I’m Not Afraid of the Door Handle

We are very intentional in our work to make change and trying make teachers feel safe and respected in our endeavors to change students’ lives. I’m very careful to avoid using words like ‘successful’ and ‘right’ because I think it promotes previous stereotypes and mindsets that things have to be done a certain way and/or failure is the worst thing in the world.

Recently, one of our teachers gave us a great compliment during her midyear progress talk. It really floored me and inspired this blogpost. This is our 3rd year in our iPad 1:1 deployment, my second year here at West Rowan Middle. With a new principal, assistant principal and instructional design coach, we essentially have a new leadership team. There is a lot being asked of teachers – from us and the district and we are aware of this. I know I am asking them to reconsider a lot of fundamentals about education they hold on to or value. This is tough for anyone. But during our talk, this teacher-leader spoke a lot of the fact that this change is needed change and it has to happen at our school if we are going to be responsive to student needs. That was good to hear but not the great part.

who-wants-to-lead-changeShe talked about her conversations with other teachers, in and mostly outside of our building and their feelings on change and support. She created a powerful image of teachers being unsure of a lot of things, hesitant of new conversations, trainings and directions. Even visits to classrooms were stressful for some because people never knew where conversations would go or what they reaction they could expect. But she finished her talk by saying, ‘I’m not afraid of the door handle.’

She’s referring to a new direction our team has taken since I’ve joined West Rowan Middle to not just visit classes but also to provide immediate feedback and make sure we are having growth conversations with teachers -taking the ‘gotcha’ out of growth and change. But in the bigger context, she also meant that she is not afraid or leary of having conversations or trying new things that may come up in conversations with us or anyone else. It was validating to hear. To say it made my day is an understatement.

A lot gets lost or neglected in our efforts to lead people in these endeavors and it takes purposeful work and attention to make sure we are connecting with and growing our teachers. Change is hard and leading change is a significant endeavor. Point of clarity – if you think you are leading initiatives you are mistaken, it important to remember you are leading people. And people come in all flavors of confidence, competence, tolerance and understanding. A good leader’s job is to balance all the needs of the people in our school and differentiate support as much as possible.

Our talk has made me reflect on some of the things we have done this past 1.5 years to help ease the fear of our ‘opening classroom doors’:

  • Transparency – When we develop plans or figure out next steps or are considering shifts, we immediately start sharing what we can. We want staff involved as much as possible – the more input the better. Flatten the organization;
  • Conversations – Nothing will ever replace having a good conversation because nothing is more important than building relationships with staff – letting them know they are priority in our mission to reach and support kids;
  • Empowering Teacher Leaders – Its a myth that one person can change a school single-handedly. If you’re a principal, get over that fact. If you’re a teacher, embrace the fact that your students need you to be a positive voice of change in your school;
  • Visibility – We have to be in classrooms more than our offices. If administrators are visiting classrooms and kids asking ‘Who is that person’, something is wrong. I love the fact that our kids know of my fondness for my selfie stick – I want them to know me. Same for teachers, when we come into the classroom, they don’t get shaken they maintain an instructional pace. The real work comes later when we have growth conversations about the visit – ‘What can we do to get better?’ Having good working relationships help us have those conversations;
  • Building up Collaboration – I use the saying, frequently, that I don’t make big decisions in the hallways. When a concern comes up, I bring in the group the decision affects for the discussion. I do make a point to be in the discussion if needed but I want to build capacity and trust in our teachers to make student centered decisions.

Do what you can everyday to lessen the fear of hearing the door open.

Value of Shattering Comfort Zones

images-1Great things happen in classrooms, in department planning, with school cultures, when we are willing to challenge ourselves.

  1. Current students don’t get the ‘Day 23 Activity from the file cabinet’ because the teacher is willing to let go of an activity he/she feels good about and is willing to build a meaningful, personalized activity;
  2. imagesWe are comfortable trying a new strategy or thinking because we are rethinking the term failure and embracing the real value of learning;
  3. We renorm our priorities – we focus on learning outcomes, not grades or ranking. We rethink the value of 10 naked math problems for homework. We begin looking for opportunities for all students to demonstrate creativity and diligence;
  4. [On the topic of grades] We are willing to embrace the fact mastery doesn’t come from an A on a test but from what students can explain and demonstrate masterfully;
  5. We move from teacher centered practices to student centered practices;
  6. We give up control. We want students to own their learning trajectory and have purposeful conversations about what they want their learning to entail;
  7. We embrace empathy. It is important for a teacher to have a well functioning classroom, but developing student competencies and awarenesses in treating others with compassion, making amends and understanding social justice are new fundamentals. At one point, it was about students doing what the teacher says – we have to evolve, get students to think and act on complex issues and concepts to be truly better people and citizens.

Couple of challenges for you:get-out-of-comfort-zone

  1. Write down a classroom practice or a general belief you have held for a good while and make a decision to do different. Ask someone you trust to help support you throughout this – the victory comes in the attempt;
  2. Contact a PLN member who is doing something different and develop a thought partner. Then bring that thought to fruition;
  3. Decide on trying something different in your classroom, school or department, set a launch date for a week from tomorrow and launch! Don’t make a lack of a specific resource hold you back.

    This post was inspired by a visit from some great PLN members! Thanks Melanie, Kyle, Lavonna, Sean, Cat!

When Does Profound Learning Occur?

I’m becoming more cognizant of how and how often I am using the term ‘learning.’ Like most, I’ve been using it mainly to describe how well students regurgitate facts and associate it with an achievement score.  I was recently sharing with some principals in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools and about halfway through the presentation I started to key in on how we were all using this word to talk about our essential work and the essential components of our work. Some of the mentions applied to a newer understanding of what we want our students to be able to do but some were still under a standard from 10-20 years ago.

wp-1479003284678.pngWhen you’re in a conversation and the term learning comes up, do you know if its a reference for a newer understanding of learning and exploring or can you see that its a mention of regurgitating facts and an end score? For instance, describing the process we go through when we encounter setbacks and what we go through to overcome them. Or describing how we as lead learners create opportunities to shift mindsets of educators in our building and departments to challenge the status quo. Or just to describe that everyone, students and teachers alike, have to commit to being lifelong learners and continue to acquire new skills and embrace the work in evolving understanding and mindsets to make sure we are reaching kids.

Profound Learning

We can talk about the acquisition of facts, which many adhere to as the definition of learning, but this limited definition does not fit the vision and scope of what learning and school need to be. Learning is not a destination or a grade or a final report. We should be willing to embrace the different direction we see instructional design and passion inspired investigation taking us.

Profound learning occurs when:

  • Learners have choice – When we personalize opportunities for students, enable students to dive into areas they are passionate about. The question I get often is how do we align this to standards? This is where instructional design and student conversations come in. Guiding students through a learning process with our understanding of learning targets and CCSS is a new skill set for teachers. As lead learners, we also need to embrace personalized learning paths for our teachers and co-workers.
  • Learners are empowered – Engagement vs Empowerment – Check out my previous post;
  • Learners are creating – For so long, education has meant teacher centered practices and activities [I include copying worksheets for students to complete here]. When we create open ended learning activities for students and embrace different the varied result we will get from students;
  • We make timetables secondary;
  • We hug/encourage learners more than assess their work;
  • When we make edtech a critical part of throughput and output [not necessarily the only part];
  • When students can intelligently and passionately talk about their work with others;
  • When we make goal setting a priority;
  • When we shift from supervisor/teacher centered practices to learner centered practices.


Engagement vs Empowerment

Student engagement has always been a critical goal for how we set up classrooms and develop lesson plans. Ensuring that we have a tight time frame of activities and that we were monitoring students of on-task behaviors were [and are] essentials. This defined quality lesson planning.

b1ae36acc79428cb3b57cabee8c5a914Some recent training in my district on engagement led me to find and share this infographic from the Schlecty Center on Levels of Engagement. Great, clear illustration of where students fall into the spectrum of activity and attentiveness. I really like the illustrations on the side where the student moves from his head down to his hand up. If you haven’t seen or heard about these levels of engagement, give this a good read. We should have a clear understanding of strategic and ritualistic compliance. We will change the world when we change practices and beliefs to keep kids from just ‘doing school.’


My recent conversations about engagement have forced me to reconsider how I look at it and place it on the spectrum of what goes on in the classroom in terms of learning and student agency.

I’m sharing a definition of engagement from for student engagement:screen-shot-2016-11-05-at-10-52-42-am

Motivation, meaningfulness, inspiration and inquisitiveness are all important components and explained well. But when I think of the great work my teachers do here at West Rowan Middle and the work we are building up in Rowan-Salisbury Schools, I identify a key missing component as empowerment.

I believe empowerment is a next step. We can have engaging and interesting lessons created by teachers. I would safely guess that we have all been students in classes where the teacher created a lesson that was fun to dive into. But at the heart, that was a teacher-centered activity or at least a teacher driven lesson that had students captivated, engaged in completing.

Empowerment is the action of giving students choice and/or freedom to develop their own understandings or deepen their knowledge about a topic. When we have options we chose when we want to be challenged and how far we want to go.

Please consider the below stock photo I found of the interwebs. While I’m not sure how they were used for original intent, I am going to make some assumptions [yes, I know] about them that we can hopefully apply to our schools and classrooms.


I consider the students in this picture engaged. Students are attentive, no one is throwing desks, eyes on screens appearing to attend to work. Again, we would have to get in the classroom and have a couple of talks to find out the true nature of the work and how students are truly progressing. Check out the teacher?


Here I see different student activity. By design, students are encouraged to talk and mix it up. I see students working at their own pace. What is the teacher doing?
Again, there are some assumptions with these pictures. But the difference in student activity can clearly be seen.

Power of Empowerment

wp-1478365114406.jpgI took this picture Friday afternoon two minutes before dismissal. This student’s 7th grade ELA teacher, Mrs Brawley, has embraced Genius Hour, or as her classes like to call it ‘Radical Research’ [same concept]. Mrs Brawley builds in time amongst their requirements for students to explore some personal interests and later present some findings. This young lady was so engrossed in her research topic [her research area was outside the door of her classroom] she was unaware the time [2 minutes before school dismissal], afternoon announcements [earbuds and search engines] the world around her [hallways filling with kids at lockers].

Empowered students:

  • have choice for what to dive into;
  • don’t have deadlines, they have learning goals;
  • can speak intelligently about their learning outcomes;
  • make presentations on what they have learned;
  • have a personalized path agreed upon by teachers, parents and themselves;
  • can apply their passion for learning to all subject areas;
  • understand how to overcome barriers;
  • communicate and collaborate at high levels.

Engagement is a crucial step by not the last.


Lowered Expectations

Teaching is one of the most fulfilling professions ever. Ask any teacher who’s had a previous student return to talk fondly about their time in the classroom and you’ll know what makes this job so rewarding. But along with this fulfillment comes some of the greatest challenges – committing to lifelong personal growth and professional development and being willing to shift beliefs, personal and professional. We can’t be great teachers if we don’t agree to change and adapt practices to suit every new group of students we receive every year.

I think this is one of the baffles for pre-teachers or non-educators – why not simply teach the way we were taught? Why not run classrooms and schools like they were 10/20 years ago? Straight rows, teacher at the front of the class answering questions, 10 neat problems on a sheet of paper, raising hands, etc. We know this way and how things can be. The problem with this thinking is we have had years to look at why and how this model ends up marginalizing different learners and different types of learners in the classroom. By embracing new and better, we can truly change our practice to reach more students where they are and grow them as learners and citizens.

I was recently sharing with a great group at NC Association of Compensatory Educators and we started talking about the need to shift thinking and teaching practices to reach all students, especially in our most challenging schools. Its easy to settle or make excuses for what we think is the good of students. Settling can come from a good place but it has harmful consequences.

Lowered Expectations is a New Form of Discrimination


When we accept student limitations or make judgements/predictions based on their family or neighborhoods or race or gender, no matter how we phrase it or who we speak to, we are putting them in a box. The bias we are creating eventually becomes a reality of practice in the classroom or school.

The above visual is one of my favorites. The first box represents the one size fits all classroom it is so easy to create. Its easy to see how the student who needs us the least gets the most, often unnecessarily. And our neediest student, who may not always ask for help or doesn’t know how to ask for help, gets left out or hurt the most.

What can we do to ensure we have high expectations for our students?

  • Embrace PBLs;
  • Hugs and high fives every class period;
  • Build time in classrooms to have interviews/one-on-one talks with kids to find out what they know, don’t know and what YOUR role is in making sure they truly grow;
  • Commit to learning about personalize learning and find a way to implement in your school, classroom or department;
  • Let students listen to music in a classroom while they work and give them a choice of where to complete the high level work you are developing;
  • Commit to getting honest feedback from a planning partner/PLC about the quality of learning activities developed and that there are real opportunities for discussions with students;
  • Have real data talks planned;
  • Change your learning environment to reflect comfortable spaces;
  • Being willing to be a voice of change that benefits students.

We have to agree that all students can learn at a high level. We have to agree that  all students can grow, that they can leave us better than when they came to us. And we have to accept this will be hard, great work to see it through.

Our parents send us the very best they have, we have to do the very best we can to improve every aspect of their lives the best we can.



#WGEDD – Valuable Learning

Last weekend, I presented at the #WGEDD conference in Kansas City. Getting the invite from Jimmy Casas and Jeff Zoul to share was a highlight. I knew I was going to have a great time connecting and sharing – two of my favorite things and this meet up did not disappoint.

Its no wonder why #WGEDD has so many homerun features. Two connected learners have had time to reflect on what works and what REALLY works at learning events and bring the best of both together:

  1. The best of formal and informal learning – The two days were full of scheduled sessions with powerful and influential sharers like Todd Whitaker, LaVonna Roth, Jimmy Casas and Jeff Zoul. No doubt, there was massive influential knowledge shared. But an integral part of this experience was the lunchtime conversations, the hallway talks and a morning of edcamp on the last day. These opportunities to build relationships are what makes building a PLN worthwhile. We are better at sharing when the circle is flattened and creating opportunities for these talks needs to happen.
  2. A great model for district level professional development – Hearing from so many local teams that travelled  to be a part of this learning was inspiring!  We grow better in teams! I was excited to hear about a team in West Virginia bringing in #WGEDD. Even though the district is hosting it, it will be open to any registrants. This is the kind of PD that grows educators at all levels.

Some personal highlights for me

  • “Our kids who need love the most ask for help in the most unloving way” Principal Salome Thomas-El

    Hearing from a long-time inspiration, Salome Thomas-El, @Principal_EL. I have only seen portions of his presentations before but never heard his passionate presentation first hand. I love hearing an energizing story and his is at the top. I’ve been the principal of a high needs school and his message confirmed some of my beliefs: 1) don’t believe the Hollywood version of principals turning around schools 2) “Our kids who need love the most ask for help in the most unloving way” and 3) we don’t get in this work because things will eventually get easier – ‘don’t ask for a lighter load, pray for a stronger back.’ #micdrop [I bought both of his books when I got home]

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    Presenting with my project partner, Joe Mazza, on #leadlearners! Joe and I have been working on our #leadlearner project for some time but we’ve never had the opportunity to share with a group. The feedback and contributions from our audience members was incredible and affirming!

  • Presenting on Digital Tools – Its always a blast to share on what digital tools that are making an impact on my learning and leading but I wanted to do something different here. This day, I focused on tools and skills I have focused on since joining West Rowan Middle, a 1:1 school, coming from a Spring Lake Middle a 1:3 school. New focuses here include student and teacher organization, shifting from student engagement to student empowerment, and where our thinking and resources fall into the 4 C’s.
  • First time meets and reconnecting with PLN!

Great time in KC! Follow the #wgedd learning at the hashtag and make the conference when you can!

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Embracing Middle Schools and Loving Middle Schoolers

Last week, I had the privilege of giving a co-keynote with a good friend, John Bernia, at AMLE [Association of Middle Level Education]. This was a great experience, truly a tremendous honor! We had a blast energizing about 1000 educators committed to growing and supporting middle school students. I can’t thank Dru Tomlin, Dena Harrison and other AMLE staff for inviting to be a part of this great experience.

cuau2nvuiaejuucWe wanted our message to be inspiring and uplifting so we chose a topic we thought paralleled the excitement and energy of the audience – ‘Make Everyday Like AMLE.’ Our challenge to the audience was to capture their excitement, remember their enthusiasm to learn and connect and take that back to middle schools and make a difference. Growth events like conferences bring out the best in our learning natures – we are genuinely excited to connect with other educators and experts and get inspired to better ourselves or help others improve. I believe its because we get to choose our learning paths and pursue our interests – even for a short time. This is what we need to capture and build upon everyday as we work with middle schoolers, and all students, as we strive to build better learning environments.

Something I Noticed

I’ve spent my career as a middle school educator. Except for 3 years of my 22 years in, I have loved being a middle school math teacher, instructional coach, assistant principal and now principal. I have worked to grow and get better every year so that I can serve my students better. I have loved every year. This past week, as I’ve shared my experience with people, I’ve become a lot more cognizant of what people say about middle schools and middle school educators. Specifically, when I identify myself as a middle school educator, I get responses like, “I could never do that!”, “Those kids are all hormonal [implying off-balance]”, or “What a crazy age group.” On my return trip from AMLE, I counted 4 separate responses like this before I got home. It was a disappointing given I just spent some days with educators committed to growing and supporting our middle schoolers. What do these casual thoughts and statements say about our commitment to work with this group?

screen-shot-2016-10-17-at-3-16-38-amThis has made me reflect on the power of casual words and phrases we use when we talk about middle schools and education in general. My growing concern/problem is these casual joking comments will become reflexive responses. People with little or no firsthand knowledge of what happens in middle schools, or education, will take these ‘jokes’ as truths. Without knowing middle schools, they allow casual jokes or comments to serve as factual characterizations of middle schools. This shouldn’t be.

Middle schoolers grow up to be people

Let me qualify this by saying I absolutely do not believe that everyone has malicious intent or is out to intentionally harm/destroy the image of  middle schools. But we have to look at the sum total of what our words and casual references can do to the public. If we hear enough times that middle schools are crazy places to be, a FEAR of middle schools will develop. If we hear enough times that middle schoolers are erratic and crazy, we will do our best to avoid these kids [and they are kids]. If we hear or say something enough, it can become true or we can convince ourselves, it’s a fact.


We are all committed to improving the lives of students. As such, our actions should reflect our thoughts, not just repeat a joke we heard. This weekend at #WGEDD, my good friend Joe Sanfelippo talked about someone’s bad 15 minutes in a school system defining their whole experience with school system and how that became all the language they used when they talked about the schools. We can’t let a bad experience or one bad teacher or a bad grade become define our [middle] school experience.

While I’m committed to working with all of my parents and teachers experiences in schools, I don’t want readers of this to take on the cause of correcting everyone’s negative experience in every school. I would like for us all to be more deliberate in what we say about middle schools and of course, schools in general.

Baruti Kafele talks a lot about intentionalily, being very purposeful in choosing words and actions as they reflect the mindset and the person presenting them. If we as educators and parents casually joke about middle schools, we are enabling, empowering and validating a lot of the misconceptions people have about middle schools. Instead of following along, lets make a point to redirect that sentiment.  We have to make deliberate effort to show we want to be a part of the support for growing all kids. Lead or redirect conversations to help people know that:

  • These are formative years and kids are balancing approval from friends with approval from family and teachers
  • All kids, no matter where they come from, are needy;
  • Some are learning about independence, from good and not so good sources
  • The brain doesn’t fully develop until 25 – we’re at the halfway point.
  • You were a middle schooler – don’t criticize, empathize and change a life.

All school expressions are important. We should do our best as parents, educators, #leadlearners to promote that school need more support to help kids achieve.