Monday, November 16, 2015

The ONLY Way to Do School Right

Let me be clear: there’s no such thing as the only way to do school right. It does not exist. I’ve been reminded of this three specific times in the past few weeks, and I think it’s worth discussion.

Not long ago I had a conversation with one of my colleagues about some of the unique cultural aspects of our school. She commented that some of these aspects seemed puzzling, even strange. I replied that strange may not be the right adjective but perhaps they simply were different, even unique. I went on to explain that every time I visit another school, I discover things that seem different, unique or even strange. The more contact I have with other schools, the more I believe this to be true.

Just this past week, a principal and an exec-level leader from a school in another state visited my campus. As school leaders do when they get together, the three of us talked shop. We compared notes on everything from schedules to hiring and firing to admissions testing to curriculum. We shared things that had worked for us and things that hadn’t. We asked probing questions, offered opinions and shared insights into the business of doing school. At the end of the afternoon, we each took away from the conversation some new ideas about things we could try on our own campuses. However, at the end of the conversation, we each were reminded that our campuses, our students, our faculties, our leadership and our circumstances varied in numerous ways.

Two weeks ago I had the opportunity to travel to Kansas State University with college guidance directors from Texas to learn more about the university. Over the two full days I spent with the counselors from schools around the state - and some truly outstanding schools, at that - I once again was struck by the notion that we can do school in myriad ways yet still have a similar outcome: well-prepared, successful kids. As a group we talked specifically about schedules, course offerings, extracurriculars, grades, transcripts, curriculum alignment, college placement, testing and more. There hardly were two schools represented in the group that approached any of these things in the same way. Nevertheless, we all send well-prepared kids into the world each year.

I will be the first to argue that there are non-negotiables in education, things every school should do or emphasize, things every teacher should incorporate into classrooms, things every principal should promote and expect. I also will be the first to argue that there’s no such thing as the only way to do school right. Even when we all are driven by the notion of “what’s best for kids,” we have to approach this notion from different perspectives. We have to keep in mind the varied backgrounds and futures of our stakeholders. We have to consider everything from geography to demographics to socio-economic standing to facilities to school mission to available financial resources when considering the right way to do school for our kids.

While educators can find great ideas and inspiration from collaborating with and learning from others - and in fact should do so on a regular basis - educators must remember that what works for some may not work as well or in the same way for others. The way we schedule the day or generate transcripts or teach grammar at my school may not be ideal for your school. The way you incorporate technology or organize extracurriculars or manage gradebooks at your school may not be ideal for my school. The fact that the ways of doing school varies so much, however, does not mean your way or my way or someone else’s is right or wrong. Just because something we do is right for us does not mean it is the only way to do school right. Education is not as simple as that. We can think in terms of good, better and best, instead of right and wrong, but even those descriptors tend to be relative.

The cautionary lesson to be learned about doing school right is this: when you encounter someone who insists there’s only one way to do school, that everything must be standardized, stop and think for a moment. “The only way to do school right” can’t exist because schools vary as much as the stakeholders they serve. One size absolutely cannot and does not fit all in education. The challenge is to remember how liberating and invigorating education can be when the shackles of standardization and one-size-fits-all are broken. There’s no such thing as “the only way to do school right.”

Note for the grammar police: I am perfectly aware (as evidenced by my proper use of the adverb perfectly) that I have used an adjective as an adverb in the phrase  “the only way to do school right.” Let’s face it. “The only way to do school correctly” just doesn’t have the same ring to it. Give me some latitude here. Just saying.

Saturday, November 7, 2015

In Defense of Fidgety Kids

Funny story: As I boarded a plane in Kansas for a late-night trip back to Houston, I found myself in the mood for neither sleep nor reading. Instead, I decided I’d spend the entire flight enjoying some great music with earbuds in my ears. I fastened my seatbelt, closed my eyes and disappeared into my playlist. Two or three songs into my private concert, I opened my eyes and discovered the guy next to me visibly annoyed. To be clear, the guy seemed to be annoyed with me.
Before I say any more, I probably should give a little history here. For twenty years, my wife has been somewhat amused by my involuntary tapping of my fingers, thumbs, hands and/or feet when listening to music. In truth, she’s been pretty amused by my tapping and fidgeting even when I’m not listening to music. It happens when I watch football, when I talk on the phone and when I read, when I’m waiting for a page to load on my laptop. On top of that, I usually have something in my hands - a pen, my phone, a paperclip - when I’m in meetings or when I’m talking in my office. What can I say? People who don’t fidget don’t always get it when other people can’t sit still or be still.
Back to the annoyed guy on the plane… In my defense, I’ve flown plenty of times and I have a pretty keen sense of self-awareness. I realized how close I was sitting to the gentleman last night and, because our knees practically touched, I made an extra effort to keep my feet still even though the music made me want to move. I suppose, however, my hands tapped away involuntarily on my legs and my neighbor didn’t like it. I don’t know why it bothered him so much but clearly it did. Once I realized what was happening, I noticed he continued to look over and stare. He never said anything out loud, but I knew he was sending me a laser-beam stare and bad vibes. Maybe he was easily distracted. Not sure. I am sure he didn’t understand why I couldn’t sit still.
Truth be told, the guy next to me on the plane last night reminds me of teachers who can’t stand it when kids can’t be still. I’m pretty sure you know the type. “Be still.” “Quit tapping.” “Don’t move.” “Sit like a statue no matter how uninteresting I am or how God wired you.” These are teachers who don’t really understand kids and don’t know all the latest research on why kids fidget and why fidgeting is not a bad thing. I didn’t say these teachers don’t like kids. I said they don’t understand, and I stand by that. There’s a greater implication here than teachers simply wanting kids to be still all the time, though, and that’s really what I want to address.
The teachers who can’t stand the fidgeting will be the same teachers who make assumptions about kids’ intelligence, future success, character and more based on how much wriggling and wiggling happens in chairs, at desks, and in lines. Think I’m overstating? My twenty-plus years in education begs to differ with you. The truth is that fidgeting has nothing to do with intelligence or any of the things I mentioned above. At all. And here’s another truth for teachers who don’t get and can’t handle the fidgeting: kids who can’t sit still just might grow up to be adults who can’t sit still, and that will be OK.
When the exec team at my school meets once a week, a dozen sharp and capable professionals gather around a big conference table to discuss policy, practice and more that affects the life of our school. Each member of the exec team sits quietly and attentively in a fancy leather swivel chair through the entire meeting each week. Each team member except for one, that is… Yours truly swivels back and forth in my fancy chair through the entire meeting. Why? I have no idea, except that’s just how I’m wired. I’m sure I swivel in my chair for the same reason I tap my fingers or my feet when listening to music. Surely my boss and colleagues don’t question my attentiveness or intelligence or character. So why does that happen when kids fidget?
Here’s the bottom line. As long as a kid isn’t stabbing a neighbor with his protractor or drumming on his desk so loudly that no one else in class can hear the teacher, teachers need to let a fidgety kid fidget. A fidgety kid who can’t fidget is almost like a kid with vision issues who’s not allowed to wear glasses. Kids need to have the freedom to move a little, to fidget, to stand, to sit differently or to tap their fingers so their brain stays engaged. If you don’t believe me, check the research. It’s not rocket science.
If you’re not buying what I’m telling you, let me leave you with this thought, which just may scare you into early retirement: If you don’t allow kids to fidget a bit and you hang around teaching long enough, you just may end up with one of those fidgety kids as your principal.

You’ve been warned.

Monday, November 2, 2015

Strikes, Spares and Sliders: Adventures in Professional Development

Over the last few years, I've taken a particular interest in professional development for my faculty and staff. Specifically, I've gone to great lengths to move away from the stand-and-deliver, meeting-heavy, cookie-cutter professional development that seems to have been the norm for the twenty years I've been an educator. We've worked hard to move away from that model for our classrooms, so why would we want to perpetuate poor teaching and learning PD experiences for our teachers? Come to think of it, does all professional development even have to be about teaching and learning? I think not.

Our school dismisses early about once each month, which allows us to have professional development time regularly, and the responsibility to provide quality PD falls squarely on my shoulders. Some of the more successful, memorable and meaningful PD in recent memory includes professional development around the Harkness tables and a school-wide edcamp. Several weeks ago, while looking ahead to the October early dismissal, I knew I wanted to do something different, memorable and, above all, meaningful. I knew what I wanted to accomplish, what I wanted as an outcome, but I wasn't sure how to formulate and execute a plan. I collaborated with (read conspired with) two of my best team members, shared my vision and they ran with it.

Several days before the early dismissal, I sent the following email to my faculty:

US Faculty,

As you know, next Wednesday is another early dismissal day for us to focus on professional growth. I have great news: Wednesday will be another jeans day, so come casual. Those of you who have known me a while probably think I've lost my mind because we've done jeans so many times this year. Here's the deal... one more time can't hurt, right?

In other news, we're going to do something a little out of the box. We have an opportunity to be part of a pilot program for a new team building program called TEAM WORKS, which actually is an acronym for Together Everyone Achieves More When Organizations Revitalize Kindred Souls. The focus of the program, as you may have discerned from the full program title, is on team building through tearing down walls, finding common ground, becoming better friends, and even establishing intimacy among coworkers. I was skeptical at first. However, after doing some reading, I believe this is just the shot in the arm we need.

The catch is that we cannot bring facilitators here. Rather, our sessions will be off campus. Transportation will be provided and the bus will depart at 12:30 from the gym entrance on the north side of the building. If the sessions end on time, we should return by the end of the school day. Gluten-free and organic lunch options will be provided at no cost to you.

Because reservations are non-refundable, I need to know asap if for some reason you cannot be there (and coaching responsibilities are about the only good reasons I can think of at the moment).

Looking forward to bonding with you on Wednesday,


I'm not sure how faculties at other schools would react to an email like this, but I can tell you I struck a collective nerve with my faculty. Almost immediately, my teachers moved into one of two camps: "what is he up to?" and "God help us, please do not make us do this." My creative plan was off to a perfect start. The buzz was deafening for days. Teachers huddled in classrooms and in the workroom to speculate about not only what this professional development experience would be like but also how stressful and unpleasant the experience would be. "When the initial email came out, my thought was, 'Oh no, Barber has bought into the team building thing and some group has made some money off the school," says Cal, my economics teacher. Some teachers even worked together to begin research on TEAM WORKS to see if they could catch a glimpse of what they could expect.

Not one to leave things alone, I decided to amp things up a bit. Two days before our TEAM WORKS experience, I sent a second email explaining that the facilitators had requested the following: faculty should be divided into pre-assigned teams according to pre-assigned colors; each team needed a theme song; each team needed a team name, which had to be in #hashtag format. I didn't send this info to everyone. Instead, I sent this one only to team captains. In less than 24 hours, our team captains had communicated with and organized their teams, and they had provided the requested info after their teams made their choices. Can you say communication? Collaboration?

At last, TEAM WORKS day arrived. Every single teacher and staff member arrived at school decked out in his or her team color. As the morning went by, the excitement (read tension and apprehension) moved toward a crescendo. Finally, the bell rang, the kids went home and the teams loaded the school bus waiting for them outside the gym.

Just when I thought things couldn't get any better, I discovered a microphone and sound system on the bus. Having never met a mic I didn't like, I seized the opportunity to go ahead push things over the top. En route to our mystery destination, I announced periodically to my captive audience, "Go ahead and take a few minutes to center yourself, focus and clear your mind;" "Grab the hand of the person seated next to you and say, 'Together, we can do this;'" "Turn to the person on your left and tell them he/she is special;" and "Put your right hand on the shoulder of the person in front of you and say, 'No matter what the kids think about you, I think you're awesome.'" One of my teachers actually leaned forward on the way and told me, "If you really make us do this today, I think I'm going to be sick."

As we approached our destination, I grabbed the mic once again much to the chagrin of most of my passengers. I reminded my teachers of a meeting we had a number of weeks ago at which I revealed that our five-year trend of rising ACT scores had continued to new heights: 2015's scores stood as the highest in school history. At that meeting, I also told them that at some point we would celebrate their hard work and their commitment to the process. As we turned into the parking lot of the bowling alley, I let them off the hook and reminded them that I hadn't forgotten about celebrating. Pandemonium ensued.

We exited the bus and entered the bowling alley where we were greeted by two of my aforementioned best team members . They had arranged for a huge buffet, competitions, awesome music and one unforgettable party. For the next two hours, we bowled. For the next two hours, we cheered for one another, high-fived, celebrated, and created a sense of team unity we'd never experienced before. And at the end of the two hours, it seemed like my faculty had just won the lottery.

You may think we just went bowling. I assure you, the TEAM WORKS experiment proved to be so much more. How, exactly? First, beginning immediately after my first email, people started having conversations - lots of them - and with people they don't always spend time with at school. Teachers were sharing ideas, asking questions and having conversations about this crazy principal and his crazy plan. I didn't really care what they were talking about... They were talking. A lot. Second, teachers from different departments and grade levels had to get themselves organized and on the same page. More conversation. Third, teachers spent two hours relaxing together, cheering and encouraging one another, building trust, forging relationships and being positive. That's powerful. Fourth, by the end of the early dismissal day, the faculty had a positive, meaningful shared experience. There's great power and value in shared experiences, especially when those experiences are positive. Finally, the faculty felt appreciated and valued. Believe it or not, feeling valued and appreciated ranks as the one thing that will keep faculty satisfied, engaged and on the team for the long haul. Feeling valued and appreciated far outweighs salary, work hours, facilities and everything else that might factor into teacher job satisfaction and retention. In fact, some of the faculty told me they have never felt so appreciated. Mission accomplished.

I'm not the only one who sensed the power of this experience. Take a look at what some of my faculty said:
  • The interaction we had at the bowling alley was authentic. Not forced. Getting to spend a few hours with colleagues from other disciplines within the humanities in an authentic environment produces authentic interactions. Authentic interactions build trust. Where trust exists, collaboration can also exist. Where collaboration exists, everybody wins. I enjoyed physically leaving the confines of school with colleagues. I returned energized, motivated and more productive. Nancy
  • This event was unique. Who can say the principal took them bowling? It's a credibility thing, it's a trust thing, it's an appreciation thing, and it's a bonding thing. Cal
  • TEAM WORKS offered two things that will have lingering effects on the faculty.  The first being the fact that their hard work has not gone unnoticed.  Bringing up a standardized test average is proof that what they are doing is working.  As a college preparatory school, there is no greater achievement than seeing students succeed in their educational goals.  This score marked a record for the school, and as a result, the faculty.  The other takeaway that will remain with the faculty is knowing that they work for someone who encourages camaraderie.  The day was a successful surprise and it everyone worked together to have fun. Tim

We may not go bowling every term or even every semester, but I am sure we will do more of this, per faculty request and because I see the incredible value-added for my team. There will be plenty of time throughout the year stay up-to-date on best practices. After this experience, though, I will be sure that best practices will be only part of our focus during time set aside for professional development. After all, does all professional development even have to be about teaching and learning? I think not.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Why Boss's Day Makes Me Cringe

I'm sure there are bosses and managers all over who actually enjoy Boss's Day. Not me, though. As a high school principal, Boss's Day makes me cringe.

Before I get any farther with this, I should point out that I work with an amazing admin team, who took a few minutes out of their day on Friday to show me some love on Boss's Day. Their gesture was kind, witty, and greatly appreciated. I had no idea they had anything planned, and the surprise truly made my day. For their thoughtfulness, I am grateful.

But Boss's Day still makes me cringe.

As a high school principal, technically I am the boss. By default and by definition, I ultimately am responsible for everything that happens in my building. I am accountable to my boss and my stakeholders for every standardized test score, every budgetary dollar, every college placement, every new hire, and every contract termination. I am accountable for the culture, the learning environment, the professional growth of my faculty and the partnership my school creates with stakeholders. For all of these reasons and more, I am the boss.

So, what's my problem with Boss's Day?

I often tell members of my team that "I reserve the right to play the boss card." After all, the buck stops with me. I have worked tirelessly for years, though, to create a culture and an organization in which my entire team can function without a boss. In other words, I have worked to foster independent thinking, creativity and freedom to explore new ideas. I have worked to create a culture in which everyone on the team takes equal ownership and responsibility for our wins and our losses. I have worked to create an organization without a hierarchy so that members of the organization feel they have a voice and say in what happens within the organization. I have worked hard not to be the boss.

Granted, there are times when I have to be the boss. Thankfully, after years of planning and execution, I don't often have to be the boss. When I walk the halls, I do not want members of my organization to think, "here comes the boss." I'd much rather be thought of as another member of the organization, a guy who is in the trenches along with every other member of the team, After all when we win, we all win. When we hit a speed bump, we all hit the bump together. When we face a challenge, we tackle the challenge head on, together, as a team.

The key to this kind of teamwork is that everyone on the team, every member of the organization, has been charged with doing something that lines up specifically with his or her gifts and talents. Ideally, no one's role is valued more or less than others. Algebra I instruction is no more or less important than counseling. Managing the front desk of the office is no more or less important than teaching AP English Literature and Composition. Providing superb college guidance is no more or less important than leading our choir. Teaching chemistry is no more or less important than serving in our library. Leading as principal is no more or less important than teaching Spanish I. How can I possibly think this? If anyone in the building does his or her job with anything less than excellence, the entire organization suffers. Each of us has been tasked with particular responsibilities, based on the things each of us does well. It just happens that my responsibilities differ from everyone else's. Each of us must fulfill these responsibilities as best we can.  When everyone in the organization understands this, and truly "gets it," hierarchy virtually disappears. When hierarchy disappears, there is little need for a boss.

My problem with Boss's Day is this: I don't want any more emphasis than necessary placed on the fact that technically I'm in charge. Instead, I want to be considered part of the team. I want a flat organization where I am seen as a contributor. Granted, I sign purchase orders and contracts; I hire and fire; I provide coaching for teachers; I cast a vision for the school; and I work daily to perpetuate the culture we have created. But those just happen to be the responsibilities that line up with my gifts and talents. I couldn't teach calculus or manage transcripts and report cards. Just like everyone else, I have a job to do. Unless we can find some arbitrary days throughout the year to recognize everyone else in the building, let's don't do Boss's Day again. It makes me cringe.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

THIS kid needs YOU to be THAT ONE PERSON

The kids that show up in our classes, hallways and gyms every day come in all shapes, sizes and colors, with varying physical, social, emotional and spiritual needs. The kids each have their own strengths and weaknesses, hopes and fears, and baggage. Their levels of motivation and IQs vary as much as their socio-economic backgrounds, religious backgrounds and home situations. Each of these variables and more factor into what kids are like when they get to school. Bottom line: each of the kids in our classes, hallways and gyms truly is unique.

One of the challenges in reaching unique kids, each of whom is wired differently, and really making an impact on them lies in figuring out how to connect in an authentic way. This can be tricky. Not every adult in the building can connect with every kid, and there are plenty of kids who seem to struggle to connect with anyone. This is where you enter the picture. You and only you can do this. I'd stake my career on the following: there are plenty of kids who can connect with plenty of adults, but there is this one kid (think about it... you know who he or she is) who needs you to be something special and rare and extraordinary. You are the one adult in the building who can connect with this kid. And this kid needs you to be that one person.

What do I mean by that one person? Think about the people in your own life who make your life better, who add value to your life, who make you happy. Now, narrow the list to that one person who does this to a greater extent than anyone else. You know who I'm talking about. Narrow the list to that one person who:
  • makes you smile.
  • makes you stand a bit taller.
  • makes you walk with your shoulders back a bit more.
  • makes you want to be a better person.
  • makes you feel significant.
  • believes in you more than you believe in yourself.
  • believes in your potential.
  • sees you for your potential.
  • takes an interest in you, even about mundane things.
  • knows how to make you laugh.
  • knows how to make you cry.
  • knows exactly what to say.
  • always has your back.
  • thinks you're cool.
  • thinks you're smart.
  • thinks you're the best.
This kid? This one kid who will connect with no one else but youThis kid needs you to be that one person

Go be that one person and change this kid's life.