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Good leaders become dispensable!

April 30, 2016

In school leadership, as in the leadership of any organization, it is imperative that a leader build a strong team of emerging leaders.  One way to measure whether you have been a successful leader is whether you leave behind “good leaders” when you depart.  Good leaders will select, nurture, mentor and position others to lead.  In some way the best leaders lead from behind as they groom others on the team to lead from the front.  There is greater impact on the organization if a leader builds the capacity and delegates responsibility to a wider team because the team forms a critical mass of people who can support the vision and mission of the organization.  In addition, it widens the network of people who are communicating the organizations’ vision and mission, helping to build a strong community of people who understand and support the work.  Through building a strong leadership team, the organization’s “head leader” is ensuring that he or she will become more dispensable because the team can carry on and help the organization continue learning, growing, and going deeper in its work.

How might we promote reflection and aloneness in school?

April 24, 2016

It has been awhile since my last post.  While I have not been writing much, I have been learning about interesting and relevant things that inform my understanding about school.  Recently, I went with an administrative colleague to hear Michael Murphy and Carol Ann Tomlinson at an ASCD pre-conference workshop speak about leading a school into differentiated instruction.  While they shared strategies for achieving this outcome, they were clear that successful implementation requires bold and courageous moves on the part of school leaders.  Is the bold and courageous part of leadership something that can be taught or does it come from innately who we are as people?  I don’t profess to know the answer to the question, but I came closer to some insight as a result of listening to an On Being interview between Krista Tippett, the host, and David Whyte, philosopher and poet, entitled the Conversational Nature of Reality.

I want to share some of David Whyte’s insights from the interview and relate them as best as possible to education and leadership in schools.  Unpacking his thoughts as they apply to leadership is an ongoing process.

Whyte opens the interview with a reflection:

Sometimes it takes darkness and the sweet confinement of your aloneness to learn anything or anyone that does not bring you alive is too small for you.

What does it mean to be in the confinement of your aloneness?  I think he wants us to move beyond “loneliness” and think about aloneness as “being alone with your thoughts.”

Whyte reflects on his time as a naturalist in the Galapagos Islands when he spent hours watching animals, birds, and landscapes.

Science, rightly, is always trying to remove the “I.” But I was really interested in the way that the “I” deepened the more you paid attention.

He speaks about paying attention to things that were “other than myself.”  From his perspective, deepening one’s attention to things other than self allows the person to have a stronger appreciation for the present, a deeper mindfulness about the moment in which we find ourselves.  He speaks about the chasm we all face, bridging the gap between “what you think is you and what you think is not you.” I think he wants us to consider a life, both personal and professional, that carves out time to focus attention, work on our inner life, and align our real and ideal self.

This chasm is not unlike the gap that Richard Boyatzis (click here) discusses in his model for resonant leadership.  See the diagram below for the five stages of discovery for effective leadership.  A leader who explores his or her aloneness creates the space to explore the gap between the ideal self versus the real self.  In doing so, the person gets closer and closer to expressing his or her leadership in authentic ways.  Living in the present moment, learning from our experiences, reflecting on our failures, and developing relationships that support us as we try to become more aligned to our ideal self is one path leading to “discovery.”


Tippett quotes a piece from one of Whyte’s books, Consolations, that speaks to the importance of being reflective.

one of the elemental dynamics of self-compassion is to understand our deep reluctance to be left to ourselves.

This part of the interview has me wondering why schools fail to carve out meaningful and substantive time for students and faculty to reflect on what they learn and how they teach?  As leaders, we spend most of our time negotiating how we will fill every void that exists in the schedule or we complain about how busy we are and that we have no time to reflect.  Heaven forbid if we let students or faculty have alone time to think about their learning or teaching, or to think about themselves in relationship to the learning culture in which they find themselves.  I understand some people might not avail themselves of the time, but if we don’t make time, trying to build a culture of reflection we won’t learn how to use it to achieve greater clarity of purpose.  What are we afraid of?  I think Whyte answers that when he says:

And so one of the things we’re most afraid of in silence is this death of the periphery, the outside concerns, the place where you’ve been building your personality, and where you think you’ve been building who you are starts to atomize and fall apart.

Could this be why students, and maybe adults, have a hard time being alone?  Could this be why students, and maybe adults, fill their alone time with music, tv, and screen-time?  The saying goes, we assign time to things we value.  By not scheduling time for reflection, are we telling our students that we don’t value “alone”  time or we don’t value time to sit with oneself, reflecting on the day’s experiences?  Without this time, a day is reduced to doing tasks, meeting expectations, and wondering whether everything is finished.  

Tippett asks Whyte to read the poem Everything is Waiting for You.  What a beautiful piece!  “Alertness is the hidden discipline of familiarity.” Then comes one of the most powerful lines in the poem:

Put down the weight of your aloneness and ease into the conversation.

I believe he refers to the conversation we can have with the world around us if we put aside the fear of aloneness, of being lonely, and embrace the conversations we can have with the world if we pay attention to things around us, leading a more mindful existence.

Whyte conjectures that we don’t want to have the conversation because we are fearful of “loss and disappearance.” We are afraid to feel vulnerable in our aloneness.  What are we teaching our students if we don’t help them experience their aloneness in ways that builds their resilience, their understanding of self, and their capacity to establish deeper connections to things in the world?  We can facilitate a culture of reflection by intentionally creating mindfulness experiences for students.  Of course, adults in a school would have to value and model the work to make it happen.  So why don’t we?  Might we be afraid of being vulnerable?

If we desire a more transparent and open community where it’s OK to be vulnerable, exposing ourselves to powerful moments of learning, then our schools have to be led by adults who again model the work.  Whyte speaks to this when he says:

First of all, one of the powerful dynamics of leadership is being visible.  One of the vulnerabilities of being visible is that when you’re visible, you can be seen.  And when you can be seen, you can be touched.  And when you can be touched, you can be hurt.

He gives us the insight we need to understand why we fear being visible, we don’t want to be hurt.  Learning how to be vulnerable and handling the hurt that might come our way is the key to becoming a strong leader.  It is the gateway to bridging the gap between the ideal and real self as illustrated in Boyatzis’ diagram.  In the interview, Whyte reads from his book Consolations about vulnerability.

Vulnerability is not a weakness, a passing indisposition, or something we can arrange to do without; vulnerability is not a choice, vulnerability is the underlying, ever present, and abiding under-current of our natural state.

How do you handle and express your vulnerabilities?  Whyte encourages us to inhabit our vulnerabilities and as a result we become “more courageous and more compassionate through our intimacy with disappearance.” As Whyte incorporates his own experiences with the natural world, he points out that human beings are the only species that can actually refuse to be ourselves.  He expresses these ideas this way:

And one of the healing things about the natural world to human beings is that it’s just itself.  But we, as humans, are really quite extraordinary in that we can actually refuse to be ourselves.  We can get afraid I of the way we are.  And we can temporarily put a mask over our face and pretend to be somebody else or something else.

Of course the possibility is that we can actually accept this version of ourselves, the masked individual marauding about the world creating “havoc.” For Whyte the antidote to this existence is:

And I think one of the great necessities of self knowledge is understanding and even tasting the single-malt essence of your own reluctance to be here.

He brings it back to the title of the interview, “all the ways you don’t want to have the conversation…all the ways you don’t want to be visible in a leadership position.” In terms of leadership, Whyte makes that case that effective integration of self with the world will not happen unless we are willing to have a conversation with ourselves about how to align our ideal and real selves.  In his poem, Working Together, he writes:

So may we in this life


to those elements

we have yet to see 

or imagine, 

and find the true

shape or our own self, 

 The work ahead for me is to try and carve out more time to be in the “sweet confinement of my aloneness.” In this time, I want to work on building tighter alignment between the reality of who I am as a leader and my desire to become a more effective leader.  I invite you to think about these ideas, listen to the Tippett-Whyte interview, and join me on this journey.  Please use the comment section to explore these ideas with me.

Envision a classroom designed with these principles in mind.

March 11, 2016

I have been reading a great deal about instructional strategies, differentiated instruction, and research on how the brain learns.  Mind, Brain and Education is an excellent source for current research on how we learn and strategies teachers could implement to improve their instruction.  As a result of some reading and thinking in preparation for workshops with teachers, I was wondering what it would look like if we designed our classrooms with these principles in mind.

  • Teachers exhibit “genuine” interest in what is being taught, thinking of themselves as “designers” or architects of curricula, not merely distributors of someone else’s curricula.
Example: What if teachers were given more license to build their curriculum around the things that interested them?  What if we were given autonomy on grade-level teams, our department, or our school to design around our interests?  If teachers were allowed to construct curriculum based on their interests, while paying attention to critical, agreed upon standards, then they would likely be more committed and passionate about what they design.  It would be there’s.
  • Teachers exhibit a commitment to their own learning as a guiding principle
Example: Teachers are committed to their own learning as much as they are to their students’ learning.  What if we were exemplary role models for lifelong learning?  If we walked in our students’ shoes on a regular basis would we gain empathy with their sense that school is “boring?”  (click here for results from a national survey of 441,000 students)   What does it mean to be a lifelong learner?  Why do so many students (greater than 40%) experience school as boring or not relevant to their lives?
  • Students are encouraged to analyze their own thinking processes and classroom practices.
Example: Throughout every lesson, what if students were given the opportunity and time to reflect on their learning, answering the question: why do I think the way I do?  If I’m struggling with this math problem, what is it asking of me that I don’t understand?  Why is the teacher asking me to complete this activity in class?  Most of a student’s time in school is comprised of isolated, unrelated events over which they have little control.  What if students were given time to connect the dots from themselves?
  • Students are asked to explain why they are doing what they are doing.
Example: When we ask students to explain, verbalize or illustrate why they are learning a certain concept, they must reconcile the knowledge they possess to understand versus the knowledge they lack to achieve clarity.  The act of making their thinking visible results in deeper understanding of what they are expected to learn.
  • Students are asked to change their positions as a result of what they are learning.
Example: In studying a particular discipline, students come to understand that they hold certain beliefs or values.  Where do their beliefs or values come from?  Once students have interacted with others as a result of learning a concept, they should be challenged to synthesize, analyze, and evaluate what they have learned, potentially changing their point-of-view.  Learning should be the impetus for change.  Through engaging in a debate, students would have to defend a point-of-view, sometimes not their own.
  • Students and teachers are willing to admit a mistake and then given the opportunity to grow from that mistake
Example: Students and teachers need to feel safe within the learning community so they can admit when mistakes are made.  This openness begins with the teacher models the behavior.  Students need examples of what it feels like when someone admits to a mistake.  Teachers need to be effective role models, showing we can recover from our mistakes.  Teachers need to design the learning environment so that students can learn from mistakes and not be penalized.  Learning is a continuous process, not a discrete one.  This means that students should believe recovery is within their grasp by getting chances to redo assessments of their learning.  Grades should not be used as a reward or punishment for what was or was not learned, but used as a measuring stick for where a student is on the learning continuum.
  • Students are allowed to participate in setting rules and making decisions related to learning and assessment
Example: A classroom is a community of learners.  For students to see it as a community, they need to have some input into the rules that govern the learning.  Should we include students in setting classroom norms?  Design a process for using the norms as a tool to build community.  This will help students develop decision-making skills, and help them understand they have responsibility for how a community functions.  Engage students in assessment practices.   Build an environment in which there is co-ownership of assessment.  If assessment is a mechanism for measuring where students are on the learning continuum, then it seems reasonable to actively engage them in the assessment culture.
  • Students are encouraged to follow their own train of thought, their own thinking and not merely repeat what the teacher wants
Example: If we want students to become independent thinkers and learners, then they have to be given opportunities to follow their own train of thought.  Allow them the voice and choice to decide on a project that ties to the learning objectives.  Allow them to research their topic, assemble their thinking, and share their thinking with others.  Create opportunities for them to explain why they think the way they do about a concept or idea.  Rather than repeating only what the teacher thinks and says, students should be challenged to understand why they think the way they do, defend their way of thinking and modify it based  on information they assimilate.
  • Students are allowed to make choices for how to learn and what to learn within the boundaries of the standards….more voice and choice
Example: When content and skills have meaning and relevance to students they are more likely to learn it deeply.  This means we need to find ways to give them voice and choice in what they learn or how they learn.  When we design curriculum related to the standards, we need to put it through the lens of meaning and relevance for the student.
  • Students are expected to engage in the full range of thinking modeled in Bloom’s Taxonomy
Example: We want to be sure that the activities and tasks we expect students to do have both convergent and divergent thinking requirements built in.  With regard to Bloom’s taxonomy, we should design activities and tasks that call up the full range of thinking skills, from recalling information to creating new knowledge.
What would a classroom look like if it were designed through these principles?  I would propose that it would look more like an innovative workplace.

Are schools capable of raising #creative students?

February 1, 2016


This question, whether schools are capable of nurturing creative students, has been discussed in many articles, books, and TED Talks.  Go back in time and listen to Sir Ken Robinson’s TED Talk, Do Schools Kill Creativity?  The basic premise in Sir Ken Robinson’s talk is that schools, the way they are structured and designed, “kill” the creative spirit in children.  He suggests there is too much focus on scripted curricula, right-answer responses, and testing such that students have little room to maneuver or flex their creative muscles.

For me the answer to the question is simple: many creative people in our society have graduated from religious, independent and public elementary and secondary schools.  So the answer must be, of course schools can nurture creativity in students.


Child fixing or destroying  a computer.

from, child playing inside a computer

An article in the Sunday Review of the New York Times, How to Raise a Creative Child: Step One, Back Off, written by Adam Grant, suggests that families and schools may need to reorient their approach if the desire to foster the creative spirit in children is an important goal.

Here are a few quotes from Grant’s article that got me to think about how we teach students.

Child prodigies rarely become adult genuises who change the world.  (page )

He points out that this is not because child prodigies are socially or emotionally underdeveloped.  In fact, very few of them “suffer from social or emotional problems.”

Practice makes perfect, but it doesn’t make new.

Here he points out the difference between technical mastery of something and the ability to take what you’ve mastered and create something new or original.  Sir Ken Robinson defines creativity as “the process of having original ideas that have value.”

The parents of ordinary children had an average of six rules, like specific schedules for homework and bedtime.  Parents of highly creative children had an average of fewer than one rule.

The idea being that parents of creative children allow space for the child to grow and experiment.  Creativity emerges when a person tests boundaries, experiments with ideas, or allows their curiosity to guide them.

Yes, parents encouraged their children to pursue excellence and success–but they also encouraged them to find “joy in work.”

5th Grade in Science

Science Exploration about Water

In studies that Grant references, it was parents who first and foremost facilitated a child’s exploration based on what brought them joy and fulfillment that raised creative children.  Of particular interest was a study carried out by Benjamin Bloom in which he looked at the familes of world-class musicians, artists, athletes and other creative people.  He found that parents who “responded to the intrinsic motivation of their children” had a greater likelihood of raising creative children.



What motivates people to practice a skill for thousands of hours?  The most reliable answer is passion.

Grant refers to Malcolm Gladwell’s “10,000-hour rule” which suggests that a person needs to practice long hours to master a skill.  However, does mastering a skill like playing the piano mean that the pianist is “creative.”  It’s possible the piantist is quite proficient as a technician, but not particularly inventive.   Passion and natural curiosity nurtured through enjoyable experiences are more likely to stimulate creativity or “flashes of insight.”

So what does all this mean for schools?   As I reflect on Grant’s ideas, it seems to me one question about schooling is: do traditional schools, with all their routines, rules, scripted curricula, and quizzes and tests, lack a structure for developing the creative side of each student?  Is the creativity or creative thinking we try to foster through “core” courses or visual and performing arts experiences just another series of scripted experiences?  The answer may be yes for some of you and no for others.  Certainly, there isn’t one right answer for all schools or all students within a school.  Nevertheless, are schools willing to “back off” as suggested by some of Grant’s work and that of other notable researchers?  I would suggest that as educators we should think about what it would look like if we “backed off” and let students curiosity guide them.  We should challenge ourselves to find the evidence in school that students experience joy in learning.


STEAM initiatives @westminsterATL: Learning while doing!

January 31, 2016

Westminster Schools STEAM logo

The four minute video (see below) will give you a window into Westminster Schools’ efforts to design a STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Math) program for students that helps them integrate their learning from different disciplines.  Dozens of teachers are collaborating across K-12 boundaries to design and implement projects that have a STEAM focus.  Many of these STEAM projects are being embedded into our formal curriculum, transforming how teachers think about integrated studies.  We are exploring ways for students to develop skills for solving complex, relevant, and real-world problems.

We have 25+ K-12 teachers who meet weekly before school to talk about how their curriculum connects to the larger STEAM initiative.  They present to one another, co-design projects, and take their learning back to their classroom.  In the classroom, they collaborate with their students to implement projects of extraordinary creativity.  The work culminates in a school-wide STEAM showcase event in late February.

The Middle School just concluded a nine-month STEAM faculty cohort that took on the challenge of thinking about how to build integrated curricula with a STEAM focus.  Eight teachers co-labored over 75 hours of face-to-face meetings to discuss what STEAM curricula or courses might look like.  We studied the idea of threshold concepts and looked for ways to integrate them into existing courses or designing courses around a threshold concept.  We facilitated a faculty meeting in which 80 Middle School teachers explored a set of threshold concepts, looking for ways to connect their courses to the concept.  From this work a new STEAM cohort of ten teachers across all the disciplines have assembled to collaborate and design projects that are built around a threshold concept or big idea.

Westminster Schools is not sitting back waiting for STEAM to enter the larger conversation about how to improve meaning and relevance of a student’s learning experience.  The faculty are leading the way and students are excited about the direction.


What do all kids need?

January 31, 2016

Just finishing a book by Carol Ann Tomlinson, The Differentiated Classroom: Responding to the Needs of All Learners.  This is the newest version, copyright 2014.  I continue to be amazed at Tomlinson’s ability to capture the critical elements of a good education and an effective learning environment with simple and powerful images.  One that has stuck with me is a reference to one of her mentors, Mary Ann Smith, an elementary teacher at a school where Tomlinson taught Middle School.   Ms. Smith, a mother of four boys, was a teacher who connected with all students, even the most challenging.  The reason had to do with her teaching philosophy and the learning environment she created.  Tomlinson summarizes it by describing Ms. Smith beliefs (page 51).

  • Each kid is like all others and different from all others.
  • Kids need unconditional acceptance as human beings.
  • Kids need to believe they can become better than they are today.
  • Kids need help in living up to their dreams.
  • Kids have to make their own sense of things.
  • Kids often make their own sense of things more effectively and coherently when adults collaborate with them.
  • Kids need action, joy and peace.
  • Kids need power over their lives and learning.
  • Kids need help to develop that power and use it wisely.
  • Kids need to be secure in a larger world.

This is a wonderful list of beliefs to practice.  Tomlinson believes this list is also at the heart of what makes for a good differentiated classroom.

One of my takeaways from this list is that a learning environment built on these principles would be designed to move students from dependence on the teacher to greater independence as a learner.  Kids who experience action, joy and peace in a classroom and are nurtured along a pathway towards power over their own learning discover their potential and use it towards productive ends.

Ms. Smith’s list addresses the affective side of learning.  No doubt a very important part!  There is the cognitive side of the equation that her list doesn’t specifically address, but I am sure she embraces as important.  An effective learning environment helps all students master the learning outcomes we design: the knowledge, skills and performance tasks embedded in good curricula.  However, without the strong affective component that Ms. Smith describes, the cognitive piece is not well integrated into a child’s learning.

Would you add to Ms. Smith’s list of what it takes to construct an effective learning environment?

Check out a previous post on the Center for Teaching blog, What Qualities Make for an Ideal School or Classroom?.  This post reflects on a similar theme that ties to Tomlinson’s story about Ms. Smith.


Do we care about our emotional culture in schools?

January 17, 2016

We work continuously in schools to think about, design for, and implement collecting data that pertains to students’ cognitive achievement.  In fact, if we include formative and summative assessment measures, we collect cognitive data weekly, daily and sometimes hourly.  We are asked to report on the students’ cognitive development on a regular basis through report cards, end-of-course assessments, and high-stakes tests of all types.  An article in the Huffington Post in October 2015 entitled, This is How Much Time Students Actually Spend Taking Standardized Tests, presents a comprehensive look at the amount of time students spend taking tests.  They write:

According to a comprehensive study of 66 of the nation’s big-city school districts by the Council of the Great City Schools. It said testing amounts to about 2.3 percent of classroom time for the average eighth-grader in public school. Between pre-K and 12th grade, students took about 112 mandatory standardized exams.

That is about 5 test days per 180 day school year.  Of course that only accounts for high-stakes tests and doesn’t take into account all the other formative and summative assessments students take in school on a regular basis.  In addition, this study’s figure represents an average, so some schools spend a great deal more time giving students NAEP, ITBS, and state-mandated tests.  The point is we spend upwards of 10% of a student’s life in school measuring his or her cognitive development.

So, what is our commitment to paying attention to and measuring a student’s emotional development?  I would argue that we spend little to no time measuring students’ emotional development or their emotional mindset as they experience school on a daily basis.  Yet we know that the emotional state that students’ bring to school or develop at school directly impacts the quality of their cognitive experience and achievement.

In a comprehensive study conducted at the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, the authors write:

How educators and students process and respond to emotions influences children’s education in ways that affect their social, emotional, and cognitive development. A recent meta- analysis of research on programs focused on social and emotional learning (SEL) shows that a systematic process for promoting students’ social and emotional development is the common element among schools that report an increase in academic success, improved quality of relationships between teachers and students, and a decrease in problem behavior (Durlak, Weissberg, Dymnicki, Taylor, & Schellinger, 2011).

Why do we spend little to no time and energy thinking about and collecting information on students’ emotional life at school?  Could it be because we have insufficient training or knowledge about students’ emotions and how to measure whether their emotional development is being nurtured through their school experience?  Could it be our society is so cognitively oriented that we don’t really care about a person’s emotional experience in his or her school or work environment?  Finally, could it be that in our society talking about emotions or working through emotionally difficult situations is “taboo?”  We relegate the work with emotions to the private offices of therapists.  The answer to why might reside in all of these questions and others.

There is saying that if you want to understand what people or institutions value just look at what they spend their time on.  Since we spend “75%” of time in school on cognitive development and “22%” of time on physical development (athletics), we only spend 2-3% of time on other aspects of a person’s life, their emotional developmen, that determine how they feel.  I made up these numbers to make a point, but they are probably fairly accurate.

In an article in Harvard Business Review, Manage Your Emotionl Culture, written by Sigal Barsade and Olivia O’Neill, the authors discuss that some businesses are spending time and energy collecting information about how their employees feel after a day at work.  They’re recognizing that understanding how the workplace impacts peoples’ emotional state influences their ability to function effectively in their jobs.  In schools, we should be concerned about every child’s emotional experience on a regular basis.  How is school impacting a child’s sense of self, mood, and emotional state?  If we pay attention to a child’s emotional life in school, we might alter our approach to how we allocate time to their education.  I found this quote to be particularly insightful:

Despite a renaissance of scholarship on the ways that emotions shape people’s behavior at work, emotional culture is rarely managed as deliberately as cognitive culture–and often it is not managed at all.  Companies suffer as a result.  Employee who should be showing compassion (in health care, for example) become callous and indifferent.  Teams that would benefit from joy and ride instead tolerate a culture of anger.  People who lack a healthy amount of fear (say in security firms or investment banks) act recklessly.  The effects can be especially damaging during times of upheaval, such as organizational restructuring a and financial downturns.

So what is the equivalent in school?  Could it be that our focus on “getting good grades,” the demon in disguise, keeps us from truly building a culture for students that failure comes along the road to success?  I would again argue that for every two steps we take to promote an emotionally healthy culture in school, we take three steps backward with our fixation on “getting good grades.”  What is it we want students to learn?

Schools show their care for a student’s emotional development through their design and implementation of curriculum that addresses emotional needs.  But is it sufficient to just offer programs like morning meeting, assembly programs, or teacher-led discussions about issues that impact students’ lives?  I would suggest that the answer is no.  There is more we can learn but we would have to allocate time and resources to collect data regarding a student’s emotional experience to inform our thinking and actions.

Barsade and O’Neill present models and data from corporations that are investing time and resources in collecting data on their employees’ emotional experiences while on the job.  They refer to the design and implementation of apps, like Niko Niko, used to collect emotional data.  The data is then used to make decisions about how to best support employees in the workplace.  They also reference the importance of alignment of mission with what a person’s experience is in the workplace.





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