Lead Like a Pirate. Please.

Two recent developments here at TLI (Teaching-Learning-Innovation) headquarters.  One, I read Lead Like a Pirate by Shelley Burgess and Beth Houf.  Safe to say the book had a huge impact on me.  In fact, we bought 25 copies and are using it as the basis of our building leadership retreat this summer.  And two, the following quote rang so true to me, I decided I better think about it for awhile and see if it kept ringing.  It did.  Time to write about it some.

“A seismic shift seems to occur when moving from the classroom into a position of educational leadership. People look at you differently. They treat you differently. They think you have sold out. They no longer see you as an educator, but as a paper-pushing “administrator.” They believe you have crossed over to the dark side and have become one of “them” instead of one of “us,” and oftentimes they see you as no longer having the ability to make a life-changing impact on the lives of kids.”


I’m sure most people that have taught and then made the move into administration will recognize the quote.  And probably have heard comments, joking or otherwise, along the lines of, “Well you got out of education.”  “You wanted the big bucks.”  “When was the last time you were actually in a classroom?”  “He sure has lots of great ideas for us.  I wonder if he’d do any of them.”  And so on.

Let’s address those comments, shall we?

My strong suspicion is that very few, if any administrators feel they ‘got out of education.’ Speaking for myself, I am more aware of the great possibilities afforded kids via great teachers and great education than ever.  I had to leave the classroom to get a broader and deeper view of the possibilities, then figure out how to use my new principal role,  then district office role to make as many possibilities for kids and teachers come to life.  I had/have hands on better levers to make those moves.

The big bucks?  Nah.  They’re bigger, sure.  But not that much bigger for all the stuff that principals get to deal with.  My good friends would walk by my office on one of ‘those days’ that all principals know, and just shake their heads.  They wouldn’t touch the job, for any amount of money, on one of ‘those days’.  Psst….what they don’t realize is that once you run one of ‘those days’ successfully….they’re kind of a rush, especially if you haven’t goofed anything up and still hold all the cards.

Good principals are in the classrooms as often as possible.  And great principals don’t need to walk into a classroom to know when good stuff is happening.  They know because they stand outside the door and listen and watch.  They talk to kids.  They talk to parents.  They talk to teachers.  Being in the classroom confirms and offers opportunity for richer and deeper conversations.  And frankly, the way I judge people who have left the classroom is…do I think they can still walk into a classroom and knock kids on their fannies?  Can I tell they have not lost their teacher chops?  It’s not that hard to figure out.

And the last one, most importantly.  Good leaders, once they leave the classroom, find a bigger classroom, be it a school or a district, and MODEL what they are learning, failure, warts, mess ups and all.

Each job I’ve had in education has been my favorite.  Including the one I have now.  But it is only fun because of the rich experiences and reflection I’ve done along the way.

On we go.

A podcast? Huh?

Well edchats can be dangerous things.  I had the chance to check out an edchat this weekend, following the hashtag #10principles. This was a great chat, which included the authors of the book The Principled Principal: 10 Principles for Leading Exceptional Schools by Jeffrey Zoul and Anthony McConnell. One of the questions in the chat was about how to share your school’s story. Ian Rockey answered that his school utilized a podcast.

Boom!  Successful edchat.  I hadn’t considered a podcast as a way to share a message and reflect on the thinking and work we’re doing in the TLI department.  Of course, I hadn’t considered twitter or blogging either as we were kicking this department into gear 3 years ago.  Now I can’t imagine my professional life without them.  Twitter and blogging have opened up and enriched my professional life more than I can describe.

So….wanting to model risk, innovation, likelihood of failure, and the possibility of learning, I did some quick research.  I googled ‘create a podcast’.  And found this link: https://www.buzzsprout.com/how-to-make-a-podcast.  I followed its instructions pretty much to a T.  And thus this now exists: https://www.buzzsprout.com/174555/.

Pretty clunky and rambling first effort, but it sure felt like my toes were hanging over the edge of a precipice.  Let’s see what happens next!

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Have your kids try this today.

Want to get them up and moving?  Want to see what’s on their minds?  Want to spark a little creativity?

Try this.

Set a timer for 1 minute.  Have the kids look around the room at everything, including you and each other.  Have them generate 5 questions. Then give them 10 minutes to find the answers to those questions.  Then have them share their favorite question and answer combination with the class.

Questions like:  How do you make a window?  Where do those learning target things come from?  When did you start drinking coffee?  What is that kid’s name over there?  Why is that class on the other side of the wall always laughing so much? Why are we doing this?

Of course you could direct the type of questions to be about content.  Questions like: is anybody else confused about number 12?  I’d love to share my ideas about finding slope, anybody interested? How did the order of the amendments happen?  How tall was Abraham Lincoln?  How tall was his hat?

You could refer to homework.  You could refer to an upcoming piece of content.  And of course, you probably need to set some kind of expectations for the appropriate types of questions. Ones that don’t hurt anybody or embarrass anybody.

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There is NO reason to not develop a Professional Learning Network (PLN)

Here are just a few quotes from some smart people about making oneself available to learn and grow via a Professional Learning Network.

“Isolation is now a choice educators make.”
George Couros

“To have thousands of fellow minds in your pocket via mobile devices is to have an immensely unfair advantage over humans who think alone.”
Kevin Honeycutt

“Being a connected educator is the single most important thing I’ve done to transform how I teach. I have gathered and tried new ideas. I’ve learned, asked questions, and developed an amazing online, professional learning network.”
Matt Miller

“I realized two important things at this conference. First, as leaders, we must take time to engage in specific learning opportunities that help to improve our craft. We spend so much time in our positions working to help provide learning and growth to our staff that we forget about developing ourselves specifically in our roles. Secondly, I was introduced to the incredible power of a professional learning network (PLN) to combat the isolation of leadership. Until that moment, I thought Twitter was just another social media tool to keep up with what the celebrities were up to at the moment. PIRATE principal Jay Billy taught me the ins and outs of using Twitter as a tool to connect and gain access to 24/7 free professional development.”
Beth Houf

And here’s proof of the power.  This morning several colleagues and I were talking about ‘fidelity.’ Did asking educators to attend closely to new materials mean we didn’t trust them?  In reading Lead Like a PIRATE: Make School Amazing for Your Students and Staff by Shelley Burgess and Beth Houf, a cogent argument could be made to that point. However, we didn’t feel like that was from where we were coming.  Trust was not the issue compelling ‘fidelity’.  So we used the power of Twitter and our PLN to reach out to both of the authors.  And we heard back from both.  Consider that.  These two authors have roughly 73,000 followers between them on Twitter. And we felt comfortable sending along a message with our thinking on ‘fidelity’, and they were kind enough to reach back.  Amazing.

Here’s the exchange:

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This would NOT have happened 4 years ago for me.  I didn’t get the power of Twitter or a PLN.  I thought Twitter was simply to take pictures of stuff and share it to 33 people.  Wrong.  And dead wrong.

If you are not making use of Twitter and a PLN, you are in danger of becoming illiterate.  And it’s by choice.  A little harsh, I realize, but I’m living the life of ongoing, on demand, learning, after 34 years in the education racket.  And it’s wonderful.

I’m full. I can’t learn anything else.

Once upon a time, I was a 31 year education veteran.  16 years as a middle school teacher, 3 as a high school assistant principal, and 12 as a junior high principal. I had seen it all, knew it all, and couldn’t imagine there was anything else I could possibly learn.  I openly said, “I’m full.  I can’t learn anything else.”  And man.  Was I wrong.

I’m now 3 years into a new learning curve.  It took two things to make me eat those words.  The courage to change jobs and the energy to be humble.  Rather than thinking now of myself as a 34 year veteran, I’m a 3rd year newbie, learning everyday.

This morning I bought a digital copy of Unmapped Potential: An Educator’s Guide to Lasting Change by Julie Hasson and Missy Lennard.

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I made it 2.5 pages into the introduction before a roundhouse right nailed me in the head.  Here it is:

“Thus, lasting change starts when you are brave enough to identify and modify the beliefs that are creating barriers on your map and holding you back from reaching your potential. Once we took out our own mental maps, unfolded them, and really looked at them, we could see the limits we were placing on our students and ourselves.
Up to that point, we had been unaware of the subtle (and not-so-subtle) messages we were sending to our students and colleagues every day. Through our words, actions, and choices, we were letting others know what we believed about their ability and potential, and sometimes those messages had a negative impact. We were principals tasked with helping students and teachers grow, but we were actually impeding growth without knowing it.”

My mental map ended at the borders of the document.  The lands beyond the edges were unexplored and I didn’t know of their existence.  The courage and energy I needed to step off the map came….and here I am writing a blog.  More excited and passionate about our work as educators than I’ve ever been.

Now back to the rest of the introduction.  Thank you Julie and Missy for finding the words I need to describe my journey. Have a great day!

What great good could we do if we weren’t afraid?

Our doubts are traitors, and make us lose the good we oft might win, by fearing to attempt.
—William ShakespeareBl7GPV_CIAEAidP


Not sure why, but I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what one could do if one wasn’t afraid. Maybe it’s just me. But I don’t think so.  What great good could educators do if we weren’t afraid?  Of what are we afraid?  Failing?  Embarrassing ourselves? Judgement from kids?  Parents?  Evaluators?  Getting fired? Standing out from peers?

What happens when we let fear affect our professional lives?  Do we settle for routine?  Comfort?  Predictable?  Rote?  Coasting?  Going along to get along?

So how do we minimize fear in ourselves and others?

Somewhere along the line I read an idea about shared or distributed leadership in a school.  And actually what I read was the contrary of such leadership. “There is NOT shared leadership in a building when one needs to ask permission to do anything.”  If good educators are afraid to try things, without permission, or if the guiding principle is “Ask for forgiveness rather than permission”, does an organization actually practice distributive leadership?  I don’t think so.

What’s missing?  TrustSupport.  Knowing that whoever is in the role of leader a rung above you will have your back when/if failure, conflict, or controversy result.  Without that…fear holds.

When I was a principal, I used to think, “Give good people what they need and get out of their way.”  This was wrong thinking.  Better thinking would be, “Give good people what they need then stand in front, beside, and behind them as they do their work.”  Because what they need is the knowledge that you have their back. Actively have their back. Trust and support.  And these two things need to be consistent and public.

The instant one leaves the classroom, one becomes suspect.  Ok hotshot, you have lots of good ideas about what to do in the classroom, but you don’t have to do them.  You don’t have to be afraid anymore.  Not true.

The truth is I started and deleted this post twice because I was afraid to post it.

But here it is.

“Our doubts are traitors, and make us lose the good we oft might win, by fearing to attempt.”

Good call Mr. Shakespeare.  Thank you.

Words that hit me this week.

Reflecting a little over the past week as it winds down.  Thought I’d share some words that hit me.

Read The Boy Who Was Raised as A Dog by @BDPerry and @maiasz. Some of the words included: 

“A picture, not a label.”

“Research has repeatedly found that surrounding a child with other troubled peers only tends to escalate bad behavior.”

“Without love, children literally don’t grow.”

“To calm a frightened child, you must first calm yourself.”

“Spend some time getting to know her–not her symptoms.  Find out about her life.”

Read Brain Rules for Baby (Updated and Expanded): How to Raise a Smart and Happy Child from Zero to Five by John Medina. 

Loved these words:

“Finally, I realized my mistake. I was giving parents Ivory Tower when they needed Ivory Soap.”

“Myth: To boost their brain power, children need French lessons by age 3 and a room piled with “brain-friendly” toys and a library of educational DVDs. Truth: The greatest pediatric brain-boosting technology in the world is probably a plain cardboard box, a fresh box of crayons, and two hours. The worst is probably your new flat-screen TV.”

“But what you do in your child’s first five years of life—not just the first year—profoundly influences how he or she will behave as an adult.”

“Sadly, myths rush in when facts are few, and they have a way of snaring people.”

“Kids praised for effort complete 50 percent more hard math problems than kids praised for intelligence.”

“‘I have friends on both sides of the issue, and I like to stand with my friends.’”

“The fact is, the amount of TV a child should watch before the age of 2 is zero.”

And finally, this amazing blog post by Kris Felicello.  Impact words included:

“I saw Twitter as another app that would be a drain on my time. Now I see it as a means to improve education by opening classroom doors and allowing educators to share the incredible things that are happening in our schools.”

Relationships are the single most important factor in determining your success as an educator and the success of students. Take the time to speak to each student in your class, individually. Impossible to make the time?  How about when students finish a test or quiz early, or when students are working individually? How about staggering independent and group work to give you time to conference with students? What about having lunch or breakfast with your students?  Think about asking different questions as your relationships with students build such as:

  • A time you felt smart
  • A time you were scared
  • A time you were happy
  • If you could change one thing about yourself what would it be?
  • If you could change one thing about your life what would it be?
  • Who would you trade places with?
  • Who is the nicest person you know? What makes them nice?
  • Who is the meanest person you know?Why? How can you help them?
  • A time I made you happy in class
  • A time I disappointed you
  • What is unfair?
  • What is an area you wish you could improve upon? How can I help you with that improvement?

I have learned that there is so much learning available if one makes the time to be available to learn.  I didn’t know this as a principal.  I wish I had. I hope others realize it as they’re doing principal work in buildings.  It’s worth it.  You never know when or from where the next great idea might come.