Lighting Fires is Easy…

…but keeping them burning?  That’s a whole ‘nother matter.

My friend & colleague Jessica Cincotta blogged last week about the professional reading groups in which she and I have participated this year.  Read her post for the details, but the “quick n’ dirty” is that Jessica and I actually participated in two groups over the course of the school year – a year-long, monthly group with our other friend & colleague Yvette Panasowich, and a six-week book study over the course of April and May that was just the two of us.  Below are some of my thoughts on why this worked (read: was sustainable throughout the whole year in spite of the many potential “time sucks” and other obligations conspiring against us) when so many other well-meaning initiatives fizzle out.

We initiated these groups.  This idea was borne out of an activity during another (unrelated) PD session we were in together, and while I wish there was a more eloquent way of saying it, once the idea was out there, we kind of just took the ball and ran with it.  We chose reading material that interested us; nobody told us that we were to participate in professional reading groups this year, and nobody assigned us particular readings.  It was all self-generated, which leads nicely into the next point.

We owned the schedule and held each other accountable.  It would have been very easy to give lip service to the idea in the original PD meeting, then have it float away with all the other good ideas anyone’s ever had but never got around to implementing the minute we walked out the door.  Before we left, however, we figured out a schedule (the group we did with Yvette met the last Wednesday of the month at 2:30pm; the book study I did with Jessica met weekly on Fridays, also at 2:30pm) and put it on our all-important Outlook calendars.  We didn’t have time, we made time.

As the weeks and months progressed, we would email each other periodically to confirm that we were all still on for the upcoming get-togethers.  While life did intrude from time to time that either required delays or re-schedules, I don’t think we’ve missed or skipped any of our monthly reading group meetings this year (maybe one out of ten, if that?) and only one of the book study meetings (that was due to a true emergency, and we caught up the following week).  It probably didn’t hurt that we genuinely enjoy each other’s company as well, but even so, the discussions easily could have devolved into socializing sessions if not for one thing:

We found value in the task.  As Jessica details in her post, we found value in discussing the articles and book chapters, not only for our own professional learning and reflecting on our own practice, but also in our role as teacher evaluators.  Like Jessica, I also found myself referencing things we read in my discussions with my teacher and administrator colleagues more and more frequently.  The best professional learning experiences have direct implications and impact on one’s practice, and I feel that the experiences I had with Yvette and Jessica this year definitely impacted my practice for the better.

Next up is a summer reading group of four administrators, in which we’ll be reading a different book, and then the plan for 2017-2018 is to continue with the monthly reading groups (primarily articles from ASCD’s Educational Leadership magazine) while doing one book study in the fall and one in the spring.

I read a ton, and most of the books I read are about education. While I enjoy the act of solitary reading, it’s also nice to be able to bounce my thoughts about what I’ve read off someone else.  In the case of the makeup of our reading group, I think we struck a nice balance between similarities (all administrators in the same district so we have a similar contextual basis for discussion; all have secondary ed experience and/or focus in our current positions) and differences (1 building administrator, 2 instructional supervisors; 2 women, 1 man; a high school assistant principal, a 7-12 math/science supervisor, and a K-12 technology/arts supervisor; teaching backgrounds too varied to list).  Having a variety of viewpoints made the discussions valuable and thought-provoking beyond the written content.

This has been one of the more valuable professional learning experiences of my career (mirroring, in many ways, what first attracted me to the burgeoning education community on Twitter ten years ago), and it’s a practice I hope to continue – to one extent or another – throughout my career.

ICYMI: Teaching Social Media at LHS

After our presentation at Techspo ’17, the New Jersey Association of School Administrators was kind enough to ask my colleague Dr. Andrew Zuckerman and I to contribute a piece to their monthly newsletter for school superintendents on the Intro to Social Media course that has run at Lawrence (NJ) High School since 2015.  The article below is cross-posted from NJASA’s April/May 2017 edition of their On Target newsletter; check the original here.


Students today have unprecedented access to social media but may not have structured opportunities in which to think critically about how and why they use it, and why doing so is important. It was with this thought in mind that the Business Department at Lawrence High School, Mercer County, designed and implemented a course entitled Introduction to Social Media.

Lawrence Township Public Schools is a technologically progressive district that has embraced the use of social media for professional learning, culture building, and public relations. When a flurry of simultaneous retirements brought some unanticipated changes in terms of the district’s ability to staff existing courses, we turned problem into opportunity by shifting a staffing position to another department and hiring an additional Business teacher. Introduction to Social Media came about as a result of needing additional curricular offerings to replace the ones that could no longer be taught, given the role of social media in our society and how the district embraces the use of it to communicate with the local and global community, it was an addition that made sense.

The course is run as an elective out of our Business Department and open to all students in grades 10-12. The scope and sequence (with approximate timelines, on a 60-minute block/drop schedule) is:

  • Digital Identity/Footprint – 2 weeks
  • Historical Perspectives – 6 weeks
  • Legal Considerations – 2 weeks
  • Ethical Considerations – 4 weeks
  • Peer Presentations – 3 weeks
  • Media Analysis – 3 weeks
  • Language/The Online Voice – 7 weeks
  • Business Applications & Engagement – 9 weeks

After learning about the safety, legal and ethical aspects of social media, students work with their peers to develop a presentation to educate their peers about digital responsibility. During the current school year, social media students conducted presentations on digital responsibility to other high school students. During the upcoming school year, the presentations will also be conducted at the middle school.

While Lawrence Township runs this course out of the Business Department with an emphasis on marketing in the latter half of the year, with some revision of focus, this course lends itself just as well to being run as an English, Social Studies, or Technology elective, at the middle or high school level.  So much of what the course can and does deal with has students grappling with big-picture questions of digital identity, ethics, societal movements, and the disparities between the evolution of technology and the evolution of the law that it would be right at home in any of those departments.  Additionally, social media plays a role in so many current events that teachers will never want for fresh discussion topics or opportunities to expand the curriculum.

The next steps for the course is to connect the social media classes with departments and/or clubs within the district that are looking to develop a social media presence. The students will be required to meet with the group to determine what they are looking to accomplish and identify the appropriate social media platform to support them in accomplishing their goals. In future years, we will look to connect the students with community businesses and organizations to help them develop an online presence to promote their businesses.

Interested in learning more about this curriculum or modeling a similar class in your district? Visit http://bit.ly/LTPS-SM to see our complete curriculum documents or contact:

Andrew Zuckerman, Ed.D., Director of Instructional Services at azuckerman@ltps.org

Damian Bariexca, Ed.D., Instructional Supervisor at dbariexca@ltps.org

A Moment of Zen: The Busy Badge

Late March through mid-June tends to be one of my busiest times of the school year.  Wrapping up staff observations, completing the summative evaluation process for everyone for the year, and attending myriad after-school concerts and events takes up much of my time these days.  Since I became an administrator nearly three years ago, I’ve been tweaking and refining my planning and workflow in order to be as efficient and effective (though the two are most definitely not the same thing all the time) as possible.

The other day, in a moment of feeling overwhelmed, I was taking stock of my various outstanding “to-dos” and I realized that I was actually in pretty good shape work-wise.  My uncharacteristically messy desk was not covered in undone tasks, but just stuff I could easily throw away.  As it began to dawn on me that not only was I OK, but actually quite a bit ahead of where I needed to be work-wise, I felt a most unexpected emotion.

Not relief.  Guilt.

Instead of feeling proud that I have been able to improve my workflow efficiency or relief that I didn’t have as much to do as I thought, I felt guilty that I wasn’t running around like a chicken with my head cut off.  Like as if I wasn’t overwhelmingly busy, I must not be doing a good job or working hard enough.

I know, I know – it even looks silly as I type it out.  Doesn’t stop me from feeling those feelings, though.

I have to imagine that I’m not the only person who feels this from time to time.  As a society, we (Americans) tend to wear our “busyness” as a badge of honor.  As I have read and thought more about mindful practice and reflection over the last year, I am working on freeing myself of that mindset.  Definitely not there yet, but it’s a work in progress.

I hope to progress more toward that goal over the next few days, when I will be doing something I have not done in 17 years as an educator – using vacation days during the school year to go on an actual vacation.  My son and I are just taking a short trip to Florida (Universal Studios, here we come!) and we’ll be back by mid-week, but as much as I have been looking forward to this, I am also fighting off feelings of guilt about missing work.

Logically, I know that I have earned these days, and that if I do not use them, I lose them.  Logically, I know that the world will somehow continue to turn and the district will run perfectly well in my absence.  Illogically, however, my mind is overrun with feelings of dereliction of duty at the thought of not being at work for three days (*gasp* in a row!) when work is open for business.  I am seriously going to struggle to not respond to work emails on my phone while on the roller coasters.

Does this sound or feel familiar to anyone else?  If you’ve been able to shake the “more busy, more better” mindset, I’d appreciate any links or advice you can spare.  I have a nagging feeling that this will be a very unhealthy mindset to hold onto in the long run.

#SLDunkTank Redux

A little more on Escaping the School Leader’s Dunk Tank this month:

So ‘self-help’ really isn’t my preferred reading genre, but in addition to Dunk Tank, I highly recommend 10% Happier, by Dan Harris (yes, that Dan Harris).  Much of what Harris ultimately uncovers (spoiler alert) is that our own perceptions of situations factor greatly into how they impact us.  Not that it’s as easy as saying, “Don’t let anything bother you” – obviously that’s not possible, nor is it always the best way to handle conflict or problems.  What I take from it – and what I have been trying to do in my own life – is focus on responding to the things within my control to change, and trying to let the things beyond my control go as much as possible.  The last year or so that I’ve been practicing this – well, it hasn’t been 100% stress-free, but I stress about far fewer things and am stressed less often.  As Harris says, I’m definitely at least 10% happier than I was before.

Before coming to this realization, I had a definite tendency to perseverate, over things both within and not within my control.  Perhaps I’m getting more patient or mellow in my old age, but I’m finding it easier to look at situations more objectively than I used to and respond (not react) accordingly.  Coda & Jetter speak to this proactive approach throughout Dunk Tank, and one section of their book that I think deserves highlighting is their “Eight Tasks to Optimize Triumph Over Tragedy”.  They’re survival skills for when you do find yourself in the dunk tank, but they’re also pretty good habits to get into regardless.

NB: This list is presented under the assumption that there are not more serious underlying medical or psychological factors present.  Nothing on this list is a replacement for counseling, addiction treatment, and/or medication as deemed necessary by a professional.

List Your Gratitudes: It’s hard to be perpetually stressed, upset, or otherwise in a bad place if you can list – mentally or physically – the things you are grateful for in your life.  Periodically taking stock of the good things in your life is helpful for avoiding getting stuck in the mire and reframing your outlook.  Not professionally related, but our house has been on the market since January, and we haven’t had a lot of action.  I’m not happy about it, believe me; I could focus on that and stress about not making progress in the last 3 months, but I choose to focus on my gratitudes: if we don’t sell, I am grateful to live in a nice house in a nice neighborhood.  My kids go to great public schools, have friends they enjoy with minimal drama, and are involved in activities they love and that make them feel good about themselves.

Recognize Your Talents: “Self-talk” can be positive or negative.  In times of great stress, negative self-talk may come easier than positive, so it’s important to deliberately focus on positive self-talk.  Even if you have not had many concrete achievements in your position, Coda & Jetter say, focus on the contributions you make.  How do you make your workplace/home a little better every day?  Even if it has no tangible impact on the dunk tank situation you face, the worst-case scenario of this strategy is that you are in a good place to talk yourself up at your next job interview.

Create and Use Affirmations: A little bit of overlap with the previous section, but this is more concrete in terms of developing positive things to say about yourself and then reviewing them regularly.  It helps prevent you from falling into a perpetually negative mindset.  I recall speaking with another dad (teacher in another district) at our sons’ Cub Scout meeting at one point during my dunk tank experience.  He had asked me a simple question about work and I went off on a jag that probably made him feel uncomfortable.  He made a joke; I don’t remember the exact words but it was something to the effect of what a drag it was to talk to me.  He wasn’t wrong.

Allow Yourself to Be Vulnerable Again: Sometimes we stay in bad work situations because leaving is scary and requires us to be vulnerable (opening up to rejection in the job hunt process; risking repercussions of having people in our current workplace find out).  Having been there myself, I get it, but it’s an important mental block to overcome.  Allowing yourself to be vulnerable puts you in a good position to either fight the necessary fight in your current workplace and not shrink and be a pushover, or break out of your comfort zone and move on to a potentially better situation.

Strategize Your Game Plan: So you’re in the dunk tank.  What are you going to do about it?  Specifically, I mean?  And what if that doesn’t work, then what?  What’s your Plan A, B, C, etc.?  At what point is enough enough and you need to eject?  What Coda & Jetter call “proactive paranoia” I’ve always referred to as “playing chess” – thinking about multiple possible courses of actions, outcomes, and responses.

Redefine Yourself: Does your game plan include any changes in how you view yourself professionally?  Take the opportunity to develop new goals.  If you are an assistant principal, maybe now’s the time to look for that principal position.  If you are a building administrator, what about a position in central office (or vice versa)?  It’s no coincidence that artists with the most staying power – Madonna, Bowie, Prince – have been able to successfully reinvent themselves (and please don’t read too much into the fact that two of those examples are now dead).

Develop Yourself into a Behind-The-Scenes Expert: Knowledge is power, so do some “deep dive” self-directed learning and learn more about topic or topics relevant to your field – it will either make you more confident, make you better able to navigate the dunk tank, or help you represent yourself well in an interview if/when you decide to leave.  The worst that can possibly happen is that you know more afterward than before you started, and it may even help with the recognizing talents/affirmation/positive self-talk.

Empower Others: Cultivate a Think-Tank for Your Colleagues: In the most basic terms, this involves you creating a support system for yourself where one doesn’t currently exist.  Coda & Jetter give the example of getting superintendents together from around the local area to share advice, information, and experiences, but you can do this regardless of your position.  Reach out to your counterparts in other districts and get together once a month – not as a “bitch session”, but to discuss current events, share interesting articles, and generally compare notes.  If you can’t bring yourself to do it locally (either within your district or outside of it), develop your PLN on Twitter, LinkedIn, or your preferred social media service.  It’s good for the soul to be able to rub a friendly elbow with people who do or have done your work and can commiserate, support, advise, and celebrate.

 

Book Report: Avoiding the #SLDunkTank

So I’ve started my 2017 Reading Challenge off on a real tear, devouring nearly 13 books in the first two months alone (my goal for the year was 15!).  I’m grateful that life circumstances are affording me the opportunity to pleasure read as much as I am – certainly more than I have in a very long time – so I figured I’d pause and reflect a bit periodically here on some of what I’m reading, since most of it is related to education.

“Have you ever felt as if a supervisor, coworker, or even your own school board was trying to sabotage you?” reads the bright yellow text on the back of Escaping the School Leader’s Dunk Tank: How to Prevail when Others Want to See You Drown, by Rebecca Coda & Rick Jetter.  Thankfully, the answer for me in my current position/district is a resounding NO, but that hasn’t always been the case throughout my career.  It’s through that lens – of a targeted employee, not necessarily a targeted leader – that I read this book, and I think the stories were just as relatable and the advice just as relevant.

The bulk of the book is anecdotes shared by current and former school leaders – an assorted variety of principals, superintendents, and other similar building- and district-level administrators – followed by relevant commentary and insight from the authors.  I think it would be easy for the uninitiated to read these stories and engage in a bit of Monday-morning quarterbacking, but do so at your own risk.  It’s very easy to read about these horrible situations from a neutral third-party perspective, but I’m here to tell you that the decisions and analysis don’t come quite as easy when you’re mired in the thick of it.

If you’re lucky enough to never have had that bullseye on your back, I recommend reading this while waters are calm so you know the warning signs to look out for (or, equally as valuable: know that there may never be warning signs and a bad situation could just hit you out of the blue – when and how you respond is even more crucial then).  If you are currently experiencing or have experienced this, Dunk Tank offers some tips for how to be proactive as well as how to cope and respond if and when things begin to go south.

As I reflect on my own dunk tank experiences (admittedly mild by the book’s standards, but my employment was still at stake), I think the biggest takeaways from this book that I would have found most helpful at the time were:

  • It’s not you, it’s them (maybe).  I’m good at owning up to my mistakes, my failures, and my shortcomings, and I’ve always been on the lookout for ways to be a better scholar, writer, teacher, psychologist, administrator, friend, dad, and husband.  That’s a big part of why my dunk tank experience impacted me so much and the residual effects lingered – what did I do?  Why wasn’t I good enough?  Didn’t I try my best?  Am I just not cut out for this?  Am I a failure?  Coda & Jetter would suggest that while introspection is good, sometimes the person trying to dunk you has reasons, agendas, or issues all their own, and you’re just collateral damage.  If it wasn’t me in the dunk tank at that time, it would have been somebody else (and subsequent experience has confirmed that to be the case for me).  Look inward but don’t consume yourself; sometimes, the problem really does lie with someone else.
  • Quitting isn’t quitting.  There may come a point in your dunk tank experience when you need to take a long, hard look at the situation and decide if you can continue to work there.  I know this is much easier said than done in most cases, but taken on balance, what is more important: the job you currently have in which you are being set up for failure, or your long-term mental and physical health?  I think in our profession especially, leaving a job can be seen as admitting defeat or “giving up”, and I admit to falling victim to that mentality from time to time as well.  But when you have tried everything to stay out of the dunk tank, then tried everything to get out of the dunk tank, and you’re still in the dunk tank, well… that’s a call you have to make for yourself in your specific life situation.  I know that for me, staying and trying to make a bad situation better was a Sisyphean task, and leaving really was the only thing I could do to improve my situation, and better to do so on my own terms than on someone else’s.  It was scary as hell at the time, but in retrospect, has proven in spades to have been the right decision.

I think I have one more post on the dunk tank in me, but I’ll cut it here for now.  In the meantime, my final thoughts on this book are these: while this book is aimed at school leaders, I’d suggest that anyone who works in a hierarchical organization could benefit from the stories, insights, and lessons shared in this book and apply them to their own situations.  Give it a read yourself, or – even better – get your administrative team to do a book study on it!