A Tough Conversation

Tough conversations are usually a sign of growing times. When a team needs to work through a difficult issue, it is important to follow our assume the best protocol. In an attempt to do that in a recent situation, I have a few great take-aways to share.

  1. We must celebrate successes first. Each person should be able to recognize strengths in the other and share those.
  2. Based on our own reflection and the feedback of others, we need to take ownership of our own growth – determine our own goals and hold ourselves accountable.
  3. We must be open to the feedback, even if we were not expecting it to go that way.

So I began a recent meeting by establishing the purpose:

  1. We want to be our best individually and as a team in accomplishing the mission and vision of our School.
  2. We want to show that we care for and respect each other as a valued member of the team.
  3. We want to agree on an outcome that requires change on everyone’s part.

So, we sought to sort through differences and identify what keeps us from doing our best. We shared stories or specific times, rather than blanket statements. We exchanged, “What I need from you is__________” statements.

This was a good reminder to all involved that the need to get things done does not equal a partnership, so we cannot value tasks over relationships.


Planning for a Class Again

It would be interesting to know how many hours of lesson plans I have created since I took my first education class as a junior in college. Through college and graduate school I wrote many lessons and received feedback from my professors. After graduation I began teaching third grade. Planning every minute (and many extra minutes in case the students caught on more quickly than I anticipated) from the 7:30-3:15 school day for 18 little boys was much more challenging than my hypothetical plans in college, and the feedback was much more immediate. Little boys will quickly let you know if something is too boring or too hard. But they will also let you know when they are having fun or when they “get it” for the first time. And that feedback is why I teach!

Since moving into administration five years ago, though, I don’t plan as many lessons. I have had the opportunity to design lots of professional learning experiences and collaborate with teachers on their lesson plans. But it has been many years since I have designed my own class for kids. I am excited to plan this experience for 10 students. I want to design with the end in mind and develop essential questions that these students will wrestle with. I am going to spend this weekend planning the big idea of a Ted Talks for Kids PlayMaker Class. But I can’t wait to meet my class and find out what their goals are for signing up. I am interested to learn about their passions and let those direct my plans.

Below is the opening communication I will share.

Dear Speakers,

Thanks for signing up for our PlayMaker Class! We are going to have a lot of fun this trimester.

f you can’t write a speech yet, do not worry. I bet you can write a list. If not a list, I bet you can write a word. If you have never given a speech before, get excited about the opportunities ahead. Wherever you are now, you are going to learn to say that word, list, or speech with power. Depending on what your goal is, we will create a plan and document progress along the way.

We will look for opportunities to share our final product with an audience. Hopefully this process will bring laughter because we will be silly. Yes, and after lots of practice we will entertain, inform, or inspire someone to make an impact.

We will act. We will memorize. We will write. We will practice, coach, and say thank you for the feedback. We will laugh. We will listen. We will take each communicator as far as he or she is ready to go.

Many are called, but few are chosen. Matthew 22:14

ReynosaGod’s timing is perfect. I don’t have time to read many books of choice during the school year, and I am not even sure where this book came from. But on the first day of fall break, I opened Jeff Goins’s The Art of Work, A Proven Path to discovering what You were Meant to do. The book opens with scripture from Matthew 22:14 Many are called, but few are chosen. Goins asks big questions like, “What would you do if you could do anything?” “What will you regret not doing?” and “What do you wish you spent more time on?”

In order to answer these questions Goins outlines seven common characteristics that reveal the theme in people’s lives.

  1. Awareness
  2. Apprenticeship
  3. Practice
  4. Discovery
  5. Profession
  6. Mastery
  7. Legacy

To know yourself, you must learn to listen to your life by being disciplined at awareness.

Most weeks I start the day with morning carpool, attending meetings with brilliant and passionate people, observing creative and dedicated teachers, sitting with curious and kind students, and meeting with engaged parents – all of whom want to talk about learning, achievement, and creativity. Most weeks, I could practice awareness and walk away with a consistent theme. This week, however, was different.

This week I was flying from my 1200 sq. ft. apartment in Buckhead where i live alone to Reynosa, Mexico. There I would be camping out in bunkrooms above a medical clinic in order to build two 12×20 ft. cinderblock homes for two Mexican families of five or more.

I learned a little before I went on this adventure. I learned that the Mexican sewage system can’t handle paper; so all toilet paper must be discarded in the trash cans. I learned that Mexico has different parasites in their water, so Americans get sick if we drink it. I learned that most families must choose between running water or electricity because they can’t afford both. How aware am I of my blessings?

When I arrived, I heard devotion after devotion of people sharing about how the Scriptures call us to serve, how hearts are changed, and how love is spread. How aware am I of the needs and the opportunities around us?

When I begin digging dirt and gravel to make cement in a hole in the ground, I learned more efficient ways to dig and scoop. Mexican women taught me to use primitive tools shape rebar into triangles that would support a roof. Mexican men taught me how to sling buckets up a homemade scaffold, and how to repurpose my trash to fill holes, scoop, and mix. I learned a few words and phrases from the children that wanted a biblia, a lámpara, balón, and dulces.

As “mud” from the cinderblocks fell of the sides of the house, it was my job to scoop the drops up and make sure no cement was wasted because we had no más. Did I know what I could learn from people with whom I don’t share the same language? Was I aware of how much I needed other people when tasks because hard and buckets grew heavy. Did I think I could share so many smiles, laughs, and hugs with people I will never see again?

The week was hard. Relatively. We were exhausted at night and sore the next morning. We could not easily refill our water bottles. Showers were cold; soap was scarce, and we were locked in our compound every night, not allowed to go out into the streets for fear of murder and kidnapping. Everyone in our group took a week off of work and had no access to Internet to catch up on things along the way. People missed their families, familiar food, and a weekend of SEC football. But for us, it was a week. 7 days. For our Mexican coworkers, this wasn’t a mission trip; this was life.

We prayed, ate, worshiped, and worked, hand in hand – Mexican. American. Mexican American. The people were clean though their city was trashed. The families were big though the houses were small. We built a home in a garbage dump, a squalor. We bathed in troughs just to keep the concrete from burning our skin. We sang in Spanish and in English, “This is the day that the Lord has made!” We held hands every time. Mexican. American. Mexican. American.

On the day of the house dedication, we praised the Lord that two more families would have a home. A safe place to raise their children, a roof over their heads, a door and two windows. They were so grateful. They were so joyful. We rejoiced and were glad in this, yes/and tears flowed and flowed.

The families killed their livestock and spent every peso they had to prepare us a meal of gratitude, a thanksgiving feast. They were so generous. They gave all they had.

The week was short. We worked a half-day on Friday to try to finish one more roof. We showered quickly, packed what was left of salvageable clothing, then headed back to the border. We drove five miles. Count those: one, two, three, four, five miles back across the border to the land of plenty. That drive was short. I needed more time to process all that I had seen, heard, smelled, touched, and tasted. I needed to reflect, to pray, to plan.

I don’t know yet how this will impact my life, but I know it has brought much perspective, awareness, and appreciation.

What would you do if you could do anything?” “What will you regret not doing?” and “What do you wish you spent more time doing?”

My Notbook, Part II

One of the many things I love about my job is the way I am pushed and challenged. A fun challenge of fall 2014 was to generate a list of “What if we were a school…”

My list:

  1. who replaced quarterly progress reports with real-time demonstrations of, reflections on, and feedback for learning?
  2. who did not have faculty meetings, only instructional rounds debriefs and professional learning?
  3. who replaced yearly reviews with FOLIO?
  4. who didn’t group students by the year they were born?
  5. who had an opt-in school within a school to practice innovation?
  6. whose “world language” was coding?

I hope to continue to add to this list.

My Notebook, Part I

I love notebooks. The old-fashioned, paper ones. With lines. When I get to the end of a notebook, though, it is like finishing a chapter of my life, so I like to read back through the pages to reflect on lessons I learned, remember thoughts and questions I had, and make sure every to-do list is checked off.

January is a good time to start a new notebook, so I will walk you through a little bit of the filled book before I shelf it. The first page was notes taken at a Christian Leadership Conference at Camp Seafarer from speaker (and now friend) Elizabeth Payne.

My notes:

“Be grateful for whoever comes because each has been sent as a guide from beyond.” Rumi.

Great leaders:

  • Make the most of your time
  • Choose to serve (collaborate, create, celebrate, empower, empathize, excel, cast vision)
  • Be the best version of yourselves
  • Bring passion
  • Act as a constant inquirer
  • Live on the edge of breakthrough

Great leaders have goals:

  • Do what you do best, every day
  • Unpack your suitcase of potential
  • Hold yourself accountable

If God has an idea that he needs to send to earth, he wraps a body around it. If it is a really big idea, he wraps many bodies around it. It is our job to get God’s ideas out and/or accomplished before our bodies leave this earth.

  • Choose to serve

How Full is your Bucket

Lately I have read several pieces of work by Tom Rath including How Full is your Bucket, Eat, Move, Pray, and Strengths Based Leadership.  Dr. Jacobsen, my current Head of School has often commented, “Small deposits have a cumulative effect.” to remind us to focus on getting the little things right and to be intentional in everything.

Tom Rath and Don Clifton’s research share this idea.  Do we want increased productivity, engagement, commitment, satisfaction, and safety among our employees and students? If so, then we need to spread positive, sincere encouragement in small doses. Nobel Prize-winning psychologists Daniel Kahneman tells us that we have approximately 20,000 individual moments each day. 20,000! Experts tell us that the magic ratio of positive interactions for every negative is 5:1. So, we all need to get busy making some positivity spread.

I plan to take this advice and do a few things differently. We will celebrate what makes each child and teacher unique rather than what makes them “fit in” and summons students to the office (and call home to report) to commend them for doing the right thing. We will focus on “filling buckets” through individualized, specific, and deserved feedback. We will also regularly evaluate our implementation of The Five Strategies:

  1. Prevent Bucket Dipping
  2. Shine a Light on What is Right
  3. Make Best Friends
  4. Give Unexpectedly
  5. Reverse the Golden Rule

Finally, we will ask each teacher before the school year begins how he or she likes his or her bucket filled.



Each one of us has a “bucket” that is emptied or filled based on each of the 20,000 encounters we experience each day. When our bucket is full, we feel productive, passionate, and excited. However, when our bucket is empty, we feel angry, down, and disconnected.  Fortunately, we are not powerless over full and empty buckets. We all also have a “dipper” which empowers us to fill (or empty) others’ buckets.  Here are some quotes from Tom Rath and Donald Clifton’s How Full is your Bucket? to remind us to start filling buckets and to surround ourselves with other bucket fillers:

  • The #1 reason people leave their jobs: They don’t feel appreciated.
  • Bad bosses could increase the risk of stroke by 33%.
  • A study found that negative employees can scare off every customer (or family, in our case) they speak with – for good.
  • 65% of Americans received no recognition in the workplace last year.
  • 9 out of 10 people say they are more productive when they’re around positive people.
  • Increasing positive emotions could lengthen life span by 10 years.

Next week, when the Lower School teachers return for Preplanning, we are going to do some bucket filling (literally) that may or may not involve races. We are also going to do some bucket filling (figuratively) to create a healthy work culture.



Visible Thinking

I was seated in the Hussey Commons at Presbyterian Day School today listening to Jim Reese and Ron Ritchhart set the stage for “Project Zero Perspectives: How and where does learning thrive?” Before we began observations in the classrooms, we were reminded that the opportunities to go into a classroom and observe are rare and there is so much to see. So, we needed to focus our observations. We were challenged to look into the classrooms to see where and how thinking is valued, visible, and promoted.

1. Determine if Thinking is Valued

  • What specific kinds of thinking are the focus of the lesson?
  • Where and when did you see the teacher curious about students’ thinking?
  • How will the learning tasks yield understanding, promote original ideas, or engage students in creative problem solving?

2. See if Thinking is Visible

  • What routines are used to encourage thinking?
  • How does the physical environment reflect thinking?

3. Decide if Thinking is Actively Promoted

  • Are students required to elaborate or reason?
  • Does the teacher challenge students’ ideas?
  • How does the teacher provide space for students to extend, elaborate, or develop their own ideas?
  • How does the teacher provide space for students to build on their classmates’ ideas?

These focused questions made time in classrooms purposeful.

What do innovators and mathematicians have in common?


Innovators explore and experiment in a climate of change. They build resilience through risk-taking and setbacks. Innovators create unique ideas with value and meaning.

What do innovators and mathematicians have in common? Everything. The math learning program that we are developing at Mount Vernon requires students to take the posture of an innovator as they see the world through a mathematical lens. Children learn mathematics by actively investigating realistic problems. Long gone are the days when teachers are the transmitters of information and students are the receivers. And long gone are the days where the algorithm is taught first by the teacher, memorized, then applied by the student.

While it may seem contrary to the model of math instruction that you or I received in elementary school, we now provide students the opportunity to engage in disequilibrium, reflect, and explore numbers. We believe that this not only builds resilience in our students but also helps them create knowledge rather than merely receive it. We inspire our young minds to solve and pose problems.