Only Those Who Dare Drive the World Forward

Where do you find your inspiration?  What motivates you?  What is your purpose?

At this time of year, many educators are on spring break.  This is a time to rejuvenate and refresh but also reflect.  For how can we move forward without first looking back?

Today I saw a commercial with the slogan, “Only those who dare, drive the world forward.”  I think it was for Cadillac but during the commercial, there was a short clip on Easton LaChapelle and I was reminded of this video and quite honestly what inspired me to write this post.

Great project
How do we inspire our students, teachers, parents, administrators, and community members?  How can we inspire students like Easton?  How many of these students are in our classrooms whose delivery of education are regulated by mandates?  How many creative teachers cannot reach children because they too are confined by rules and regulations?

I am not a rule breaker.  As Superintendent, I am compliant and meet the needs and requests of the Department of Education in New Jersey and my local Board of Education. As a leader it is also my job to ask why, to motivate others, and to never stop until EVERY student reaches their highest potential.  Here are some ways that may help you be inspired and get rejuvenated this spring:

1. Read. Yes. Read anything and everything you can.  Read books, articles, and blogs.  Try not to delete what is sent to you.  If someone has thought to share an article, try to skim its contents. There must be something of value for your review. Challenge yourself and read material you might normally choose.

2.Go on site visits. Find other schools or districts that are doing amazing things and get a team of educators together to be inspired by them.  If that school is not within local travel distance, get on a Google Hangout and arrange to observe what they are doing. Invite people with you who are naysayers that may find fault with your plan.  It is better to poke holes in the beginning of implementation then to backtrack once you are on your path.

3. Set goals. Be sure to set personal goals as well as team goals.  Write them down. Do not put them on a shelf.  Use your calendar or other strategy to reflect on these goals on a regular schedule.  Commit to change or it will never happen.

4. Inspire others.  I always say that “change is a challenge” and I truly believe that.  I recently read an article on using the “motivational wave” to inspire others.  The theory behind this suggestion is not to continuously berate your followers, teachers, administrators, or parents with a barrage of information.  Forcing people to adopt your way of thinking never works.  You can lead a horse to water but you had better find a way to convince him it is good for him (or someone else) or he will not drink.  

Rather, a “strike while the iron is hot” attitude may work to your benefit.  Share information readily. When someone shows an interest in change or implementing something new, is when you should provide additional support. Help them ride that wave!

I hope everyone can begin the last part of their school year inspired and excited.  There is nothing better than motivating students to be excited about acquiring new knowledge and choosing their paths to success! Remember that what great educators do every day matters to our students and communities. 


Joining the Tribe

When I received word of becoming part of the Compelled Tribe, I was thrilled.  As I sit to compose my first blog as an official Compelled Tribe member, I am nervous.  This is challenging but thrilling at the same time.  I tell myself, “I am growing through this process!”

To further define tribe and reflect a bit, I Googled it.  Merriam-Webster says a tribe is: a group of people that includes many families and relatives who have the same language, customs, and beliefs.  I would agree with this definition.  At first I thought of writing about things like passion about education and expanding my professional learning network.  Instead, I decided to dedicate this blog to the challenges of conflicting tribes.

Many of us, in our work or home, surround ourselves with similarly minded people.  If we like fitness, we have an affinity for those who also run or go to the gym.  If we enjoy a certain type of music, we go to concerts or chose a station on Pandora that selects what we like.  There is comfort in what we know. There is comfort in participating in an on line Twitter chat on Saturday or going to church on Sundays.  There is comfort in the faculty room or a colleague’s classroom where we can work collaboratively on lessons and (for some) even comfort when talking with an administrator about how to improve instruction or engage students in a more meaningful way.  This is comfort in our tribe.

But what happens when you are faced with the conflict of tribes or tribes with differing opinions?  How do you handle those challenges?  Here are some suggestions:

  1. Don’t get defensive.  Even if you are listening to opinions that differ from yours dramatically, try to listen openly.  It will be challenging but it matters.
  2. Wait patiently until your opposition is done speaking.  This means that while you are listening to an opinion that is driving you crazy, you disagree with vehemently or you feel in your very bones, is wrong, try not to interrupt.  Doing so does two things.  It makes you appear impatient and disrespectful and it may add fuel to the fire of the disagreement.  It is appropriate to be passionate but do not allow that passion to be interpreted as defensive.
  3. Take notes.  Taking notes keeps you focussed on the topic at hand.  It also serves as an outline for when you will have to respond.  If you are like me, the notes can also include anything you are feeling at the time.  Remember, the notes are private and you will have the opportunity to filter your feelings when it is time to draft a response.
  4. Do your research.  Educate yourself.  Do this by researching the topic you disagreed on.  You may change your perspective (or not) but at least then you are well-read and ready to understand (perhaps) why they are seeing it their way and you are seeing it your way.  This can occur when we disagree with a colleague on how to teach writing effectively to our third grade class, how to utilize benchmark data to adjust instructional strategies for individual students, or how to openly discuss an observation rating from an administrator on his/her most recent classroom visit.  Doing research will be helpful in any situation.  Remember, knowledge is power.
  5. Try to see it from their perspective.  This is very challenging at first.  I am a school Superintendent and it is often difficult for me to see an item from the perspective of a Board of Education member, especially in the heat of discussion at a committee meeting or when information is just being brought to my attention.  During these times, I struggle to maintain my composure and sometimes I do not succeed.  After all, I too am human and I care deeply about education.  However, demeanor and character are always important.  If you lose your cool, find a way to get it back.  Pretend you are visiting to the topic for the first time.  Sometimes this helps to hear something from someone else’s perspective.
  6. Provide Feedback. After trying to understand the point the opposing tribe member was making, doing your research and listening open-mindedly, be sure to provide feedback.  By responding to your opposition, it demonstrates to them you were listening and that what they shared with you matters.  Even if you (at first) disagreed, their opinion matters and it may have even opened your eyes to something new. This is so exciting because it is how we grow!

Last week in the middle school in my district we had a potentially dangerous situation.  A student brought in two items that appeared to be hand grenades.  The administration evacuated the building and notified the police who called in the bomb squad.  After a thorough examination, the mock grenades were not deemed unsafe and the students and staff returned to the building.

In a very uncharacteristic way, I shared an email with our parents that was extremely detailed.  I tend to be a bit “old school” and (in the past) may have simply shared that it was safe for students to return to the building.  However in the times of social media, when most of our middle school students were texting their parents what they “heard”, I reached out to the Board President and advised him that my email correspondence to families was very transparent, especially for me.  I sent the email and received dozens of return emails from parents.

I read every one of them and I responded to every one too.  Most parents were thankful for the detailed information I had sent.  Many provided suggestions for communication in the future.  At one time, I probably would have thought, “I am an administrator.  I know what I am doing.”  Then I received one email that furthered my growth through what could have been an awful situation.

A parent thanked me for sending the email but she went a step further.  She was pleased with the extreme detail that I provided for families so that she could follow up and speak with her seventh grade daughter.  That correspondence did it for me.  I totally understood where this parent was coming from and I commended her for wanting to speak to her daughter.  Knowledge is power and that mother was going to do what any exceptional parent would do – TALK to her daughter.  I was reminded that as parents, we are our children’s first teacher.  As school administrators or teachers, we cannot take that away.  In fact, we should embrace it.  Never underestimate the power of a strong parent-teacher connection.

I want to close with a quote I read on Twitter quite some time ago.  I wish I knew who gets the credit, but sadly, I do not.

“We are all faced with a series of great opportunities brilliantly disguised as impossible situations”

Don’t you just love that?  I know I do.  There have been many times that opposing tribes (board members, fellow administrators, teachers, parents, colleagues or even departments of Education) have presented me with impossible situations.  Each time they have been a challenge and not every time did those situations become great opportunities.  But I can honestly say that each time I viewed an impossible situation as a great opportunity, it became one.






Be More Dog – Inspired by Jennifer Hogan

This video was featured in a recent blog post by Jennifer Hogan.  My blog is inspired by hers (and this video).

This is my story about how personal challenge led to personal and professional growth:

More than five years ago, I was in an unhappy marriage with a myriad of problems. Some too personal to discuss. I was miserable. I was co-dependent. I was insecure. I was nervous. I was unhappy. We were broke. We struggled to pay the bills and feed my kids. I was often alone. I was not “me”. I lost my voice and my ability to speak up and do what was right for my family. Then two things happened.

During the last year of my troubled marriage, I used a technique which ultimately led to big changes for me. Through journaling, I was able to take my life back. The journaling was simple. I wrote what I felt every day. When I looked back (over the course of nearly a year), I could see that I was unhappy, not satisfied, and being taken advantage of.   I wrote it all down, one day at a time. If it weren’t for the journaling, a “real time” snapshot of what was occurring, I never would have seen the evidence to support that my change had occurred and his hadn’t and that the divide between us had overcome my marriage and my family.

At the same time, I was working as a School Superintendent. The pressures of that position are more than I can describe in this post and if you have never walked the walk, the role can be indescribable. I knew that district wasn’t the right fit for me. I knew I belonged somewhere else. I prayed and worked and although I was struggling personally, I was growing. Growing because I finally had the courage to get out of a bad marriage and growing because I found the strength to find “a better fit” in a new position.

I am still Superintendent of Schools but I am in a different district and through teacher collaboration, understanding the needs of the community, working with a talented administrative team, innovation, and professional development, we have accomplished some wonderful things. Here are the most important things I learned about “being more dog”.

1. Communicate. I wrote how I felt. I let it all out on the pages of my journal.  It doesn’t matter who you communicate to.  Just do it.

2. Reflect. Like anyone who struggles to grow, I took the time to reflect. I honestly looked back and realized what was happening and knew things had to change. That “aha” moment was big for me.

3. Get some perspective. Sometimes we cannot see challenges until they smack us in the face or we take a serious step back. I needed to do both in order to grow.

4. Take action. I did what I had to do to take care of my children and although it was frightening, I did it with a confidence and strength I did not know I had at the time.

5. Rely on family and friends. As I look back during the most challenging times in my life, I had family, friends, mentors, and colleagues by my side.  At times, they were Directors of Curriculum who advised my professional reading which promoted growth or a Business Administrator, seasoned for many decades in the experiences of school business.  Or my mother and brother, who were both always there for me.

6. Don’t look back. I knew the decision I made was right for me and I pursued personal and professional growth with vigor.  I learned to delegate tasks appropriately and how to lead a team of talented administrators.  I learned to be inspired by others and to always praise the teachers in my district who work tirelessly to inspire and educate students.

7. Re-create yourself. It takes time, but I have continued to grow, read, think, hope and remain inspired by others.  “We cannot become what we wish to be by remaining who we are” is an anonymous quote that hangs in my office.  It is always okay to move toward something with intention.  Remember to always be present and move with purpose.  Ask “why” and then “why not”?

8.  Growth is not a destination.  It is a journey. I continue to work toward personal and professional growth because it matters, to me and to others. Keep moving forward. I am in awe of the leaders around me.

Believe it or not, I was a dog once before, when I was in High School and College. Carefree, ambitious, happy! I was going to be a TEACHER! What could be better? Like a dog, I sniffed the ground happily with my tail in the air,  unconcerned about where that scent would take me.  I was excited and loved learning.  I was inspired by others and loved my work.  My inner dog has been re-kindled.  I am back to being a teacher, back to being inspired, back to taking ownership for things I can control, back to leading the change, back to doing what is right for students, and providing loving guidance to my children during this exciting, miraculous journey.