A Principal’s Reflections

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: June 25, 2017, 8:21 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
I remember the days when I was not a very big believer in educational technology. For one, I saw the use of tools just as a means to become more efficient at delivering instruction. Man, could I rock a PowerPoint lecture. As Chris Lehmann says, “You deliver pizzas, not instruction.” Boy, did I have it all wrong.  As I moved from the classroom to administration, I still saw technology from a mere delivery aspect. My goals were all about replacing overhead projectors with LCD projectors and screens or interactive whiteboards.  Updating the few computer labs was also a priority so students could complete projects using the Internet in a safe, controlled environment.

From 2004 through 2008, I basically rubber-stamped the status quo while adding a splash here and there of technology.  My personal views towards social media and mobile devices remained unhinged during this time, as I was adamantly opposed to both. Not only did I run around the halls of my school taking devices away from terrified students who dared to take them out during the instructional day, but I also helped write the policies that blocked many social media sites.  To say I had a fixed mindset would be a gross understatement. Enlightenment eventually came in the form of a little blue bird.  The informal learning in digital spaces taught me about the real role technology could play in our transformational process. Social media was my savior and helped me to develop a growth mindset.  


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

Technology is a fantastic tool that when integrated with purpose can support and enhance learning in ways that many of us never imagined. With all tools there are limitations as to what they can do.  As I have said over and over, I truly believe that pedagogy trumps technology, especially in the classroom. Success is inherent upon how students and educators use tools to transform teaching, learning, and leadership.  The successful digital transformation that took place at my school is well documented.  However, I am the first to acknowledge that the most significant catalyst for change that resulted from our entry into the edtech world was a new lens to critically reflect on professional practice. 

Engaging in several technology initiatives over a five-year span brought to light many areas of our school culture that could be dramatically improved. We must reflect on past practice in order to improve current practice. The edtech lens helped to develop a focus on examining not only our pedagogical practices, but also other core components of the learning culture at our school.  This lens enabled us to see more clearly as to what had to improve for edtech to actually live up to the lofty expectations that have been promoted by so many pundits. In terms of improvement the edtech lens compelled us to reflect on the following:


All of the above elements are critical in determining that there is a Return on Instruction (ROI), which is evidence of improved student learning outcomes when integrating technology. Integrating technology and innovating just for the sake of it will never pay off in the long run. If we don’t hold others and ourselves accountable for purposeful technology integration aligned to real results, we run the risk of precious time and money being wasted.  

Schools and educators across the world are doing amazing things with technology. We must always be cognizant of the way in which technology is integrated. Does technology support high-level learning? Are students using technology to demonstrate conceptual mastery in ways that they couldn’t without it? How do we know if teaching, learning, and leadership have changed in order to unlock to full potential of technology?

Be proud of the steps you have taken to make learning more relevant and meaningful with technology. Continue to embrace innovative practices in order to implement new learning pathways for students. I ask you though to always lend a critical eye to both technology and innovation using a lens that peels away the talk, hype, and surface-level appeal.  Improve and strengthen the foundation of your professional practice. Identify elements of school culture that are being held back by the status quo. Most importantly, continually look to build powerful relationships with stakeholders, especially students. 

Posted: March 19, 2017, 2:14 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
There is a great deal of talk and focus on the need to improve student agency in our schools and rightfully so (see my post on this topic HERE).  Empowerment and ownership need and should be associated with learning to increase relevancy, value, meaning, and outcomes.  The desire to increase agency in the form of voice, choice, and advocacy should be viewed as just as important for educators (teachers and administrators) as it is for students.  For sustainable change and innovative practices to take hold let’s evaluate the level of educator agency in our schools. 


Image credit: www.peoplematters.in

Voice

Educators, both teachers and administrators, should have a say in many elements that influence a school’s learning culture.  When we don’t listen to the ideas and concerns of others people will shut down and withdraw. This results in a negative impact on motivation, respect, enthusiasm and a willingness to innovate.  In terms of communication, the aspect of listening is just as important in leading and sustaining change as the use of verbal and non-verbal strategies.  Educator voice can be cultivated using the following strategies:
  • Flipped staff meetingsEveryone who plans a meeting works terribly hard to develop and then get through an agenda.  This results in a death-by-meeting scenario and is a main reason why most people hate meetings. Consider developing a meeting agenda using Google Docs. The added bonus here is that other documents, images, and videos can be embedded, which really creates a more dynamic agenda.  Complete this a week prior and then send out to your staff where they can add comments and content to the agenda.  Then during the actual meeting focus on one or two very important goals such as the following: How do we improve learning for our students? Have a back channel established and monitored using a tool like TodaysMeet to take educator voice to the next level.  Creating a trusting environment where staff can respond under the cover of anonymity amplifies voice even more.   
  • Planning professional learningHow many of us dreaded professional development (PD) days? Historically PD has always been something that was done to us, not something that we wanted to engage in.  The best way to change the paradigm here is to afford educators opportunities to use their voice and ideas to plan powerful learning experiences.  This could consist of speaker recommendations, workshop topics, hosting your own event, or even the development of an unconference.  Just as we want students to own their learning the same should apply to adults. 
  • Comment box – This strategy has been used in the hospitality business for ages.  Some people just want their concerns to be heard, but acting on certain concerns can be empowering on many levels.  Consider having some of your talented students create a wood box do this the traditional way and then leave it in the faculty room.  If digital leadership is your thing, set up a few tools (Padlet, TodaysMeet, Tackk) and allow anonymous comments to be posted.  Establish some ground rules prior such as including a solution to go along with the identified problem, as you don’t want this to turn into a gripe session.  The comment box should also be used as an opportunity to provide compliments and positive reinforcement.

    Choice

    In the classroom, agency empowers a shift where students can choose the right tool for the right task to demonstrate conceptual understanding and mastery. Various pathways to personalize learning and make it more personal are also emphasized.  Educators should have more choice over how they learn themselves. They should also have choice over resources that they, the experts who work with students the most on a day to day basis, feel are valuable to support and enhance learning.  Below are some ideas on how to promote educator choice:
    • Micro-credentials – The use of digital badges, otherwise known as micro-credentials, can afford educators choice over what they want to learn about as well as the specific time that they want to learn a new skill or pedagogical technique.  Accountability for learning is ensured through a vetting process and the badge represents the successful achievement of a learning goal. Thanks to the leadership of Laura Fleming we implemented a micro-credential system to acknowledge the informal learning of our teachers and administrators.  You can visit her site HERE and begin to earn your own badges through choice or work to implement your own system.
    • Genius Hour - Genius hour is a movement that allows students to explore their own passions and encourages creativity in the classroom.  It provides students a choice in what they learn during a set period of time during school.  This concept can be applied for educators as well.  As principal I created the Professional Growth Period (PGP) where in lieu of a non-instructional duty my staff were given 2-3 forty-eight minute periods per week to follow their learning passions.  A learning portfolio was required as part of this process and presented at the end of year evaluation conference. You can learn more about the PGP process HERE
    • Distributive budgeting – Distributive leadership conveys the importance of a shared, collective and extended leadership practice that builds the capacity for change and improvement. This can be applied to the budgeting process when it comes time to purchase learning tools, resources, and services (PD providers). The choice factor honors the expertise found in our classrooms and schools and can serve as a great catalyst for sustainable change. 

    Advocacy

    Educators need to be put in a position where they can actively advocate for system improvements without the fear of repercussion.  It is important to understand that there is no perfect teacher, classroom, administrator, school, district, or system. In education, we must focus on areas where our data tells us we can improve, but also continue to push the envelope by embracing innovative ideas and an edupreneurial mindset (learn more about this concept in my book BrandED). Advocacy educators consider voice and support for a cause to bring about needed change.  Let’s face it, even with progress in schools there still are many areas that need improvement. Forums should be established where advocates for grading, homework, schedule, curriculum, budget, and professional development reform can not only be heard, but also offer recommendations for improvement.  These need to be safe places where open dialogue is encouraged and action results. 

    These are my thoughts on improving educator agency in our schools to compliment student agency. When looking at the three essential elements (voice, choice, advocacy) what examples would you add?

    Posted: February 19, 2017, 1:58 pm
    In many cases, there seems to be a tendency to water down expectations when it comes to integrating technology.  During a recent presentation on digital pedagogy for deeper learning I asked attendees to discuss then share out on TodaysMeet how they were effectively integrating technology in their classroom, school, or district.  There was an emphasis on describing in detail what effective use of technology meant to them.  As the results poured in there were a few consistent responses that stood out. Most attendees flat out stated that they or their schools/districts were not effectively integrating technology. Others confessed that they weren’t sure what effective use constituted.  Many of the remaining responses centered on just a listing of tools that were being used as a measure of effectiveness. 

    The question about effective use provides a great opportunity for all of us to critically reflect upon the current role technology plays in education.  There is a great deal of potential in the numerous tools now available to support or enhance learning, but we must be mindful of how they are being used. Take Kahoot for example. This tool is used in so many classrooms across the world to get students more engaged and add a level of fun and excitement to the learning process. However, most of the time the questions that students are asked to answer in a Kahoot are focused on the lowest cognitive domains and mostly multiple choice.  I have nothing against Kahoot and think it is a great tool that has a great deal of promise. My issue is how this tool, and many others, are utilized in the classroom. 

    The burden of responsibility here lies with both teachers and administrators. In many cases the engagement factor is emphasized over learning outcomes and actual evidence of improvement aligned to standards. I get that this is not the end all be all, but nevertheless it is important. It goes without saying that effective technology integration should inform instruction and provide feedback as to the level of conceptual mastery students demonstrate. Then there is the unfortunate practice of putting the cart before the horse where acquiring technology and getting it into classrooms takes precedence over improving instructional design.  In either case, for technology to ever live up to the lofty, and at times baseless, expectations that have been established we must take a more critical look at pedagogy. 

    For many educators SAMR is the preferred model often associated with technology integration. It’s a catchy model and does have some value mostly in the form of what we shouldn’t be doing (substitution). Take a close look at the tech-centric language used in each category and ask yourself what does the SAMR model really tell you about the level of student learning? This is why I love the Rigor Relevance Framework as a means to ensure that technology is integrated effectively.  It provides a common language, constitutes the lens through which to examine all aspects of a learning culture (curriculum, instruction, assessment), and helps to create a culture around a common vision. 

    Technology should be integrated in a way that increases engagement through relevance. As students are utilizing technology are they just applying it in one discipline? I am not saying this is a bad thing, but we must eventually move beyond this typical comfort zone when it comes to tool use. When integrating technology does the task allow students:

    • to make connections across various disciplines and content areas?
    • to solve real-world predictable problems?
    • to solve real-world unpredictable problems?

    The other aspect of this framework is the most important.  Are students working, thinking, or both? Successful technology integration is totally dependent on the level of questioning that is asked of our students.  This is why I always say that pedagogy trumps technology.  Think about the formative and summative assessments you either use or see in your respective role. Are students demonstrating high levels of cognitive thought? How do you know whether students have learned or not when integrating technology? What does the feedback loop look like? These are extremely important questions to ask as a teacher or administrator to determine the level of effectiveness. Check out this example to see how all the pieces (rigor, relevance, tech, assessment) come together to create a powerful learning experience).



    The overall goal when integrating technology should be to provide opportunities for students to work and think. Another key strategy for successful integration is to use technology when appropriate. Technology will not improve every lesson or project, thus a focus on pedagogy first, technology second if appropriate with help ensure success. Many aspects of the Rigor Relevance Framework can be used to guide you in developing better questions as part of good pedagogy including:

    • anticipatory set/do-now
    • review of prior learning
    • checking for understanding (formative and summative)
    • closure

    The most important aspects of pedagogy are assessment and feedback.  If technology (and innovation in general) is going to have a positive impact on learning, let’s ensure these areas are improved first. Then going forward always lend a critical eye to how technology is being used to address standards and inform instruction.

    Posted: February 12, 2017, 2:19 pm
    Ideas are a dime a dozen. Everyone has them. Some are good and extremely creative while others are not realistic or applicable to a certain situation.  As social media continues to evolve, there now seems to be an endless sea of ideas as to how education should change and what educators should do to improve professional practice. I will go as far to say that just having an idea is not good enough. It doesn’t take much effort to develop a sound bite that sounds great in theory, but if it is challenging to implement in practice, especially at scale, then we need to reconsider the relevancy of that idea.  

    We all struggle with a tug-of-war of sorts when it comes to ideas.  In many situations we are asked to either implement or embrace the ideas of others, particularly those who we are accountable to or so-called experts in the field. This can be problematic at times if the groundwork explaining the what, why, when, and how has not been clearly articulated.  Then there are those that we develop on our own.  Throughout my career and even up to this point, ideas are constantly flowing through my mind.  There tends to be a bias towards the ones that we come up with, which throws another wrench into the process of moving an idea into actionable change.  

    Being open to new ideas is extremely important in these disruptive times.  If we continue to employ the same type of thinking, then the chances are we will probably have to settle for the same old results…. or worse.  Great ideas are the seeds of change. Many of them don’t have the opportunity to germinate because of our fixed mindsets. For the most part nobody likes change. This is just how our brains are wired, unfortunately for many of us. I can tell you that this was the case for me early in my administrative career.  It is important not to fall victim to idea voodoo.


    Don’t let idea voodoo cloud your vision as to what is possible.  Embracing a growth mindset can put you in a better position to lead change in your classroom, school, district, or organization.  This is only half the battle though. Don’t assume that just because you are open to new ideas that everyone else is.  This is where the hard, and at times frustrating, work comes in. The real challenge of change is getting the resistance to embrace and implement your idea(s). So what makes a great idea that others will embrace and take some calculated risk to implement? Great ideas are:

    Innovative
    Doable
    Energizing
    Aligned
    Sustainable

    Innovative: here are so many words associated with innovation.  Some popular ones include new, change, transformation, improvement, better, and success. Innovation to me, in an educational context, is creating, implementing, and sustaining transformative ideas that instill awe to improve learning. Fresh Ideas are needed that take into account dramatic changes in society, technology, and learner needs.  New is not necessarily better. That is why innovative ideas must focus on improving existing culture.

    Doable: This goes without saying.  Great ideas consider financial resources, time, and mandates. Doable ideas can be associated with lofty goals, but a meticulous effort on articulating the what, why, when, and how must occur to overcome fixed mindsets and an entrenched status quo. 

    Energizing: If an idea doesn’t inspire or motivate someone to embrace different and better then it might just be a crumby idea. Great ideas should be energizing and create a buzz. When people believe that a change will lead to improved outcomes embracement is more likely. Initially this might not be the case. Coming up with great ideas is a start, but the differentiator is how the idea is rolled out. Energizing ideas bring an increased joy to learning and professional practice. They are also presented in ways that motivate and inspire.

    Aligned: Great ideas should complement and then enhance what is already in place. This includes curriculum, standards, mandated assessments, and other elements associated with school/district culture.  They should also be aligned to research, evidence, and professional development. Take a critical lens to all ideas to ensure efficacy. 

    Sustainable: If an idea fizzles out then it probably didn’t meet any or all criteria listed above. Great ideas lead to changes that become embedded into school culture and professional practice. They withstand the test of time and thus become the new normal way of doing business. 

    Just because an idea sounds good doesn’t mean that it will lead to an improvement. It is time to weed out the bad and so-so ideas while striving to make good ideas great. 

    Posted: February 5, 2017, 1:39 pm
    I think, for the most part, everyone strives for success.  We want to be successful in our professional as well as our personal lives.  I strived to be the best possible principal for my students, staff, and community.  Whether I was successful is a matter of perspective. My evaluations seemed to support the fact that I might have been.  I was far from perfect, but always strived for constant improvement. When I reflect upon what was accomplished during my time leading New Milford High School I think many observers would consider my leadership a success based on what we all accomplished together.  Our digital transformation, backed by evidence of improved learner outcomes, has been well documented.  In the eyes of many this is success. 

    As I have transitioned into my new role over the past two years as a Senior Fellow for the International Center for Leadership in Education, I continue to set the bar high for myself. Again, whether I am successful is open for debate. Some observers might see the publishing of books as an indicator of success. Others could equate keynotes in the same manner.  No matter what someone’s view of success is, I can tell you one thing for certain – it is not a linear process. No one goes from point A to B by following a predetermined path or script. The question then becomes why does school, for the most part, focus on a linear transition that manifests itself in the form of curriculum? This is just one example that flies in the face of unleashing the talents of our students while teaching them what success really is. 



    Success results from a series of experiences that include constructing then applying new knowledge, failure, persistence, commitment, perseverance, adaptation, evolution, and most of all reflection. There are so many images out there that illustrate the concept of success being like an iceberg.  In the eyes of many people, success is only what you see or a final product.  The reality is that success really is a unique combination of behaviors, skills, and mindset shifts. The recipe is different for everyone as well as the criteria used to determine success. The fact remains though that the path to success is always convoluted. 


    Image credit: Sylvia Duckworth

    Learning and success are intimately intertwined.  You can’t be successful if you don’t learn. You learn to eventually experience some sort of success in life. Learning, like success, is anything but a linear process.  As such we need to be more mindful of the experiences and structures in our schools if the goal, which it should be, is to prepare students to succeed in their future.  This includes the new world of work where in a few short years many of the jobs that exist today won’t.  If we continue to prescribe students to a one-size-fits-all approach in classrooms that have remained relatively unchanged we are in a sense forcing them down a linear path. Instead of a focus on learn to do, schools need to shift their practices and create a culture where students do to learn.

    Students learn differently and have hidden talents that we must unleash. This is why I love the maker movement and makerspaces in particular.  Nothing, in my opinion, illustrates to kids the many pathways to success than learning with their hands through trial and error, open-ended exploration, and authentic problem solving.  Education needs some disruptive innovation.  We must lend a critical eye to our pedagogy, especially the way we assess and provide feedback to students. It is time for us to work harder to upend the status quo by redefining success in learning. Are you with me?

    Posted: January 29, 2017, 2:04 pm
    For all intents and purposes I had a great K-12 education.  I got relatively good grades, stayed out of trouble, and participated in a wide range of sports and extracurricular activities.  Best of all though were some of the amazing teachers and administrators I had during those years who consistently showed they cared.  In the end I was deemed college ready and was accepted to almost all of the schools to which I had applied. I was so excited to attend Salisbury University in Maryland and study Marine Biology as I was so intrigued by this area of study.  I was again surrounded by some great educators and went on my way to further study in the sciences, eventually finding my way to the field of education.


    Image credit https://media.licdn.com

    As I think back many years later, I have now realized that I was good at school. The system worked the way it was designed. It worked for me, or so I thought. Never was there any question about what I was learning or even why. It was just accepted that this was how school was supposed to be.  Conformity and compliance were well ingrained into the culture of school. As I continue to reflect, I now ponder whether or not I would be successful in a K-12 system today.  Things have really changed as a result of advances in technology.  The process of going through the motions of doing school the way I did it would have been a monumental challenge in my opinion. Do students value school today? With exponential changes to technology and the ubiquitous access to information will students of the future value it?

    What really got me thinking about the value of school was the video below.  I am not saying that I agree with everything in it, but there are many points that really resonated with me. 



    Now try to think back to when you were a student and what you learned. How much of what you learned do you actually use today?  Even though progress is being made and innovative practices are being implemented in schools across the globe, we still must look at the big picture of education. There should be inherent value in what students learn today as they need to have the skills, mindset, and confidence to succeed in the new world of work.  If anything in the above video resonates with you, then engage your students in a conversation about the value of school.  

    Engaging kids in a conversation about the value of school can and will pave the way to a brighter future. We need to listen, then act.

    Posted: January 15, 2017, 2:28 pm
    I recently had the honor of being a guest on Dr. Will Deyamport’s podcast called the Dr. Will Show. You can view the Google Hangout video HERE.  We had a vibrant conversation on the topic of Digital Leadership with a focus on school culture, embracing change, strategic use of social media, the Model Schools Conference, and innovation. A major theme that resonated throughout our discussion was the importance of becoming a connected educator and how this in itself can be a powerful catalyst for meaningful change.

    If you watch the video you will see light-hearted back and forth banter between Will and me. He totally deserved the grief I gave him as it only took about five years for him to actually invite me onto his show.  In all seriousness though, something Will said to me really resonated. At one point during our conversation he told me how much it meant to him when I gave him a shout out during my keynote at the 2013 Mississippi Educational Computing Association Conference. To be honest, I really didn’t remember doing this as I routinely try to promote the great work of educators I know every opportunity I get.  This made me reflect on the journey Will and I have taken together as connected educators and the resulting relationship we have cultivated.


    Image credit https://behappy.me

    Will and I met virtually on Twitter way back in 2009. At the time he was known as @peoplegogy on Twitter.  I remember vividly sitting at my desk when I was a principal and seeing Will tweet out each morning “How is the coffee brewing?” Our connection began like many other educators who use social media as part of a Personal Learning Network – we wanted to learn, grow, and get better. Over time we began to communicate and collaborate across an array of social media networks exchanging ideas, providing support, and dispensing out advice. I can’t even count the number of times we have now connected over the years just to check in on one another.

    A professional relationship was cultivated.  I always admired Will’s passion for educational technology and genuine interest in becoming a better educator. There are so many benefits associated with becoming a connected educator regardless of your role.  Professional relationships based on a mutual desire to improve professional practice are probably the most important outcome in my opinion. Through every connection you get new sets of virtual ears to vent to and shoulders to lean on.  Silos or isolated islands are often a fact for many of us during the daily grind. A focus on innovative practices also tends to create a lonely place for educators who go against the flow.  Not having a virtual network to complement our face-to-face relationships just seems silly to me now.

    Over the years Will and I have gotten to know each other quite well.  Our professional relationship eventually blossomed into a great friendship. When I moved to Texas I drove down from New York City with my twin brother. As I was looking at our route I noticed that we would be driving through Hattiesburg, MS. I didn’t think twice about reaching out to Will and inviting him and his wife to join my brother and me in his hometown for lunch and some brews.  As I think about this story I am overwhelmed by how many other professional relationships forged through social media have resulted in great friendships.

    Becoming a connected educator has definitely resulted in an exponential increase in professional relationships for me. Each of these connections over the years helped give me the knowledge, skills, and motivation to lead a successful digital transformation at my former school.  These relationships also assisted me in overcoming fears such as writing, public speaking, and failure. I am who I am today in part because of the connected network of amazing educators I have come to know over time like Will.  It is important to embrace a connected mindset ourselves and then help others build professional relationships themselves as part of a digital leadership strategy. As appreciative as I am about the professional connections I have made, it is the personal relationships and resulting friendships that I have formed that I cherish the most.

    Focus on building better professional and personal relationships with any and all means (or tools) at your disposal.  In the end you will be stronger, more confident, and inspired as you journey down the path of professional and personal growth.

    Posted: January 8, 2017, 12:23 pm
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