs. She told me that she was worried that her staff would think less of her or that she would be seen as weak because they knew that this year was hard for her as their leader. And then the conversation turned to what is the most difficult part for her, the worry she has for students and their learning this year. This is where she feels the most vulnerability and needs the most courage to continue to lead.

It goes without saying, that student learning is why we teach and lead. Ensuring each and every student learn at grade level; in other words, have every opportunity to develop the skills needed in each grade to successfully move to the next grade is what our learning goals are based on. And, I am confident as I write this, educators, school and district leaders are extremely worried about many students who are struggling this year. COVID can not be an excuse but the reality is that learning has been disrupted and for some students, this disruption is creating an even steeper uphill climb. The good news is, when teachers come together to truly understand the needs of their students and collaborate to plan next steps, that steep climb is not so daunting. This has been my experience as a school improvement coach this year; where districts and schools have continued to support a professional learning community model; in other words, focused on collaboration, learning and paying attention to results, it has been less of a challenge to stay the course and focus on the needs of students. In schools that I haven’t seen as strong a commitment to shared ownership that develops through collaboration, schools are less successful in prioritizing learning during this pandemic.

As we move in to 2021, how will you courageously increase your focus on student learning despite the distractors? What can you do to know where your students are, right now, on their learning journey, and most importantly, what are next steps to help them succeed? What action can you take, to engage or reengage them in their learning? Will you find the courage to look at the data; despite what it says the current reality might be, and create a plan to move each and every student along as learners? Can you be vulnerable enough to seek support and guidance when you do not know what to do next in the service of your students?

Improving schools is about saving lives of students. With my heart wide open, I thank you for doing so much to serve and protect students this year. It has been a challenging year to teach and to lead. It is ok to say that you are tired and need a break. It is really just fine to say it is a difficult school year. And, it is admirable to courageously be vulnerable as you go about the business of deciding what needs to be done next. We don’t always know but together can figure it out.

The Pressure of “Normal”

We hear the phrases, “the new normal” or “try to normalize things”. Or, we see operational plans and expectations laid out by politicians, bosses and/or leaders that demand “normal practices”. How can any organization or business manage as if things are normal in 2020? Why could this possibly be an expectation? Especially of schools? How can it be “business as usual” during a pandemic?

Merriam-Webster dictionary defines “normal” as characterized by that which is considered usual, typical, or routine. What is typical of staying six feet apart from everyone you work with or go to school with? How can sitting with a mask on and never seeing the smile of a friend be “normal”? What is “normal or routine about “virtual hugs” versus real hugs? Of families, who have never gone without food, lining up at a food depot? Of worrying, minute by minute of loved ones who are very ill in the hospital? Or entire families falling ill together?

School leadership coaching in 2020 has open the doors to new challenges and opportunities. During the first few months of the pandemic, principals were creating ways for teachers to reach as many of the students with on-line lessons. Opportunities were found to maximize the time that we were all home and to do what could be done so students finished their school year with as much learning as possible. The 2019-2020 school year ended with teachers and school leaders feeling proud of their ability to be flexible and manage even while they were all home in a lock down situation.

Over the summer months in North America, principals and teachers attended virtual trainings and spent hours and hours preparing for the 2020-2021 school year. Plan A was made for if students could be face to face, Plan B was made if it was a blend of both, Plan C if everyone was home and so on and so on. School started with whatever plan seemed best for the district/state/province and then came fall and a second wave of COVID-19.

And with this wave, I have felt the confusion, exhaustion and stress of leaders who are trying to do the right things. They may or may not agree with the direction being given by decision-makers but are taking steps to take care of the students and adults in the building. They know that it is not easy right now for many to attend school or come to work. They are doing with less staff and they are devastated that so many students are not engaged and participating in learning. However, they acknowledge that, in the homes of many of these students, there is sickness, unemployment, essential health care workers and very high levels of anxiety. Students are not coming to school from “normal” situations right now. COVID fatigue is real however, the pandemic is not giving us time to rest and school and district leaders are well aware that the fight continues.

While decision-makers at every level are dealing with the on-going need to put health and safety first, they are being pressured by outside influences and expectations to ensure school goes on as “normal”. In every coaching conversation, I hear a story of a parent or politician or local leader who makes a demand that just doesn’t make sense right now. What does make sense, always, is keeping the student at the center of all decisions. What is “normal” is student-centered thinking and for right now, the decisions being taken to ensure student learning may not be the usual decisions made.

It might mean that students are not physically in the building every day or that their lessons have to be more self directed. It might mean that student ownership of their learning has to be increased and that they accept more responsibility for participating in learning. It means that teachers have pivoted with every decision made about how they will work this year and they will continue to do this as needed. The worry that students will drop out and a very large learning gap will occur during the pandemic is real. And, I know that every educator cares about this and wants learning to feel normal. It just doesn’t right now.

For my school and district leaders reading this, I challenge you to accept that this is not a normal year. To take a breath and know that your work is important in the lives of students, families and your staff. To take the time to watch a sunrise or sunset, or notice a full moon or rainbow in the sky. To find a way to keep the student as the center of all decisions, especially when health and safety needs must come first. I hear your exhaustion and worry about others; I know that you are trying to take care of every small detail to ensure learning continues and thrives in your buildings. Celebrate your great accomplishments this fall. So many students have learned a great deal despite a world-wide pandemic and under those masks, there are many smiles because of you.