Advancing the Vision

I came across an article about this video that has gone viral this morning.  You have to watch it! It’s hilarious. It’s one of many “I Ain’t Doing’ It” videos created by comedian, Heather Land.   This one, which is aimed at CrossFitters checking in on social media,  has resonated with millions.  The article delves into why this video more than others has been her most popular.  In discussing this video’s relatability, Land talks about the commonality of reasons why people post to social media.  She says, “We all essentially ‘check-in’ during the week.  We all throw something out there for the world to see…Our check-ins are, in a sense, an invitation to our world.”

I think as a principal, I need to be sure to send these invitations to my staff.  Before I became a principal I thought about the type of communication I wanted to have with staff.  I knew it was helpful to me as a teacher to have the upcoming week’s important events sent to me, but as I stepped into my new principal role, I felt I needed something more.  When I was an assistant principal, I was a part of the instructional vision for the school with the principal.  I knew her thinking, her vision, her goals, and felt like together we had our hands on the pulse of the school.

I was surprised to find out that what I thought was clear was not so transparent to other teachers.  I had a different perspective from my seat than the teachers and sometimes actions that came from my office were misunderstood or misinterpreted.  So, when I  took the helm at Paint Lick I felt I needed ways to be completely transparent with my thinking about where our school was instructionally and where I want us to head.

That’s when I decided to have a weekly instructional email, as well.  I send out this instructional email (Advancing the Vision) on Sunday evenings.  I want teachers to know where my head is, what trends I am noticing when I go into classrooms, and what vision I have for our school.  To be honest, it probably helps me more to send them than it does for my teachers to read them.  I get clear on what I am seeing and what I hope to see more of, and I think that’s a win.   Just like those “check-ins” on social media are more validating to the poster than the “liker,” maybe that’s okay.  I’ll continue to send out those invitations to my world, hope they help someone, yet not worry about the “likes” or impact.  I’m doing what I need to do and I am good with that.

It’s a Puzzle

Recently my 11-year-old son, Jack, decided we should work on a puzzle together.  We went to Walmart and he picked out a 300 piece puzzle for us.  Jack and my 13-year-old daughter, Emma, easily put it together in an evening while I cooked dinner and completed other chores.  I didn’t even get a chance to contribute.  We decided we wanted a bigger challenge.

Next, we purchased a 1,000 piece puzzle.  Emma was able to get most of the edges together over the course of a few nights and then stalled out.  Overwhelmed by the mass of inside pieces, she gave up and hasn’t touched the puzzle in weeks.  Jack and I turned over all the pieces to the correct side one evening and I got some pieces to go together, but for the most part, it sits lonely on the card table in the living room just waiting for someone to give it some attention.


Is this puzzle too much of a challenge for us?  Should we have gone with a 500 piece puzzle instead?  I’m not sure, but I do know I’m not giving up on this baby and I am not finishing it alone.  Emma and Jack better get ready.

As I wonder what I can do to make them interested in the puzzle again, I think, “I need to make some progress on it–get some pieces together and get the kids closer to the end result.” Those of you in education can probably see where I am going with this.  We have a goal or a target we want our students to hit.  We know that it’s not fair to our students to lower our expectations for them.  All students deserve the opportunity to get there.  We can not deny any students the most rigorous curriculum, but certainly, it’s going to be a longer and more difficult road to get to the same target for some students more than others.

The challenge we face as educators is to provide the supports and pieces that give our students a gentle push and a leg up at the same time.  There’s a sweet spot between a puzzle that’s too easy and one that overwhelms them.  We can’t do the puzzle for them, yet we can’t just let them give up.  So what’s the answer?

The answer lies in the way we differentiate.  As we enter into our second semester, I am reading, Leading for Differentiation:  Growing Teachers Who Grow Kids by Carol Ann Tomlinson and Michael Murphy.  Ethically, I know differentiating instruction is the right thing to do.  Tomlinson writes:

In a democratic society and based on our best knowledge of quality teaching, there is a strong ethical imperative to differentiate instruction in the context of heterogeneous classrooms.  Strong leaders have the opportunity to help colleagues establish and follow an ethical North.

I couldn’t believe in this more.  Tomlinson continues:

Teachers who differentiate instruction effectively craft an environment that signals the value of each individual, provides high challenge with high support, and emphasizes the power of community in achieving success for every learner.

I’ve been in classrooms where teachers do this at high levels.  These are the teachers with the highest expectations, who are not satisfied until all of their students master the content, and whose test results reflect those behaviors year after year, no matter the group.

As I dig deeper into the content of the book, I can see that as I attempt to lead for differentiation I’ll be putting together a huge puzzle of my own.  I’ll be learning and making my own mistakes along the way, and I’m sure I’ll continue to feel overwhelmed at times.  I do believe it is among the most noble of causes, though.   Tomlinson writes that “it provides an opportunity for leaders and teachers to honor what should be the promise of every school for every young person who enters its doors:

We see you, we hold you in high regard, and we will give ourselves to your success as a learner and as a human being.”  

Taking Wisdom from Sports

I’m not a sports person.  I like to tailgate and go to games, but I enjoy the spirit, camaraderie, and social parts of sporting events more than I really care about the outcome of the game itself. As I learn about leadership, however, I find so which wisdom from coaches.  The more I look, the more I find that the most successful coaches have lessons applicable across settings.

Alabama coach, Nick Saban is no exception.  His words about systems really resonated with me this week as I have reflected on my first semester.

“When you have a system, you kind of get in a routine of what’s important.  And then you spend a lot more time on thinking of things that would make it better.  Like we met on this camp today. The first year I was here we met for eight hours on how we were going to do the camp. Now everybody else in that room knows how I want the camp run, so we don’t need to spend eight hours on it.”  Nick Saban

At the beginning of the year, I spent a lot of time learning the systems that were already in place at my school and how they fit into my philosophies of school management and instructional leadership.  Then I began tweaking existing systems to meet my style, and putting new ones in place where I felt ones were needed.  This has been a significant investment of time and thought.  As it was happening, I didn’t even realize that this is what I was doing.  I just kept saying,  “everything takes me so much longer than it should because I am having to figure out how to do it and how it should be done as I do it.”

Saban’s words gave me some hope for next year.  I do feel like now that I’ve gotten some processes established, I can improve them in the future instead of reinventing the wheel.  Not only have I had to establish my school-wide systems, but I’ve also had to create my personal systems for organization.  I learned this summer in a productivity workshop that your mind is for creating ideas, not keeping them.  I have found that I need something to capture my ideas, todos, thoughts, and general notes and then a tool to organize and prioritize them.

I use one notebook as a “brain dump.” As ideas come to me I get them out into this notebook.  I also have a separate notebook where I jot down notes as events happen that day–who I have contacted, situations I have dealt with, and phone calls I have made.

Then I have a small A6-sized binder with sections for:
1. Professional Reading–where I take notes on what I am reading
2. Daily Priorities–I write down my mission and vision every day, 3 priorities and wins/lessons learned at the end of the day
3. Lists–I write ideas for summer projects, the weekly email, blog topics
4.  Gratitude–This is where I write down 3 things I am grateful for each morning
5.  Prayer List–Here I keep a list of people to pray for
6.  Prayer Journal–After I do my devotional reading each day, I journal a little bit.

Developing my personal system was a form of stress relief and a way to express my creativity in how I set up the pages.  I am not sure Nick Saban was thinking about a cute binder with stickers and markers when he said, “When you have a system, you kind of get in a routine of what’s important,” but it totally makes sense to me.  No matter what chaos ensues in the day to day excitement of school leadership, I have a system that supports my routines and helps me focus on what’s important.