The Worst of Me

If you work closely with a team, you would benefit from some of the exercises that our strengths coach, Elizabeth Payne, has used to build the relationships on our team. We believe that relationships are foundational for learning, and they are also foundational for leading. Taking time to reflect on your strengths and your passions, as well as the strengths and passions of those on your team, could help you go much further faster.

Understand yourself. Develop your strengths. Develop your team. Ask your teammates for feedback on what they see as your strengths. Consider completing and sharing two transformational statements together:

  1. You get the best of me when…
  2. You get the worst of me when…

When you are ready to take this team building to the next level, consider exploring these two statements:

  1. You can count on me for…
  2. I need you to…

This process should empower individuals on a team and accelerate growth.



Who is a leader? In our work with Elizabeth Payne, our strengths coach, we have learned: A leader might be defined as anyone who has responsibilities that impact others. Leaders support and serve. They read people. Leaders inspire others to follow them. They take risk. They care. They are driven by a purpose, yes/and they prioritize the greater good over individual needs.

So, what qualities make a leader effective?  Effective leaders offer stability and have earned the trust of those whom they lead. Effective leaders show compassion. They also offer security and provide hope.

We know that high performing people feel safe in their working relationships and need that security to take risks. They need to be known and understood to be happy. We must be able to separate who a person is from what they do but also know that some of our work is a direct reflection of who we are.

To lead a division well, we try to start with wins, say thank you, and have fun when we are together. We use our strengths to contribute and ask for the strengths of others to round us out. We overcome obstacles together. We strive to set, express, and evaluate clear expectations.

Leadership is a journey, and each of us is the master of our own journey.

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?”

Expanding Learning Walks Scaling up the practice of learning walks to include all stakeholders

Since participating in an all-school read of Tony Wagner’s Global Achievement Gap about five years ago, our school has embraced the practice of learning walks. This practice is part of a larger effort to transform school culture from a closed door, master teacher mindset to an open door, teacher as collaborator mindset. Additionally, schools tend to look out to find experts in the field, but we are finding that looking in and observing the high performing faculty with whom we share a campus may be more valuable.

We began learning walks by encouraging teachers to stop by a classroom for 1-5 minutes after dropping students off at PE or art. Administrators and teacher leaders modeled how this looks by popping in and spending a few minutes as a fly on the wall. Wanting this to be a positive experience, we left post-it notes or shared tweets that highlighted a bright spot from our observation.

Learning walks starting catching on and teachers became more and more comfortable with opening their own doors and welcoming unannounced visitors. At the same time, teachers grew to appreciate the opportunity to observe a colleague and refined their own observational skills. As a matter of fact, we replaced the word tour in our Mount Vernon vernacular with “learning walk.” When other schools requested a tour of our school, we offered them a learning walk. Our admissions tours became learning walks as well. We feel that this better communicated the purpose and intentionality around hosting visitors.  

This year we decided to take a risk and include families in learning walks of Lower School classrooms. We invited parents representing grade levels K-4 including new and returning families. We started small but hoped the experience would be a positive one, worth scaling up.

Five moms met on campus at  8:15 last Thursday morning. We sat in a circle in our Kindergarten Commons and exchanged introductions to build some community among the parents. As part of the introduction, we each contributed to the visible thinking routine, a process for developing habits of thinking and making our thoughts visible – usually on post-it notes. The prompt was I think I know…  Some of those responses included:

I think I know…

  • ideas around culture
    • that I am about to see excited children
    • that it is going to be a great day
    • how the flow of the day happens
    • why people love Mount Vernon
    • there will be a morning meeting
    • the children will be having fun
    • elementary school looks different today
  • ideas around instruction
    • there will be small groups and whole groups
    • phonics will be happening
    • classes will be using the Box Light
    • some classes will be working in centers
    • what happens in my son’s classroom

Next, I led the group through some background information about the development of our growth-minded, open-door culture and the role that learning walks played in that. Parents were very impressed that our teachers regularly participated in the process of observing teaching and learning among their grade level colleagues as well as between grade levels as a strategy for professional learning and professional collaboration.

We asked our parents to begin the learning walk with the thoughts of I like, I wish, I wonder. Then, we divided up the group and jumped into classrooms beginning in kindergarten and hitting each grade level in order through fourth grade. There were a few questions between classrooms and a few moments where clarification was given in the rooms, but for about one hour, there were just quiet, independent observations going on. Parents entered the classroom, faded into the background or looked over a student’s shoulder and took notes on the learning – maybe learning reflected through student comments, conversations, or questions. The learning that was observed may have been evidenced in the writing on the tables, the student work hanging on the walls, or work in journals.

We saw small group phonics instruction in kindergarten. Some students were finding letters that said /k/, /a/, /b/… and blending such a word. Others were sky writing and identifying letter names, sounds, and keywords. In first grade numeracy games were being played with 10 frames, rekenreks, and a tie in to whale watching in one classroom and the Daily 5 literacy centers going on in another. In second grade, we saw word detectives on the hunt for -ink, -ank, -unk words. Some third graders were collaborating as editors while others were in the hall having number corner. Finally, fourth graders were rotating through inquiry stations exploring questions like, “Where did Magellan go next?” in one classroom and publishing their final copies of a writing piece in another one.


After completion of the walk, we all gathered back together to debrief. Two visible thinking routines were now in use: I think I know… Now I know and I like, I wish, I wonder. Opening with the simple thought of, “Well, what did you think?” opened a flood gate of impressions, questions, and excitement of what was observed. The feedback from the parents included:

I like:

  • phonics was fun with kids writing in the sand
  • phonics was much more in-depth than I thought
  • that students are learning about short and long sounds as well as terminology like the breve
  • that learning math was tactile all the way through the grade levels, not just in K
  • connections between math and science being made
  • seeing how kids are taught to think differently
  • what K students knew about coins
  • that math was made relevant to the students’ world, like with the tooth chart
  • connections between social studies and literacy
  • that teachers can project their phone on the Box Light
  • visuals around conflict resolution
  • teachers offered lots of different ways for students to complete a writing piece like post-it notes or spider legs
  • kids can add post-it notes at any time, not just on the spot
  • seeing kids working together so often

I wish

  • we showcased more of the reading, writing, and math that we saw today in promotional and admissions materials
  • the learning coaches could teach more of our families about the Mount Vernon instructional practices

I wonder

  • how third grade uses the Chrome Books
  • how many other preschool and kindergartens use multisensory phonics instruction like ours
  • why some fourth grade classrooms only had literacy or math resources
  • what grade US History and wars are taught explicitly
  • about nonsense words in second grade
  • how students know how to work with partners
  • what a document camera is and how it is used
  • how often teachers do learning walks

These observations opened the door for some rich conversations around learning in Lower School. In response to some questions and comments we were able to zoom out and explain about the research and design work that goes on school wide at Mount Vernon. We were able to share brain research and pedagogical practices. On other topics we were able to zoom in and drill down to understand the heart of our curriculum. Each parent left with a much richer understanding of who Mount Vernon is, how dedicated and passionate our teachers are, and why our students love their school!

As an exit ticket, parents added one more post-it in response to the prompt,

Now I know…

  • how teachers use innovative techniques to solidify foundational skills
  • differentiation comes in many shapes and sizes in Lower School classes
  • the social studies curriculum is dispersed through grade k-4.
  • kids learn a lot in the morning!
  • how phonics practice looks in the classroom
  • how bright kindergarten children are
  • kids are engaged in what they are learning
  • that the children are learning why, not just the facts
  • about the way Chromebooks are introduced, implemented, monitored, and utilized
  • that children are learning to think and problems for themselves

Each parent agreed that we should continue to offer learning walks to our parent body. It was a great day to take a peek inside classrooms and receive feedback from a different perspective. We plan to open the invitation to anyone who is interested. I will be interested to see how the next couple of rounds go.

My Notebook, Part IV

What do strengths-minded teachers do differently?

In a strengths workshop lead by Elizabeth Payne, we were challenged to produce a list of up to 10 roles we play in life and a separate list that revealed 3 things that make us come alive. Elizabeth pointed out that what we do in life is different than who we are. This was a strong opening to the meeting that got everyone thinking and reflecting.

Next we shifted focus form ourselves to our team. Elizabeth revealed that teams who are strengths-based:

  • have core values
  • discover and develop each others strengths
  • share common language
  • value the team
  • collaborate in community through engagement, investment, and commitment

4 essential elements of a team include:

  1. “We before me”
  2. connection to the larger group
  3. Open Mindedness and curiosity
  4. Positivity

My Notebook, Part III

Notes from a leadership meeting:

Quality Classroom Assessment

  • designed to serve information need of user
  • have achievement targets
  • accurately reflect student achievement
  • effectively communicate to users
  • involve students (in assessment, record keeping, and communication)
  • assess to gather evidence on student learning
  • have a clear sense of achievement expectations
  • use student-friendly language

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

The Thinking Classroom Part II: Language

When a phenomenon is complex, it tends to have many words to describe it. Consider love, sadness, and thinking. Each of these abstract concepts are complicated and can be described with many different words, actions, and experiences. When we expose young children to abstract concepts, it is our job to make them as clear and concrete as possible. Tishman, Perkins, and Jay challenge readers to consider the meaning of these six words:

  • guess
  • suppose
  • surmise
  • presume
  • assume
  • speculate

While all the words mean to form an opinion, each word marks a slight but significant difference. As teachers, we are challenged to use a wider variety of thinking words when we want a specific task from our students. The more ways of directing our students’ thinking, the more opportunities they will have to direct their thought processes. As a result, students will think more precicely. A teacher’s language can send different signals to students promoting specific patterns of thinking. Even children in the early elementary grades have acquired the necessary conceptual apparatus to understanding a range of thinking vocabulary.

While textbooks are simplifying language, we need to expose children to a larger variety of more specific thinking cues. Tishman, Perkins, and Jay describe words as precision instruments that will elicit detailed, thoughtful thinking in our learners. Just as teacher questioning has become a staple in unit planning, I hope we can add more precise thinking vocabulary in planning for instruction as well as directions on assessments.