#Blogamonth Give Thanks

That which is bitter to endure can be sweet to remember…

So as I read the topic for this month’s #blogamonth, all the obvious thoughts flooded my mind- I am so thankful for my children, my wife, my family, my friends, my colleagues, etc.   But as I thought about the topic some more, it occurred to me that there are some things that I am thankful for now, that at the time I was enduring them, I was not so able understand that I was struggling through a challenge, or perhaps I was unable to see the value in overcoming the challenge.

So as to organize chronologically thoughts in a linear manner, I will share some of these experiences for which I am thankful that I have had to endure.

As I have shared very openly, I struggled mightily as a child with what would now be diagnosed as ADHD, and there is high likelihood that I would also have been medicated for my hellacious temper.  My Montessori Principal at Children’s House in Levittown was named Ms. Cannon. She had a big green chair in her office, and a very cool canon right next to the chair.   I remember this because I spent a great deal of time with her in her office.   I don’t remember that time being horrible, or that I was enduring such a hardship; in fact, I have fond memories of those times.  But I can’t tell you the name of any other teacher I had there.  I am thankful for Ms. Cannon, because despite the fact that I spent enough time with her that she is the one I remember from those years, I remember those years fondly.  She obviously never made me feel like a bad kid, even though I was causing trouble.

I also remember Ms. S.  She is the one who sent me home from school in second grade.  I don’t remember what I did, but I do remember always feeling like she never forgave me for it.  Fortunately, I had the appropriately named Mrs. Tickle the next year.  She was a legend at my elementary school.  My sister had her, too.  I am thankful that she made me feel good about myself.  Also, her class is the earliest for which I have very specific vivid memories of lessons and activities.

My first year in junior high, I still had that crazy temper, and the ADHD was in full effect.   Crammed into a public school classroom with 40 kids in a room, I was doomed to fail.  Couple that with my short fuse and a feeling that I wasn’t going to back down from any bullying, I found myself failing all my classes and getting into fights nearly every day.   I also found myself in a very unique situation.  They kicked me out of school.   At the time, it didn’t feel like this would be something that in retrospect would evoke good feelings, but it was a life-changing experience. It gave me the amazing gift of empathy for struggling adolescents. So I am thankful that the two guidance counselors told my parents to put me in military school.   I am also thankful that my parents didn’t listen to them. 

Instead they put me in a small school where I could get the attention I needed, the positive peer-pressure to motivate me, and the challenge to help me reach my academic potential.  While I was at that Hebrew day school in Bucks County, I was not aware of how negatively some people treated me- nor was I remotely aware of being what many have said was a tortured adolescent. Actually, I was very happy in those days.   I had a feeling of belonging that helped me grow and learn. I am thankful for the adolescent blinders that I had on in those days that kept me from seeing the negativity of the adults around me at school.

One of the most difficult times in my life was my junior year of high school.  In a 9 month span, we lost my mom, my aunt, and my grandmother.   The effects on my family are still lingering.   But at that time, I found myself incredibly fortunate to be in a school that was very much a family.  My teachers, friends, and even people I didn’t know were there to support me through this incredibly difficult time.  I am thankful that I was in that type of school environment.  It certainly represented for me a key element I have always sought in schools where I wanted to work, and in the last few years, in the schools where we send our children.

During my college years, I certainly had some ups and downs.  During one such down time, my actions led to a rift between me and my family.   This rift was accompanied by a new challenge- I had to pay for the rest of my schooling.  This was a monumental obstacle for me.  But I am thankful that I knew at a young age that I wanted to teach and coach.  That aspiration allowed me to see the light at the end of that very dark tunnel.  Once I emerged at the end, I was very thankful that my father had made me work for that degree.  It made such a profound difference in my life- although I wasn’t feeling so warm and fuzzy about it at the time.

In the years since, I have always been cognizant of and openly gracious for people in my life who have supported, guided, and even tough-loved me.  Mentors like Pat Lukacs, Joe Merluzzi, and Neil Gruber at Berkeley Prep- my first teaching job, Rich Basirico at Hilton Head, Bob McGrath at Pine Crest. Good friends and colleagues like Chris Piccone, Joey Walters, Phil Consuegra and others who continue to be a part of my life.

But along the way, I reflect with thanks on those from whom I learned about the kind of professional and/or person that I do not want to be.  Whether it was negative colleagues, abusive supervisors, or those for whom the education and well-being of our students did not appear to be in their top five motives for being educators.  But I am thankful for their poor examples, as I am for their influence in my continuing to move onwards and upwards towards finding the right place for me and now for my own children.  That being said, I am a “high road” kind of guy. Regret, anger, resentment make us rot inside, and I have had too many wonderfully positive people and experiences in my life to allow that to happen, so I choose instead to thank them.

I recently wrote about my feelings about my current experience, so I will merely say that I am thankful for where I am and who I am with professionally and personally.

All of these experiences and people (and certainly countless more) have shaped me, and I am thankful to have the kind of mindset that has allowed me to grow at each step of the way.  It hasn’t always been easy, but it has been a great ride so far.  More to come.

No Surprises Here

Yesterday, we held our first #edcampdavis at the middle school for our half day of professional development.  It is no surprise that the 3 and a half hour event was massive success.  That is not to say that the edcamp style program would work everywhere to the same powerful level. I don’t believe it would. 

So that begs the question: What is it about us that had this very simple process be so remarkably impactful for our community?

There are a number of catalysts for this success. First, we walk the walk of being a community of learners who exemplify the growth mindset.  Our approach to yearly professional development programming manifests this attitude.  Entirely created, developed, and executed by members of our faculty and staff, teachers have 8 PD strands to choose from for areas of study during the course of the year. 

This element also reveals another key trait that had yesterday be so meaningful for our group- so many of our people are accustomed to raising compelling topics, and facilitating meaningful conversations on those topics.  

Further, we are a culture that easily finds comfort in a room of colleagues having candid discussions on even the most sensitive topics (having difficult conversations with parents was one session yesterday,  for instance). 

Finally, a significant contributor to the positive climate we felt in the building yesterday is the wide-spread experience with this model that many of our people have had prior to executing our day of learning.   Many of us have participated in edcamps, so there was leadership and guidance even in the process of building the board while we ate.

As a culture that walks the Dweckian walk, we benefit from opportunities to share our collective knowledge,  creativity, and passions as educators. 
The edcamp model works for us because it provides a forum that allows us to play to these strengths with great ruach (spirit) while also making our kehilla (community) stronger in the process as we build kavod (respect) for each other and deepen our chochma (wisdom).

At a time when so many schools are looking to outside sources for PD, we choose to tap into the incredible wealth of talent within our walls that lends itself to the fluid, organic collaborative model that edcamp provides. 

Writer’s Block

In my younger years, I fancied myself a bit of a tortured poet.  The more heartbroken I was about a girl with whom I was enamored, the better the verbiage I penned on the page.  The happier I was, the less I was able to compose with any kind of frequency or quality. 

I mentioned to a friend yesterday that I was dismayed that I hadn’t blogged in almost a month. Yes, I started a few pieces, but nothing to a posting fruition.   Funny part about that fact that many who know me are aware of is that most everything I post is a one draft composition.   While this one draft approach is 100% opposed to how I taught 8th graders to write, I stand by my process as sharing some pure thoughts.  Which makes this post all the more liberating. 

What is the point of all this expository disclaiming to start a post?

The answer is simple.  I am happy. I am loving my new environs, my new colleagues, my new challenges, my new friends.  Most importantly, I love the experience my children are having at my school.

While I am incredibly busy, I love the challenge.

So what were the posts that I started? One was about being both daddy and admin at school, a dual role I love but to which I am attentive, especially for the teachers who teach my children ( I support them in an unwavering way as I would like my colleagues to support me when I teach their children). In it, I talk about how I arrange a signal code with my kids to share our family affection in away that does not disrupt class or make classmates feel like my relationship and advocacy for them is different because I am a daddy. A tug on the ear, a simple wink, or even a wiggle of the nose.  My kids know I am talking to them, while rest think I am being a little silly.  This secret code seems to work.  

The other post was a bit hypocritical. It was started about a week ago and inspired by Jon Harper.  It was about stopping, reflecting,  taking the time, and committing to sharing.  Quite frankly, I failed in this one.  I didn’t finish the blog, and while I take time to reflect, relax and recharge, I hadn’t done so in a sharing way for almost a month.

It is not the end of the world that I have been late in posting a blog for a month. I spent my time learning, sharing, nurturing, growing and commuting.  Except for that last piece, I think I am fine with taking the tardy. 

The Intangibles Of Digital Leadership

I have always been a believer that the only requisite quality of a leader is that people follow.   As I thought this morning specifically about digital leadership, my reflection compelled me to include a few other intangibles: humility, empathy, bedside manner, courage, and resourcefulness.  

All of us have been novice with new tools at one point or another. While there are savants among us who naturally ascend to masterful savvy in moments, those are undoubtedly outliers in the digital world.   Further, those outliers are rarely digital leaders as they struggle to grasp the importance of humility in the process of leading others for whom the process is far more challenging.  The ability to show humility through an empathetic process is integral to strong digital leadership.  Being able to connect with someone in a way that drums up discomfort from previous struggles and manifests authentic humility ultimately nurtures the essential relationship between the digital leader and those he/she leads. 

Further, the necessary patience and often a disarming self-deprecating sense of humor go a long way in helping our subjects find Maslowian comfort in developing both skill and comfort with digital tools.

Many a brilliant mind has been unsuccessful in a field due to an inability to connect with others due to a poor bedside manner.  The aforementioned humility and empathy, combined with the ability to communicate and connect, represent the intangible quality of bedside manner. 

From the connected relationship developed by these intangibles, a digital leader must display an unwavering courage in moving forward in pursuit of best practices that will serve his/her people’s process.  Once again, archetypal humility and resilience endear a leader to his/her people when courage leads to moments that require iterations.  I would be remiss and completely “Un-jeff” if I didn’t reiterate the importance of having and modeling a Dweckian growth mindset in the process.

Finally, resourcefulness is of utmost importance in digital leadership.  The ability to show verve, persistence,  creativity and once again a resilient humility in learning a new digital process represents the highest of skill sets for a digital leader. 

The digital experience is so personal and individual. While we often think of leadership as rallying a group in a direction, the digital leader does so by attending to each individual’s needs along the way. Much like the excellent teacher does. Certainly not a coincidence that the best digital leaders are likewise iconic teachers.

As with all leadership, knowing your people, knowing your stuff, and knowing yourself are integral.   The ability to combine these qualities in our daily engagement with our people, and make mindful decisions with how to support the growth of our people doesn’t require doctoral level mastery of digital skills, but it does require these intangibles.  

Who’s the Boss

I remember talking to my longtime Division Head, Bob McGrath, about the nature of administrative leadership long before I even thought about moving from teaching and coaching into administration.   I learned so much from him in those conversations,  and more from watching how he led. 

One thing he told me that has stuck with me, and quite frankly has become the focus of my approach with teachers is that my role is to work as hard as I can for teachers, so that they can be their best for our students.  

Last year, a new teacher introduced me to her boyfriend as her boss “I work for him”, she said.   At that moment, my response was genuinely “no, I work for you”.

I love and embrace this part of my role. It is exactly like when I felt like I worked for my students.  Each day, I endeavor to support my teachers in their pursuit of the best experiences possible for our students. 

Ironically, I have found that the better we as an admin team do our jobs, the less it looks like we are doing anything.  It is our collective, daily aspiration to maintain a nurturing climate of positive, growth-minded, student-centered-ness. When that happens seamlessly, it seems almost serendipitous.  At those moments, I sit back and enjoy the climate.  

So yesterday I got an email from a Kindergarten teacher asking me about Evernote. I was so excited to share that I am not experienced,  but look forward to learning together with her and supporting her in her process to create something great for her students. 

When I got into the building, another  teacher asked “did you mean it when you said to ask for any help- we need you to help move some bookshelves”.  I was genuinely excited to drop what I was doing to help them get ready for the kids.  

At the end of the day, I work for the teachers so that they can do their great work with the students.   When we do this in conjunction with actively working with parents, the full 360○ support of the student and teacher experience manifests tremendous spirit, community, learning,  and growth. 

Passionate Choices

I taught English,  Language Arts, Reading to 7th- 12th graders for almost 20 years.   What I loved most was literature study and teaching writing about literature.  I always encouraged my students to be intellectual risk takers, to propose and defend whatever idea struck them when reading a piece of lit.  In fact, I always emphasized to my students that my evaluation would never be based on whether I agreed with my students or not, but rather how well the argument was phrased, presented, supported, and defended. 

In the course of my evolution as a teacher, I also learned that kids can always smell a fake and that teachers who were teaching something they didn’t feel passionately about, were not connecting with their students.

I decided a few years back when I had the opportunity (albeit a burden at the time ) to teach all 130 8th graders, to only teach my favorite titles.  Further, I decided to offer 2-4 titles for each unit so kids could choose their own title. 

I was thrilled with the excitement that came from my students not only because they had a choice, but also because I could share my passion for the titles with them.

When I moved into admin roles, I extended this practice to my guidance and support of my teachers.  My message was simple: pick titles, topics, concepts that  get you excited, that percolate your passion, that will create a climate and culture of learning in the classroom. 

I had questions like:

What about covering XYZ?

Don’t worry if the experience is great

What about the level of the text?

Don’t worry, the depth and engagement are more important. 

Basically, my message has since been that sharing content with passion will pull students in as the passion is contagious.   Engagement, depth, the ensuing rapport and making memorable moments in the classroom are the most important endeavors. 

When a teacher asks a curricular question about this or that, I always respond with a simple question:

What will get you excited in the classroom? What content do you love?

Ultimately, it is about creating rich, meaningful, infectious experiences for our students where we share our passion for learning via content that excites us enroute to helping students find content that excites them and ignited their passion for learning.

Dangerous Tools in the Classroom

So here at #Edcamp Fayetteville, I was prepping to share some ideas about Padlet with some fellow edcampers when the organizers here were adjusting their firewall settings to accommodate my use of YouTube and Twitter.   I was thinking about the blocking of these tools- a practice more common than not.  When I think about how powerful these tools have been in my processes as a learner and as an educator, I couldn’t help think, like many of my colleagues, that we are missing the boat on how we handle the “dangers” of these and other technology tools.

In a session today, Things that Suck, the topic of cell phones in the classroom was hotly debated.  The fear of the danger of students having cell phones, social media access, etc. has paralyzed many educators.

I couldn’t help but think of what it was like when the technological advancement in education led to the implementation of the use of the sharpened lead pencil to replace the chalk and slate method that was trusted, tried, and true for many years.  What horror, what fear, what paralysis as the dangerous possibilities this advancement must have evoked from educators.   My goodness, students could use them as weapons, they might jab, stab, sword fight with these tools that, really, it was highly debatable how much better would they make education.

Well I am sure there have been many an incident with pencils.  I have seen some myself.  But for the most part, students are very responsible about how they use them.

Why?

Because we taught them how to be responsible, we held them accountable for being so, and corrected them when they weren’t.  Are there instances where there are still incident? Sure.  Are there incidents that are tricky because the teacher doesn’t see the occurrence? Yep.  But they are very few, and very far between.

I suspect that before too long, the same will hold true with the use of cell phones, Twitter, Youtube, and whatever else is coming down the pike.

The message is that banning, sheltering, hiding, blocking, firewalling etc won’t work, and quite frankly we are wasting time and money trying to do so.   Let’s put the time and resources into getting the kids ready to use these tools to benefit their learning and growth in positive ways,  hold them accountable for their use, and correct them when they stray.

When I was in my sessions today, I saw many IPads, smart phones, and educators using pens & pencils to take notes.  Not one was using the chalk and slate.  Happy to report- there were no stabbings with pencils.