#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!

Required Reading

As someone who has been involved in a variety of social networks over the last decade, I know that my participation in each tends to ebb and flow, influenced by any number of factors both internal and external.  One service I’ve been making better use of recently is Goodreads, which – if you couldn’t tell from the name – is a social network for book lovers.

When I first started using Goodreads (and Shelfari before it), I thought it would just be a neat way to catalog all the books I’ve read, because I just have a tendency to want to suck the fun out of everything catalog, collect, and categorize things.  Goodreads allows users to sort books into “shelves”, and the initial three that every user gets are “Read”, “Currently Reading”, and “Want to Read”.

Up until now, I used this service primarily to catalog books I’ve read and maintain a list of books I’d like to read (something for which I previously used Evernote) for my own purposes, passively accepting friend requests but never really making use of the network.  Now, however, I’m starting to take more of an interest in the networking aspect – I see what my friends are reading (many of them don’t tend to share this information out to Facebook or Twitter) and getting good recommendations and suggestions for what to read next.

Goodreads also allows you to add shelves to your initial three.  I created one the other day called “Edu-Must-Reads“, which is where I tag books that are – in my opinion – “desert island discs” of the educational publishing world.  Not all of them are necessarily about education, but anything on that shelf is something I consider an essential read for folks in education, for any number of reasons.  These works have all had a significant influence on the lens through which I view teaching, learning, and leadership.  Not only is this a resource for my Goodreads friends, but I figure it’s a quick link I can share with anybody when the discussion of favorite books about education comes up (because those are the kind of nerd parties I go to).

Feel free to peruse my shelf – it’s a bit small at the moment (13 at time of writing) but as I read more, I have no doubt it will grow.  Also, if you’re on Goodreads, let’s connect so we can grow our respective collections together.

Teaching Social Media at #Techspo17

I was fortunate to be selected – along with my colleagues Andrew Zuckerman and Natalie Richey – to present our talk Teaching Social Media: Lessons Learned from Year One at the NJ Association of School Administrators’ annual Techspo event in Atlantic City this past week.  The session focused on our collective experience of rolling out an elective course called Intro to Social Media at our district high school.  The session description/sales pitch to the planning committee starts like this, and I think it nicely encapsulates the seed that eventually grew into this class, which first ran in the 2015-2016 school year:

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.

If you’re interested in viewing the presentation slides, you can do so here (within is also a link to our curriculum document), but this post is not meant to be a presentation rehash.  Rather, I want to highlight some of my thought process going into the day, as well as share some feedback we received.

Photo credit: Elissa Malespina

The Road to Techspo

I attended the 2016 event and was disappointed that none of the sessions really pushed my thinking the way that those at an EduCon or an Edcamp have.  I didn’t feel I learned anything new, and – at the risk of sounding snobby – I felt pretty strongly that if this represented the cutting edge, both my district (collectively) and I (personally) were fairly far ahead of it.  I decided that if I was going to go back, I wanted to share some of what we were doing in our district, if for no other reason than to help push the conversation/standard a bit further.  Based on the feedback from the organization and the participants, I think we accomplished that.


Feedback from participants was overwhelmingly positive.  A common theme I heard from our participants was that they had never seen anything like this before (I’m taking that as a compliment, regardless of how it was meant!).  Many schools have one-off lessons here and there on “digital citizenship” or – worse – scare tactics about the dangers and horrors of social media.  Maybe it’s integrated into a technology class; maybe it’s a grade-level assembly.  Either way, none of our participants had ever heard of an entire high school level course solely dedicated to critical examination of social media, and many told us they left our session excited to explore the possibility of implementing one in their districts.

This matches our experience.  As Andrew, Natalie, and I all sought models upon which to base this course as we developed it over the summer of 2015, we found nothing.  That doesn’t mean it’s not out there, but if it is, not one of us could find it (I’ve since learned that Howard Rheingold has made public his syllabus from his Stanford course Social Media Literacies).

We also spoke with quite a few folks who wished to come observe a class session or two, which we are happy to accommodate, and I extend the same offer to you – if you can make it to central NJ, drop me a line or hit me up on Twitter and we’ll make it happen.

It’s worth noting that I was cool up until about an hour before we went on, when my Impostor Syndrome went into overdrive and I began to think of all the holes people might poke in our presentation – and publicly, no less.  Fortunately for my fragile ego’s well-being, the presentation was warmly received all around, and might even be responsible for the development of similar courses around the state.

We were also asked to write up a short 3-4 paragraph blurb on our story for an upcoming edition of the NJASA newsletter, which we’ll happily do.  In fact, that got me thinking that another professional organization of which I am a member publishes a magazine consisting solely of member-authored articles once or twice a year; we could certainly submit to that publication as well.

Reflections on the Process

Sometimes presentations are stressful (for any number of reasons), and sometimes even group efforts become one-man or one-woman shows.  My experience putting this presentation together with Natalie and Andrew underscores what I always say about my experience in my district: it’s an environment that truly values and supports collaboration.  What is perhaps even more unusual is that the three of us operate in different tiers of the district hierarchy: Andrew is our Director of Instructional Services (and my direct supervisor), I am an Instructional Supervisor who oversees a half-dozen different disciplines across all grade levels, and Natalie is a Business Teacher at our high school (and one of my supervisees).

None of that mattered, though, in the development of both the course curriculum and the presentation.  We worked together – sometimes face-to-face, sometimes asynchronously – but without any of the nonsense of pulling rank or exerting undue influence (at least not explicitly; I know that power and influence is sometimes exerted more subtly or unconsciously.  I do as much as I can to combat that but I suppose it’s never really removed from the equation).

We asked questions, we listened to each other, and we all respected the three very unique perspectives each brought to the table.  This was probably most evident in the revision of the curriculum last spring, during which Natalie – who had taught the course for a year and had the most intimate knowledge of the daily classroom environment – was the primary driver of discussion, and I – with more experience in both teaching and curriculum development – helped shape and give form to it all.

Finally, a few words on the course itself: we mentioned during the presentation that we run it out of the Business Department as an elective, but with a little revision of focus, I think it could just as easily and just as effectively be taught as an English, Social Studies, or Technology course.  So much of what the course deals with (as we run it, anyway) has students grappling with big-picture questions of ethics 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.  The other edge of that sword, I suppose, is that it can be exhausting for a teacher to keep up with the latest tech and latest developments, but it’s a deal I’d gladly take, were I in the position to do so.

Since my dissertation defense in October 2014 and a few public addresses surrounding my doc program graduation in January 2015, I’ve had a bit of a dry spell in terms of presentations the last few years.  After giving a small workshop at the beginning of the month, it felt good to get back in front of an audience on a bigger (read: statewide) platform such as Techspo.  Hopefully there will be more to come soon.


2016 By The Numbers: My Reading List

I’ve written in this space before about the importance of setting goals, both personally and professionally, and right around this time last year I was feeling a bit low and run down.  Since I have always enjoyed reading, I thought setting a goal of reading a certain amount of books over the course of 2016 may help to keep me actively focused on doing something I find enjoyable and restorative (instead of just finding time for it whenever, because let’s face it, there’s never any time to just do things – we have to make time).

Last December – quite by surprise – I came across Goodreads’ infographic that outlined the books I read in 2015.  At that time, I set a goal on my Goodreads account of reading 12 books in 2016 (I had read 11 in 2015).  I admit to forgetting all about this goal until about a month or so ago, when I logged into Goodreads for the first time in several months and saw my un-updated progress toward the goal I set myself.

Happily, I’ve surpassed the goal I set for myself, reading 15 books in 2016 – although, as I noted on Twitter, one of them was Chernow’s Alexander Hamilton, which really should count for 3 or 4 books by itself.  Here’s my 2016 reading list, in (more or less) the order in which I finished them:

What’s interesting to me in reflection is that this year – more than any year prior – I took advantage of multiple formats for reading.  Of the 15 books above, I read only four in traditional book form (Atonement, Great Teachers, Ride, and Unselfie).  Five I read as e-books via my Kindle app (Hacking, Invent, Thrones, Hamilton, and Kings) and the remaining six (Zealot, World, Furious, Children, Patriot, and Barrel) were audiobooks, either CDs or digital downloads from my local library.  This wasn’t necessarily by design, though I will say that audiobooks are a great solution for somebody who wishes to read more but also spends upwards of 10 hours per week commuting (much safer than e-books or traditional books during that time, too!).

I know some folks are stans for their preferred formats, but I honestly didn’t have a preference – I just love reading, and I like all of the above formats equally.  The only edge, if you can call it that, that downloadable audiobooks have is the adjustable speed setting (my library uses Hoopla and Overdrive, among others, as their digital content distributors) – I often find it more comfortable to listen to audiobooks at 1.25 – 1.5x normal speed.

On deck for the first part of 2017 are The Collected Essays of James Baldwin, George R.R. Martin’s A Storm of Swords (I’m trying to catch up in case Book #6 actually drops in March, as I’ve heard whispered), and Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting sequel The Blade Artist.

As always, I’m eager for your recommendations for must-reads, especially those about education.