Monday, August 21, 2017

New Beginnings Require a New You

     I've often wondered what percentage of educators heading back to school in any given year start the school year in a new position. There are numerous possibilities in this scenario:
  • a teacher with a new prep, a new grade level, or a new leadership position (i.e. grade level chair or department chair)
  • a new-to-admin administrator or an administrator with a new position
  • an educator (teacher or administrator) at a different school than last year
  • a teacher or administrator with some combination of these, such as an educator with a new position at a new school 
All of these scenarios qualify as new beginnings, and they all can be equally exciting and terrifying, even for seasoned veterans.
     Many educators who will be starting the school year in a new position or with new responsibilities earned their way there. Conversely, there certainly are many other educators who find themselves beginning the school year in a new position due to some other circumstances. Nevertheless, new beginnings are new beginnings no matter the "why" of the "new." Chances are that one of these scenarios applies to you or someone you know.
     Clearly there are numerous qualities, skills, performance indicators and past successes that might earn you a new position. They might include:
  • distinguishing yourself as a master teacher
  • demonstrating leadership skills and potential
  • mastering new skills or competencies
  • completing a training programs, certification or advanced degree
  • consistently hitting or exceeding benchmarks or targets 
     Whether you earned your new position because supervisors observed these firsthand or because you demonstrated your excellence to an interviewer, the very things - both qualitative and quantitative - that got you there may, in fact, threaten your success in the new position. Seriously. This may seem counter-intuitive, so take a moment to consider that statement again but written in a slightly different way. The very qualities that made you successful in the past and helped earn a new position or new responsibilities might actually threaten your future success.
     It seemed all wrong to me, too, at first. Let's explore this idea, though.
     Your new position has "new" written all over it. You can count on new challenges to overcome, new problems and puzzles to solve, new relationships to build, new personalities to figure out, new culture(s) to learn, new social/political dynamics to navigate, new stakeholders to serve, new supervisors to please, new goals to set, new plans to develop and execute, and more. If, when you attack all these new tasks and challenges, you use only the arsenal and toolkit you brought with you from your former position, you will not be equipped to be successful.
     New beginnings require a new you. It's that simple. The more "new" that lies ahead, the more "new" you are likely to need in your personal inventory of qualities and skills moving forward. Perhaps you excelled at speaking to and addressing small audiences and now you will be addressing full auditoriums. Maybe you excelled at teaching pre-calculus and now you will be teaching AP calculus. It could be that you successfully served as an assistant to a principal who led a staff of thirty and you now will lead your own staff of forty. Perhaps you led informally and unofficially in your school and now you will be leading from a position that comes with your name and title on the door. You'll likely need new stories and anecdotes to tell, new ideas for meetings and conferences, new approaches to connecting with new stakeholders and maybe - brace yourself - new ways of thinking about things and looking at the world. The list of possibilities is endless but the same principle applies. New beginnings require a new you.
     The good news is that your new beginning does not require an entirely different you but rather a new, upgraded version of the successful you that exists already. In other words, you shouldn't plan to abandon the things that made you successful but rather focus, sharpen, hone, expand and improve those things. There's more good news. There are simple steps you can take to enhance the already-successful you and awaken the new you, the version of you that will be poised for future success. Let's take a look at few of the more important things you should do to start developing the new you that is ready to tackle the new beginning:
  • Ask questions - learn as much as you can about the new culture, new systems, new procedures, new personalities, new expectations, etc.
  • Read voraciously - from articles online to blogs to books, there simply is nothing you can't learn more about if you will seek out quality reading material.
  • Be humble - do not pretend to know it all or have all the answers, but rather be vulnerable, honest and willing to seek counsel.
  • Find partners - seek out people who you can go to for advice, to use as a sounding board and who will be a source of encouragement.
  • Request feedback - ask for 360-degree feedback on how you are performing, how others feel about you, how you can improve, etc.
  • Address shortcomings - acknowledge then attack your growth areas head on and work to get better in those areas.
  • Be yourself - never forget who you are and the things you've experienced that make you who you are today, just don't become complacent and content with yesterday's version of you; a new you is still you.
     If you mistakenly believe that everything that has worked for you in the past will work again, you may be headed for trouble in your new position. Many of the intangibles that may have made you successful previously - flexibility, adaptability, people skills, emotional intelligence, humor, innovation - will still be valuable, so don't discount those. You likely will need to hone and refine one or several of those, though. Furthermore, your leadership style may need adjustments, your go-to methods for giving and receiving feedback may need to change, even the vocabulary you use daily might need revision. With some effort and a growth mindset, you can be every bit as successful moving forward as you have been in the past. Your new beginnings, though, require a new you. Your new beginnings, whatever they may be, provide you an opportunity - and one you might not have had otherwise - to create a new, improved version of you that keeps you moving toward the best possible version of you. Embrace your new beginnings and be proud of the new you that you're going to become.    

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Going Back to Work

     Going back to work... There's more here than meets the eye. First, the new school year starts for me in two days, so I will be going back to work in the most traditional and obvious sense very soon. Second, I have taken a hiatus from posting here for some time but I will be returning the blog to record, reflect and share ideas, so this will be a different kind of work for me. Third, I have committed to take better care of me physically, emotionally and intellectually than ever before, and that is yet another kind of work.
     Allow me to make a confession. I love summertime as much as anyone else in education and I often find myself clinging to the last days of July, wishing they would pass by just a little more slowly. Don't get me wrong. I love being a high school principal and that's what I am meant to be doing right now. It's a tough job, though, and a job that requires a great deal of emotional and physical energy. Summer provides me the time I need to recharge to get ready to hit the ground running when the new school year arrives so I covet my summer days and nights. As I mentioned, my summer ends shortly and that time for me will be here in less than 48 hours. Gasp!
     Every year, though, something interesting happens a few days before I return to school, and it happened again this weekend. I woke up this morning completely energized and entirely ready for the year. Just like that, I'm recharged and ready again. Well, sort of... In truth, I never fully disconnect from the previous year and I never really keep the upcoming year at arm's length. While I don't spend hours during any given summer day reflecting or thinking ahead, I do spend mental energy doing both at least a few minutes each day. I read books, articles, blogs, tweets and more. I jot down ideas for calendar items, themes for the year, points of emphasis for the year, and topics for assemblies, faculty meetings, new-teacher in-service and more as they come to me, but I often don't dwell on them. Instead, I let these ideas swirl around, largely unsupervised, in my mind all summer and then - I promise it happens every year - I wake up one morning and I have concrete ideas and energy to spare. That morning was this morning, and I've spent a significant amount of time today thinking and preparing mentally for this week, the following week, the week the kids return and beyond. Let the record show that I am ready to go back to work.
     At least one of you has noticed (you know who you are and you may indeed be the last of your kind) that I have not posted here for quite a while. Most of the mental energy it takes to write has been devoted to a creative writing project. I won't bore you with the details here right now, but it has taken much of my spare time and creative energies. I'm only a fraction of the way through it, so don't expect any announcements any time soon. Nevertheless, I have been thinking for a few months now that returning to my blog might be a good idea. I think it will be healthy for me. I like (read need) to hash out ideas in writing and I certainly will be exploring new ideas and new perspectives in my professional life in the coming weeks, months and years. Additionally, my hope is that some of the things I share here will be helpful to you, too. My goal will be to blog and continue writing creatively, and that's going to require a lot of energy. Let the record show that I am ready to go back to work.
     As I wrap up a successful tenure at one school and begin a new chapter in my life at another school, I already know that the new job will require me to be at the top of my game. To prepare for that challenge, I have worked hard this summer (and the past several months, actually) to make sure that I am in the best shape possible physically, mentally and intellectually. I have devoted serious time and energy to taking care of my body, my mind and my soul recently. I can say without hesitation that I am in the best overall shape I can remember. In fact, I'm pretty sure my overall health right now is better than it ever has been. I am not finished, though. My commitment is to continue to improve. Why now? I know I have a responsibility to my new team, my new kids, and my new community, while I still have an ongoing responsibility to myself, my family and my friends. This is going to take a lot of effort. Let the record show, however, that I am ready to go back to work.
     I realize this post borders on reflective rambling so I am thankful you are still reading. The next post, though, will be substantive and will touch on each of these aforementioned ideas as I talk more about my new position, the new challenges it will present me, and - most importantly - how this new chapter will require a new improved version of me. I hope you will follow along as I share this and many other reflections and ideas, some of which I've been considering for quite a while and some of which I am sure will surprise me along the way.

Monday, November 16, 2015

The ONLY Way to Do School Right

Let me be clear: there’s no such thing as the only way to do school right. It does not exist. I’ve been reminded of this three specific times in the past few weeks, and I think it’s worth discussion.

Not long ago I had a conversation with one of my colleagues about some of the unique cultural aspects of our school. She commented that some of these aspects seemed puzzling, even strange. I replied that strange may not be the right adjective but perhaps they simply were different, even unique. I went on to explain that every time I visit another school, I discover things that seem different, unique or even strange. The more contact I have with other schools, the more I believe this to be true.

Just this past week, a principal and an exec-level leader from a school in another state visited my campus. As school leaders do when they get together, the three of us talked shop. We compared notes on everything from schedules to hiring and firing to admissions testing to curriculum. We shared things that had worked for us and things that hadn’t. We asked probing questions, offered opinions and shared insights into the business of doing school. At the end of the afternoon, we each took away from the conversation some new ideas about things we could try on our own campuses. However, at the end of the conversation, we each were reminded that our campuses, our students, our faculties, our leadership and our circumstances varied in numerous ways.

Two weeks ago I had the opportunity to travel to Kansas State University with college guidance directors from Texas to learn more about the university. Over the two full days I spent with the counselors from schools around the state - and some truly outstanding schools, at that - I once again was struck by the notion that we can do school in myriad ways yet still have a similar outcome: well-prepared, successful kids. As a group we talked specifically about schedules, course offerings, extracurriculars, grades, transcripts, curriculum alignment, college placement, testing and more. There hardly were two schools represented in the group that approached any of these things in the same way. Nevertheless, we all send well-prepared kids into the world each year.

I will be the first to argue that there are non-negotiables in education, things every school should do or emphasize, things every teacher should incorporate into classrooms, things every principal should promote and expect. I also will be the first to argue that there’s no such thing as the only way to do school right. Even when we all are driven by the notion of “what’s best for kids,” we have to approach this notion from different perspectives. We have to keep in mind the varied backgrounds and futures of our stakeholders. We have to consider everything from geography to demographics to socio-economic standing to facilities to school mission to available financial resources when considering the right way to do school for our kids.

While educators can find great ideas and inspiration from collaborating with and learning from others - and in fact should do so on a regular basis - educators must remember that what works for some may not work as well or in the same way for others. The way we schedule the day or generate transcripts or teach grammar at my school may not be ideal for your school. The way you incorporate technology or organize extracurriculars or manage gradebooks at your school may not be ideal for my school. The fact that the ways of doing school varies so much, however, does not mean your way or my way or someone else’s is right or wrong. Just because something we do is right for us does not mean it is the only way to do school right. Education is not as simple as that. We can think in terms of good, better and best, instead of right and wrong, but even those descriptors tend to be relative.

The cautionary lesson to be learned about doing school right is this: when you encounter someone who insists there’s only one way to do school, that everything must be standardized, stop and think for a moment. “The only way to do school right” can’t exist because schools vary as much as the stakeholders they serve. One size absolutely cannot and does not fit all in education. The challenge is to remember how liberating and invigorating education can be when the shackles of standardization and one-size-fits-all are broken. There’s no such thing as “the only way to do school right.”

Note for the grammar police: I am perfectly aware (as evidenced by my proper use of the adverb perfectly) that I have used an adjective as an adverb in the phrase  “the only way to do school right.” Let’s face it. “The only way to do school correctly” just doesn’t have the same ring to it. Give me some latitude here. Just saying.

Saturday, November 7, 2015

In Defense of Fidgety Kids

Funny story: As I boarded a plane in Kansas for a late-night trip back to Houston, I found myself in the mood for neither sleep nor reading. Instead, I decided I’d spend the entire flight enjoying some great music with earbuds in my ears. I fastened my seatbelt, closed my eyes and disappeared into my playlist. Two or three songs into my private concert, I opened my eyes and discovered the guy next to me visibly annoyed. To be clear, the guy seemed to be annoyed with me.
Before I say any more, I probably should give a little history here. For twenty years, my wife has been somewhat amused by my involuntary tapping of my fingers, thumbs, hands and/or feet when listening to music. In truth, she’s been pretty amused by my tapping and fidgeting even when I’m not listening to music. It happens when I watch football, when I talk on the phone and when I read, when I’m waiting for a page to load on my laptop. On top of that, I usually have something in my hands - a pen, my phone, a paperclip - when I’m in meetings or when I’m talking in my office. What can I say? People who don’t fidget don’t always get it when other people can’t sit still or be still.
Back to the annoyed guy on the plane… In my defense, I’ve flown plenty of times and I have a pretty keen sense of self-awareness. I realized how close I was sitting to the gentleman last night and, because our knees practically touched, I made an extra effort to keep my feet still even though the music made me want to move. I suppose, however, my hands tapped away involuntarily on my legs and my neighbor didn’t like it. I don’t know why it bothered him so much but clearly it did. Once I realized what was happening, I noticed he continued to look over and stare. He never said anything out loud, but I knew he was sending me a laser-beam stare and bad vibes. Maybe he was easily distracted. Not sure. I am sure he didn’t understand why I couldn’t sit still.
Truth be told, the guy next to me on the plane last night reminds me of teachers who can’t stand it when kids can’t be still. I’m pretty sure you know the type. “Be still.” “Quit tapping.” “Don’t move.” “Sit like a statue no matter how uninteresting I am or how God wired you.” These are teachers who don’t really understand kids and don’t know all the latest research on why kids fidget and why fidgeting is not a bad thing. I didn’t say these teachers don’t like kids. I said they don’t understand, and I stand by that. There’s a greater implication here than teachers simply wanting kids to be still all the time, though, and that’s really what I want to address.
The teachers who can’t stand the fidgeting will be the same teachers who make assumptions about kids’ intelligence, future success, character and more based on how much wriggling and wiggling happens in chairs, at desks, and in lines. Think I’m overstating? My twenty-plus years in education begs to differ with you. The truth is that fidgeting has nothing to do with intelligence or any of the things I mentioned above. At all. And here’s another truth for teachers who don’t get and can’t handle the fidgeting: kids who can’t sit still just might grow up to be adults who can’t sit still, and that will be OK.
When the exec team at my school meets once a week, a dozen sharp and capable professionals gather around a big conference table to discuss policy, practice and more that affects the life of our school. Each member of the exec team sits quietly and attentively in a fancy leather swivel chair through the entire meeting each week. Each team member except for one, that is… Yours truly swivels back and forth in my fancy chair through the entire meeting. Why? I have no idea, except that’s just how I’m wired. I’m sure I swivel in my chair for the same reason I tap my fingers or my feet when listening to music. Surely my boss and colleagues don’t question my attentiveness or intelligence or character. So why does that happen when kids fidget?
Here’s the bottom line. As long as a kid isn’t stabbing a neighbor with his protractor or drumming on his desk so loudly that no one else in class can hear the teacher, teachers need to let a fidgety kid fidget. A fidgety kid who can’t fidget is almost like a kid with vision issues who’s not allowed to wear glasses. Kids need to have the freedom to move a little, to fidget, to stand, to sit differently or to tap their fingers so their brain stays engaged. If you don’t believe me, check the research. It’s not rocket science.
If you’re not buying what I’m telling you, let me leave you with this thought, which just may scare you into early retirement: If you don’t allow kids to fidget a bit and you hang around teaching long enough, you just may end up with one of those fidgety kids as your principal.

You’ve been warned.

Monday, November 2, 2015

Strikes, Spares and Sliders: Adventures in Professional Development

Over the last few years, I've taken a particular interest in professional development for my faculty and staff. Specifically, I've gone to great lengths to move away from the stand-and-deliver, meeting-heavy, cookie-cutter professional development that seems to have been the norm for the twenty years I've been an educator. We've worked hard to move away from that model for our classrooms, so why would we want to perpetuate poor teaching and learning PD experiences for our teachers? Come to think of it, does all professional development even have to be about teaching and learning? I think not.

Our school dismisses early about once each month, which allows us to have professional development time regularly, and the responsibility to provide quality PD falls squarely on my shoulders. Some of the more successful, memorable and meaningful PD in recent memory includes professional development around the Harkness tables and a school-wide edcamp. Several weeks ago, while looking ahead to the October early dismissal, I knew I wanted to do something different, memorable and, above all, meaningful. I knew what I wanted to accomplish, what I wanted as an outcome, but I wasn't sure how to formulate and execute a plan. I collaborated with (read conspired with) two of my best team members, shared my vision and they ran with it.

Several days before the early dismissal, I sent the following email to my faculty:

US Faculty,

As you know, next Wednesday is another early dismissal day for us to focus on professional growth. I have great news: Wednesday will be another jeans day, so come casual. Those of you who have known me a while probably think I've lost my mind because we've done jeans so many times this year. Here's the deal... one more time can't hurt, right?

In other news, we're going to do something a little out of the box. We have an opportunity to be part of a pilot program for a new team building program called TEAM WORKS, which actually is an acronym for Together Everyone Achieves More When Organizations Revitalize Kindred Souls. The focus of the program, as you may have discerned from the full program title, is on team building through tearing down walls, finding common ground, becoming better friends, and even establishing intimacy among coworkers. I was skeptical at first. However, after doing some reading, I believe this is just the shot in the arm we need.

The catch is that we cannot bring facilitators here. Rather, our sessions will be off campus. Transportation will be provided and the bus will depart at 12:30 from the gym entrance on the north side of the building. If the sessions end on time, we should return by the end of the school day. Gluten-free and organic lunch options will be provided at no cost to you.

Because reservations are non-refundable, I need to know asap if for some reason you cannot be there (and coaching responsibilities are about the only good reasons I can think of at the moment).

Looking forward to bonding with you on Wednesday,


I'm not sure how faculties at other schools would react to an email like this, but I can tell you I struck a collective nerve with my faculty. Almost immediately, my teachers moved into one of two camps: "what is he up to?" and "God help us, please do not make us do this." My creative plan was off to a perfect start. The buzz was deafening for days. Teachers huddled in classrooms and in the workroom to speculate about not only what this professional development experience would be like but also how stressful and unpleasant the experience would be. "When the initial email came out, my thought was, 'Oh no, Barber has bought into the team building thing and some group has made some money off the school," says Cal, my economics teacher. Some teachers even worked together to begin research on TEAM WORKS to see if they could catch a glimpse of what they could expect.

Not one to leave things alone, I decided to amp things up a bit. Two days before our TEAM WORKS experience, I sent a second email explaining that the facilitators had requested the following: faculty should be divided into pre-assigned teams according to pre-assigned colors; each team needed a theme song; each team needed a team name, which had to be in #hashtag format. I didn't send this info to everyone. Instead, I sent this one only to team captains. In less than 24 hours, our team captains had communicated with and organized their teams, and they had provided the requested info after their teams made their choices. Can you say communication? Collaboration?

At last, TEAM WORKS day arrived. Every single teacher and staff member arrived at school decked out in his or her team color. As the morning went by, the excitement (read tension and apprehension) moved toward a crescendo. Finally, the bell rang, the kids went home and the teams loaded the school bus waiting for them outside the gym.

Just when I thought things couldn't get any better, I discovered a microphone and sound system on the bus. Having never met a mic I didn't like, I seized the opportunity to go ahead push things over the top. En route to our mystery destination, I announced periodically to my captive audience, "Go ahead and take a few minutes to center yourself, focus and clear your mind;" "Grab the hand of the person seated next to you and say, 'Together, we can do this;'" "Turn to the person on your left and tell them he/she is special;" and "Put your right hand on the shoulder of the person in front of you and say, 'No matter what the kids think about you, I think you're awesome.'" One of my teachers actually leaned forward on the way and told me, "If you really make us do this today, I think I'm going to be sick."

As we approached our destination, I grabbed the mic once again much to the chagrin of most of my passengers. I reminded my teachers of a meeting we had a number of weeks ago at which I revealed that our five-year trend of rising ACT scores had continued to new heights: 2015's scores stood as the highest in school history. At that meeting, I also told them that at some point we would celebrate their hard work and their commitment to the process. As we turned into the parking lot of the bowling alley, I let them off the hook and reminded them that I hadn't forgotten about celebrating. Pandemonium ensued.

We exited the bus and entered the bowling alley where we were greeted by two of my aforementioned best team members . They had arranged for a huge buffet, competitions, awesome music and one unforgettable party. For the next two hours, we bowled. For the next two hours, we cheered for one another, high-fived, celebrated, and created a sense of team unity we'd never experienced before. And at the end of the two hours, it seemed like my faculty had just won the lottery.

You may think we just went bowling. I assure you, the TEAM WORKS experiment proved to be so much more. How, exactly? First, beginning immediately after my first email, people started having conversations - lots of them - and with people they don't always spend time with at school. Teachers were sharing ideas, asking questions and having conversations about this crazy principal and his crazy plan. I didn't really care what they were talking about... They were talking. A lot. Second, teachers from different departments and grade levels had to get themselves organized and on the same page. More conversation. Third, teachers spent two hours relaxing together, cheering and encouraging one another, building trust, forging relationships and being positive. That's powerful. Fourth, by the end of the early dismissal day, the faculty had a positive, meaningful shared experience. There's great power and value in shared experiences, especially when those experiences are positive. Finally, the faculty felt appreciated and valued. Believe it or not, feeling valued and appreciated ranks as the one thing that will keep faculty satisfied, engaged and on the team for the long haul. Feeling valued and appreciated far outweighs salary, work hours, facilities and everything else that might factor into teacher job satisfaction and retention. In fact, some of the faculty told me they have never felt so appreciated. Mission accomplished.

I'm not the only one who sensed the power of this experience. Take a look at what some of my faculty said:
  • The interaction we had at the bowling alley was authentic. Not forced. Getting to spend a few hours with colleagues from other disciplines within the humanities in an authentic environment produces authentic interactions. Authentic interactions build trust. Where trust exists, collaboration can also exist. Where collaboration exists, everybody wins. I enjoyed physically leaving the confines of school with colleagues. I returned energized, motivated and more productive. Nancy
  • This event was unique. Who can say the principal took them bowling? It's a credibility thing, it's a trust thing, it's an appreciation thing, and it's a bonding thing. Cal
  • TEAM WORKS offered two things that will have lingering effects on the faculty.  The first being the fact that their hard work has not gone unnoticed.  Bringing up a standardized test average is proof that what they are doing is working.  As a college preparatory school, there is no greater achievement than seeing students succeed in their educational goals.  This score marked a record for the school, and as a result, the faculty.  The other takeaway that will remain with the faculty is knowing that they work for someone who encourages camaraderie.  The day was a successful surprise and it everyone worked together to have fun. Tim

We may not go bowling every term or even every semester, but I am sure we will do more of this, per faculty request and because I see the incredible value-added for my team. There will be plenty of time throughout the year stay up-to-date on best practices. After this experience, though, I will be sure that best practices will be only part of our focus during time set aside for professional development. After all, does all professional development even have to be about teaching and learning? I think not.