Sustaining Momentum

It’s been a month since my last post.  I lost momentum.  Gone was the initial excitement that came with finally launching a site that had been percolating in my head for years, and coming off that high was hard.  Much harder than I anticipated.  What had begun as a creative outlet was now a chore, and the prospect of producing high-quality writing each week was intimidating.  Even more frustrating?  I knew it was coming.  It’s part of my M.O.

My strength comes from inspiring big ideas (just look at my DISC profile), but following through — navigating the day-to-day challenges of putting an idea into practice — I’ve always struggled with that.  I allow myself to get too embroiled in the politics of change.  I’m too quick to abandon one idea when a newer, more novel opportunity presents itself.  And sometimes, just like my beloved Iowa State Cyclones, I fall victim to my own hype.

Train off the tracks...

Is this a common problem for novice leaders?  Fresh out of grad school and looking for that first administrative position, we certainly speak the right language.  We know we’re supposed to maintain a laser-like focus on student achievement, adopt a balanced leadership approach, and commit to change.  We can say these things, but when the rubber hits the road, how well do we follow through on our big ideas?  How do we sustain our momentum?

Image Credit: Brentingby Derailment by Frosted Peppercorn (with some artistic license).


The Forest of Complex Change

16035065065_ddcdae0270_bI doubt that anyone has ever described me using the phrase “he can’t see the forest for the trees”.  I think the opposite is probably true: I love the forest.  I can’t tell you a thing about the types of trees in it or what kind of animals live there, but I could still talk about the forest for hours.  I take pride in my ability to see the bigger picture when others get too mired in the details.  My wife probably feels a little different.

Take, for instance, the big idea that our home should be as organized as possible.  A place for everything, and everything in it’s place. Yet I’ll leave my dirty clothes on the floor.  I’ll forget to clear the table or unload the dishwasher.  I’ll ignore that mess in the basement because, well, we don’t use that space very much.  It’s the idea of order and efficiency that seems so appealing, but ideas absent action mean nothing…except more unnecessary work for my incredible wife.

Now extend that mindset to school leadership, specifically the task of managing complex systems change, and the areas in which I need to improve become glaringly obvious.  This graphic organizer, based on a presentation by T. Knoster (1991), hangs above the desk in my office:

ManagingChange (2)


Vision is not my problem.  It’s the magnificent redwood tree.  No matter the initiative or issue at hand, I can paint a clear picture of where we’re heading.  The bigger question is whether or not the system is ready to head in that direction.  Timing is key.

My skills are strong too, but admittedly, I’m a self-assured guy.  Skills are like bonsai trees that require deliberate care and maintenance, and tools like Cognitive Coaching will certainly help the trees thrive.  The coaching process is especially valuable in helping to reduce anxiety in others.

Both incentives and resources vary, depending on my ability to provide them.  Think of them as the trees that turn beautiful colors every fall only to go dormant for the winter.  It’s those long, cold winters that are always the most difficult, especially when I can’t control the weather.

Which leaves only an action plan, all those details that I am so eager to overlook.  These aren’t even trees in my metaphorical forest.  They are the acorns that litter the forest floor.  I may spot a couple that can mature into mighty oaks, but like the dirty clothes, I’ll probably ignore the rest.

Image Credit: Wald by David Schiersner via Flickr

A Leader’s Toolkit: Cognitive Coaching

I love the toolkit metaphor.  It goes something like this:  To be a leader you need a wide variety of tools and strategies at your disposal.  Sometimes the situation calls for a screwdriver.  Other times, a wrench.  In a pinch, even duct tape may suffice.   Leadership is the ability to know what tool to use, how it works, and when to use it.

But which piece of equipment in our metaphorical toolkit provides the best return on investment.  I love a good hammer.  I can do a lot [of damage] with a hammer.  Unfortunately, it’s not a very versatile tool.  It doesn’t necessarily convey a message of we’re in this together.  On the contrary, it says, I’m about to hit you over the head with my ideas.

For this reason, I’m better off as a leader if I can always fall back on some type of multi-tool.  I may have found it in the art of coaching, specifically Cognitive Coaching as originally developed by Costa and Garmston.  My district has embraced this approach for both our instructional coaches and many of our administrators.  I’m starting to think of it as the Swiss Army knife in my toolkit, so to launch what I hope becomes a series of many posts, let’s take a closer look.

The Tool: Cognitive Coaching

What is it?  “The mission of Cognitive Coaching is to produce self-directed persons with the cognitive capacity for excellence both independently and as members of a community.”  Sounds like the perfect school staff, right?  In a nutshell, it’s a way of supporting others that allows them to reach their full potential while also contributing to the holonomy of the entire system.  I still struggle with some of the pie-in-the-sky idealism conveyed by the developers, but given the right circumstances, I think it may actually be possible to achieve their mission.  When the strategy fails, it’s typically because some of the underlying factors — namely, trust — are absent from the system.

How does it work?  The ultimate goal of a Cognitive Coach is to adopt an identity as a mediator of thinking.  It’s based on the premise that I can use observable data, rapport, and skillful questioning to improve your thinking processes.  The developers call these the Five States of Mind: consciousness, craftsmanship, efficacy, flexibility, and interdependence.  If I am successful in helping you think through these five states, you can move from your current state to your desired state, but it will also benefit the system as a whole. In many respects, it reminds me of a Socrative dialogue or Descartes’ theory of innate ideas: the coachee is assumed to already know the solution, they just need some help in getting there.

It’s worth noting that the individual leading our training was quick to distinguish Cognitive Coaching from manipulation (even though she can coach so incredibly well that I call her a “mind ninja”.)  Manipulation is about getting you to my desired states because I know what’s best.  Advertisers and campaign managers are phenomenal manipulators, but you wouldn’t want them to mediate your thinking because they have their own agenda.

When to use it? Costa and Garmston would argue that coaching should be a leader’s default role any time they’re supporting staff.  However, they also recognize three other support functions: collaborating (when two people interact in a more balanced way), consulting (when the coachee needs the specific expertise of the Cognitive Coach), and evaluating (when the coach also serves as the evaluator).  I think coaching for building administrators is probably the most difficult.  Evaluation brings a power dynamic into play in which it may be necessary to “pull rank” in order for the system to function at peak capacity.  I still tend to default to the consultant role because many of the requests that cross my desk seek my specific expertise as a technology integrationist.  Think of these other support functions as different tools in the leader’s toolkit.  We may be able to fix a problem with our Swiss Army knife, but sometimes it’s just easier to pull out that hammer.

Image Credit: Swiss Army by Jim Pennuci via Flickr

From the Inbox: What are your thoughts on…

Untitled drawingFrom an Associate Principal:

  • What are your thoughts on Product X?  I’m familiar with the free version, but I’m guessing there is a paid platform as well.  Do you know anything about the costs involved?  Perhaps we could talk with Ms. J to get an idea on how she is using it.


Dear Mr. Associate Principal,

I’m not terribly familiar with Product X.  It falls into a category of video formative assessment that could be used to facilitate flipped learning.  (Their marketing team has done a phenomenal job of using some of the latest education buzz words.)  Other contenders in the field are sites like and  Regardless of the product, my advice would be to consider three questions:

  1. What would “full adoption” look like in your building (or what level of adoption would you be satisfied with)?
  2. What kind of professional development would need to happen in order to achieve that level of adoption?
  3. Cost?

I am certainly available to meet with your leadership team to hash out answers to questions #1 and #2.  Truth is, if we can’t answer those, #3 is a moot point. We should also encourage Ms. J to share what she’s doing with her PLC in order to gauge their interest.  If it exists, we can definitely arrange an online demonstration.

A few final thoughts.  Tech purchases in our district do not require my approval or endorsement, so the fact that you even asked for my opinion means a lot.  Please encourage your colleagues to do the same.  I’m certainly not an “expert” in all areas, but I have a clear vision for technology integration and am always willing to share.  We are better positioned to move forward systemically when I’m invited into these types of conversations as early as possible in the decision-making process.  Thank you for the email.


Teaching Responsibility

ResponsibilityThe pages of Spiderman always seemed to sum it up the best:
“With great power comes great responsibility.”

But how do you teach responsibility?  It’s a question I’ve struggled with as an educator since my first day of student teaching, and it’s even more pressing now as a father.  Uncle Ben had to die before Peter Parker came to his conclusion, so for my brother’s sake, I need to get the message across to Quinn and Sam in a less dramatic way.  I always tried to teach responsibility in my classroom, but I doubt that I succeeded.

There were point sheets, class incentives, and the occasional bribe.  I designed my own currency (“HopCash”) and created an elaborate token economy.  We faithfully recited our PBIS motto each morning, and I dutifully delivered our explicit social skills lesson every few weeks.  I wouldn’t hesitate to call parents or assign extra work to hold students accountable, and regrettably, sometimes I did it in front of the class.  (If you fail to see why that’s such a bad idea, take a few moments to read this excellent blog post by Chad Donohue and decide if you’re creating a psychologically safe learning environment.)

If any of this actually taught my students responsibility, I’m convinced their learning was entirely incidental.  The rewards taught them the value of compliance, that following rules was the way to get ahead in school.  The punishments just gave them a reason not to get caught, which ironically, showed me just how clever some of them could be.  I came closest to teaching responsibility with the social skills lessons, but since they were often taught in isolation, it rarely resulted in lasting behavior change.

So what to do?  How can I teach responsibility to my kids without a tragic, life-altering event or a disjointed system of carrots and sticks?  I’ve come to the conclusion that the magic bullet doesn’t exist.  Simply take advantage of life’s teachable moments, but don’t use them as an opportunity to humiliate or demean.  Always model responsible behavior, and when you make a mistake, own up to it.   That last action is probably the most important, for to teach responsibility is to take responsibility, even for those actions that we later regret.



Question Everything

8284096640_bb502c7249_b I loved President Obama’s cool swagger during last night’s State of the Union, but I had my doubts about his proposals.  Instead of calling for free childcare, why not demand comprehensive sex education for every middle and high school student?   (If we teach our young people how to plan for a family, maybe we can get them thinking about the cost of childcare before bringing a new life into the world.)  Why pay for two years of community college when we still don’t have universal preschool in this country?  How can you expect lawmakers to work together without calling for an end to the ridiculous gerrymandering that sustains a divided Congress?

Now before my conservative friends send me an invite to the next Tea Party Jamboree, know that I haven’t abandoned my liberal roots.  I still support the president on most issues, and my political beliefs are most closely aligned with the Democratic party.  However, I don’t believe in blind faith.  Question everything.  

As a leader, I question mediocre solutions because there may be a better one.  As a thinker, I question conventional wisdom because it could be based on faulty logic.   As a father, I question my children if for no other reason than they’re five years old and I can’t necessarily trust what they say.   If only I could be more content with the answers…

Image Credit: “Monument to Cynicism″ by Michael Coghlan via Flickr

The Interview Game: Episode 2

The kids didn’t take to The Interview Game quite as enthusiastically the second time around.  Being tired will do that to a five year old, so it’s strange that filming was the calmest part of our evening.  Inspired by this post on TeachThought, I swapped the hat for a pair of homemade question dice.  With the blind draw out of the equation, the boys learned to manipulate the outcome pretty quickly.  Quinn was eager to answer one question in particular.  Enjoy the results, and let us know what you think of our efforts.


Lipstick on a Pig

Winners and LosersImage Credit: “Racin’ Snails 2″ by Ron Warholic via Flickr

The Iowa Department of Education is preparing to roll out the first in a series of Attendance Center Rankings (ACR) this week.  Like Race to the Top and NCLB before it, the ACR system represents yet another attempt at education reform by politicians who rarely (if ever) set foot in the classroom.  And like its federal predecessors, it’s fundamentally flawed on a number of levels.

  • Start with the name.  There are approximately 1300 attendance centers (school buildings) in the state.  A ranking, by definition, means that there will be a top school and a bottom school.  A #1 and a #1,300.  A winner and a loser.  Drafts of the ACR system indicate that the department will use scatterplots to report out the data.  It’s a clever tactic to try to mask the rankings, but make no mistake, the “best” and the “worst” schools are still in there.  If we’re talking college basketball or the world’s best beaches or even private schools, rank all you want, but it doesn’t belong in public education.  Instead, provide us with a rating system so that we can at least have a criterion-referenced scale with which we can evaluate our performance.
  • Competition vs. Collaboration.  The ACR system was never intended to promote collaboration.  It’s a competition system.  If I’m performing at the top, what incentive is there to assist the schools below me?  Why risk giving them an advantage that could lead to my downfall?  Would we expect Google to share their secrets with Microsoft so that Bing can take over as the top-ranked search engine?  There’s already a huge competition between districts for increased enrollment numbers, especially in rural parts of Iowa where dwindling student populations can mean the death of small communities.  Now take into account that the ACR legislation demands a ranking for each school building, and even large systems are faced with the prospect of heated internal rivalry.  Imagine the challenges faced in a growing district when you have to open a new building or change boundaries.  Will families from a top-ranked school be okay going to one that’s untested, or worse, ranked lower?  What about staff or new teachers?  Will they volunteer for a placement at the lowest-ranked school, even if that’s where we need the talent most?
  • What are we measuring?  The ACR legislation specifies seven required education metrics for the ranking system: student proficiency, academic growth, attendance rates, parent involvement, employee turnover, community activities and involvement, and a closing gaps score.  The proficiency, growth, and gaps measures are the ones scheduled to drop this week.  These aren’t necessarily new, as they’re consistent with prior ed reform and accountability movements, and attendance rates make some sense as a way to measure student engagement in school.  I’m sure parent involvement rankings will be fantastic for high poverty, high minority buildings serving families that speak more than a dozen different languages.  These are always the easiest teaching assignments, too, so I’m sure employee turnover will be low.  Community activity rankings will also be interesting, especially considering the ACR work group couldn’t find a research-based model for collecting the data.
  • Oh, I’m sorry students.  Did you have an opinion on the matter?  Here’s a novel idea.  If you want to know how a school is performing, ask students for their opinion.  Start with a simple question: “Do you like school?”  If you want to know the quality of something like their civics program, ask them if they feel compelled to vote during their senior year.  Politicians, if you’re brave, I’d like to invite you to ask them a question about the Iowa Assessments or other high stakes tests.  I’m sure that they’ll tell you it’s a great idea to rank their school based on a bubble sheet test because they take those things incredibly seriously.

4404795276_ecd08a545c_qAttendance center rankings are poor policy, period.  The Iowa Department of Education tried to make the most of it, even admitting that “there is no evidence that proves ACR systems, as a standalone education reform initiative, are effective.”  I suspect that some of the officials involved still have serious reservations about releasing the data and know that it will be taken out of context by the media.  The best we can hope for is that they did a phenomenal job of putting lipstick on a pig.

Image Credit: “Lipstick on a Pig Icon” by murdocke23 via Flickr


The Interview Game: Episode 1

I am inspired by my children.  The world is still so new to them at five years old, yet they seem capable of some of the most profound commentary on life.  They are in a state of near constant cognitive dissonance since each day brings new experiences that must be weighed against limited prior knowledge.  When a breakthrough happens and their minds coalesce on a simple truth, it’s an incredible thing to witness…often with hilarious results.

Unfortunately, as a father, I’ve done a poor job of capturing these moments.  I talk AT them all the time, but it’s rare that I talk WITH them or allow them to express THEIR VOICE.   (Too many teachers do the same, but that’s a topic for another time.)

Enter The Interview Game, a simple idea that promises to inspire blog entries for years to come.  Throw a dozen open-ended questions into a hat, ask the child to pick one, and record their responses.  Crafting the right types of questions was harder than anticipated, and it took a conscious effort not to influence their reasoning with any adult logic.  I invite you to take a few minutes and enjoy the results of our efforts.  I’m convinced that I’ve stumbled upon a gold mine, so look for episode 2 next week.


“I Don’t Do Social Media.”

woman acting blind

Ask anyone who advocates for the effective use of technology in schools if they have a story about a teacher or administrator who simply refuses to participate in social media.  We all do, and it’s a shame.  Our unconnected educators wear their status like a badge of honor.  They know that their students, their families, and their community are using it; yet still they refuse.  No digital footprint means a good digital footprint, right?

I’ve listened as some of my colleagues vilify these holdouts as failing educators, stuck in a 20th century mindset when it comes to teaching and learning.  It’s a valid criticism, one that’s probably true in some cases.  More often I find that they’re simply misinformed, scared, over-burdened, or under-trained.  They’re not bad educators because they don’t tweet, but it’s my responsibility to show how social media can help them do their job better.

  • Need to update your dinosaur unit with some fresh ideas?   Let’s search Pinterest for “dinosaur unit”, and we’ll grab a few ideas before the students get back from lunch.
  • Need to recruit a bigger pool of job applicants? I’d recommend we post our career fair on Facebook, and within 24 hours, I bet it’s shared more than two dozen times.
  • Need to know what students are really saying about us?  Gather the counseling team, and we’ll search Twitter for the name our school.  It might be a little traumatizing, but we can use the results to show why teaching digital citizenship is so important.

The internet abounds with similar examples of why teachers should be using social media, but I can’t fulfill my role as a technology coach with a Top 10 list.  I can’t browbeat my reluctant educators into submission or mandate their adoption practices.  My job is to paint a realistic picture of what’s possible when they connect online.  I don’t expect change overnight, and some may need an ongoing intensive intervention to be successful.  But if nothing else, I want to hear them say, “I don’t do social media…but I’m willing to try.”

Image Credit: “blind” by Gioia De Antoniis via Flickr.