This is the best part...
The following article was originally posted in HMH's Blog The Spark.
Trust building is vital to our relationships throughout life—starting with our earliest memories. When my own kids were younger I remember them frequently launching themselves from the arm of the couch. At first, I would stand a few feet away and they would jump into my arms. Before the jump they would say, “don’t forget to catch me!” As they flew through the air I would always think…“please don’t drop them, please don’t drop them, please don’t drop them.” It was a real concern for me—not that they would get hurt if they fell, but that they would stop jumping if I missed. It only takes one time for the seeds of mistrust to be planted. School district relationships are similar. Families trust us with their cherished children and expect a return on both the emotional and financial investment they make. Developing trust in what we do as educators is essential to our relationship with the community, and that remains a core focus within the Fall Creek School District. Over the past 7 years, our team has focused on three things to move our district forward.
Rallying Around a Theme
Fall Creek, Wisconsin. Population 1365. Home of the Fall Creek Crickets. Our community comes out in huge numbers to support our athletic teams. Our gym gets loud and the sea of Go Crickets green fills the bleachers. They stand, they cheer, they feel like they are part of something bigger than themselves. Our district brand is visible around every corner. From the t-shirts, hats, and jerseys to the #gocrickets on our social media feeds, signs on local businesses, and banners along the main street in Fall Creek, our community has completely embraced the Go Crickets mentality. When you enroll in Fall Creek, you get Go Crickets gear. When you start working in Fall Creek, you get Go Crickets gear. When you come to a game you may catch some Go Crickets gear that we throw into the stands. This approach gives us all something in common and becomes a theme to rally around.
Creating Trust in 30-Second Increments
As a system, we have to understand that every interaction counts when it comes to building trust with the community. Certain skeptics believed 30 seconds was not nearly enough time to impact trust within the community. So we broke it down to interactions. When someone walks through our building doors our staff understands that two things need to happen...the person is acknowledged and directed. We acknowledge them as a valued member of our school community and direct them to the place they need to go. This not only keeps our building safe, it allows our staff to connect with community members and sets the stage for conversations moving forward. One of the really fantastic unintended consequences of starting this process is how the students have reacted. They carefully observe how adults in the building interact. As a result, our students will acknowledge and direct adults when they enter the building. The connection to the kids takes 30 seconds, and adults walk away with a better sense of who we are as a school district.
Making Our Story the Community’s Story
One of the biggest trust builders in Fall Creek came when we opened our school and started sharing the work of our teachers with the world. Many people in communities have no connection to a school. They may have left school years ago and not taken away many positives. But negative memories from long ago are not a fair representation of the wonderful things happening today in our schools. To counteract this, we have begun inviting the community on the journey with us through live streams, social media feeds, and podcasts featuring the incredible work of our kids. With this new knowledge of our activities, community members can connect to what is happening in the building, even if they are not here daily. Communities want to brag about their school so why not give them the positive stories? By sharing the great work of our students and teachers we help change the narrative of the experience our community member may have had years ago.
Trust doesn’t mean we get every decision right, but it does mean we work from a place that is best for kids and the community. It means we open the doors, both literally and figuratively, to move our district forward. We love the idea of the community being able to see what’s happening across the district on a day-to-day basis through the social media feeds and connections at school events. We want them to walk through the building and be proud of what they see, hear, and feel. We want them to know that when they jump, we won’t drop them. We are all in this together. We are Fall Creek. Go Crickets.
This post was featured in the March edition of AASA School Administrator Magazine. To get the whole magazine click here.
Fall Creek, Wis., is home of the Fall Creek Crickets. We have 1,300 people. 825 students. three bars, two gas stations, one school. The latter sits at the center of the village, literally and figuratively.
On Friday nights during the school year, I know that most of the people in this village will be at a game, wearing green, cheering on our kids. On every other day of the week, the story of what happens within our walls has been limited to only those in our building. Trying to get people into the school physically, outside of sporting events, is a challenge for all schools. Fall Creek is no different. Everyone has busy lives.
The majority of people in our village in west-central Wisconsin do not have kids in school. We want them all to be on the journey with us, on their terms, not ours. People want to connect, but they want to do it on a schedule that fits them. We are completely OK with that because at the end of the day, it is not about the time of the connection but whether or not it happens.
We look at time as a commodity -- one that we can harness but not control. Parents and community members will engage in what we do if we give them the opportunity, but do not force the issue of time on them. With this in mind, we developed an ABC approach to community engagement. Find your AUDIENCE, build your BRAND and CELEBRATE kids.
Find Your Audience. According to www.statista.com, 78 percent of adults in the U.S. have a social media profile of some kind. As a school district, we needed to find where those profiles lived. After surveying our community, we found the adults preferred Facebook, the students preferred Instagram and the alumni favored Twitter. So that is where we engage socially. We don’t have to be present in every social media platform, just the platforms that are relevant to our people.
Build Your Brand. The term brand can definitely have a negative connotation, but we believe it is what people say about you when you are not there. Promoting the positives helps shape the narrative. Building our brand through our #gocrickets hashtag has helped us share the work of our kids in multiple areas. Printing the hashtag on Cricket apparel and giving it to the community at events has built a tremendous amount of momentum for our district. We added a “Where in the World is Fall Creek Pride” virtual map and told our community to take photos of themselves wearing their Cricket gear on vacation so we can spread the message. It has allowed us to show off a #gocrickets item in all 50 states and beyond. We have tried to turn those Go Crickets moments into a Go Crickets movement.
Celebrate Kids. The work performed in our schools is amazing if you think about it. We educate all kids, we move them academically and emotionally, and we provide a safe haven for those who need it. Celebrate that work should be at the forefront of what we do as school systems. As a board of education, we set a goal of sharing 7-10 non-athletic positive posts per week. Our community knows that the space is to celebrate, and we want everyone to join us on the journey. We provide the opportunity to connect, and through that connection we develop a great deal of social capital with the people in our world. That social capital is pivotal for trust. A photo, video or post can have a profound impact on emotions. The world has, and will always belong to the storytellers.
We have 825 students in our school, all with the desire to have their voice heard. When they don’t have the platform, we provide it. When we do, everyone has a chance to come along for the ride. We are the hub of our community. We are the voice for our kids. We are Fall Creek. Go Crickets.
Administrator Summative Evaluation 1989
Clark W. Griswold Jr.
This concludes a successful year from Mr. Griswold as leader of the Griswold family. After a very rocky start to your leadership career that included a trip to an amusement park that was not open and a vacation to Europe that ended in your family being part of international espionage, I was hoping the evaluation would trend in an upward direction as you remained closer to home. The evaluation process takes into account activities surrounding an 8 day vacation including informal meetings with CEOs, sledding, hanging of Christmas lights, teambuilding, rodent extermination, and relations with local law enforcement. The summative evaluation is divided into Achievement, Goal Attainment, and Future Development.
Achievement is detailed in data. During the 8 day family stay the following data were evident:
13-10 visitors and 3 family members-Though Snots the dog was not in the house for the entire visit, he did add stress to the family situation and that is noted in the data. The acquisition of available spaces to house those individuals was an outstanding use of resource. I commend the risk taking of bringing that many people in to the house for holiday festivities.
62 seconds-The amount of time it took you to get down the hill, and subsequently across town, with a sled using a new silicon based kitchen lubricant that created a surface 500 times more slippery than the average spray. Your zest for life and the danger it can incur leads me to believe that you will do anything to impress others…including trying to set a new land speed record.
2-Most families only have to deal with the burden of one Christmas tree that dries out. Due to the inadvertent fire created by Uncle Louis, you were forced to think on your feet and develop a plan to acquire another tree. Though I believe that taking a chainsaw to your neighbor’s yard is illegal, I appreciate the gumption you showed to ensure that your family had a tree for the holiday season.
25,000- Two hundred and fifty strands of lights each containing 100 individual bulbs per strand for a grand total of 25,000 imported Italian twinkle lights…and you checked every one. Well done, Clark…though the city had to use an auxiliary generator to balance the power loss, the house looked fantastic.
As we began our discussions regarding your intentions for the coming year, you made it apparent to me that the acquisition of a swimming pool for the family was your ultimate goal. I cautioned you that though the company was doing well, counting on a Christmas bonus from CEO Frank Shirley was not the proverbial slam dunk. We all knew that Mr. Shirley’s history did not lend itself to a giving nature dating back to his running the Caddyshack at Bushwood Country Club in 1980. Your SMART goal read as follows… “Through completion of the Non Nutritive cereal varnish project I will allocate enough funding to install an outdoor swimming pool in a city that only has 2 months of hot weather”.
The action plan was as follows:
Creation of Crunch Enhancer-a semi permeable, non-osmotic substance that coats and seals the flake, preventing the milk from penetrating it
Present findings to Frank Shirley to enhance probability of Christmas Bonus
Leverage all family funds to ensure ground breaking of swimming pool could happen as soon as the ground thaws.
Though the creation of the crunch enhancer was solid and the information led to windfalls of financial gain to the company, the bonus of a year-long jelly of the month subscription did not help your financial situation.
Summative and Future Development
As a leader you need to curb the enthusiasm of the project to meet the financial and emotional needs of your clients…in this case, your family. Setting your family up for financial success is essential in a leadership role. I think we both know that your son Rusty won’t go on to be a big TV star in a show that follows the hilarious antics of physicists in California and your daughter Audrey certainly won’t be an Oscar nominated actress in an Oscar nominated movie. Leadership in helping them to be successful in the future should be at the forefront of your growth moving forward. I commend your ability to handle crisis throughout the evaluation process. In a short amount of time you were able to keep everyone dancing and singing Christmas carols (or the star spangled banner) through the loss of pets, rodent intruders, uninvited guests, your current financial situation, and a kidnapping. Please take the suggestions from this evaluation and use them to develop and implement a goal that improves your ability to lead in an ever changing time.
Thank you for a solid year, Clark. I look forward to what the future will hold for you…maybe a trip to Vegas!
Recently our kids had a chance to connect with their east coast cousins as they made their way to Wisconsin over the 4th of July. It was a fantastic chance to connect and spend some time with everyone. At one point in a the trip the following conversation took place between Aidan and my 4 year old nephew Patrick:
Aidan: Patrick, can you hit the ball?
Patrick: I can do anything!
I was walking around the corner of the house at the time, getting ready to cook dinner on the grill, and when I heard him speak the words I just stopped. He was so confident. He was so engaged. He was so happy. He said it like he had said it 1000 times. He believed it. He knew in his heart that he could do anything. It didn’t end there. He hit the ball...and ran as fast as he could around the bases. Again...smiling, confident, and determined. The family cheered him on as he raced from base to base. They encouraged him to get to home plate as loud as they could. As he crossed home plate everyone cheered… “Way to go, Patrick!” and “Great job, Patrick”. As he looked around he screamed something I will never forget… “Yay Me!!!!” It was adorable and awesome. I smiled and teared up a little as I walked away, but as I was standing by the grill, waiting for it to be ready, I started to reflect on the words and it took me to a place that I didn’t like.
Here is a child with his whole school life ahead of him. He already posseses a quality that we want kids to leave school with when they exit our doors. Having said that, my assumption is that when he walks across the stage in 14 years his outlook on life may be different. That hurts. At some point, with a number of our kids, the “I can do anything” mentality stops...but when? When do they stop thinking that they can do anything and when do they stop cheering for themselves. Now, I don’t live the land of unicorns and rainbows. I understand that there are limits and we could dissect that in a number of different directions, but the promise of the future should be more about the “can” than the “can’t” when it comes to our buildings.
School should be about hope and opportunity. It should be a place where they want to be because they feel comfortable and valued. Spoiler alert...school needs to feel that way for adults too. When adults in the building feel like they are trusted to do anything...they will. When they own the process....they exceed expectations. When they are given the opportunity to teach to the best of their ability...they will. So, how do we make sure they will…
In my first year as a principal in Fall Creek I gave a paper plate to small groups sitting in a faculty meeting. I asked them to write down everything that was on their plate when it came to school. As they worked through the activity the usual suspects made their way to the top...grading, paperwork, and committees. What didn’t make it to the top was kids. Of the 5 groups none had it listed higher than 8th. It was one of the most caring groups of people I have ever worked with and I knew they loved kids, but the environment that was set up did not allow them to concentrate on their main focus...kids. Providing time, resource, and opportunity to grow without adding to their plate is essential. Find a way to do it.
Default to “Yes...and…”
If you want to build, or have built, an environment where trust is evident in every fabric of the organization you know how important it is to say yes. I challenge you to take it one step further. Saying yes to new opportunities for kids and adults is important, but saying “yes, and what do you need from me…” tells the person that you will be there for them. At first no one will tell you how you can help but when they trust you, they will let you know. If they don’t give you any specifics, circle back with them in a few days and ask again. Be invested...be specific.
Celebrate Their Work
I know I sound like a broken record...but celebrating the work of the of schools is paramount. If we want people to feel good about the space we need to celebrate the space. My friend and co-author Tony Sinanis and I preach this without hesitation….NEVER GIVE UP THE OPPORTUNITY TO SAY SOMETHING GREAT ABOUT YOUR SCHOOL. Every conversation is a chance to change the narrative. The school experience may not have been awesome for those who went to school years ago...but the narrative has to change. Our staff and kids do amazing things and if the only conversations about those amazing things are happening in our buildings, the mindset never changes.
I can do anything. When was the last time you said those words? Do you even remember? I simply don’t...and that needs to change. Let’s do this. Go Crickets.
July 1, 2005 was my first day as an elementary principal. I walked into the office and wondered how I really got to this point. No students, no staff, no parents...just me in an empty office with my thoughts of the journey that had taken me there. As I was unpacking my stuff I remember stopping, looking around, and being thrown back to a different time. My first real day in the elementary principal’s office was October, 1982. It was Halloween week and I had done something big enough to put in me in that office. I made a comment in class that was definitely not appropriate for the space. Without going into the details of the event, it was clear that I needed to be in that room talking to the principal. I remember him as an enormous guy, incredibly tall with a booming voice. He used to walk around school everyday to see how everyone was doing. He smiled a lot. He was helpful. He high fived kids as they walked by. As I sat in his office that day, it was different. He asked me what I was thinking, why I would do such a thing, and what we were going to do about it? I didn’t know...because I was 8. I knew I was wrong, I knew I had to do something about it, and I knew my parents were going to go off the handle when he called them. Over the course of the next 2 hours all of those things happened. I apologized, made it right with the other person, and my parents were less than thrilled with my choices. Before that day I walked past the office and waved to the people there. After that day, I looked the other way and hoped no one noticed me. I always had a feeling that people looked at me differently after that incident. They probably didn’t, but it was a feeling I could not shake. Class was different for me after that as well. I felt watched, and not in a supportive way. The incident seemed to define me in the eyes of others. I wasn’t a great student before that day and was not a great student when it was over. I didn’t fit into the box of what school was...so my experience wasn’t fantastic. One of the reasons I decided to go into education was to make the experience different for kids.
School has to work for everyone. We can’t just work for those kids who fit into what school has always been. Teaching is hard. In a classroom of 25 kids we may have 25 different needs. Some get breakfast in the morning, some do not. Some are having problems with their families, some are not. Some are working multiple jobs outside of the day and are just trying to stay afloat, some are not. Being a parent is also hard. Trying to find the balance between blazing the path for our kids and having them blaze their own often puts us in a place of uncertainty. We don’t have all the answers, and that’s ok. We have to lean on each other, and we do.
As an 8 year old kid, I knew school didn’t work for me. We don’t want an incident or experience to define the feeling that kids have in school. We want them to feel valued, wanted, inspired, and most importantly, loved. We want them to have a place to go. We want them to be able to talk to someone when they need to...anyone. The culture of our school community is defined with every interaction. I have been in a number of schools over the course of the last 5 years and one thing is abundantly clear...every school has a feeling. When people walk into our school, they need to feel welcomed. They need to feel like they can walk past the office and wave, not put their head down and hope that no one notices them. They need to be greeted with a smile and a helpful voice. As a staff, we also have to realize that not everyone walking into the building had a great experience in school when they were kids, and I truly believe that we do. We have great people in this building. People who know that we exist for students. We have jobs because of kids and families. I have never been in a place that understands that more. Our community is special, folks. We exist for each other and together we are going to do things for kids that will blow their mind. We’re just getting started. Go Crickets.
The first semester has come to a close and families around the country are opening envelopes from schools with bated breath to see how their kids performed on a report card. When I was a kid report card days and conference days were the absolute worst for me. I was not a good student. Apparently I needed a stage in the classroom because most of the communication from school to home had to do with me distracting people in class, trying to make them laugh, or just flat out denying to do anything. During parent teacher conferences I was always smart enough to make sure there was a friend at my house or I was gone when my parents came home so they had a few minutes to calm down. As a Superintendent, I am a huge advocate for student led conferences. As a kid, the thought of that would have been met with… “are you out of your mind?” The conference would have felt like a debate with me trying to justify the “needs improvement” or often used “satisfactory” with no data to support why I ended up in that place. It didn’t help that my sister was flawless. 3 years younger, better grades, read at the same level, never got in trouble...she was (and still is) the real deal. My parents were great about not comparing us, but inherently the numbers and letters on those cards defined us...even if it was only for a day.
The reason this day scared me more than any other in school was simply that I didn’t know what was coming. I literally had no idea what would be on that grade report, but I did know it wasn’t going to be awesome. When the envelope was opened I would always try to point out the stellar S+ in Phy Ed or the 0 days absent, but that didn’t seem to change the conversation. Report cards shouldn’t be scary. They also shouldn’t be a surprise. It is our job as educators to keep parents and kids informed so when they receive numbers or letters that indicate proficiency (or lack thereof) there is no surprise. It should be a cumulative look at what has been done from an academic standpoint, but more emphasis throughout the term better have been spent on authentic feedback for the student to help them learn and grow. One of the worst things we can do to kids is give them a number or letter without first helping them understand why they are there, and second, identifying ways to improve it.
The other thing we can not do is label a kid based on a number or letter. The report paints a picture of what a child did during a specific time, by they do not define who that child is or will be. My mom told me a story of seeing one of my former elementary teachers in a grocery store after I had received my first principal position. This was 15 years removed from elementary school. She said to the teacher, “Guess what Joe is doing these days?” I’m sure the thought of the teacher was “Probably 5 to 10 somewhere.” When my mom told her I was a principal the look of surprise on the teacher’s face was probably worth all of the “Satisfactory” or “Needs Improvement” comments. My mom is 5 ft. nothing. I know she walked out of that grocery store feeling taller than anyone there.
In my first year of teaching I remember calling and telling her a story of a student in my class. The young man just wouldn’t listen. He would do everything he could to grab attention from the other students, didn’t complete his work, and seemed to always have a question. I didn’t know what to do with him because he didn’t fit with the rest of the class. I remember the frustration in my voice when I was telling her the story. The next day I got home from school and there was blinking light waiting for me on the answering machine (yep...you remember the answering machine). It was my mom and I’ll never forget the message. She said… “I thought I would share this with you...Joey has a hard time focusing in class. He doesn’t show interest in what we are doing. He has a hard time getting his work done. He has a hard time sitting still during work time.” The comments were from my 2nd grade report card. She followed it with “Joe, you turned out ok...give the kid a break.” I had forgotten that I was there for him...not the other way around.
Last week my freshman son came home and we opened the mail together with his 1st semester grade report. There were more A’s on that report card than I had cumulatively in 4 years of High School, no joke. Though I am proud of the work he does to attain these grades, they don’t define him. He is a phenomenal kid...regardless of what that report card says. My hope for parents and teachers is simple...the day the envelope gets opened should not be scary. It should not be a surprise. Most importantly, it should not define who your child is or who they will be. Sometimes we just need a little time. So...give the kid a break. Go Crickets.
To the High School Athlete:
It was a tough week for the Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association. In a memo sent to member schools the WIAA encouraged administrators address unsportsmanlike chants from student sections and to “take immediate steps to correct this unsporting behavior”. If they were to stop there I think things would have been fine. We are all behind administrators addressing unsportsmanlike behavior in our student section when it crosses the line. However, the WIAA went on to cite specific chants such as “airball” and “you can’t do that”. Though these are directed at an individual, as a school administrator, I don’t find them to be unsportsmanlike. So, I understand where the WIAA was coming from and don’t entirely disagree with their perspective, but the reference to specific chants changed the whole argument. It also prompted ESPN personalities to bring up the topic, specifically Scott Van Pelt’s One Big Thing. They have since come out with a statement that encourages schools to enforce their own policy regarding behavior at sporting events, which is definitely the correct move. The original letter prompted student groups across the state to protest in various ways, from duct taping their mouths to sitting in silence. To date, these protests have not happened here and I don’t think they will. Our kids understand that we have no issue with “airball” and “you can’t do that”. They also know where the line is and we have a tremendous amount of trust in them as young adults to not cross it.
The life of a student athlete is hard. Your schedule is tighter and you have more eyes on you every day. You are questioned for choices you make on and off the court and people expect more from you because you perform in a public venue. You are prone to scrutiny for decisions you make in front of hundreds, sometimes thousands of people. People wait all week to see you perform and their mood the following day has a lot to do with how you play. Opposing schools troll your facebook and twitter feeds to learn more about you. Opposing parents make judgements about your character based on what they see for 40-60 minutes, sometimes less than twice a year. It is definitely hard. But...remember...there is the other side to being a student athlete. People also come out to see you perform. They cheer. They scream your name. They stand up when you do something extraordinary. They clap until their hands hurt, they scream until there is no voice left, and they high five each other in the stands when you do well.
The original letter from the WIAA also prompted student athletes to take to social media and display their feelings on the issue. Some of those posts included vulgarities that violate most athletic codes. Kids absolutely have the right to express their feelings in any medium they see fit, but as with adults, there could be consequences for those actions. We can disagree with a process and voice that in a constructive manner with no consequence. I can disagree with a school board decision. If I tweet my displeasure there could be varying levels of consequence. Tweeting that I disagree with a decision vs. telling them to Eat Excrement land me in very different places regarding my employment here. Every year we sit down with our student athletes and talk with them about social media and their digital footprint. When you tweet, post, snap, or even retweet...you own the responsibility of that content. All eyes have the opportunity to be on that post and student athletes need to know that. Having said that...they are kids and they make mistakes. We need to honor that and help them move forward without making them feel alienated. A conversation and opportunity to rectify a situation will mean more to a student than a suspension. Two of our kids were interviewed on the local news and I could not have been more proud of their response on WEAU. They know the impact they have on younger kids. Our building is PreK-12 under one roof. Our elementary kids see our athletes walking down the hallways during the day and then on a court after school. They cheer, they high five, they scream. Most importantly...they stare. They literally stare at our HS kids like they are Gods and Goddesses. They imitate their moves on the floor. They reenact what happens on the floor in the hallways and on playgrounds. They want to wear that jersey. They want to be that tall. They want to be that fast. They WANT to be them. I am astounded by the looks our HS kids get from 5 and 6 year olds as they walk through the building. I am equally astounded by the response by our HS kids and proud to be part of a community that gets it. We are in this thing together...We are Fall Creek. Go Crickets.
Though presenting to your teacher is important, and she definitely values the opinion of the leader in the classroom, this was different. Like the other students in 3rd grade today, they created a game out of cardboard, tape, a few sticks, and paint. They built it from the ground up. They failed. They fixed. They kept working. All with the understanding that whatever they put together was going on display for their peers, all K-5 students, and parents during the event today. The audience was definitely a factor in the work. The teams competing in the cardboard boat race were in an even bigger pressure cooker! They had an authentic audience to come and see their projects, but those projects also had to work! My favorite quote came from a freshman… “All we got is cardboard, tape, and a bunch of hope!”
Most of the boats stayed afloat for awhile, those that did not clearly understood what happened in their construction, but all knew they had a vested interest in the project as they were captaining the vessel. If it sunk...so did they, and their peers/teachers/parents would all be there to see it.
When we know the work is shared with the world we clearly tend to take it more seriously. Writing my dissertation was awful. I had to find time to get to it and loathed looking through the edits. I knew no one was reading it. In fact, I placed a $10 bill on page 14 of my dissertation on display in the Cardinal Stritch Library in Milwaukee, WI. I am certain that when I go back in 10 years to look, it will still be there. The only audience was my committee. Fast forward 3 years and I have co-authored 2 books. I could not wait to work on those. The collaboration with Tony Sinanis, the conversations about how we could change practice, the idea that we could help change the narrative of schools...all drove me to want to write, improve, and tell the story to the world. The audience was real...and when it’s real, it is easier to see the value in the words.
Ownership of the Learning
However, when it comes to a predetermined standard, I truly believe that if kids own the process of how they demonstrate said standard, they will put more effort into it. As adults, we are the same. Tell me that I have to learn something and spit it out on a piece of paper or online doc...I forget in a day. Let me own the process and demonstrate that I have gained knowledge in a way that fits my interest and I’ll spend more time doing it. I want to own it. Kids want to own it. The students I have seen in the last 2 days discussing their cardboard creations make it as clear as ever.
We, as district leaders, have a real chance to model this for staff and show them what the power of ownership looks like. In Fall Creek, we try to treat professional development like Genius Hour or Passion Projects. Find your passion...and let’s help you develop in an area where you want to get better.
In 3 years, we have never said no to a professional development goal. We have helped people move through the process and sometimes we have to tweak some language, but if they find passion in their goal, we will help them find a way to make that happen. Our issue this year was how do we measure those goals in an evaluation system. Our answer...don’t worry about that now. We’ll deal with it later...you find your passion, and it’s my job to find a way to measure it. This year we are taking it a step further and allowing staff to demonstrate their learning in any way they choose. We will still have the forms we have used available, but if there is a different way to show learning that resonates with them...GO! We have to trust people. Some will put a tremendous amount of time into the process, others will not. There may be a faction of a group that tries to skirt the process and doesn’t put as much time or effort into getting better. Spoiler alert, folks...the process you are using with them isn’t working either. We are making decisions based on our best teachers...and our best teachers want voice and choice in the process. Guess what, the gorgeous little girl who walked into my room at 5:45 wants it too, and I know she is in a place where that can happen. Go Crickets.
As Ed Reform movement tends to move glacially, sometimes we need an event to start a new conversation and get people thinking about learning in a different way. I truly believe Edcamp has done that for teachers, and after taking on the first Edcamp in WI dedicated to Superintendents, I wholeheartedly think it could have the same impact on district leaders.
Last year, prior to the start of the Fall Superintendent Conference in Wisconsin, I was asked to organize a Social Media Lounge for Superintendents to become more familiar with digital tools to help their learning and tell the story of their district. The session was good...we had about 20 people show up and had really solid conversations about social media. I don’t know if anything new was learned that day. We knew it could be a powerful tool before we got in the room. We knew it would take away from other things we do. We knew that there were inherent risks in adding social media to your district, but those risks didn’t outweigh the benefit to kids. People left that session with a better understanding, but I don’t know if any new knowledge was gained.
This year, when asked to run the Social Media Lounge again, I asked if it would be ok to run an EdcampWASDA instead. Full credit to WASDA here...they may not have known anything about Edcamp, but they trusted, gave us 4 rooms, and helped promote the opportunity to everyone. I was not surprised at all...they have been incredibly supportive of Superintendents in our state.
Based on the size of the rooms, we had to cap the number at 75 total participants. Though we didn’t sell out, we had 67 people sign up to join us prior to the preconference sessions. With a free opportunity, the likelihood of retaining all of those participants can be low, but we counted 62 of the 67 Supts in the opening session!
We explained what Edcamp was, talked about how we needed to trust the process, and then built a fantastic board for the day! Last year during the Social Media Lounge we talked about Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. Though those topics came up this year, look at the other opportunities for Superintendents to choose. So good! No sessions were pre planned...these ideas all came from the Supts in the room and that ownership was absolutely huge. They invested, trusted, and engaged for a few hours in a way that I have not seen before. It was fantastic.
The best part for me was the 2:40 session where we debriefed at talked about what it could look like for our organization, but more importantly, what would this look like in your district. If we allow our staff to own their learning process they will see the value in allowing students to own it was well. We have to believe and trust that ownership leads to engagement, and that process allows our kids to have more voice and choice in their education.
I could not be more proud of our organization. As is always the case, this could not have been done without the help of many. Kaye Hendrickson took care of all the logistical stuff, so we we could concentrate on the process...she was amazing. Brad Saron, Paul Fisher, Colleen Timm, Joann Sternke, Deb Kerr, and John Pederson were all there to help build the board and answer questions. WASDA Director Jon Bales trusted the process and Nancy Lund and Jessica Schwedrsky made the room arrangements a reality and pushed the message.
Moving forward I am excited, and a little nervous, about what EdcampWASDA can become. I’m excited for the opportunity to grow our circles of influence and get more people involved. WASDA has expressed interest in making this part of our regular conference. That is awesome...and a little nerve wracking. The thing that made EdcampWASDA so great was that everyone in that room CHOSE to be there. They left their district early and made a conscious choice to be part of something new. My ONLY fear in making it part of the regular conference is that we can’t mandate learning. We can provide the opportunity, but it is about the learner and when the learner chooses, we all win. This is absolutely no different in the classroom...when the learner chooses, they invest. When they invest, they grow. EdcampWASDA was successful because over 60 people trusted the process and allowed themselves to take a risk. Just think what that that concept could do for schools districts, schools, and most importantly...kids. Go Crickets.
They choose an influential teacher from their career and the local Chamber of Commerce puts on a dinner for all of the recipients. I got to attend and see the joy in the faces of both teacher and student…it was such a wonderful way to celebrate an educator that made a difference in their lives. Unscheduled fun…2 of the recipients from a different district were in 2nd grade when I was their principal in a different school. To see them walk across the stage and receive their award gave me an incredible sense of pride though I haven't seen them in years.
Each year, our coach asks his players to have one teacher introduced with them during a game…another great connection for staff and students. After a different interview, our team felt so strongly about one of the candidates that they wanted to drive 20 minutes away and offer the recommendation for hire at her student teaching placement. Unscheduled fun…to see the pictures from our teachers and the reaction of our recommended hire…wow. It was an impromptu event that our candidate and team will never forget.
Muffins with mom is always 20 minutes and we always fill the gym. This year we had over 600 muffins ready for our kids and a significant female role model in their lives. We have 325 kids in our school. The response continues to make me proud to live in a place like Fall Creek. Unscheduled fun…Later in the day I received a text from a family at my former school. It was the family’s last Muffins with Mom as their youngest was moving on to a new school. She just texted to say thanks for starting it.
It is a perfect example of someone finding their passion and taking that passion to kids to give them an opportunity. The conversations they have about image, goal setting, and taking care of yourself and others have helped our girls tremendously. It also allows them to connect with other staff members in the building so they have another quality adult in their life. Unscheduled fun…I got to see parents take pride in what their kids do outside of school, watched a K-5 pep rally for 42 girls, and saw their reaction as they were given high fives from their peers.
Teacher Appreciation Week is unique. When I started thinking about this blog post, I was trying to figure out how we could make school feel like Teacher Appreciation Week all the time in our building. After a few conversations with people I know and trust, I have pulled back on that stance. Though we want people to feel valued and know that they are part of something bigger, there is no problem with adding a few pieces to a particular week of the year to celebrate our staff. Events are special. Scheduled events like birthdays, holidays, games, or a celebration week like we just had in Fall Creek. Unscheduled events like impromptu conversations, random Google Hangouts, calls, or tweets…however they enter your world, they are all about being in the moment. The week was full of moments that I won't soon forget, most were scheduled, but some were not…all added to an incredible place that I get to call home. Well done, Fall Creek…well done. Go Crickets.
I do remember how scared I was and the first time I was able to hold him. That is the story I continue to tell because the focus has narrowed to those two pieces. The stories of schools are no different. The narratives of schools are being told by people who attended years ago. Whatever their experience was at the time is the one that they are telling right now. The issue is this…schools are not the same as they were when I went 20 years ago. Kids in our space are doing amazing things.
They are creating, innovating, constructing, deconstructing, and problem solving like never before. They are bringing content to the world instead of regurgitating content back to their teachers. They are connecting with authors and other classrooms across the globe on a regular basis. They are tweeting, posting, and blogging…all with the understanding that all education does not need to take place within our walls. The only way we can change the narrative of schools is to bring our story to the world. We are in a service organization. Bringing what we do to the world on a regular basis has not been part of our organizational DNA. . We can change the narrative by connecting with parents and community members through many channels. We can help parents have conversations that move from “What did you do at school today?” to “Hey, I saw on Twitter that you were launching rockets today…tell me more about that”. Most importantly, we can help students own the process and love learning so if they are asked what they did in school today they can move from…“I don’t know” to “I don’t know where to start.” Go Crickets.
The point is this...education reform will go nowhere if our staff does not feel a connection to where we are going. If we want them to invest, we need to invest in them. For those who are making decisions on a state and national level...ask our teachers what they need to be successful. For those people in the connected community...extend the conversation beyond those on social media who already believe a new direction is needed. Those of us who are connected have a responsibility to spread the word, do great things, and invest in people who are not connected so they can see the value without pontificating so we push them away. We have a responsibility to get into universities and raise the expectation so we are hiring people who we want to be like, not who fit into who we are. There are pockets where these things are happening...and pockets of excellence are a great start, as long as we encourage and empower everyone in our environment to do what is best for kids and those pockets grow over time. Go Crickets.
So...I went to the White House and met the President last week. I really don’t know a different way to start the post. That happened. The leader of the best country in the world, in location that I have visited twice, but always outside a gate. At some point I will reminisce about the speech, the entrance and exit of the President, the fact that I shook his hand twice, sat 10 feet from him as he
addressed the nation, and received texts from our staff as the students in Fall Creek watched from their classroom.
. At some point the surreal notion of being in that space will fade. Not today. Today, the inspiration of being at the White House, discussing what school could look like with the highest ranking officials in the US Department of Education, and meeting with 117 school leaders across the country to make life better for kids in our school system still woke me up with a mission to get better. The makeup of the room included leaders from schools districts that ranged in size from hundreds to tens of thousands. The interesting component to me was the issues that we face in a district of 800 were the same as those faced in other districts much larger. Quality time for Professional Development, financial support, and connectivity were all brought up throughout the day. We all face these and need to help each other for all kids to succeed. I walked away with a great sense of pride in the relationships we create with kids and a determination to make our spaces better for them to learn. Here are a few takeaways from the summit:
It’s about Trust
Everything we talked about that day will fail if we don’t develop trust with our staff, students, and community. Nothing can be done to improve student learning if the people we are hoping to bring along on the journey do not trust where the journey leads. We have a responsibility to build trust first...above all else, create an environment where trust is the default. The more initiatives we bring forward, the less people will be willing to jump on board in the process. I have worked in places where staff members judge the number of years they have until retirement by the number of initiatives they will have to endure. That is not fair to them, and certainly not fair to kids. Solution: Find two things your staff does really well and enhance their opportunity to grow those. Have them find one thing they want to improve, and let them drive the learning in that area.
It’s about Leadership
The day was filled with exceptional leaders. To hear their stories and think about how it would translate to the kids in Fall Creek was both exciting and exhausting. Their teams were doing incredible things in the area of digital learning. The opportunities that were given to students in their districts were amazing and their ability to cultivate more leaders in their districts was well noted. The passion and purpose shared throughout the summit was undeniable. The leaders in the room were confident, yet understood that we were all in this together. I think seeing the President speak had a lot to do with that outlook. The conversations about how to make school better were at the forefront of every interaction, and that was absolutely inspiring.
It’s about Teachers, not Tech
I am inspired to work in a place that knows kids are different. Our teachers make great connections with kids and families. We got into teaching to change lives. We teach because we had someone who believed in us long ago and saw value in what we could bring to others. We need to understand that the feeling we received from someone instilling that confidence in us has to be transferable. We have a responsibility to make kids feel like there is someone in the building who believes in who they are, but more importantly, who they will become. As a profession, we also have to understand that a number of us got into teaching because we experienced some success in school. That also makes up a very small percent of the population of kids in school. If we teach the way we were taught, it will only resonate with a very similar population. I may not have been the brightest kid, but I could “do school”. I knew what I needed to get by, and often did just enough. We don’t want kids to just “do school”. We want kids to be inspired to do something different, something bold, something that will make life better...and we need to understand that “doing school” will not get them there.
Most importantly, it’s about Students
The theme was clear throughout the day. Future Ready is about kids. Schools are about kids and the adults in that setting have a responsibility to ensure that the spaces reflect that notion. At the heart of that responsibility is the willingness to connect the adults and kids so quality instruction can happen and kids see the value in the learning. If they own it, they will learn. If they feel a connection, they will learn. If they know you trust them, they will learn. We owe it to them to provide a better opportunity than the one we had. The connection leads to discussion, the discussion leads to confidence, and the confidence leads to change. Everyone in our building has the ability to change the world. They all have a passion. Finding that can be difficult, but it always starts with the connection.
I think we have all been in a room where there are discussions about how to change things and we leave knowing that nothing will. I honestly could not have been more excited about where this group could go. The regional meetings set up across the country will be a great opportunity to discuss what Future Ready is and what it is not. Future Ready is about learning, not about tech. It is about creating opportunities for kids, not what is convenient for adults. It is about developing our staff members to ensure they are growing in a digital age, not about teaching the way we were taught as kids. It is about creating capacity for all of our schools to ensure all kids leave prepared to take on whatever their future holds, not what the past held. It is about the Future...and together we will be ready. Go Crickets.
Over the course of the last 2 months I have had the incredible opportunity to meet face to face with phenomenal educational leaders across the country. A few years ago I wouldn’t have even considered the thought of traveling across the country to connect with leaders from different states, talk about how we can change the educational landscape and create better environments for kids. I didn’t think the power of 140 characters would lead me to Voxer conversations that have made me laugh, cry, and want to be a better leader because of the push I get from my friends across the world. I didn’t think a simple conversation would turn into a session at an Edcamp that would grow into a radio show that would balloon into writing multiple books. All of those things may have happened at
some point, but the impact of being connected digitally has made it substantially easier. The digital leadership journey, is just as it indicates…a journey. We go down many paths that we don’t really know throughout our careers. Some work out and some don’t, but all help us to grow. The use of digital tools in the development of leadership skill has been a game changer for me. The tools have allowed or conversations. Those conversations have challenged my thinking and grown a network that expands well beyond location. The best and most connected leaders in the country are literally a tweet, post, or vox away. The internet has changed school for students. They have access to any content at any time. The same holds true for leaders. The opportunity for growth is out there. If we are leading learning organizations, it is incumbent on us to model that learning.
Leadership and Management
The digital portion of leadership may not be essential…but it certainly has made me want to be a better leader. We often get stuck in the day-to-day operation of what school looks like…and to be honest that is a critical piece to leadership. Curt Rees and I were talking a few months ago about the difference between leader and manager. The discussion veered toward the idea that great leaders have both vision sense and management ability. Philosophical discussions that happen in every social media forum are just dreams if you do not have a process in place to make change happen. We can talk about how it should look or how we would like it to look or fawn over the latest infographic…but the attempt to move forward is where the new path for staff and students will be cut.
As I have indicated before, I live and work in an unbelievable school district. We have unwavering support for our school from the parents and community, the staff is beyond wonderful, and the school board allows us to take risks and try new things. We are a very small school so as we move into the future the use of digital tools will certainly be needed to provide opportunities for our students that they can’t get due to limited course offer
ings. We use social media in our building on a regular basis. Could we use them more often…of course. We have some classrooms that have active Twitter feeds and connect with other classrooms across the world. We have some classrooms using Remind to connect with families. Our school district app has been very successful in communicating with our parents and families. CricketTV has brought HS extra curricular activities to life for extended family not living in Fall Creek. These are just a few examples. As a leader, modeling the process for staff is essential, but it clearly does not hold the biggest card in terms of influence. The staff in our building who have utilized the communication tools and connected to the outside world do it because of the feedback they get from students, parents, and colleagues. If the positive comments are coming from any of those groups the motivation grows and the initiative starts to move.
Digital tools of today will be replaced with newer, faster, and more productive tools in the future. The gold is not in the tool, but the process. As leaders, we have an obligation to seek out and model opportunities that could help our students, staff and community. We need to provide resources and time for people to dive into the process and grow through ownership of learning. Self-guided exploration of learning is great for both students and staff. We don’t need to have all the answers and often won’t, but if we are seen as leading the learning, we will be in a better place. Go Crickets!!
Having said that, being the Lead Learner should also encompass Learning to Lead. At a very young age I was told that I had “leadership ability”. To this day I don’t really know what that means, but I knew it gave me confidence to get in front of a group of people, provide some energy and enthusiasm, and attempt to get people headed in a similar direction. The confidence that was instilled was great, but I think it also had a negative effect.
We consistently tell kids in Fall Creek that they work hard. We do not tell them that they are smart. The theory behind that is that at some point all kids will run into something that they view as too hard. For those who have been constantly told that they are smart, it may be a let down when they can’t figure something out. For those who have been told that they work hard, it may be a just another task that they know they can achieve with additional work.
I think I always felt smart when it came to leadership. Things came easy and I could get by with energy and enthusiasm. Sometimes I feel like it has been more of a curse than a blessing. Working to become a better leader is hard. When things got hard and difficult decisions needed to be made, I often felt like the kid who has been told they were smart for years. Now what? What if it doesn’t work? What if people start seeing me in a different light? What if the decision is wrong and it impacts everyone’s lives?
People are often placed into leadership positions because of great interview or because they had experienced some success in a different role. The fact is…being a lead learner means taking the process of learning to lead seriously. Certifications, degrees, and experience can all play a role in that development, but the process has to take you out of your comfort zone and help you move to a different level. I recently had my leadership teams fill out a survey for me through the Franklin Covey training. The results were honest, and clearly identified areas that I need to improve. I am so happy that I have a group willing to tell me I need to get better in certain areas. The challenge for leaders is we try to get better at too many things and subsequently get better at none. We discuss how we can improve in an area, but rarely find the time to dig deep and get better in our leadership practice.
We read books and think of ways to implement, and then the day to day operations take over and our growth timeline gets pushed back.
Every year I ask our staff to come with “My Three”. They find 3 things that they can look to after a day, and when accomplished, walk out feeling good about what happened. There will be days that they struggle to meet the three and others that they will have them met by the time kids arrive…but it is a constant reminder that little victories can bring big success. As the year starts, I WILL work on the following as I continue to LEARN to LEAD…
1. Be a Leadership Builder
2. On Time…Every Time
3. Listen More…Talk Less
I am so lucky. I live in a school district that allowed me to take a Superintendent position with no experience. I live in a school district that allows me to SCREAM the great things happening here in every social media forum I can find. I live in a school district that was willing to give me time to grow. We have an incredibly supportive community, a wonderful school board, and a staff that has never said no to an initiative. They all deserve the best leader, and one willing to work hard at learning to lead. I could not be happier to call this place home…Go Crickets!