Power Of Positive

I grew up believing there was always something about me, my friendships, my school performance, and my athletic achievement that could and should improve. I was hard on myself and I believed I thrived when I focused on what I could do better. I grew up, parented like I was parented and taught like I was taught. Tough is good. Suck it up. Great job, but you would be better if….

It took what I would call a significant “kick in the pants” in my role as principal to realize that most respond to a celebration of success with more drive to improve than a list of critical feedback. Recently, I started reading a fun book, Together Is Better: A Little Book of Inspiration. It’s a small book filled with smart thinking and funny pictures. One page that sticks out to me has this quote, “Leadership is not about being in charge. Leadership is about taking care of those in your charge.” Of course, principals are leaders but so are teachers….we lead our students each day we teach them. In the last few months, I have been testing this theory in my personal and professional life.

It’s crazy how effective my smile, my words of encouragement, and my ability to use a lens of optimism have been! Daily, I actively search for someone to compliment. I smile and say hello to every child and adult I pass in the hallway. I send notes and emails complimenting teachers on their instruction or how they have structured their classrooms. And I am noticing our world is better. Everyone is giving their full effort. Students are making more positive behavior choices. Teachers are initiating their own learning opportunities. I think encouragement is the difference. I think….But maybe the difference is only my perspective.

We are entering a tough stretch as educators. The glimmer of a new school year is worn. Thanksgiving break is many weeks away. Conference nights are around the corner. Fatigue becomes real. As we move forward, I am going to remember the power of positive. It’s natural to see our work as less than perfect, but I’m guessing I”m not much different from you. When the day to day pressures of interacting with students, parents and colleagues begin to wear us down, we all win when we follow Norman Vincent Peale’s wise words, “Change your thoughts and you can change your world.”

person doing thumbs up
Photo by Donald Tong on



Is A Passion For Learning In Our DNA?

I knew when I was 10 years old I wanted to teach children. It was my calling and fortunately, my luck was good.  When I graduated university in the early 80’s there was a teacher shortage and I immediately got a job teaching high school students Biology. I fully attribute this first job to great timing and networking.  I am certain I didn’t secure the position based on my expertise. In fact, I would like to return and apologize to those students because as I look back on my first decade of teaching I was operating on passion and muscle, not knowledge and intentionality.  It wasn’t until my early thirties that I hit my stride. The timing isn’t a coincidence. This was about the same time I developed some very important professional relationships that still thrive today. These critical friends ignited my desire to hone my craft and the fire still burns in me today.  

As a building leader, I have often wondered how I can stoke the desire in teachers to commit to their own professional reflection and learning.  Although the desire develops for different people at different times and for different reasons, there seem to be some common influences that teacher learners share. The work of an instructional leader is to construct experiences that lead each professional to those influences and as instructional leaders, consider the factors that prime a professional to make a commitment to his/her own learning, despite grueling classroom day-to-day demands.

Connection. In every devoted learner’s life, there is a connection with a child or loved one who doesn’t  learn easily or whose learning needs are not being met. Sometimes it is a professional’s own child, sometimes a friend’s child, sometimes a student in the professional’s classroom.  Regardless of how the child comes into the teacher’s life, It is empathy for this learner’s lack of success which forces educators to examine their own thinking and to be relentless in seeking out answers to support the learner.  The challenge as an instructional leader is to recognize when a colleague has made a connection. And, to follow up the recognition with the ability to ask the right question.   Questions like, “What does your student do well?” “Who does this student remind you of?” “What is a time in your life where you struggled to learn something new?” “How can I support you or share responsibilities so that you might have time to get to know this student better?”

Collegiality.  Nearly every teacher I know has empathy. Identifying the student who requires support is just the first step. One of the experienced teachers at our building recently said that the most valuable professional development happens collaboratively and with colleagues who are willing to question her thinking and her decision making about instruction.  This kind of conversation doesn’t happen without a strong level of trust. Thoughtful consideration on the makeup of teaching teams as well as being intentional about providing time for teachers to collaborate during their workday nurtures a culture of professional learning and collegiality. I’ve also noticed that the most productive collaboration happens when teachers own the conversation. There is so much expertise in a teaching faculty and tapping into that talent and asking the right question to collaborative groups supports them as they build trust within their team and as they consider sharing their expertise with those outside their team.  Questions like, “What did you notice about your students’ thinking that helped you decide to use ________ strategy?” “Would you be willing to share how you implemented…..?” “What do you need so that you can be available to model these teaching strategies with your grade level colleagues?”

Curiosity. Real learning results from personal curiosity and a desire to solve a problem. Real learning can be expedited with access to the right resources, including time, money, access to expertise, and materials. Instructional leaders listen to what teachers need to quench their learning desires and they do what is necessary to provide. They ask questions like, “What do you need to make this happen?”  “What data did you use to make that instructional decision?” “What did you learn in today’s practice that will drive the focus of your subsequent lessons?”

My work as an instructional leader is to expect the best out of each member of my staff and to model being a good listener. My work as an instructional leader is to provide opportunity for teachers to nurture relationships during their school day so they develop a sense of interdependence which will lead to deep collegiality.  This is the work of all instructional leaders, not just principals. As we wind down this school year, I encourage each of us- principal, academic coach, teacher, learner- to seek out connections with your students and colleagues and be curious about the challenges that remain. For many teaching professionals, it is in our nature, ourDNA, to teach.  Instructional leaders nurture passion to get better at their practice every day. I pledge to stoke my own desire to learn and to provide the necessary fuel that will result in connection, collegiality, and curiosity for each professional I lead. I hope you do too.


Leading · Reflection

Learning To Ski

I went skiing last weekend with my 72-year-old father.  He taught himself to ski when he was in his 40’s, and he still takes on the black diamond runs in northern Michigan.  I am at the other end of the spectrum. I had attempted the beginner hills at several flat runs but definitely wouldn’t call what I did skiing. So when dad invited me to hit the slopes, my first reaction was a mix of fear and excitement.  I had just finished watching the world-class athletes in the winter Olympics and although I am very afraid of falling, I knew I had an opportunity to learn a new form of exercise. So I accepted his invitation!

We arrived at the slopes early and gathered our gear before heading up the lift for my first try down the beginner hill. Dad patiently demonstrated while explaining how to get on the lift; he even alerted the lift operator that I was a beginner so that he could slow down the chair as I hopped on. I forced myself to trust dad’s directions, imitate him, and up the hill we went.

My first time getting off the lift and “skiing” down the hill was a disaster.  I fell hard twice and was grateful I had listened to my husband when renting my equipment, including a sturdy helmet.  At that moment, I really wanted to return my rentals, get into the car, and head back to the hotel. But, with dad’s encouragement, I got on the lift again and managed to get off the chair and down the hill without more than a stumble or two.  Dad continued to patiently give me immediate feedback about what I did correctly and tips to improve my technique. Each time up and down felt more comfortable until I was ready to leave the beginner hill.

From that moment, the process was repeated over and over during the weekend. Dad encouraged me to ski on hills that I was barely able to manage, demonstrated how to successfully navigate the new turns and slopes, and patiently coached me as I learned to get up by myself. By the end of the second day of skiing, I could comfortably ride the lift, get off the chair without falling, and use my edges to “snake” down what felt like a steep hill. I was a skier and I couldn’t wait until my next skiing opportunity!

On one of my final rides up the hill, I was relaxed enough to reflect on the fun.  It became clear that the weekend skiing experience was much like an effective school. Students and teachers come to new learning with anticipation but also with some angst. Unsure and anxious when they are tasked with learning a new skill, even if they are motivated. But with a support system in place and an opportunity to practice together, it isn’t long before fear can be replaced with confidence and confidence triggers success.  The success that looks like two learners sharing ideas to solve a complex task. When two colleagues reflect on formative assessment data to regroup their students. When a teacher reflects with her instructional coach and decides on a new plan. When an academic team creates a successful behavior plan for a struggling student. Model. Practice. Learn. Perform. Model. Practice. Learn. Perform.

Fast forward 10 months….It’s been a long time since I went skiing.  In fact, I haven’t gotten back to the slopes since the fun trip with my dad.  The good news is that I am scheduled to go skiing with our school’s ski club next week!  I am confident I will be rusty. I will undoubtedly have to relearn some things. I will fall and need persistence. I surely will not be able to immediately pick up with the fun I experienced last March.  It’s like that when we don’t practice….

Skiing isn’t the only skill that takes practice and a “stick to it” attitude.  Learning anything new is like that, including professional learning for teachers.  We’ve all attended a great teaching and learning conference. One that we leave super excited about! Even though we can’t wait to get back to school and try some of the ideas we heard, we get focused on our students’ needs and our daily responsibilities. And, before we know it, the end of the year is upon us and we haven’t implemented one idea from that conference.   Don’t get me wrong, out of district conferences can be career changing, but without embedding the ideas day-to-day, new learning can be squandered.

Our district’s most important weekend conference is just a few weeks away.  I am super excited to attend. I am confident I will learn many strategies that will support me as a reader and writer and as a leader of readers and writers.  Experts will be patient with me as I learn and ask questions. They will model their skills. They will encourage me. My challenge- and yours too- will be to take what we learned and use it in our daily work.   Play with the ideas. Fail. Try again. Have fun! But most importantly, practice. Talk to your colleagues about an intriguing idea. Share your biggest “AH-HA” with your administrator. Do a book talk about one of the keynote speakers’ works. Mark your calendar to discuss one idea a week with your PLC.  Write a blog post. Whatever you do, commit to it.

Get on your learning edges and ski down a mountain! Don’t let learning become a weekend trip!


Daily Call

Olivia is my youngest child. Although, she really isn’t a child anymore.  She is a second year language arts and social studies teacher in a neighboring school district.  And me, I am a 32 year veteran currently serving my school as its Principal.  We are at opposite ends of our careers, and this isn’t the only quality in which we are different.  Liv and I have had a tumultuous relationship.  My recollection is that from the moment she was born we were either completely in love OR completely frustrated with each other.  Fortunately, as both of us have matured, our relationship has too.

In fact, each day between 5 and 5:30 pm, Olivia calls me. I am usually on my way home from school or finishing up with the loose ends of the day.  We spend our 20 minute phone call debriefing the day.  I learn about Cheyenne who eats paper from her math journal, verbalizes every thought that pops into her head and doesn’t believe she can read or write since she was retained when her twin sister moved on to 6th grade. I learn about Jason, a student with autism, limited English proficiency, and a fierce desire to impress his teacher and classmates.  I learn about Dametrese, a boy who Olivia describes as her most advanced reader and writer. She tells me about how they challenge her; how they make her laugh and how they make her a better teacher.   Even though I have never met any of these students, I feel like I know them. I feel like they are my students, too.

Around March of her first year of teaching, our calls changed.  Initially, Olivia was consistently frantic, exhausted, or stumped about the next steps for things that happened that day.  The conversations were very one-sided  She asked lots of questions and I gave her ideas about how to proceed.  However, as the year went on, our conversations evolved.  They became less a question and answer session and more of a dialogue about the strategies she was using.  Instead of Liv asking questions, I became the questioner.  She continued to share the ups and downs of the day, but the essence of her story was more about how she felt about the strategies she was using.  Our roles changed and as a result, our conversations got better and more meaningful, for both of us.  The questions I heard myself asking Liv became questions I asked myself- and the teachers I am learning alongside- about the lessons I observed in our school.  My daughter was providing me the opportunity to practice instructional leadership!  She pushed back when my questions didn’t make sense.  She even hung up on me a couple of times when my questions offended her. Gratefully, she loves me unconditionally, called me back the next day and made suggestions about how to ask the questions differently before I offended one of the teachers at our school.

I cherish the talks Liv and I have about our work.  We continue to grow as professionals. We talk about books.  We talk about what she is learning from her literacy coach. We talk about her perceptions of morning PD sessions. Most importantly, we talk. Not everyone is blessed with a daughter who telephones every day and who shares her passion for teaching.  It is my hope, though, that each of us can find a confidente that pushes us to grow just as Liv and I have done for each other. Who will be your daily call?


Teacher Leadership

Mentors In All Shapes and Sizes

Year 32. And I have so much to learn.

The start of every school year evokes a variety of emotions in me.  I am excited to meet the students new to our school. I am enthusiastic about implementing new initiatives the summer gave me time to develop.  I am apprehensive about how teachers will receive our professional development plan.  I am energized by the physical and mental break June and July provided.

Even with this roller coaster of emotions, the positive energy I feel far surpasses any unease I might experience. This isn’t entirely my own doing.  It is a direct result of the professionals I surround myself with.  And, these important people are not simply colleagues.  They are my mentors. They come with varying experience, teach different ages of children, and have expertise in a variety of content areas.  Each is essential to my success and to my ability to stay focused on what matters most to me…providing instructional leadership so that every student in our school finds success.

You may be surprised that I have more than one mentor. By definition, a mentor acts as a trusted advisor, and if teaching and leading were single faceted, one mentor might be enough.  However, teaching and leading are complex and to be successful, we need many trusted advisors- all with different strengths. On any given day, I might tap into the expertise of 5 or 6 mentors.  Jill mentors me in my work as a whole group facilitator.  I seek Mike’s expertise when I am thinking about building culture. Lisa is my mental health accountability partner. Brock is my inspiration on Twitter.  I need each of them- and several others- to help me stay balanced and to stay reflective- so I grow. So I continue to learn.

As I begin our new school year, I make the time to recognize my strengths- areas in which I could serve as mentor to others- and my weaknesses, areas in which I can grow.  In both cases, I am purposeful about finding time to connect with those who have similar interests and could perhaps serve as my mentor or those who I could buoy professionally.  I encourage you to do the same.  Challenge yourself to create a list of colleagues you consider mentors and ask yourself how those individuals support you in your work. Tell them how important they are to you.  Your relationships will flourish.

When you’re assessing your strengths and weaknesses as part of your new year goal setting, consider identifying someone who either shares similar goals- and you could learn together- or identify an expert in your school, district or social media circle.   Fight the voice in your head that tells you this person won’t want or doesn’t have time to chat about their expertise. Reach out and share your ideas.  Ask your questions.  Find colleagues who will stimulate thinking.  Invite them into your conversations.  You will be amazed and pleased how these simple steps change your work and most importantly impact your students’ thinking and learning.

Whether a rookie or a seasoned veteran, we still have a lot to learn.