A Principal’s Reflections

This post, like so many, has been inspired by something I read.  One of my favorite sites to glean more insight and knowledge on leadership is Inc.  Even though the site shares content specific to business growth and innovation so many of the articles and opinion pieces connect to leadership in the education space.  By using Flipboard I have instant access to many of the pieces that appear on Inc thanks to the fact that I have leadership set as one of my magazine categories.  If you are not using this app please download it to your mobile device.  It is one of the best ways to create your own personalized magazine based on your interests and social network activity that you can literally flip through.

The other day Flipboard exposed me to this gem written by Nicolas Cole titled The Brutal Truth About Why Being a Leader is So Hard.  The premise of the article, as the title implies, is the inherent difficulties associated with any leadership position. Cole goes on to explain the following:


"What's difficult about leadership is that nobody ever sits you down and "teaches" you what being a real leader is all about. There's no class in early education that defines leadership. Peers in group projects tend to label leaders as "overachievers" (and not in a good way). In college, leadership is reduced down to who is going to talk the most during a presentation. And even on sports teams, the leader is usually the best player--and wears a letter on his or her jersey as a trophy of their accomplishments."

His synopsis really resonated with me.  It is difficult to adequately prepare any leader for the challenges he or she will face as well as the decisions that will have to be made.  There are so many unique variables that just cannot be taught.  Learning about how to prepare a budget is entirely different than creating one on your own when all the unique challenges are factored in.  It’s tough work knowing that difficult decisions will have to be made at times, including letting staff go.  Making decisions in time of crisis is also a topic that is regularly explored in leadership courses.  The solutions addressed always sound great in theory, but their application typically isn’t very practical.  

Looks can be, and are, deceiving.  Talking the talk has to be accompanied with walking the walk. That’s the hard part. It’s relatively easy for people to tell others what they should do. However, true leaders go through the challenging work of showing how it can be done.  Here is some sage advice that I learned long ago as a new principal who started drinking the digital and innovation Kool-Aid long ago – “Don’t ask others to do what you are not willing or have not done yourself.” Modeling is one of the most impactful elements of leadership. It builds trust leading to powerful relationships.  

Accomplishments and success are earned through the actions that are taken that result in evidence of improvement.   Leaders know that it is not the work of one person that moves an organization in a positive direction, but rather the collective efforts of all.  The premise of every decision and action has to be geared towards the “We” instead of “I”.  It’s not about coming up with all the ideas, but helping people implement not only the ones you develop, but also the ones that they develop. Leading from the front is an outdated style that doesn’t foster shared ownership.  



It’s our experiences that help all of us to develop into better leaders coupled with the support we get from colleagues. From experience, we learn that trying to be right all the time only makes the job exponentially harder.  Work inside out to make leading a little easier by focusing on the why, how, and what in that order. Make the time to hone your communication skills, as you will not find an effective leader who is not an effective communicator.  Mastering this art is no easy task and takes constant practice and reflection in order to improve.

Regardless of your position leading is hard, yet gratifying work.  Keep an open mind, regularly reflect, pursue learning opportunities that push your thinking, and understand that you will never have all the answers (which is quite ok).  It is also helpful to be flexible.  I leave you with some more thoughts from Nicholas Cole that might just build greater leadership capacity in you and others:


"True leadership is the ability to communicate and effectively reach each and every person you work with, in the way that works best for them. 
It's the ability to be flexible. 
When everyone else is stressed, you're calm. 
When everyone else is out of gas, you inject more fuel. 
When everyone else doesn't know what to do next, you lead by example. 
When someone has an issue, you work with them and listen to them on a personal level."

Stealing from Ghandi, be the change you wish to see in education.  Just know that any change journey is not an easy one. 

Posted: August 13, 2017, 12:50 pm
As many of us know all too well, the process of change is not always a successful venture. It is fraught with twists and turns, not to mention challenges that come in all shapes and sizes. Out of the chaos excuses materialize, further complicating the process.  One common excuse, or challenge depending on your point of view, is too many initiatives at once.  In business, some estimates indicate that 70 percent of change initiatives fail. That’s right. Research has shown that up to 7 in 10 corporate initiatives have not led to sustainable change (Blanchard, 2010). 


Image credit: johnrchildress.files.wordpress.com

Initiative overload is just as common in education as it is in business. The numbers referenced above could easily correlate to education, and the percentages may even be worse. Today, schools and leaders work to juggle numerous initiatives simultaneously.  This can result in a drain on resources as well as a lack of focus on the primary task at hand – improvement of student learning. While each separate initiative is established to improve school culture, the more tasks that are added to the proverbial plate increase the likelihood that they all will not be sustained over time. For every new initiative launched, another one slows down or ceases altogether.

Tony Sinanis, a newly appointed superintendent and great friend, tackled this topic on his blog. He makes the point that many initiatives are problematic from the start.  


"I would argue that initiatives, as they are generally rolled out within education, are often doomed for failure before they even have a chance to impact educators and learners.

Tony goes on to outline four specific reasons, based on his experience as a practicing school leader, why too many initiatives can be problematic:

  • Initiatives are about a program and not about a skill set.
  • Initiatives are piled one on top of the other.
  • Initiatives are often about doing the new "trendy" thing in education and not about doing what is best for OUR kids.
  • We are shocked when educators express feeling overwhelmed by a new initiative and are in need of more time to successfully implement it.

Tony provides some wise advice for all educators as we grapple with mandates, directors, the “flavor of the month”, and a need to innovate while also increasing achievement. A general understanding that the student learning experience must be transformed has created incredible opportunities for the future yet has simultaneously caused significant turmoil. As school leaders work to redesign their schools, they must be careful not to immerse themselves, their teams, and their students in an alphabet soup of initiatives. This is something Tom Murray and I address in Learning Transformed. In our experience, initiative overload is one of the primary reasons that transformational change fails. When making investments in the form of time and money, think about where you will get the most bang for your buck. Investing in people is the best investment one can make. That’s the key to sustainable change.

Throughout the book, we present a plethora of research, evidence, stories, and practical steps to transform learning, but school leaders cannot lead change in all areas, at all times. It’s easy for leaders to get excited about what could and should be, especially for those who are most passionate about creating new innovative opportunities for students and staff. Although well intended, too many ongoing initiatives can easily dilute the effectiveness of sustainable change. Avoiding initiative overload by maintaining a laser-like focus on what evidence indicates is required and essential for sustainable growth and transformation. 

It all comes down to this basic piece of advice. Do one thing great instead of several things just ok. Leading transformational change isn’t easy. But our kids are worth the effort. 

Posted: August 8, 2017, 11:19 pm
"People only see what they are prepared to see." - Ralph Waldo Emerson

Life is full of twists and turns as well as ups and downs.  In my opinion, it is a never-ending test that determines the trajectory of our career paths.  It is not about passing or failing, but rather taking what we have learned to improve our position in life, whether that be professional or personal. Never did I once think that my professional life would have evolved as it has.  I was fortunate to become an administrator at the relative young age of 29. Three years later I became the Principal of New Milford High School. It was in this position that I really began to learn about effective leadership.  


Image credit: http://jonlieffmd.com/

My journey to become an administrator almost didn’t come to pass.  As a teacher, I was only afforded the opportunity to work with a limited number of students who I had the pleasure of teaching.  To increase my potential impact on more students I coached three different sports (football, lacrosse, ice hockey) and volunteered to advise the environmental club.  I was hungry to have an even greater impact on more kids, which led me to pursue my administrative credentials.  Excited and determined to lead change in a broader context, I began to look for administrative openings where I could serve more kids. I could not wait to face and overcome the challenges ahead while working collaboratively with a staff of educators committed to helping students learn.

My excitement quickly turned into despair.  Countless cover letters and resumes were sent out with no response. I then worked to improve my cover letter and made sure my resume articulated how highlighted experiences applied to the field of educational administration. What followed was a pleasant surprise.  I began to receive numerous interviews and was on top of the world. My confidence grew, but just like a roller coaster ride it soon plummeted. In many cases I didn’t make it out of the first round, as it was determined that I lacked the needed experience.  When I eventually became a finalist for positions I often lost out to others that had applicable experience.  I sure don’t miss those interviewing days.

I was plagued by the perception that my age and lack of experience would prohibit me from doing the job of administration. Truth be told that many of us have been in this same position.  The best way to counter this perception is to keep moving along and constantly seek out our experiences that will prepare us for new positions.  If you are a teacher or instructional coach ask your administrator if you can volunteer as an intern. We did this at my former school. In lieu of a non-instructional duty, teachers could request a yearlong administrative internship where they assisted with day-to-day leadership tasks. This was not only a great help to me and my team, but more importantly it gave these teachers relevant experience that they could put on their resume. If you are an aspiring administrator or looking to move up the ladder, find ways to get involved with the budget, observations, evaluations, curriculum development, walk-throughs, professional development, and master scheduling.  

Perception always surrounds our work and us.  As I have moved on from Principal to my new role as a speaker and author many people assume that I am, or always have been, gifted in these areas.  The reality though is that I struggle in both areas. Public speaking has been a bit easier for me than writing. I was always terrified to speak in public prior to social media. My worst day of the school year was graduation when I had to deliver a speech and then correctly pronounce all the names of the graduating class. This posed to be quite the challenge when the parents of your students speak over 40 different languages. To successfully get through this I meticulously planned and wrote the speech weeks prior to graduation.  I also met with every single student beforehand to phonetically write out their names.  

Over time I became a more confident and polished speaker. Through social media I found my voice. It was naturally easier to speak in public when afforded the opportunity to present on the work of my students and staff. This does not infer that I am now a gifted speaker.  Some might think this is the case, but again this is far from the truth. I work harder now than I did as a principal to prepare for diverse audiences who all have different needs and expectations.  In reality, it is the preparation beforehand and attempts to share strategies that are not only practical, but also aligned to research that aid in my delivery.  

Writing on the other hand is something with which I struggle.  As an author of six books, numerous articles, and a blog, I am dogged by a perception that I am a good writer. Quite frankly I am not in my humble opinion.  Over the years I have had to deal with some harsh critical reviews. One reviewer of Digital Leadership said the book shouldn’t be published.  Each week I labor over creating a blog post.  Coming up with a topic is hard, but what’s even harder is putting succinct words to create a post that people want to read and find valuable.  I begin writing on Monday with the goal of having a post ready to go by the following Sunday. My mom also edits all of my posts and I try to get feedback from family and friends before the post goes live.  She says my writing has really improved, by as my mom I think that is what she is supposed to say to build my confidence. 

So why do I continue to write then? Just because I am not as gifted as others doesn’t mean that I don’t have important ideas and thoughts to share.  Every time I write it is a constant reminder how I am working to overcome a weakness and turn it into a strength. I battle the perception that some have placed on me, but more importantly I tackle head on the perception that I often develop for myself.  Reality is determined by what people see and the actions that we take behind the scenes.  I am not sure any of this actually makes sense to you, but in my reality it makes perfect sense to me.

Perception is important for our students and their success. They should never perceive that they are inferior to their peers if they don’t do well on standardized tests or more traditional, one-size-fits-all assessments. Some students just don’t learn this way.  We also have to be careful of developing a perception that some students don’t want to learn, as we are unaware of the challenges or demons they are tackling at the moment.  All kids (and adults) have greatness hidden inside them. It is the job of a caring educator to help them find and unleash it. 

Don’t let perception define you, your work, or your students.  Helping others to look through a different lens can lead to a more accurate reality, which benefits all of us. 

Posted: July 30, 2017, 1:00 pm
We need to move away from classroom design that is “Pinterest pretty” and use research/design thinking to guide the work.” – Eric Sheninger and Tom Murray

When Tom Murray and I set out to write Learning Transformed our goal was to connect as much research as possible to our ideas and statements as well as the amazing work taking place in schools, known in the book as Innovative Practices in Action (IPA’s). Research should be used to inform as well as influence the actions we take to implement sustainable change at scale.  It is also a great way to move those who are resistant to change to embrace new ideas. Below is an adapted section of Chapter 4 from our book that looks as research that can influence learning space design in classrooms and schools.

Image credit: http://www.naturalinteriors.com/wp-content/uploads/Steelcase-2.jpg

One area where we found a growing body of research was learning space design. In studying various pieces of literature on the effect of design, Barrett and Zhang began with the understanding that a “bright, warm, quiet, safe, clean, comfortable, and healthy environment is an important component of successful teaching and learning” (p. 2). Their research suggested direct connections between the learning space and sensory stimuli among students. The evidence of such connections came from the medical understanding of how human sensory perception affects cognitive calculations. As such, Barrett and Zang (2009) identify three key design principles:

  1. Naturalness: Hardwired into our brains, humans have the basic need for light, air, and safety. In this area, the impact of lighting, sound, temperature, and air quality are prevalent.
  2. Individualization: As individuals, each of our brains is uniquely organized and, we perceive the world in different ways. Because of this, different people respond to environmental stimuli in various ways. Therefore, the opportunity for some level of choice affects success.
  3. Appropriate Level of Stimulation: The learning space can offer the “silent curriculum” that affects student engagement levels. When designing the space, it’s important for educators not to overstimulate and thus detract students’ ability to focus but to provide enough stimuli to enhance the learning experience. 

Supporting this notion, a research study out of the University of Salford Manchester (UK), followed 3,766 students in 153 elementary classrooms from 27 different schools over a three-year period, analyzing classroom design elements along the way. The report indicates clear evidence that “well-designed primary schools boost children’s academic performance in reading, writing, and math” (Barrett, Zhang, Davies, & Barrett, 2015, p. 3). The study found a 16 percent variation in learning progress due to the physical characteristics of the classroom. Additionally, the study indicated that whole-school factors (e.g., size, play facilities, hallways) do not nearly have the level of impact as the individual classroom.

School leaders will often write off the notion of redesigning learning spaces due to financial constraints. However, research indicates that schools don’t need to spend vast amounts of money to make instructional improvements. In fact, changes can be made that have little to no cost yet make a significant difference. Examples include altering the classroom layout, designing classroom displays differently, and choosing new wall colors (Barrett et al., 2015). These research-based factors are minimal financial commitments that can help boost student outcomes. 

The effect of learning spaces on various behaviors—territoriality, crowding, situational and personal space—has been the focus of some sociological and environment behavioral research. The consensus of this research is that the space itself has physical, social, and psychological effects. One study measured the impact of classroom design on 12 active learning practices, including collaboration, focus, opportunity to engage, physical movement, and stimulation (Scott-Webber, Strickland, & Kapitula, 2014). The research indicated that intentionally designing spaces provides for more effective teaching and learning. In this particular study, all of the major findings supported a highly positive and statistically significant effect of active learning classrooms on student engagement. 

In a research study on the link between standing desks and academic engagement, researchers observed nearly 300 children in 2nd through 4th grade over the course of a school year (Dornhecker, Blake, Benden, Zhao, & Wendel, 2015). The study found that students who used standing desks, more formally known as stand-biased desks, exhibited higher rates of engagement in the classroom than did their counterparts seated in traditional desks. Standing desks are raised desks that have stools nearby, enabling students to choose whether to sit or stand during class. The initial studies showed 12 percent greater on-task engagement in classrooms with standing desks, which equated to an extra seven minutes per hour, on average, of engaged instruction time. 

There’s little disagreement that creating flexible spaces for physical activity positively supports student learning outcomes. However, it’s important to note that it’s not simply the physical layout of the room that affects achievement. One particular study investigated whether classroom displays that were irrelevant to ongoing instruction could affect students’ ability to maintain focused attention during instruction and learn the lesson content. Researchers placed kindergarten children in a controlled classroom space for six introductory science lessons, and then they experimentally manipulated the visual environment in the room. The findings indicated that the students were more distracted when the walls were highly decorated and, in turn, spent more time off task. In these environments, students demonstrated smaller learning gains than in cases where the decorations were removed (Fisher, Godwin, & Seltman, 2014).

In addition to the physical and visual makeup of the learning space, a building’s structural facilities profoundly influence learning. Extraneous noise, inadequate lighting, low air quality, and deficient heating in the learning space are significantly related to lower levels of student achievement (Cheryan, Ziegler, Plaut, & Meltzoff, 2014). Understanding how the learning space itself can affect the way students learn is key. Part of the issue facing school leaders today is that quite often the decision about learning space design is made by those without recent (or any) experience teaching or by those with little knowledge of classroom design. If learning is going to be transformed, then the spaces in which that learning takes place must also be transformed. Design can empower learning in amazing ways.

Today’s educational paradigm is no longer one of knowledge transfer but one of knowledge creation and curation. The “cells and bells” model has been prevalent for more than a century, but it is no longer relevant for today’s learners. As educators work to shift to instructional pedagogies that are relational, authentic, dynamic, and—at times—chaotic in their schools, learning spaces must be reevaluated and adapted as necessary. Pedagogical innovation requires an innovation in the space where learning takes place. Simply put, if the space doesn’t match the desired learning pedagogy, then it will hinder student learning outcomes.

Fore more research-influenced ideas and strategies to transform education grab a copy of Learning Transformed. There is also a free ASCD study guide aligned to the book that can be accessed HERE.



Cited Sources


Barrett, P., & Zhang, Y. (2009). Optimal learning spaces: Design implications for primary schools.

Salford, UK: Design and Print Group.


Barrett, P., Zhang, Y., Davies, F., & Barrett, L. (2015). Clever classrooms: Summary findings

of the HEAD Project (Holistic Evidence and Design). Salford, UK: University of Salford,

Manchester.


Barrett, P., Zhang, Y., Moffat, J., & Kobbacy, K. (2013). A holistic, multi-level analysis

identifying the impact of classroom design on pupils’ learning. Building and Environment, 59, 678–689.


Cheryan, S., Ziegler, S., Plaut V., & Meltzoff, A. (2014). Designing classrooms to maximize

student achievement. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 1(1), 4–12.


Dornhecker, M., Blake, J., Benden, M., Zhao, H., & Wendel, M. (2015). The effect of standbiased

desks on academic engagement: An exploratory study. International Journal of Health Promotion and Education, 53(5), 271–280.


Fisher, A., Godwin, K., & Seltman, H. (2014). Visual environment, attention allocation, and

learning in young children: When too much of a good thing may be bad. Psychological

Science, 25(7), 1362–1370.


Scott-Webber, L., Strickland, A., & Kapitula, L. (2014). How classroom design affects student

engagement. Steelcase Education.

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Posted: July 23, 2017, 12:59 pm
Leading change in any organization is a difficult task.  In many cultures the status quo is so entrenched that shifting mindsets and behaviors can be daunting.  Clearly establishing the why is a natural starting point and can help to propel the change effort at hand.  The how and finally the what should then follow this. Even when leaders tackle issues and problems using this recipe, other challenges and obstacles frequently rear their ugly head.  The research that Tom Murray and I share in Learning Transformed can help guide anyone, regardless of his or her position, to move change efforts forward that sustain over time no matter what issue might arise.  The best LEADERS:

  • Learn
  • Empower
  • Adapt
  • Delegate
  • Engage (face-to-face and digitally)
  • Reflect
  • Serve

In many cases, buy-in is a common strategy used to implement and sustain change. Looking for buy-in might serve as a temporary fix, but sustainable change is driven by embracement. People need to understand the inherent value that comes with them being asked to change their practice or thinking. When it comes to change, most people are naturally against it as our brains are wired to keep us safe. The only group of people who really love change all the time are wet babies (the power of a dry diaper has a magical effect).  Our practices and actions must make it more palatable and doable. Modeling, providing support, listening, and alignment to research are sound strategies that many leaders consistently utilize. Sustaining any effort relies on substance in the form of evidence of improved outcomes and efficacy. 


Image credit: https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/4-ways-own-cape-authentic-leadership-jill-sweiven

With the many challenges that leaders face when it comes to change, what overreaching strategies can be utilized to make leading it successful?  The answer lies in authenticity.  Mark Bilton recently penned a piece on this topic. In his article he states the following:


"The fast-paced, dynamic world of rapid change that used to be confined to distressed organizations is now everyone’s world. We are in a marketplace changing at digital speed. With so much disruption, new generations and a hyper-connected world where information is a commodity, the leadership paradigm has to shift. The industrial revolution model of command and control leadership is no longer effective."

Authentic leaders embrace digital to lead successful change efforts.  He goes on to state:


"To enable an organization to thrive today, leaders have to embrace an authentic leadership style. It promotes an engaged, flexible and innovative environment, one able to match the pace of change we now face."

Digital leadership is authentic in nature.  It is about leveraging digital tools and spaces to develop relationships, promote transparency, showcase success, openly reflect, and share powerful stories. By communicating the why, how, and what, leaders can be proactive in creating a narrative rich in evidence, connected to research, and clearly showing efficacy. Authentic leaders understand the power of engaging face-to-face, but are also constantly working to create a new playing field by thinking forward. That’s where the digital piece comes into play.

Mark Bilton goes on in his article to describe the five pillars of authentic leadership: collaboration, vision, empathy, groundedness, and ethics.  Each is a defining characteristic that embodies great leadership. In a digital world it is difficult to be authentic if you are not leveraging digital strategies to become better at what you do. Leaders can now collaborate locally and globally without the constraints of time and space. A vision for change, as well as the actions that follow, can be shared across various channels to build greater embracement. By engaging in digital spaces, leaders can develop a greater sense of empathy by listening to the concerns and challenges of others and then offering support. Digital spaces can provide a needed break from the daily ups and downs of the job while also providing a platform to reflect. Finally, ethical behavior can be put on display highlighting appropriate and professional use. This type of modeling can go a long way to empowering others to not just change, but to become digital leaders themselves.

Be true to yourself and others. When you fail (and you will), showcasing your vulnerable side will only help to strengthen the bonds with those you work with. Being human is more important that being right all the time. You will never have all the answers or solutions needed to move large change efforts forward. Look to others to find answers to questions and help you achieve your change goals.  Continue to improve in ways that push you outside your comfort zone. With authenticity on your side finding success will be much easier.

Posted: July 16, 2017, 1:04 pm
As a former science teacher I was always a fan of the scientific method.  It was a great process for students to actually do science in order to learn by designing an experiment to deeply explore observations and develop/answer questions.  The process itself was guided by inquiry, problem solving, and reflection. I fondly remember developing and testing out numerous hypotheses in the many science courses I took in high school and college. This type of learning was messy, unpredictable, and challenging, but it was also fun.  I think I refuted more hypotheses then validated, but the learning experience kept driving me to pursue eventual degrees and a teaching certificate in the sciences. 

Even though my science teaching days are long behind me, the scientific method has always stuck with me, as there are direct applications to leadership. Leaders must constantly make observations and own what they see. In the context of education, leaders must challenge the status quo if observations lead to a conclusion that a business as usual model is prevalent.  What is seen, or not, can be a powerful tool to develop critical questions that can drive needed change or improvement. 


This is extremely important regarding instruction.  As a leader do you really know or have a good handle on what is happening in your classrooms daily? Does your school or district work better for kids or adults? How do you know if technology and innovative practices are actually improving learner outcomes? Owning what you see requires improving observation and evaluation practices. The first step is to get into classrooms more to not only make observations, but to also begin collecting evidence that either validates or refutes the claims of improvement that are now heard more and more.  Getting into classrooms both formally and informally can provide a much-needed critical lens to support professional practice while also building powerful relationships in the process.

Owning what you see doesn’t just have to come from being physically present to make observations. Developing strategies to ensure a return on instruction through the collection of standards-aligned artifacts (lesson plans, projects, student work) and portfolios can clearly illustrate whether changes to professional practice are occurring or not.  Making observations and looking at evidence (or lack thereof) can lead to more questions that can drive change. This is a good start, but ultimately owning what you see requires action that results in improved outcomes. The more we can quantify this through multiple measures the better our chances are of initiating sustainable change that improves learning for all.

When you look around your building(s) or classrooms what do you see?

Posted: July 9, 2017, 12:29 pm
There are points in our professional lives that change us for the better.  I vividly remember one such moment in 2009 when I took a device from a student as he had it out in the hallway. Since this was a violation of school policy I immediately confiscated the device, as this is what I thought I was supposed to do to ensure a school culture free from distraction and solely focused on traditional learning. I helped write the district policy blocking social media and at the school level made sure no mobile devices were seen or heard.  As the student handed me his device to avoid a one day in-school suspension for open defiance, his message to me rocked my world and not in a good way. He thanked me for creating a jail out of what should be a school.  This was the moment in time that I began to move from a fixed to a growth mindset.

Image credit: http://alsearsmd.com/

Ever since Carol Dweck’s landmark research on mindsets the world has been buzzing about how this concept applies to respective fields of study. What exactly is a mindset in simple terms?  It is an attitude, disposition, or mood with which a person approaches a situation. In short, a mindset is a belief that determines the decisions we make, actions that are undertaken, and how situations are handled. How we think and ultimately act can help us identify opportunities for improvement. Mindsets can also function as a roadblock to progress. Our natural apprehension and fear associated with change inhibits our ability to pursue new ideas and implement them with fidelity.  For sustainable change to take root and flourish there must be a belief that our actions can significantly improve outcomes. The best ideas come from those who constantly push their thinking as well as the thinking of others.

Mindsets go well beyond what a person thinks or feels. Gary Klein eloquently articulates what mindsets are and why they matter:


"Mindsets aren’t just any beliefs.  They are beliefs that orient our reactions and tendencies. They serve a number of cognitive functions. They let us frame situations: they direct our attention to the most important cues, so that we’re not overwhelmed with information. They suggest sensible goals so that we know what we should be trying to achieve.  They prime us with reasonable courses of action so that we don’t have to puzzle out what to do.  When our mindsets become habitual, they define who we are, and who we can become."

There is no one particular mindset.  They are not limited in scope and can be broken up into numerous subsets. What I believe is that the end goal of our work is to transform all facets of education to fundamentally improve teaching, learning, and leadership.  The will and desire to change must be backed with action, accountability, and reflection.  The hard, but needed, work is taking a critical lens to our work before and after embracing a mindset shift. Different, new, and claims of better, only matter if there is actual evidence of improvement.  

Our mindset is a critical component associated with the process of change. Cultivating a transformational mindset, which incorporates a dynamic mix of qualities and attributes, can help to create schools that prepare students for a bold new world. It can also help educators take that much-needed critical lens to their work to transform professional practice.  A transformational mindset consists of the following sub-mindsets and dispositions:

Empathetic

When my student shared his feelings with me it led me down a path towards being a more empathetic leader.  If we want change leading to a transformation of practice we need to put ourselves in the positions of others to better understand their feelings. It all comes down to relationships. Without trust, there is no relationship. Without relationships, no real learning occurs.  Empathy must also be better developed in our students.

Entrepreneurial

A great deal can be learned from entrepreneurial thinking leading to the rise of the edupreneur. Think about the following qualities, dispositions, and characteristics associated with this sub-mindset: initiative, risk-taking, creativity, flexibility, critical thinking, problem solving, resilience, and innovation. For our students, Quad D learning (see Rigor Relevance Framework) is geared to ensure students have the competence to think in complex ways and to apply their knowledge and skills they have acquired. Even when confronted with perplexing unknowns, students are able to use extensive knowledge and skill to create solutions and take action that further develops their skills and knowledge. All kids have greatness hidden inside them. It is the job of an educator to help them find and unleash it. 

Competency-based

Skills focus on the “what” in terms of the abilities a student needs to perform a specific task or activity. Competencies outline "how" the goals and objectives will be accomplished. They are more detailed and define the requirements for success in broader, more inclusive terms than skills do. There is also an increased level of depth that considers skills, knowledge, behaviors, dispositions, and abilities. The goal should be to develop competent learners. This applies to both students and adults. 

Maker

Grades and standardized tests do not accurately depict what all students (and adults) know and can do. There should be multiple paths to mastery where students can use real-world tools to engage in meaningful work. Making and makerspaces allow students to do to learn, as opposed to always learning to do. Allowing students to identify a problem and then giving them the freedom to develop a working solution not only builds confidence, but also shows kids that all learning matters. 

Storyteller

There is a great deal of scientific backing on how storytelling positively impacts the brain. Thanks to technology students now have the means to share their learning journey and tell a story in the process.  When aligned to well-developed assessments and standards the use of learning stories can be leveraged to articulate how educators are preparing students in better ways. Adults can also embrace becoming the storyteller-in-chief to change the narrative. Define or be defined. The choice is yours.

Efficacy-driven

Efficacy is the degree to which desired outcomes and goals are achieved. Evidence matters. Not only does it matter, but in the real work it is what our stakeholders expect.  It is important to identify what the Return on Instruction (ROI) is when implementing new ideas and technologies.  Evidence helps to quantify success. Success breeds success.


To transform teaching, learning, and leadership we must transform our thinking and then act. Actions change things. Don’t prepare students for something. Prepare them for anything.  For transformation to result, you must also be prepared for anything.  Think boldly, but act courageously.  Your work matters more than ever.

Posted: July 2, 2017, 3:54 pm
Conferences are a hallmark of the summer season. Thousands of educators attend events around the United States to connect, learn, and grow.  For the past three years I have had the honor of attending and participating in the Model Schools Conference.  You can check out a video of my opening mini-keynote HERE. The goal of this event is to set the stage with the latest innovative practices improving school and to begin to lay the foundation for districts and schools to begin planning long-term, job-embedded professional growth opportunities that are anything but the drive-by variety.  

What separates this conference from all others is the fact that the program is built around district and school teams who have closed achievement gaps, bridged the digital divide, and implemented innovative practices aligned to research. The model schools and districts put on a display of evidence focusing on what works to create a learning experience driven by practitioner success in the field.  It doesn’t get much better than that. 

Regardless of the conference you attend, what you do afterwards is what truly matters.  Hopefully you are exposed to new ideas, evidence-based strategies, research, and tools that will push your thinking while motivating you to move outside your comfort zone. The experience should result in the construction of new knowledge that can be used as a catalyst for change.  Reflecting on what was learned typically comes next.  This is something that I see happening at every Model Schools Conference.  As the sessions end, you can walk around the conference center and always see district and school teams gathered in rooms or common spaces reflecting on their learning while mapping out a plan for action.

What must happen next is the most critical aspect of any conference or professional growth experience – you must ACT!  It is our individual, and most importantly our collective, actions that will help us to move from an old status quo to creating a new status quo.  As you begin to develop action plans that tackle both large and small changes pause to think deeply on the process involved.  The process of change results in action, but there are many key elements that must be considered if success is the goal. Consider current obstacles and challenges as you navigate the process that culminates with action to transform learning for all students.





Talk, opinions, and assumptions might be catchy and motivating, but quickly lose their luster not if, but when a lack of substance surfaces (which it always does eventually). The same could be said about presentations that just focus on tools.  Take a critical lens to the ideas and strategies that you are exposed to. Then ask a few questions to help establish a plan for action:

  • Why will this help transform practice and improve teaching, learning, and/or leadership?
  • Is the idea or strategy scalable? 
  • How will we sustain the effort and show efficacy?
  • What research and evidence can be aligned to support the actions to be taken?

Don’t get sucked into the rabbit hole of fluff.  Always pause to reflect on anything you are exposed to whether it is from a conference, workshop, keynote, presentation, book, article, video, blog, tweet, etc.  This definitely applies to anything you read or hear from me! We have isolated pockets of excellence in schools across the world, but every kid deserves excellence. More collective, meaningful action will help to scale effective practices while preparing students for the new world of work. Let’s get to work!

Posted: July 2, 2017, 12:37 pm
There are so many important questions that we have to ask and attempt to find answers to. Many of these questions start with what, how, and why. Simon Sinek reminds us that the most important questions we should be asking need, and should start with, a focus on why. Check out this shortened version below of his famous TED talk.



His simple golden circle brings some needed context that can help to drive meaningful change in any organization. For the most part, every organization knows what they do. Some organizations know how they do it.  However, as Sinek goes on to explain, very few organizations know why they do what they do.  The why centers on purpose, values, belief, and feelings. The what, and to a certain extent the how, have a certain amount of clarity around them. The why is a totally different animal as it is always fuzzy in nature.  It is difficult to articulate at times, thus we take the path of least resistance and focus our questions and efforts on the what and the how.


Image credit: https://inspireca.com

The why matters more than ever in the context of schools and education.  All one must do is step into the shoes of a student.  If he or she does not truly understand why they are learning what is being taught the chances of improving outcomes and success diminishes significantly.  Each lesson should squarely address the why, preferably early on, but this could also be tied in during a closure actively.  What and how we assess carries little to no weight in the eyes of our students if they don’t understand and appreciate the value of the learning experience. The same could be said regarding entrenched practices such as grading and homework that are in dire need of change.

A focus on the why is a good start, but holding ourselves accountable is another story.  Therefore, as principal I directed my staff to include an authentic context and interdisciplinary connections into every lesson and project. We ensured accountability through numerous unannounced observations, collection of artifacts, and adding a portfolio component to the evaluation process. Unearthing the why became engrained in the very DNA of our culture. Relevance should be a non-negotiable in any learning task. If a student doesn’t know why he or she is learning something that is on us. Learning today and beyond must be personal for every student.

Our work does not stop here.  In the larger picture students also need better responses as to why they need school and education for that matter. Students need to understand better why school functions to serve them both inside and outside the classroom.  A renewed focus on creating schools that work for kids through uncommon learning strategies that are not being implemented in schools at scale can help to transform numerous facets of traditional schooling. The why led us to embrace and implement Bring Your Own Device (BYOD), academies (school within a school), personalized learning, virtual learning, makerspaces, and Independent Open Courseware Study (IOCS) options. Transforming learning is a momentous task that must be driven by unearthing the why across all facets of school culture. 

This conversation should also translate to our own work.  We say what we do and how we are different, but is this enough to change practice or perception? It is critical that educators can articulate the why related to their own work.  Take technology for example. Actions of many educators in terms of learning and using technology tend to infer that the overriding focus is on the wrong thing. Some questions I commonly run across include: What are the latest apps and tools I can use in my classroom or school? How can I integrate technology to improve learning? These questions aren’t necessarily bad per se, but they often dictate the level at which tools are used. Just look around at the sessions at many technology conferences.  When sessions like 50 Apps in 50 minutes have standing room only while Improving School Culture has a fraction of attendees it aligns more with the what and how.

Whether it comes down to effectively using technology, growing professionally, innovating, or improving instruction, Sinek reminds us to always focus on the why first. This allows us to bring clarity to our ideas, align pertinent research, and identify practices in action for further support to instill a sense of value in the work at hand. Students must believe in their school and the value of learning. Educators must believe in the mission, vision, and goals of a school to improve. They must also believe in the pursuit of better ways to grow that move beyond sound bites, flashy tools, and ideas with little substance.  Unearthing the why is the key to sustainable change and transforming practice. 

Posted: June 18, 2017, 12:49 pm
No, this is not a post about value-added evaluation practices.  I believe that ship has sailed. There is a great deal of research and evidence out there that pretty much debunks the claims of many in the world of education reform that accountability systems based solely on student achievement data have any merit. What I would like to discuss are ways that schools can provide increased value to students based on changes to the learning culture.  A school can and should provide a meaningful learning experience for students.  If they do not see any value during the time spent in buildings then the chances are that opportunities to learn, and ultimately achieve, will be squandered.


Image credit: www.theinfohound.com/

Value-added schooling became important to me during my early years as a high school principal.  In 2009 as I took a device from a student for failing to follow school policy that student responded to me that school was like a jail.  This encounter translated into an “aha” moment.  It made me critically reflect not just on our policy towards student devices, but also on a wide range of elements that impacted the learning culture at my school. What I learned was that our policies, procedures, and programs weren’t necessarily geared towards the genuine interests and needs of our student body.  This is when we began our journey to create a school that worked better for kids than the one that had generally functioned better for the adults.
"Value-added schools capitalize on methodologies, ideas, and tools to better understand students while improving the learning experience."
Value-added schools place less of an emphasis on control, compliance, conformity, and certain rules that we as adults have a hard time rationalizing to students because they are so ridiculous.  Since students are unique individuals with a variety of needs and interests, the focus must be on creating policies and structures that are more kid-centric. Kids should want to come to school and learn. It is incumbent upon us to take a critical lens to our work and culture and make both small and big changes to add more value to a child’s experience in school. Building a greater sense of trust and leveraging this to develop powerful relationships are a consistent goal that we can all agree on.  Value-added schools:

  • Focus more on learning as opposed to grades.
  • Integrate more opportunities for play in K-12.
  • Implement personalized (time, path, place, strengths/needs) and personal (interests, passions, relevancy) learning strategies.
  • Actively address the “cemetery effect” by utilizing research-based and design thinking strategies to transform classroom learning environments.
  • Emphasize student agency (voice, choice, advocacy) as a right for all
  • Re-think homework and outdated grading practices to create a culture focused on R.E.A.L learning.
  • Capitalize on the power of relationships by adding makerspaces, charging stations, thinking games (i.e. chess), and healthy food/drink options to common spaces to promote conversation between everyone.
  • Treat connectivity as a life-line to this generation of kids and provide equitable access either in the form of devices or Internet. access. Connectivity is a way of life for our students. Take it from them and they will check out.
  • Add an array of after-school programs that connect to interests and careers of the future.
  • View technology as a ubiquitous component of the student learning experience rather than an add-on.

Sometimes our own beliefs and experiences get in the way of what’s possible. Thanks to the student who set me straight, many of the strategies above were embraced, implemented, and sustained during my time as a principal.  We not only added value, but were able to show efficacy in our work going forward. Don’t let your mindset or that of others hold you back. Thinking differently is a start, but we also need to act differently if we want to transform learning. Focus on the “what ifs” instead of the “yeah buts”. Don't prepare students for something. Prepare them for anything. Say yes more than you say no. Most importantly, be more empathetic by placing yourself in the shoes of your students.

So how have you helped to create a value-added school? I would love to hear and share your ideas. 

Posted: June 11, 2017, 12:55 pm
I cannot overstate the importance of trust in establishing the foundation for relationships.  In addition to trust various other elements contribute to the growth and strengthening of relationships.  One that might not readily come to mind is association.  The act of associating with others can contribute to positive relationship building and is linked to the awareness of your own defined leadership persona. Associating behavior is the essence of the classic model Management by Walking Around (MBWA), which is also sometimes referred to as Management by Wandering Around.  MBWA came to light in 1982 in Peters and Waterman’s classic management book, In Search of Excellence

The authors profiled the innovative owners of Hewlett-Packard who used MBWA as their signature way of communicating with their organization—not through emails, calls, or memos but by associating: They deliberately got to their people in repeated touch points, in regular face-to-face casual moments. It sounds commonsensical to do, but it was innovative at the time and still produces results. For those leaders needing practice in associating, this strategy can give you a chance to flex your relational muscles. MBWA isn’t haphazard; it is achieved with strategic thought. Getting into a daily routine of associating with a wide range of stakeholders, internal and external, is of primary importance to leadership and to the promotion of a school brand. Adding associating— the deliberate flexing of your communicative muscle as a part of your daily to-do list—builds trust, respect, and forms a base for school leadership power.


Image credit: frederickmordi.files.wordpress.com

Use any of the many free communication channels available online that support an associative online daily routine as you take MBWA onto the digital and social media stage. Go on a hunt. Deliberately identify people you want to associate with in digital spaces and build relationships. There are opportunities for “walking around” in digital spaces today that weren’t existent in 1982. The power of association had a profound impact on me when Trish Rubin saw the chance to associate with me. It came from seeing that potential relationship source on TV after CBS NYC aired a story about how my teachers and I were using Twitter as a teaching, learning, and leadership tool. Our ensuing face-to-face conversations laid the foundation for how digital tools could vastly improve associative behavior. The digital world provides endless opportunities to associate with like-minded educators as well as experts in the field.  


Image credit: www.free-management-ebooks.com/

Consider adding the power of associating to your leadership toolbox.  If you need structure, set your phone on a timer and give yourself 3 minutes to associate with others at various points in your day both face-to-face and virtually. Push yourself to associate daily. Use the Google Calendar Speedy Meetings setting to keep your connecting to short (5–10 minute), meaningful, real-time or online meetings. Just the intention of reducing meeting length from 30 minutes on your calendar can help you be more efficient. Move outside your comfort zone. Identify and reach out to people beyond your brick and mortar building to push your thinking and gain invaluable insight on ways to improve your professional practice. Associating with people that you might not agree or see eye-to-eye with can help to build relationships that you might not have thought were possible. 

All stakeholders, including students, should be on your associating radar. Talk with them about school culture and initiatives. Ask for their impression of the school vision, mission, and values to gain insight on what can be changed as well as to cultivate greater student agency. Seek ideas and suggestions. Smile and say thanks, then follow up selectively with some of these new ambassadors. Include aspirational associations. Associate through “reach” in real time or online. Look above you in a metaphorical sense. Whom do you want to build a relationship with that may have a higher stature? Start wandering around in digital spaces where your prospects are engaging. Twitter is a good resource for this, and once you have “professional collateral” to share that shows who you are, you can use it to associate for connection.

As you associate, “see” around your circle. See people whom you may have the tendency to overlook or to take for granted: Service providers of any sort, businesses, media outlets, professional organizations, senior citizens, very young people, and diverse newcomers to your community can be part of your association plan. They are valuable contacts in their own right and may have additional associative power. Wander around, listen, ask questions, and engage to develop more associative relationships that can complement and improve your ability to lead change. So how have you leveraged the power of associative behavior? What other strategies would you provide to help others associate to succeed?

Content for this post was adapted from BrandED: Tell Your Story, Build Relationships, and Empower Learning. Get your copy TODAY!

Posted: June 4, 2017, 1:06 pm
It has been quite the ride since I changed my perspective on teaching, learning, and leadership eight years ago. Prior to 2009 I basically saw technology as just an add-on and something that could spruce up a lesson.  An ironclad Internet filter was in place to “protect” students and ensure that none of them could go off task.  Social media had to be blocked for all and I, for one, wasn’t going to waste any of my precious time using it professionally or personally. Learning spaces had to conform to the perceived rule of law in education.  This meant desks had to be in orderly rows, mobile devices out of site, and common areas free of anything that could distract students from the task at hand – achievement on standardized tests.  Professional development consisted of two mandated days where everything was basically dictated to staff based on district or school needs.  

I could go on and on, but thankfully I had an epiphany and from 2009 on began to work with my staff and students to transform our school through innovative strategies. Thanks to social media and my Personal Learning Network (PLN), I began to embrace new ideas, think differently, and critically reflect on my professional practice to be a better leader.  Successful and sustained change not only happened, but results followed. The work over those years put me into a position of authoring several books and sharing our successes across the United States and then the world.  

Even though this was gratifying work there was still something missing that I could not put my finger on until early in 2016.  It was at this time that I had one of the most thought-provoking conversations with my good friend, Tom Murray. As we discussed all facets of the current educational landscape, buzzwords, fads, opinions, and trends, we came to the realization that there was a need to bring everything together, align all the talk to research, and illustrate through a practitioner lens how to transform teaching, learning, and leadership.  We pitched a book idea to ASCD that wouldn’t just tell educators what they should be doing, but more importantly show them how it could be done.  The idea became a reality, helped me make more sense of where my journey was leading to and provided the opportunity to co-author a book with one of my best friends.



In Learning Transformed, Tom and I lay out 8 keys to drive needed change now. We focus deeply on the why, but go to great lengths to detail the how. Research underpins each key to provide greater rationale and substance for the ideas presented.  This is followed by what we call Innovative Practices in Action (IPA) that brings purpose and clarity so that all educators and schools can begin to implement these strategies to usher in transformative change.  The 8 keys are outlined below:

  1. Leadership and school culture lay the foundation.
  2. The learning experience must be redesigned and made personal. 
  3. Decisions must be grounded in evidence and driven by a Return on Instruction (ROI).
  4. Learning spaces must become learner-centered.
  5. Professional learning must be relevant, engaging, ongoing, and made personal.
  6. Technology must be leveraged and used as an accelerant for student learning.
  7. Community collaboration and engagement must be woven into the fabric of a school’s culture.
  8. Schools that transform learning are built to last as financial, political, and pedagogical sustainability ensures long-term success.

Toward the end of each chapter, you’ll hear from some of the best educational minds working in schools today. These educators are breaking through barriers, overcoming obstacles, and helping families break the chains of poverty, all while providing dynamic learning opportunities for all students by fundamentally redesigning the educational landscape in their districts. These vignettes, shared as Innovative Practices in Action and written by the school leaders themselves, relate success stories from districts large and small, from urban to rural, and from some of the most economically challenged communities. Each of these school leaders has intentionally designed his or her way to amazing student success where learning has been transformed.

During the writing process, Tom and I spent a great deal of time reflecting on our practice and that of countless educators we are blessed to work with around the world.  To that end we created an extensive study guide to go along with the book.  For each chapter we have created numerous questions to facilitate critical reflection on professional practice and the learning culture that is currently in place.  You can access the study guide HERE. Our hope is to take readers on a much deeper journey on how these 8 keys can be successfully implemented and embedded in a school or district culture. It is also our hope that readers will extend the conversation to Twitter using #LT8Keys as both Tom and I are eager to engage with all of you.

We can no longer wait. Time is of the essence. It is our obligation to prepare our students for their future and not our past. We must create and lead schools that are relevant for the world our students live in—not the world we, or our staff, grew up in. We must do this . . . starting today.


"Given how quickly and profoundly the world is changing, there are few more urgent challenges than the transformation of our schools and education systems. Some people are still unconvinced of the need for this transformation: others are unsure how to make it happen. Learning Transformed is addressed to all of them and to every other educator, administrator, and policymaker with a serious concern for the future of our children and our communities. It draws on the best research about the need for change and on the strategies that work and those that don't. More than that, it's seasoned throughout with deep, real-world experience of teaching and learning, policy and practice in innovative schools and pioneering districts across the nation. Learning Transformed is both a compelling manifesto for the schools our children need now and an inspirational blueprint for how to bring them about." - Sir Ken Robinson

It is our hope the this book will inspire all of you like it did for Tom and I when we were writing it.  We are honored and humbled to have endorsements from Sir Ken Robinson, Arne Duncan, Linda Darling-Hammond, Robert Marzano, Michael Fullan, Dan Pink, Heidi Hayes-Jacobs, Andy Hargreaves, Todd Whitaker, and so many more education luminaries.  Order your copy today and join us in a quest to transform learning across the world.

Posted: June 1, 2017, 11:37 am
Entrepreneurs love what they do. They do what they love, are dreamers, but they also are doers and go-getters. Entrepreneurship may be missing from your resume, but shifting your perspective will change this as you experience the rush and benefits of an entrepreneurial mindset.  This exciting new trend is taking root through disruptive innovation in the workplace. The characteristics of entrepreneurial thinking go well beyond just that of innovation. Individuals and organizations that embrace this mindset shift develop dynamic behaviors that impact their organizational culture while leading to school improvement. Below are some key elements commonly associated with an entrepreneurial mindset:

  • Initiative
  • Risk-taking
  • Creativity
  • Flexibility
  • Critical thinking
  • Problem Solving
  • Resilience
  • Innovation

The elements above can be directly applied to your role as an educator.  In BrandED, Trish Rubin and I discuss the rise of the edupreneur and how this thinking can be a catalyst for transformative change. It’s time to not just think, but also act as an edupreneur to usher in needed change. This edupreneurial persona, one based on openness, can creatively cultivate new relational value and garner trust among members of your community. See what’s worked for successful entrepreneurs who’ve met their own goals, and find a fit for your continuing professional development. While embracing the listed elements above, think about the following strategies that Trish and I believe lead to edupreneurial leadership.


Image credit: www.psdgraphics.com/

Surround yourself with inspiring people

Relationships matter to edupreneurs. Do this in real time through face-to-face associations and with your closest validators. Use the wealth of TED Talks, webinars, and YouTube content online to get inspired. Follow the hot topics in leadership, communication, and relationship building. Start to follow them online. Connect to Mention and Google Alerts to get tailored feeds and information about those key areas you need in order to increase your own edupreneurship.

Get feedback every day

Talk to people about branding and the innovative climate for school reform. Share how applying a few powerful select business strategies is empowering your school leadership. Test the waters on social media with thoughts, quotes, and content that match the topics you are advancing. See the results from your peers near and far.

Ask questions 

Don’t be afraid to ask questions about the new direction you are setting as a leader. Get feedback. Be curious and search for answers. Leverage social media or go with face-to face conversations. Just ask!

Find happiness

Entrepreneurs work out of a passion. So do edupreneurs. There is joy in innovating, challenging the status quo, marching to the beat of a different drummer, and experiencing success through non-traditional means.

Embrace brandED

Work to present yourself with a unique brand value (UBV), which is a key to edupreneurship. Celebrate every benchmark for your school. Talking about big and small tangible accomplishments is part of communicating value. It’s the small moments that create big accomplishments, the proven results and gains with the community that can complement test score reports and expand the idea of value. Join the brandED conversation to unleash the edupreneurial drive to transform education. 

Be a continuous and curious learner 

This is a no-brainer for educators. Continue your study in the manner of a trend spotter. Look out—online, in apps, or through print resources—for the latest trends and research in leadership, pedagogy, initiating school change, technology integration, and whatever other topics inspire you. Search outside your own educational backyard to learn from other disciplines. The digital world allows us to see thousands of bits of information that can be woven into new creative thinking for growing our edupreneurial thinking and leadership.

Work to expand your network

Grow your relationships upward for your community with “reach targets,” the great people you aspire to meet with whom you can share the school brand and engage for support. Grow relationships downward with those good people that complement your network. Build relationships with service providers who help students. Talk to bus drivers, crossing guards, security staff—anyone who provides support to the community—about your vision, goals, and outcomes. Finally, network horizontally with your peers and other leaders in real-time associations, and online through hangouts and chats. Invite them to share their thinking and content about education brand. Promote relationships so that deeper connections can form, leading to cobranding exchange between yourself and other leaders.

Become a writer 

Take the time to write about your efforts in becoming an edupreneurial thinker and doer. Making visible the thoughts and reflections that are part of the journey can be the first-draft thinking that starts you on the way to sharing your personal professional brand.

Be persistent 

Entrepreneurs have the will to carry on; with that same spirit, edupreneurs don’t give up. We demonstrate our persistence on a community-wide stage. Belief is an essential part of brand development. Be the chief believer in your school brand by becoming the storyteller-in-chief.

Exhibit patience 

Entrepreneurs who are successful have a tendency to wait. Some entrepreneurs are actually procrastinators of the highest degree. Edupreneurs move at a pace that can ensure their success. Don’t rush the process. Focus on the work of your students, staff, and district. In time, the results of your improvement strategy will come to fruition.

The time has come to not only embrace new ideas and ways of thinking, but also the way in which we employ these assets to usher in meaningful change. 

Content from the following post was adapted from BrandED: Tell Your Story, Build Relationships, and Empower Learning.  Get your copy today!

Posted: May 21, 2017, 1:06 pm
It is easy to knock people down. Building people up is at the heart of empathetic leadership.” - @E_Sheninger

No significant relationship can exist without trust. Without relationships, no significant learning occurs. As I continue to research and reflect on strategies to build powerful relationships with others, the topic of empathy has a consistent presence.  In simple terms, empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. So how does this connect to leadership?  I pulled a few connections from an article by Bruna Martinuzzi that address this topic. Below are some highlights.

  • Empathy is the oil that keeps relationships running smoothly.
  • Research by Dr. Antonio Damasio has shown people with damage to part of the brain associated with empathy show significant deficits in relationship skills, even though their reasoning and learning abilities remain intact.
  • Empathy is valued currency. It allows us to create bonds of trust, gives us insights into what others may be feeling or thinking, helps us understand how or why others are reacting to situations, and informs our decisions.
  • Tips to become more empathetic include listening, encouragement, know people’s names, don’t interrupt, be cognizant of non-verbal communication, smile, be fully present, and use genuine praise.
  • Empathy is an emotional and thinking muscle that becomes stronger the more we use it. 

Let’s be honest.  Empathy is not a typical component of core training and coursework in the field of education.  It is something that we typically learn from our parents, friends, and colleagues.  In my opinion, empathy should be a core component of curriculum in schools and the culture of any organization. Truth be told, this at times can be a difficult lesson for many of us to master. Talking about empathy and demonstrating it are two entirely different concepts. Our mindset and certain pre-dispositions put our own feelings and needs before others.   This is not always a negative, but something that many of us would agree must change.  

As leaders, it is important for us to imagine ourselves in the position of our students, staff, and community members. This gives us a better perspective on the challenges and feelings of those we are tasked to serve. Better, more informed decisions can result from “walking in the shoes” of those who will be most impacted by the decisions that we make. The image below does a great job at articulating four key elements of empathy.



As Theodore Roosevelt once said, “Nobody cares how much you know, until they know how much you care.” A culture of excellence is created through relationships built on trust and sustained through empathy. Showing we care can be as simple as listening intently, demonstrating emotional intelligence, or being non-judgmental when others open up to us about their feelings, concerns, or challenges. However, actions that bring empathy to life can have a profound impact on others. To see what I mean check out this brief video below.



As you think about your professional role as a teacher, administrator, board member, entrepreneur, or in any other field, reflect on how you can be more empathetic towards the people you work with and for. For some of our students the only empathy they might receive occurs within the schoolhouse walls. Regardless of your leadership position, understand that trust is a currency that should be valued above all else. If people don’t trust and relate to you then chances are you are a manager, not a leader. Empathetic leadership not only builds trust, but creates a culture where students want to learn and adults strive to perform their best. In BrandED, Trish Rubin and I discuss the powerful role empathy plays in the stories we share and the relationships we strive to build. 

Make empathy a part of your professional role. In the end you will be a stronger leader and a better person for it.

Posted: May 14, 2017, 1:03 pm
The following post is adapted from BrandED: Tell Your Story, Build Relationships, and Empower Learning

Branding matters in the changing world of learning, fueled by powerful digital resources (Sheninger, 2014). It’s time to make a choice – define or be defined. Telling a powerful school story and reaching an audience have never been more possible than in today’s digital world, and never more necessary for a leader to embrace in a new world of competition and choice. Early brand adopters such as Brad Currie, Robert Zywicki, Joe Sanfelippo, Tony Sinanis, Angela Maiers, Vicki Davis, and Gwyneth Jones, are already out ahead of the pack on digital media, and they are passionate about what they do. They are inspired by their initial success and have developed professionally in ways that make them unique compared to other leaders. A brandED mindset takes professionals to the next level, adding strategic thinking and action steps for brand sustainability.

School leaders build a positive brand presence in the name of school improvement, to advance better teaching, learning and leadership, and to develop stronger school communities. The work advanced in the area of servant leadership reinforces the importance of having a brandED strategy. Sipe and Frick (2009) identify the following seven pillars of servant leadership:

  • Person of character
  • Puts people first
  • Skilled communicator
  • Compassionate collaborator
  • Has foresight
  • Systems thinker
  • Leads with moral authority

The pillars of servant leadership speak to the underlying mission of brandED leaders; they define leadership as something to be shared, distributed, transparent, and focused on success and happiness. BrandED does not rest on the shoulders of one person. It is a distributed, collaborative, service-oriented school improvement effort articulated through the power of storytelling. 


Image credit: wedesign.la/how-to-tell-your-brands-story/

The marketing principle that guides business brand is its drive to build relationships. BrandED educators focus strongly on that aspect. Successful school leadership in today’s digital world is fueled by connectivity. Aren’t educators always building, brokering, and sustaining relationships? Focusing on relationships is a cornerstone of any leadership effort and one that supports a brandED strategy. Relationship building is a never-ending process, and in education it is not a part of a “sales cycle” (Connick, 2012) but is instead a part of an “awareness cycle.” For any school leader, being relational is as important as being knowledgeable.

BrandED behavior strategically focuses on relationships forged and sustained through trust. Mutual trust is a core element of brand loyalty in business and in schools, thanks to the digital age. A great workplace is created through organizational credibility, respect, fairness, and a foundation of trust (Mineo, 2014). The work involved in brandED development relies on building welcoming access in real time and online so that people feel connected and happy in their work. Access is supported by people who know that the calendar isn’t just about scheduling the day’s appointments but also about making time for a ritual of building trust. Your purposeful strategic effort to create relationships is vital.


Image credit: hwww.digibutterfly.com/

As you begin to develop your own brandED mindset and strategy, especially through a time of innovation, the following focus areas are places in which to access new connectivity for your own brand and the school’s brand. In each area, work on building relationships that promote both your brand and the school’s.

  • Student achievement. Standardized test scores are most often used to evaluate the overall effectiveness of a school. Public relations and communication efforts focused on evidence of growth in this area and in other academic and nonacademic areas can be conveyed through social media. Doing so will help create and strengthen a school’s brand presence and convey why the brand matters. It is important to remember that this cannot be your only focus, as achievement will never tell the whole story of success (see other pillars below).
  • Quality of teachers and administrators. Student learning and achievement are directly linked to the quality of the school staff. Stakeholders are often more than willing to move to towns with higher taxes that attract the best and brightest educators. Utilizing social media to convey staff statistics can build the confidence of any community, which has a positive impact on a school’s brand. Hire, support, and retain the best while also consistently sharing their great work.
  • Innovative instructional practices and programs. Course offerings, curricular decisions, unique programs, and innovative instructional practices play a key role in student engagement while also having a positive impact on student outcomes (Whitehurst, 2009). Unique course offerings, curricula, and programs make a school or district stand out. The publication and dissemination of this information sends a powerful message related to college and career readiness and the ability of students to follow their passions.
  • Extracurricular activities. Extracurricular, nonacademic activities are a valued component of any school community and help develop well-rounded students. Leaders who use social media as part of a combined communications and public relations strategy spotlight these activities to gain the attention of stakeholders.

Narratives both large and small are valued as tangible evidence of the school’s worth.  Stories come in different sizes and hold different purposes, but simply said they keep the engagement going. Sharing through big and small ideas aligned to the focus areas above will result in greater transparency that will help to build better relationships, support, and admiration for your noble work. It's time to join the brandED conversation.

Connick, W. (2012). The seven stages of the sales cycle. National Association of Sales Professionals. Retrieved from     
     https://www.nasp.com/article/AE1B7061-3F39/the-seven-stages-of-thesales-cycle.html

Mineo, L. D. (2014). The importance of trust in leadership. Research Management Review, 20(1), 1–6.

Sheninger, E. (2014). Digital leadership: Changing paradigms for changing times. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

Sipe, J. W., & Frick, D. M. (2009). Seven pillars of servant leadership: Practicing the wisdom of leading by serving. New 
     York, NY: Paulist Press.

Whitehurst, G. J. (2009). Don’t forget curriculum. Washington, DC: Brookings. Retrieved from 
     www.brookings.edu/papers/2009/1014_curriculum_whitehurst.aspx


Posted: May 7, 2017, 12:47 pm
The glue that holds all relationships together — including the relationship between the leader and the led — is trust, and trust is based on integrity.” ~ Brian Tracy

Success in life hinges upon the ability to build and sustain relationships with others. This fact allies to both our personal and professional lives.  Many elements combine to form a relationship, but there is one specific facet that is more important than others.  Trust is the bedrock of any relationship.  Without it the chances are pretty good that the relationship will not withstand the test of time. In our personal lives trust is built over time through a combination of behaviors such as honesty, integrity, dependability, communication, and empathy.  It is something that is earned and as such, time must be spent to build it. When in place, a relationship thrives in a mutually beneficial way.  

With all the time and energy that goes into building a relationship it can be undone in an instant. Trust can be lost through acts of secrecy, dishonesty, ego, and selfishness. There is no balance here. Trust must be earned and nurtured over time. Marriage is a great personal example where trust helps to build a bond prior to tying the knot.  Leading up to the proposal is a time period where two people work to build trust and eventually determine whether or not they love one another.  I think it goes without saying that you can’t love a person who you don’t trust. Sure, trust in one another can be tested during the course of any relationship, but without trust the relationships cease to exist.


Image credit: http://www.euroscientist.com/

Trust is just as important in the professional world as it is in our personal lives. Without it nothing of substance will ever materialize. Research validates this statement. I recently read an article titled The Neuroscience of Trust by Paul Zak.  Below is a key finding from his research.


Compared with people at low-trust companies, people at high-trust companies report: 74% less stress, 106% more energy at work, 50% higher productivity, 13% fewer sick days, 76% more engagement, 29% more satisfaction with their lives, 40% less burnout.

Wow!  The results above speak for themselves.  As leaders we need to critically reflect on how we not only improve, but also develop trust in and with the people with whom we work.  Before I expand on a list of strategies that can assist in developing trust and building relationships I want to definitively state the one behavior that unequivocally creates a culture devoid of trust….micromanagement.  Leaders who micromanage don’t build up the others around them. Instead they miss a golden opportunity to empower others to unleash their hidden talents and become leaders themselves. Controlling everything and the continuous scrutiny of the actions of others destroys morale while undermining a key principle that it takes a village to raise a child. In the case of education, it takes the actions of the collective, rooted in trust, agency, and empowerment to achieve sustainable results.

A culture of trust will never be established if micromanagers abuse their power. Below are some quick strategies to build trust in any culture:
  • Delegate tasks to build capacity in others. 
  • Use a process of consensus for major initiatives and changes. All stakeholders, including students, yearn to have a stake in culture changing decisions that impact them. 
  • Develop pathways to improve student agency to build a greater sense of trust among learners, but also focus on educator agency.
  • During meetings and conversations be present both physically and mentally. Listen intently and act to illustrate that the ideas of others are valued.
  • No matter what it takes, try to find practical solutions to give people you work with the most precious resource of all – time. When doing so remove the fear of failure. As principal I created the Professional Growth Period (PGP), which was our take on genius for staff. 
  • Guide people through conversations on the “what ifs” instead of spending precious time on the “yeah buts”. Thinking big and allowing others to actively pursue and implement innovative ideas show others that you truly believe in their work. This is how we can being to transform leadership.
  • Use observation and evaluation protocols as a means for growth and improvement, not as an “I gotcha”. Engage others in reflective dialogue around professional practice, afford the opportunity to align evidence to support any written narrative, and provide additional points of contact if someone has a bad day when being observed/evaluated. Use walk-throughs to provide targeted feedback to prepare educators for more formal evaluations.  Return on Instruction (ROI) matters.
  • Keep your word.
  • Don’t ask others to do what you are not willing to do yourself.
  • Avoid self-promotion. Instead work tirelessly to openly commend and build up the work of others.
If you tend to micromanage, stop now. Think about your actions and how they might be negatively impacting the people you work with.  If you are not a micromanager, reflect on how you can utilize some of the strategies above to build better relationships through trust.  What else would you add to the list above?

Posted: April 30, 2017, 1:13 pm
The 21st Century skills discussion and debate has waged on even prior to the onset of this century.  The ensuing conversations have provided an opportunity for schools, districts, and organizations to critically evaluate what students need to know and be able to do in order to succeed in the new world of work.  As we have moved further into this century the number 21 has less of a meaning, but the skills are still important.  Thus, many educators, including myself, now refer to these as essential skills.  Over time they have evolved beyond just communication, collaboration, creativity, and global awareness to include entrepreneurship and emerging technological proficiency.

The other day I was speaking with Rose Else-Mitchell, a wickedly smart educational leader, who pushed my thinking on the whole skills conversation. As I was reviewing a talking point for a webinar that I was to facilitate later in the day, I brought up this image and discussed the skills that students needed to be critical thinkers in the 21st Century and beyond. After looking at what I had on the slide and listening to my analysis, she commented that I was (or should be) referencing and explaining competencies, not just skills, which students will need. This really got me thinking. 

As I reflected on her feedback I began to dive deeper into what the difference is between competencies and skills as well as their implications on learning.  Below is an image that until my conversation with Rose I would have just viewed as another catchy way to visualize digital skills that students (and adults) need. However, I am now more focused on how we can begin to address these as competencies to really prepare students for success in a disruptive world.


Image credit: www.weforum.org/agenda/2016/06/8-digital-skills-we-must-teach-our-children/

While skills are an important part of learning and career paths, they’re not rich or nuanced enough to guide students towards true mastery and success. Skills focus on the “what” in terms of the abilities a student needs to perform a specific task or activity. They don’t provide enough connection to the how. Competencies take this to the next level by translating skills into behaviors that demonstrate what has been learned and mastered in a competent fashion. In short, skills identify what the goal is to accomplish. 

Competencies outline "how" the goals and objectives will be accomplished. They are more detailed and define the requirements for success in broader, more inclusive terms than skills do. There is also an increased level of depth that takes into account skills, knowledge and abilities. To succeed in the new world of work, students will need to demonstrate the right mix of skills, knowledge, and on-the-job ability. A skill is a practical or cognitive demonstration of what a student can do. Competency is the proven use of skills, knowledge, and abilities to illustrate mastery of learning by solving problems. 

In order to really see the difference between a skill and competency I came across this great communication example provided by HRTMS
A person can become a good presenter through practice, learning from others, and education but in order to be a strong communicator one must rely on a combination of skills PLUS behavior and knowledge.  A person can learn how to be a good presenter but only a strong communicator has advanced language skills, the knowledge of diverse cultures, and behaves patiently when communicating.   In short, skills are specific learned activities like mopping the floor, using a computer, and stocking merchandise, while competencies are skills + knowledge  + behavior like problem solving, communication, or professionalism.
Competencies, therefore, may incorporate a skill, but are much more than the skill.  They include a dynamic combination of abilities, attitudes, and behaviors, as well as knowledge that is fundamental to the use of a skill aligned to a learning outcome. The Rigor/ Relevance Framework helps us move from a focus on skills to competency-based learning. The acquisition and application of diverse skills is foundational, but moving to Quad D requires the use of skills, knowledge, and abilities to illustrate cognitive growth and authenticity through solving real-world problems that are unpredictable in nature. 

Success in a digital world will rely on much more than skills.  It's time to shift our focus an energy on developing and assessing core and innovative competencies that will serve all students now and in the future. 
Posted: April 23, 2017, 12:55 pm
Change is a process, not an event.  Saying this and fully understanding the intricacies involved with the process of change are two totally different things. Change isn’t something that can just be willed on a person, people, or organization.  Mandates and top-down directives rarely become embedded and sustained components of school culture because once the focus changes (and it always does) then all the time, energy, and frustration transfers to the new initiative. These “flavor of the month” rituals driven by a need to embrace the next big thing drives everyone crazy and only exasperates the whispers of this too shall pass, which eventually morph into a chorus of resistance.

Let me be blunt.  Change for the sake of change is a ridiculous waste of time and resources. Improvements are needed in every school and district.  Some changes will be mandated from your respective state. In some cases, these will be hard to swallow, but from an accountability perspective you will need to dig deep and display what constitutes real leadership even if this is not modeled by the people in power above you.  Nobody likes change and this includes many of you!  Our brains are wired to keep us safe and be risk-adverse. This is not to say that many people are not willing to try to implement new ideas and strategies, but when we do there is often a sense of fear and concern as to what happens if we are not successful.  Rest assured it is a natural part of the change process.

Image credit: http://outsourcemag.com/

Large change efforts can stymy even the most ardent leaders who pursue different and better. There are so many moving parts, people to please, and hurdles to overcome that getting derailed is a reality that must be put front and center from the beginning. Below I am going to offer some tips on how to not only move large change efforts forward, but to also ensure sustainability and efficacy.  The tips and strategies below are framed around one large change initiative that I helped facilitate as a high school principal - a new teacher evaluation system in our district. NJ mandated every district to adopt an evaluation tool that was more detailed and moved away from the traditional narrative report.  Here is what we learned:

  • Be a part of the solution – Large-scale change typically happens at the district level. When I found out that the district was going to be selecting a new evaluation tool I immediately volunteered to be a part of the process. Regardless of your position don’t sit by idly on the sidelines. Get involved!
  • Do your research - In this case, we had to adopt a new evaluation tool and there were many choices available.  My team and I did an exhaustive study to narrow down the choices to what we felt were the best four options.  We also looked at the research that supported each tool.  
  • Embrace the 4 C’s – In this case the 4 C’s are Communication, Committee, Collaboration, and Consensus. Success of any change, minor or major, begins with effective communication. Your entire staff and community need to know the what, why, where, and when associated with the change. Communication never ceases to be a prevalent component of this process. Next, form a committee and make sure diverse voices and personalities are represented.  For the change to really take hold supporters and critics alike must come together. Establish committee norms to facilitate an environment where the goal is to collaborate to come to a consensus as to what is the best way to move the change forward.  In our case, we reviewed the research on each of the four evaluation tools being considered, allowed each company to pitch their product to the committee, and then openly debated which tool we felt would work best for our school district. 
  • Implement with intent and integrity – Once consensus is reached it is time yet again to communicate clearly why the decision was made and how implementation will proceed. The focus should be on how this change will improve teaching, learning, and/or leadership. Provide as much information that validates why the change is being implemented and be honest if any questions or critical feedback arise.
  • Provide adequate and appropriate support – Needless to say professional development (not the drive-by variety) is critical for large-scale change to succeed. After deciding on an evaluation tool, we provided in-house trainings on not only the tool itself, but also how the process of conducting observations and evaluations would change. The support continued on an on going, as needed basis until the feeling was that the path to sustainability was well on its way.
  • Evaluate, reflect, act – Nothing is perfect in the field of education.  As such we must always look to improve, not just sustain, a change initiative. The process of reflection and evaluation on a consistent basis helps to create a culture committed to growth and improvement.  Taking action to make things better leads to a culture of excellence. 

So there you have it. There is no recipe for change, but experience informs us on how we can make the process a bit smoother eventually leading to success.  

Posted: April 16, 2017, 2:06 pm
The only thing that might be harder than embracing change is making tough decisions. A hallmark of great leadership is creating the conditions to arrive at consensus when major decisions will impact the entire school or district. Giving others a say and allowing for critical conversation is a sign of strength, not weakness.  As change is a process, not an event, discussions, feedback, and reflection can and should take time in order to make the best decision possible. This helps to ensure successful implementation and sustainability. 

As a leader in your classroom, school, district, or organization the buck stops with you.  Actions are what truly matter and ultimately determine your effectiveness.  Actions change things and your decision to act under a variety of circumstances is more important than ever.  Decisions made by leaders have always been placed under a microscope, but the digital world has opened the process to even more scrutiny.  Many decisions must be made at the individual level and leaders understand this. In an age of mandates, directives, budget cuts, and a lack of time, getting some support to guide the decision- making process is a good thing.  Enter the Eisenhower Matrix.


Image credit: http://jamesclear.com/eisenhower-box

As I was perusing my Twitter stream the other day I came across this tool and immediately saw its value. Educational leaders are faced with a barrage of decisions daily and sometimes they come in clumps.  During my time as a high school principal this seemed to be more the norm than the exception. So what do you do when faced with juggling numerous issues at a time? Some decisions have to take precedent over others. This tool can assist you with deciding on and prioritizing tasks by urgency and importance. Through a critical reflection of the decision at hand you can begin to sort out less urgent and important tasks that can be either delegated to someone else or not do at all. Below are some simple tips to consider when using the matrix to improve productivity by making better decisions.


Image credit: http://www.ciaraconlon.com/

The Eisenhower Matrix illustrates that indecision is an option available to leaders. In your respective position begin to align items to each box that correlate with the types of decisions you have to commonly make.  The uniqueness of your position and professional beliefs will result in priorities that differ from your face-to-face colleagues and those in your Personal Learning Network (PLN). Delegate when possible, but own the decisions that will have the most impact on your students, school, and district.  

As you begin to follow through on making both difficult and not so difficult decisions, be cognizant of what must come next, which might be even more important that making the decision in the first place. Be an active part of the process through modeling actions to bring about change. Don’t be a boss…be a leader. Anyone can tell others what to do. Showing them how is what separates real leaders from the pretenders.

Posted: April 9, 2017, 1:42 pm
People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” – Maya Angelou 

When I was asked a while back to write a book for Jossey-Bass, I was relatively non-committal.  I had just finished back-to-back projects that resulted in Digital Leadership and Uncommon Learning, which took up a great deal of my time.  In my mind I needed a break from writing and on top of that really had no clue what to write about. For me, the ultimate goal I establish when taking on a book project is to try to write a unique piece that either greatly enhances existing work in the education and leadership space or creates an entirely new niche. I’m not going to lie – in this bold new digital world this is extremely hard.

The acquisitions editor at the time never gave up on me. This made me think hard and reflect on what topic I was truly passionate about. I eventually settled on branding in education, but not for the reason you might think. During my career as a principal branding became synonymous with the successful digital transformation that occurred at my former school. Using digital tools, we crafted a new narrative about the amazing work that was taking place that was backed by evidence of results.  We showed that embracing innovative practices aligned to a sound pedagogical foundation could create a learning culture rooted in meaningful learning and relationships. Efficacy, in part, was transparently integrated in our stories of struggle, systems change, and success. The power of telling our story galvanized and inspired us in ways we never could have imagined. 

The outcomes described above might never had come to pass had it not been for Trish Rubin.  In 2009 as I began my journey to becoming a digital leader, she relentlessly reached out to me and explained how I was incorporating branding principles in innovative ways.  Trish, a former educator turned business maven, helped me realize that a focus on telling, not selling, was creating unique value to my school community.  As a result we embarked on a journey to delve into how a brandED mindset could help promote, sustain, and amplify the great work taking place every day in schools across the world. We scratched the surface in 2013 as I worked with her to include a chapter on branding in Digital Leadership, which later came out early in 2014.  However, there was more to this story.


Order your copy TODAY!

As I reflected on my journey with Trish my mind became set on writing BrandED as a way to pay if forward with Trish and thank her for how she helped me as a leader. She opened my eyes to a concept that resonated not only with me, but also my stakeholders and countless educators across the world. She helped me address my own bias with a business only view of branding and together we worked to unlock the benefits of become the storyteller-in-chief.  To model this, we wrote the book using a conversational tone. Chapters have been re-titled conversations as we take readers on a journey through the history of brand and how a mindset shift can leverage powerful aspects resulting in an improved learning culture, expanded school performance, and increased resources. 
"If you want to change education, change the story being told." 
With change in education the brandED conversation is more important than ever.  As greatness occurs every single day it is imperative that we share in transparent ways to create a new status quo using brandED strategies. Quite simply, if you don’t tell your story someone else will.  Define before being defined. It is our hope that our book will lay the foundation for all educators to tell their story, empower learning, and build relationships. Relationships are built, in part, on feeling. BrandED illustrates to readers how feeling can be cultivated through image, promise, result, vision, belief, emotion, and value.  Below are some key takeaways:
  • Leverage digital tools to become the storyteller-in-chief and build better community relationships
  • Strengthen internal and external communications among students, teachers, parents, and other stakeholders
  • Increase resources by establishing strategic partnerships and strengthening ties to key stakeholders
  • Promote connectivity, transparency, and community to build a positive culture that extends beyond the schoolhouse door to build powerful relationships
As with all books BrandED has been a labor of love.  One thing that Trish and I emphasize throughout the book is how the strategies presented connect to research. Some other key aspects include reflective questions at the end of each conversation to help readers think critically about how to implement the strategies presented.  There are also practitioner stories throughout the book that illustrate how brandED thinking can positively impact learning and leadership. Finally, the book wraps up with numerous resources curated in an appendix including digital tools that can be implemented immediately to begin, sustain, or enhance your brandED journey. 

On behalf of Trish and I we really hope you enjoy reading this book as much as we enjoyed writing it. Grab your copy today and join the conversation on social media by using #brandEDU. Below are a few reviews.

"Branding instead of being branded. Defining instead of being defined. Innovative educators must stand up for their ideas and actions instead of being judged and branded by external agencies using standardized measures. Eric Sheninger and Trish Rubin present an excellent guide for educators and education leaders to tell their stories through BrandED."
Yong Zhao, PhD, Foundation Distinguished Professor, School of Education, University of Kansas and author of Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Dragon?

"A great resource for educators who want to strengthen their connections with students, teachers, parents, and the wider community. These two innovative leaders don't just capture how to tell the story of a school—they show how to create it."
Adam Grant, New York Times bestselling author of Originals and Give and Take

"Every day in every one of your schools, great things happen. How does your community know? Schools that are Future Ready boldly engage their community to build relationships and empower both students and families. Powerful yet practical, BrandED is the perfect resource to help your school share its story with the world."
Thomas C. Murray, Director of Innovation, Future Ready Schools

"Eric and Trish demystify what it means to brand one's school by providing eight compelling conversations that not only lead to a deeper understanding of branding, but provide relevant ways for school leaders to frame their work… . In the vast sea of information in which we currently reside, using the BrandED Leadership methods described in this book will help school leaders reach their audiences in ways that create trusting relationships and loyalty."
Dwight Carter, Principal, New Albany High School

"Disruption is the new normal. And the great disruptors of our time are shaping the culture itself in innovative ways. Eric and Trish's book BrandED sends a very compelling message to school leaders that developing and executing a smart, innovative brand strategy can disrupt the best practices' conventions of the existing school system. Like great disruptive brands from Apple to Uber, educators now have the ability to get the community engaged and immersed in the school's brand equity—and BrandED provides the roadmap for getting there." 
Scott Kerr, Executive Director of Strategy and Insights, Time Inc.

Posted: April 3, 2017, 12:29 pm
As an identical twin it was always a challenge going through school.  Initially my brother and I had to deal with the fact that our teachers could not tell us apart. My grandmother rectified this problem by outfitting each of us with belts that had our first initial on them.  As we aged beyond the elementary years, teachers began to tell us apart better as some slight differences in appearance began to take shape as well as some major shifts in personality.  Thank goodness for that, as we would never have survived through the middle school years if we were still forced to wear those belts. 

The second challenge came in the form of academic achievement.  For my twin, learning and success, based on traditional metrics, came very easily.  It seemed to me at least that he did not have to put in much effort to earn high marks on assessments. Obviously my stance on grades and learning has changed a great deal since then, but this nonetheless posed yet another challenge of being a twin.  I had to study twice as long or longer just to earn a B in many of the same classes where my brother got an A. School came much easier for my brother.

My saving grace came in the form of some amazing teachers. I loved the life sciences, particularly biology. My love for science eventually led me to pursue an undergraduate degree in marine biology.  This genuine interest took hold in the 7th grade thanks to Mr. South, my science teacher.  As I got to high school I still had a strong interest in science, but struggled in certain courses such as chemistry and anatomy/physiology.  The struggle was amplified as my brother excelled in both courses. Ah, the joy of going to a small school.

Thankfully for me Dr. Raymond Hynoski was the teacher of both these courses. He was a quirky fellow at times, but someone who had a firm grasp of the content and helped students master the concepts.  Each of his classes was filled with humor, relevance, and inspiration that everyone in the class could be a chemist or doctor.  His most endearing characteristic was how he consistently went above and beyond to let all his students know that he cared.  Each day I looked forward to attending his classes even if I struggled.  I might not have done as well as I would have liked in his courses, but I tried hard and Dr. Hynoksi was able to emphasize even the slightest successes in my efforts to learn the concepts. I had to take chemistry.  It was not a choice. Anatomy and physiology was an elective that I only signed up for because Dr. Hynoski was the teacher. 

There are many lessons that caring educators such as Dr. Hynoski teach us.  So much pressure is placed on teachers and administrators to achieve at all costs. Rankings, stakeholder perceptions about the importance of standardized test scores, and honor rolls do nothing but make this issue worse. This is unfortunate as grades and scores are not what students will remember.  What will resonate with students long after they have passed through our schools are the educators who believed in them. The ability of educators to provide hope and encouragement that inspire learners to follow their dreams and aspirations provides a priceless value that is not often acknowledged publicly, but greatly appreciated privately.


Image credit: Jackie Gerstein

The power of empathy and the act of caring could mean the difference between a child sticking out school or dropping out.  School to many children serves as a refuge from the harsh world that is their unfortunate reality. It could also provide invaluable lessons that fuel a career path that might never have been imagined.  Showing that you care daily takes only a little effort, but the potential payoff is much more valuable than what you could ever receive in a monetary sense. 

All kids have greatness hidden inside them. It is the job of an educator to help them find and unleash it. Show that you care especially as students struggle. You can never care too much.  Thank you to Dr. Hynoksi and many of my other teachers for teaching me what truly matters in life.

As adults we must not forget the power of showing each other we care.  Positive encouragement and support go a long way in helping others cope with the challenges of life while building lasting relationships. Take the time to mail a card, make a phone call, or send an electronic form of communication not just to those in need, but to others on a whim. In my opinion, there is not a right or wrong way to care…. we just need to make more concerted efforts to do it regularly.

Posted: March 26, 2017, 12:40 pm
A great deal has been written about the future and the importance of preparing students with the skills, mindset, and attributes necessary for success in a rapidly evolving world. Truth be told, this is quite the harrowing task and one that should compel us all to pause and critically reflect on not only where schools are, but more importantly where our students need them to be. If schools continue down the track of sustaining outdated practices we will continue to churn out a population of students that are only good at doing school.  This applies not only to K-12, but also higher education.  Change is not coming, it is already here beating down the door. 

Speaking of change . . . With the rapid pace of technological change, specifically advances in robotics and artificial intelligence, it is nearly impossible to hypothesize the types of jobs that will be available.  Thus, schools and education in general need to create a learning culture that not only inspires students, but also prepares them for success in their future. This means re-integrating trade-based courses and programs that use to be the norm in virtually every school.  After all, the world will still need plumbers, electricians, carpenters, and auto mechanics well into the future. The caveat here though is to employ forward thinking to create new areas of study and exploration. These revamped programs should afford students the opportunity to use real-world tools to engage in meaningful work that aligns with a future-focused vision. How well schools do this might ultimately determine not only the future success of our students, but a prosperous future in general. 




Without a crystal ball it is difficult to foresee with certainty what the future will hold.  However, an endless array of cues garnered from technological innovation affords us the opportunity to reinvent schools in ways that can give students a fighting chance in the new world of work. We first acknowledge the fact that the way many of us were taught and assessed has little value in today’s world, let alone the future.  The second acknowledgement is that an effectuation with standardized test scores, grades, and homework will only result in schools going deeper down the rabbit hole.  Something must give.

The new world of work presents a wakeup call of sorts. A business as usual model based on efficiency, repetition, and knowledge acquisition will only prepare students for a world that no longer exists.  Skills that emphasize the unique abilities specific to human beings will enable not only current, but also future generations of learners to prevail in a world where technology will eventually replace most jobs currently available.  The challenge for education is to begin to embrace new modes of thinking and innovative practices that are disruptive in nature and difficult to assess using traditional metrics.  This shift will not be easy, but the outcome could pay off tenfold. 

We are at a crossroads in education.  Traditional measures of success often blind us from the truth.  Consider looking at the current job market and see where the trends reside by conducting an audit.  Then compare these to your curriculum, course offerings, pedagogy, learning spaces, available technology, schedule, and other key components of school culture to determine how prepared your students are for the current workforce.  Take your audit one step further and determine how/if imagination, negotiating, questioning, empathizing, storytelling, connecting, creativity, and design are emphasized in your school culture. This audit will help you determine preparedness for the new world of work. 

Posted: March 19, 2017, 11:59 am
Let’s face it, school, as we know it is driven by grades as the main reflection of what students do, or do not, know.  What has resulted is a rat race of sorts where many kids and parents alike have their eye on the prize. The prize in this case is either a coveted letter or number grade that is celebrated above the most important aspect of education – whether a student actually learned and can apply this newly constructed knowledge in meaningful ways. Micro-credentials, although a step in a better direction as a means to make feedback more personal, can also perpetuate this problem.  

The process of grading is convoluted and fraught with errors and at times arbitrary decisions.  Just think about the inherent disaster of points systems. Many grades are determined using an accumulation of points over a set amount of time including homework (just checked for completeness), extra-credit, meeting (or failing to meet) behavioral expectations, participation, or a loss of points for late assignments.  The last example illustrates how many grades are nowhere close to indicating what a student has actually learned. The issues with grading are not new.  After an analysis of several research studies, Alfie Kohn (2011) concluded the following:
  • Grades tend to diminish students’ interest in whatever they’re learning.  
  • Grades create a preference for the easiest possible task.
  • Grades tend to reduce the quality of students’ thinking.
Grading perpetuates a bigger problem.  If students come through our doors each day to just "do school" then we have already failed them. By failure I mean a blatant disregard for providing them with the necessary skills, behaviors, and qualities that a grade could never quantify.  Grading is a major component compelling kids to just go through the motions and “do” school. Learning, not grades, should be the reward for students. Helping them recognize this is the challenge we must all accept. I recently came across the learning pit concept and it immediately resonated with me.  With learning as not only the goal, but also the final outcome, students are guided through a process that illustrates how learning is the ultimate reward. When grades are thrown into the mix the focus becomes a path of least resistance, negating the positive outcomes associated with students experiencing the learning pit. 


Image credit: http://francinemassue.weebly.com/

What is the hard truth about traditional grades and how they are currently used? In this day and age I think grades are more for parents and schools than they are for the students we are trying to serve. Learning is not only a messy process, but it the path also varies greatly from student to student. All kids learn differently and possess different and unique abilities to show us that they understand concepts. Makerspace work and projects that students engage in are a great example of this point. Students do to learn through trial and error, failure, collaboration, cross-disciplinary connections, taking risks, and overcoming certain fears that grades bring about. The ultimate reward is making something that does something and in many cases this is a workable solution to a problem they identified. 

I think we are a long way off from abolishing all grades.  That doesn’t mean we can’t critically reflect on the role grades play and how they are calculated.  If the true goal of schools is learning then that should be reflected somehow in a grade.  We must begin by developing better formative and summative assessments that move away from students telling us what they know and instead show us that they understand. A mindset shift is also needed where students work and think in ways that allow them to experience the inherent rewards of entering and exiting the learning pit.  This is Quad D learning at its finest. 

Posted: March 12, 2017, 11:17 am
Let’s face it – great things occur in all schools on a daily basis. We see the fruits of our labor through our students as they show growth in learning over time. There is nothing more gratifying as a servant of education then when our passion translates into helping students of various ability levels accomplish tasks that they themselves never thought possible.  There are countless stories to be shared that illustrate how schools are meeting the diverse needs of learners today while preparing them for success in their future.  Telling these stories adds another layer to initiatives and strategies developed to empower students and energize a community of stakeholders.


Image credit: https://brushheadmusings.wordpress.com

The good news doesn’t stop there.  Teachers, administrators, and parents go above and beyond to serve kids and the profession. Each story told helps to establish a new reality instead of one that historically has been dominated by perception.  As I have been writing since 2009, if you don’t tell your story someone else will. When someone else controls the narrative, chances are it might not paint an accurate picture of what is truly happening in your classroom, school, or district. Embracing a storyteller-in-chief mindset should no longer be optional, but instead a decision grounded in the benefits of being transparent and building powerful relationships with stakeholders (parents, media, businesses, community members, etc.). This is the premise behind brandED leadership.

To get the good news out you don’t have to continue to wait patiently for the mainstream media to cover your stories. It also doesn’t have to result in a drain on your time.  By working smarter, not harder, you can begin the process of curating and then sharing powerful learning success stories that will help to establish a new, better identity in a digital world. One strategy I developed as a principal was to create a template for my staff to easily share all the amazing work they were engaged in both with students and their own learning. This template was used to create the monthly Principal’s Report as I called it. The categories included the following:

  • Guest speakers
  • Innovative practices
  • Student honors
  • Field trips
  • Guidance news
  • Professional learning
  • Theater arts
  • Facility updates
  • Other

The categories above are what I used and provide a frame of reference to create your own template. Each month I would send the template out and ask my teachers to share any pertinent work. Everything was then curated into a final document, edited twice, and then sent out to my stakeholders using Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Google+, Remind, our school app, and an email blast. The final product was nothing fancy, but loaded with valuable news and insights to show everyone in our community the great work happening inside and outside the walls of our building. Check out an example HERE. Want to share content like this across multiple social media platforms with one tool to save time? If so check out IFTTT. Want to program specific times to send out tweets and other social media messages? Well there are tools for that as well. Check out Buffer and Hootsuite

The report became an invaluable resource for me to pull content into other digital channels and further amplify the work taking place at my school.  With my teachers permission I copied and pasted excerpts and worked the content into more elaborate blog posts.  You could even apply the same concept to Smore.  I also began to incorporate the ideas, strategies, and innovative practices into presentations I was delivering both at the local and state level. When video and pictures are incorporated you ultimately develop a digital leadership strategy that not only gets the good news out, but does so in a way that builds a positive brand presence. 

Keep in mind this simple equation to consistently get the good news out:

Communications + Public Relations = Brand presence

For more tips and ideas on how this equation can help you get the good news out click HERE. What other ways are you leveraging to get the good news out on your classroom, school, or district?


Posted: March 5, 2017, 1:53 pm
In a previous post I discussed in detail strategies to help ensure the effective use of technology to improve learning outcomes. You don’t have to be a fan of technology, but you do need to understand that it’s a catalyst for some exciting pedagogical changes.  The purposeful use of technology can innovate assessment, transform time frames around learning, increase collaboration, enable learning about information and research thanks to unprecedented access, and provide a level of student ownership like never before. These are all outcomes that any educator would (or should) openly embrace. 

I get the fact that technology can increase engagement, but if that engagement does not lead to evidence of learning then what’s the point?  Like it or not, all educators are being held accountable in some form or another for improvement in learning outcomes that result in an increase in achievement.  This is why evidence of a return on instruction (ROI) when integrating technology is critical. Just using it to access information is also not a sound use. As teachers and administrators we must be more intentional when it comes to digital learning.  If the norm is surface-level integration that asks students to demonstrate knowledge and comprehension the most beneficial aspects of digital are missed. A recent article by Beth Holland for Edutopia reinforced many of my thoughts as of late on this topic. Below some words of caution from her:
“The dissemination of digitized, teacher-driven content is not full blended learning. Though this can be viewed as a first step toward new models of learning, the peril lies in complacency. When blended learning is equated with digital workflow, students remain consumers of teacher-directed content instead of becoming creators of knowledge within a context that they can actively control.”
Student agency is one of the most powerful improvements that technology can provide.  This is the ultimate goal in my opinion, but to begin to set the stage for consistent, effective use a uniform pedagogical shift has to be our focus when it comes to digital learning.  The Rigor Relevance Framework provides a solid lens to look at the learning tasks that students are engaged in and redesign them in ways that move away from telling us what they know and instead showing whether or not they actually understand.



This simple, yet powerful shift can be applied to all digital activities. Now I full understand there is a time and place for basic knowledge acquisition and recall, especially at elementary level. However, the goal should be an evolution in pedagogy, especially assessment, where students can demonstrate conceptual mastery in a variety of ways. Instead of using technology to ask students what the capitol is of a state or country ask them to create a brochure using a tool of their choice and explain why the capitol is located where it is.  When designing digital learning tasks think about how students can demonstrate understanding aligned to standards by:
  • Arguing  
  • Creating
  • Designing 
  • Inventing
  • Concluding
  • Predicting
  • Exploring
  • Planning
  • Rating
  • Justifying
  • Defending
  • Comparing
It is important to understand that the verbs above should apply to a range of innovative learning activities, not just those involving digital tools.  By moving away from the use of technology to support low-level learning tasks we can really begin to unleash it’s potential while providing students with greater relevance through authentic work.  This shift will take some time, but the ultimate learning payoff is well worth it. Below are some examples of how my teachers made this shift when I was the principal at New Milford High School:
Mr. Groff’s history classes utilized Paperlet, a participatory technology platform where students created digital stories that incorporated various multimedia elements including video, sound, and image files. The students worked with Mrs. Fleming on Google Chromebooks in the library to design their e-books. During the course of the activity students made recommendations to Paperlet designers on needed changes and enhancements, which were immediately made to improve student experiences.  
Students in Mrs. Groff’s Voices in Poetry and Prose classes had been reading independently since the beginning of the school year. They chose their own books to read based on their interests and reading levels. Students then worked with Mrs. Groff and Mrs. Fleming to create book trailers on their favorite books. Students used WeVideo, Windows Movie Maker, iMovie, and other available technologies to create their videos. These trailers were then loaded onto WeVideo and a hash tag was used to share and get feedback from all over the world. 
Jessica Groff and Joanna Westbrook created an ELA task that incorporated Twitter into their unit on Julius Caesar and built on content authentic to the play – i.e. social media repurposed with and for academic discourse. To accomplish their goals, these teachers began with an informational text on the history of the Roman Forum to ground their use of social media in historical discourse and academic content. In addition, the teachers worked with students to reverse engineer the rhetoric of Twitter and generate a list of the style of the tweets students see currently in their daily lives. They also used Mozilla Thimble to create memes that allowed both the tech-savvy and non-tech savvy to present their visuals in a more professional manner. The use of this technology allowed students to bring visual clarity, some humor, and some creativity to their responses.  
Mr. Devereaux's AP Biology class used the apps iMotion and Stop Motion Studio to create stop-motion videos showing the process of meiosis. They used iMovie to put voice-overs into their videos to describe the process.
Lend a critical lens to your digital learning activities to being to develop more activities where students demonstrate what they understand as opposed to what they just know. As pedagogy evolves in step with technology, a key to success will be to ensure that meaningful, high-level, and valuable learning results. 

Posted: February 26, 2017, 1:54 pm
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