Saturday, September 13, 2014

Why School Leadership is Like Mountain Biking: Climbing Hills

I love being a high school principal. I also love mountain biking. Both challenge me and push me to my limit with surprising regularity. I've been involved in school leadership a few years longer than I've been mountain biking, but I've discovered a number of parallels that I believe shed light on how to handle the challenges of educational leadership. Navigating trails on my bike, especially trails I've never ridden, challenges me physically and mentally every time I go out. Keeping my bike on the narrow paths I ride also pushes me to my limits each and every time I ride. The biggest challenge for me right now, however, lies neither with twists and turns nor narrow paths. The biggest challenge for me lies with big, steep, and often-intimidating hills.

As a relative newcomer to the world of mountain biking, I initially attacked hills in entirely the wrong way. Actually, attacked isn't quite right. Let me paint the scene for you. I would ride to the base of the hill, slow to a virtual stop, pick my line or path up the incline, and then pedal upward. After a few feet, I'd realize I was ascending in the wrong gear, so I'd try to shift gears mid-climb. Eventually, I would stall, the bike would draw to a standstill (which, on a hill, is a bad thing), and I would be forced to leap off my bike to avoid tumbling backward. Not a pretty scene.

After stubbornly trying various iterations of the same approach, I realized I had no idea how to climb hills. I needed a plan. I needed help from people who had been there before and who successfully climb hills all the time. I scoured the Internet for videos and articles about climbing hills on a mountain bike. I went to a local bike shop and asked for advice. I watched (in awe, I might add) other cyclists climb hills that had made me look like the rookie that I was.

After plenty of research, I realized the error of my ways. First, I needed to build speed and momentum as I approached a hill. Slowing down to ponder couldn't have been more wrong. I needed the speed and momentum to launch me upward and aid in my ascent. Second, I needed pick my line before I reached the base of the hill. Choosing my path as I started my ascent proved just as disastrous as climbing from a standstill. Third, I needed to select a gear suited for the hill ahead of time. Shifting gears mid-climb led only to bent sprockets and bailouts. Fourth, I needed to power up the hill using a completely different posture. I had been distributing my weight in the worst possible way. Finally, I needed more time and practice on hills. The only way I would get better was by trying to climb more hills.

Armed with my new-found knowledge, I headed back to the hills to try again. Imagine my euphoria when I climbed a hill that had bested me on each and every previous attempt. I tried a different hill with my new approach and I made it! I wasn't always graceful, but I made it to the top more and more frequently.

As a school leader, I climb school-related hills frequently. These hills range from interactions with upset parents to handling losses or disappointments to PR issues to dealing with deaths in the school community. Interestingly, climbing hills as a school leader mirrors climbing dirt hills on a mountain pretty well. One of the first things I realize as a school leader is that I should seek out wiser and more experienced leaders who have experience from which I can glean wisdom and knowledge. As a school leader, I have to find momentum and ride that momentum as much as possible. Riding the momentum of great test scores, a great Open House or Convocation, a state championship or some other great moment helps when tough times arise. As a school leader, I have to choose a path and commit. Mid-climb is neither the time nor place to start thinking about how to navigate a challenge or to shift gears. As a school leader, posture carries great significance. A confident, strong posture can mean the difference between success and failure when climbing hills as a school leader. A weak or defensive posture can spell disaster. Finally, the more hills I climb, the more savvy and able I become.

To be fair, I can't climb every hill I encounter on my bike. Just last week, I cautiously stopped at the bottom of a rather large and scary hill to watch and learn from the riders coming along behind me (who, by the way, climbed the hill like mountain goats!). I'm reasonably sure that one day, with more strength and experience, I will climb that very hill. Likewise, there may be a school-related hill that will prove too high or steep for me right now. In both cases, I'm going to keep working hard to put myself in a better position to be successful in my ascent.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

A Few Thoughts from "What Teachers Can Learn from Sports Coaches"

Here are a few thoughts taken from What Teachers Can Learn from Sports Coaches. If you like what you see here, please check out the book. Please feel free to share not only this link, but also these images.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

An Alarming Realization About Innovation and Schools

As I type, I’m aboard a plane bound for the Boston area. Two weeks ago I had the opportunity to attend The Innovator’s Journey, a workshop on innovation held at one of my favorite places, Olin College. During the sessions a few weeks ago, I heard stories from several highly-successful innovators and I collaborated with many others about innovation. Specifically, as those of us in attendance listened to the stories shared by the innovators, we endeavored to identify the events from and characteristics of each innovator’s childhood that most likely contributed to him or her being an innovative adult. While we made some progress, we have more work to do. Thus the reason for my journey back to Boston.

In reviewing my notes from The Innovator’s Journey sessions and replaying innovators’ stories in my mind, I have come to an alarming realization about innovation and the innovators I met a few weeks ago. I have discovered a rather conspicuous absence of the influence of schools, schooling and schoolwork on innovators based on the testimonies given a few weeks ago. Save one twenty-something innovator who had a positive school experience and who attributed some of his innovative nature to the training he received at a STEM magnet school, all the other innovators cited instead examples from their childhoods of parental support, free play, unstructured time, exposure to varied cultures and more, as factors that likely contributed to their innovative approach to life as adults.

In other words, at least for the innovators gathered at Olin, school played little to no role in fostering innovation. Granted, most of the innovators matriculated ten, twenty or more years ago from school systems for whom innovation almost certainly did not appear on the radar. Nevertheless, how sad that so many innovators in their formative years had to find opportunities for innovation outside classroom walls.

With all the talk of including innovation and creativity in 21st century education, we have quite a challenge ahead of us to actually foster rather than hinder innovation in schools and promote the growth and development of innovators. What a tragedy it will be if, ten years from now, innovators gather in a room somewhere to discuss the factors that contributed to their journey toward becoming innovators and they generate a list from which school is missing.

How exactly do we foster innovation among today’s students? I have a few ideas based on my own reading, experience and the time I spent at Olin recently, but I hope to have a much clearer picture forty-eight hours from now after I reconvene with some brilliant innovators and educators who are determined to answer precisely that question.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

John Wooden's Wisdom Applied to Self-Improvement for Coaches, Teachers and School Leaders

In You Haven't Taught Until They've Learned, John Wooden talks quite a bit about how much he learned early in his career and about how important it is for a coach to continue to learn. The quote below provides a glimpse into Wooden's mind. The quote holds a great deal of relevance for educators today. In particular, the quote holds great significance for educational leaders. The best way to improve a faculty is for each teacher to improve himself or herself. A great educational leader, putting Wooden's wisdom into practice, does not lose sight of the fact that the same principle applies to school leadership. Simple but brilliant.

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Variations on "A good course changes what you know. A great course changes who you are."

I recently had the privilege of attending The Innovator's Journey, a collaborative effort of a number of innovators gathered at Olin College to identify qualities and characteristics of innovators' childhoods that might be infused into 21st century education. Perhaps I'll say more soon about that incredible experience, but here I'd like to focus on something I heard while I was there. If I knew who said this, I certainly would credit that person. Unfortunately, I don't, so I won't. Nevertheless, I want to share this powerful idea. "A good course changes what you know. A great course changes who you are." Simple. Powerful. True.

Since hearing this several days ago, I haven't been able to shake the idea. Furthermore, I've spent some time thinking about other iterations of this same idea. These multiple other iterations I share with you here. I hope these will be food for thought for you in the coming school year.
  • "A good course changes what you know. A great course changes who you are."
  • "A good teacher changes what you know. A great teacher changes who you are."
  • "A good coach changes what you know. A great coach changes who you are."
  • "A good school changes what you know. A great school changes who you are."
  • "A good book changes what you know. A great book changes who you are."
  • "A good mentor changes what you know. A great mentor changes who you are."
  • "A good leader changes what you know. A great leader changes who you are."
  • "A good principal changes what teachers know. A great principal changes how teachers teach."
  • "A good principal changes what school does. A great principal changes what school is."
I could keep going. Instead, I challenge you to think about how you could adapt the idea of  "A good course changes what you know. A great course changes who you are." to make it meaningful for you and your teaching journey.