Risky Speed-Bumps

We all have times in our careers where progress gets interrupted by something. A few months ago I was experiencing this and took the stance that I had hit a wall. A conversation with Eric Sheninger changed my perspective, when he simply stated, “I hit speed bumps, not walls.”

I have spent the last few months reflecting on this idea off and on, and I think there is more wisdom in these words than you might recognize at first.

Walls are designed to keep things in or to keep things out whereas speed bumps are designed to slow us down and make us pay attention to what is going on around us.

When you are trying to change paradigms and move an organization forward I think it easy to start seeing things as walls. The last few months I have started to shift my focus more towards seeing things as speed bumps. This has helped me realize those “walls” are really just slowing me down, not halting my progress, and that sometimes going slower is not always a bad thing. Additionally, by paying more attention to those around me I have been able to realize there are a lot of people struggling with what I call risk-averse behavior.

In my experience, risk typically manifests in three types of teachers in the school setting.  These types are (1) Risk-Averse (2) Risk-Neutral (3) Risk-Ready.  Each type of teacher has strengths and challenges that need to be understood for an innovative classroom environment to emerge where students are successful with practices that ensure they will contribute to our future world in a healthy way. 


Teachers that are not willing or that do not know how to interact with a shift in pedagogical structure can be considered risk-averse.  These teachers may not necessarily have negative intentions or insubordinate behavior from the onset, however, their individual cognitive development may not allow them to process change in the same manner risk-neutral or risk-ready teachers are capable.  School leaders should proceed with caution when interacting with risk-averse teachers because these teachers can become risk-ready with appropriate coaching and support, sometimes becoming the biggest advocates for school change and growth in the school culture.

Risk-averse teachers typically exhibit the following behaviors:

*  Do not volunteer for activities

*  Do not attend meetings that are not mandatory

*  Maintain “traditions” that have been in place over time

*  Allow others to speak before or for them

*  Only engage in conversation when sought out

*  Work to stay under the radar

*  Can become negative if pushed too far/ fast


Risk-neutral teachers can become the most dangerous group for school cultures during change.  The reason for this is because of this groups ability to exhibit a sense of agreement with either risk-averse or risk-ready teachers creating a conflicting environment where confusion becomes the predominant experience students receive in the classroom.  These teachers exhibit behaviors that suggest they do not care what pedagogical shifts occur in a building and often declare agreement with whichever group they are interacting with at any given time.

Risk-neutral teachers typically exhibit these types of behaviors:

*  Everyone is right if they are around

*  Do not respond to change as good or bad

*  Can give power to those in favor of or against change

*  Do not have a handle on best practices

*  Will say “yes” if everyone else is


Risk-ready teachers are typically those teachers that are engaged in changes to pedagogical practices from the first day.  These teachers are usually very innovative and eager to please leadership.  This group has to be supported but care must also be taken in cultivating their abilities for risk of burnout or moving too fast with initiatives.  Appropriate training and ensuring that balance between excitement and effective implementation is important for leadership to monitor with this group of teachers. 

Risk-ready teachers typically exhibit these types of behaviors:

*  Jump into new initiatives head first

*  Put in extra time without being asked

*  Volunteer for everything

*  Use personal time for work

*  Implement initiatives on top of initiatives

*  Have an easy time saying “yes” and a hard time saying “no”

*  Establish new “traditions” for the school culture

Schools need to change.  Understanding that the multitude of changes that have occurred in public education over the last forty years have created an environment where most schools face a fear of risk, school leaders must act to empower those in their buildings.  Creating environments for teachers that allow them to take risks and learn from mistakes will inevitably create a school culture where adults know the value in risk taking behavior.  Once the confidence of the adults in a building is renewed in their profession and ability, the learning that can occur in classrooms will grow exponentially.  Whether teachers are currently risk-averse, risk-neutral, or risk-ready, the school leader is the key to unlocking their potential. 


As summer is winding down and we are getting ready to begin the 2018-2019 school year it is hard for me to believe that my son will start Kindergarten on August 1.  Fast forward 13 years and he will be graduating high school in 2031.  Add three to five years of college on to that, if he chooses this path, and he will be entering the work force some time around 2035.  He will be just behind his sister who will be hitting that work force around 2032.

So what?

We have to realize we are already almost 20 years into the 21st century and that public education is having a hard time keeping up with the demands and changes going on around us.   We are getting so caught up in the present we are forgetting what is going to be happening in the next 10 to 15 years.  For my son and daughter, and other kids around their age, the work place environment is going to look totally different.  Artificial Intelligence and robots will be two of the realities they will possibly work with on a day to day basis.

So what?

I think as professionals we have to realize this is going to be the reality of the kids sitting in our classrooms.  It seems really hard for most people to live with one foot in the future and the other one in the present, however, I think we are at a point that we have to.  I recently retweeted a quote from Solution Tree…

“We have 21st century students being taught by 20th century adults and that is                     part of the transition we’ll continue to experience for the next decade.  What                       can’t continue is the use of 19th century pedagogy around an 18th century                           calendar.”

When you digest this and think about what is going on daily in our classrooms you really have to consider if it is what is best for students and what they will be doing in their future work.  Most teachers are scared of change.  I get it.  As professionals we have been slapped with more required initiatives than we can count over the past 40 years, most of which have not been funded.  Teachers seem to bare the brunt of the change which typically creates a fear full profession so it falls to school leaders to work to create a fear free environment.

Having the honor to present at ISTE this summer also gave me the opportunity to attend some really good sessions.  I got to hear Michael Cohen “the tech rabbi” speak.  I took particular note of how he had changed the commonly known acronym F.A.I.L.  If you don’t know, this acronym is used to encourage leaders working to build fear free environments by encouraging them to encourage their teams and students to look at failing as the First Attempt In Learning.  Cohen extended this acronym to F.A.I.L.U.R.E. Adding the suffix helps leaders to realize that we can’t experience our first attempt in learning Unless Reflection Exists.  I think this is a very powerful concept.  As a school leader, I work very hard to create opportunities for our teachers to reflect.  If we are constantly failing at things but not spending time reflecting on why those things did not work how can we ever expect something different to happen?

I am fortunate enough to get to work with some really amazing teachers every single day school is in session.  I get to teach with these folks daily and the laughter and tears we share is what makes us a strong team.  Additionally, we make kids our focus.  Adult stuff is going to happen, there is nothing we can do about that, but we have found by leaning on each other and focusing on our kids we are able to accomplish some pretty amazing things.  As a parent I am encouraged by the impact every adult in our school will have on my kids, and as a Principal I am encouraged by the impact we are having on all of our students.

2031 is not too far off, but I know the students from our school will be ready when it gets here.




Getting SMART

For organizations to survive change they must be nimble and adaptable so that the pressures and unknown circumstances change creates can be survived.  The Professional Learning Community framework provides a structure for schools focusing on four pillars, (1) Mission, (2) Vision, (3) Values, (4) Goals.  Each of these pillars provides opportunity for school culture to grow and flourish, however, the fourth pillar creates the greatest chance for leaders to implement and sustain change initiatives without the school culture crumbling apart. In a Professional Learning Community culture, goals are focused around the S.M.A.R.T acronym.  This concept was originally developed by George T. Doran as a method to help business managers organize and maintain information and strategies learned from multiple training’s in a way that can lead to strategic implementation of ideas and plans.

SMART Goal 4

The system provides a very tight structure for goal setting that adults and students can utilize to drive efficiency forward.  Using this system, goals are set to meet five distinct criteria that allow teachers to focus on academic or behavioral areas dependent of various data points obtained through an ongoing cycle of improvement.  The five areas are:

  • Strategic, in that goals should be aligned with essential learning targets, tied to behavior, or other academic areas identified by the teacher with the student.
  • Measurable, in that the area for improvement can show growth or declination over time.
  • Attainable, the area chosen is not too far off the mark as to set the student up for failure of attaining the goal.
  • Results oriented, in that the areas chosen are of importance to the student or are tied to essential learning of the grade.
  • Time bound, in that a specific date is set to notify the student and teacher of when the goal will be completed.


In our school students follow this procedure from PK through 4th grade.  Students set goals with their teachers and celebrate with me each morning when they meet their goals.  The results are AMAZING!  We have a community wall where goals are posted and the students absolutely love it.

This system also builds student grit.  We utilize the goal setting process to help some of our students struggling with behaviors or other issues to find the power of making positive progress in small steps.  Over time these small wins turn into major accomplishments and help students get moving in the right direction. Once students realize they can do it and we are able to shift the focus to positive progress we are able to help the student realize they can overcome academic obstacles as well.  Ultimately, the SMART goal system can become the foundation for success in any area helping adults and students overcome obstacles by focusing on specific actions to help move to the next step of the game.  Like any strategy, this takes time, but once the results start coming in, there are no limits to where you can go.

SMART Goal 5

Celebrations as a PLC…

Our School is a Professional Learning Community (PLC)…

We do not have “PLC Meetings” “PLC time” or “PLC Days” we are actually a PLC School.  What is the difference you may ask?

If you have heard the term PLC then you have heard the names DuFour, Eaker, Mattos, Muhammad, Many, Keating etc.  If you have read the literature and studied the concept then you should know that becoming a Professional Learning Community is an intensive cultural game changing experience. It is not something you tack on to existing structures for a quick fix, it is a deep commitment to changing the very essence of what you do as a school to commit to and ensure that 100% of the students in your building learn at the absolutely highest levels possible.

We started this journey two years ago and we are not perfect, however, that is one of the coolest parts of being a PLC, you never will be perfect because you are always growing and getting better.

Equally cool is the part that celebrations play in a PLC.  I was raised believing that doing your work and doing what was right was celebration enough, that you should not have to create special time to tell everyone how magical they are.  I’ve learned over the last two years how wrong this is.  As our leader I have made it a point to build celebrations into our daily routines, here are a few of the ways we do it…

  1. SMART goals.  Students and adults set SMART goals.  Once these goals are met students and adults celebrate with me by bringing a goal sheet to my office and receiving a Buzz Buck.  Buzz Bucks can then be cashed in for items at specified times during the year.
  2. Monday Meetings.  We end each of our professional meetings on Monday afternoons in a circle in the gym.  We have four tangibles that are exchanged weekly and follow this with additional verbal recognition’s as people feel led.  The tangibles are fun (1) Helm of Valor (2) Silent But Deadly (3) Glasses of Resilience (4) Eyes of Wisdom but they make us think about who has really been digging in and who may not be getting the recognition they deserve.
  3. Random Acts of Fun.  These vary based on the overall pulse of the school.  Sometimes it might be a Valentine card to every staff member from me, other times it may be a school wide Easter Egg hunt.
  4. Birthday Recognition. A simple handwritten card with a few pieces of candy.
  5. Food.  We always try to provide food for staff at in-service days, parent teacher conferences, etc.  This takes a burden off of our team so that they can focus on being engaged in other ways.

I encourage you to think about how you are celebrating.  If you aren’t, give it a try and see what happens.


Building without the book…

I felt that my first post on what I hope to become an ongoing journey would be fitting today since January 28, 2018 marks the 60th anniversary of the Lego brand which influenced my thinking here and has been a life long passion of mine for the past 30 years.

We recently experienced an unusual number of snow days here in middle Tennessee.  After the first two days of school being closed, our five year old son, Davis, and I found ourselves up to our elbows in a pile of my old Lego bricks.  “I’m going to build an airplane, Daddy,” Davis proclaimed, and within 10 minutes he had constructed a unique design that to him could out fly, out gun, and out maneuver the toughest jet, battle plane, or space ship in existence.  “I am going to build a mech to fight your hulk buster,” I confidently responded.  10 minutes passed, nothing, not even the first brick chosen to begin.  20 minutes, one brick, but still no clue where to start.  60 minutes, not much more than the base to a foot.  I wondered to myself what in the world was going on.  I love Lego.  I have built over 100 sets but for some reason I was hitting a brick wall figuring out how to do something creative with my son.


Davis Plane

After 10 days, much frustration, and several rebuilds I arrived at the mech I proclaimed to build.  I also found myself pondering a question.  Why?  What was the driving factor that caused creativity to be such a challenge for me when it happened so easily for my five year old?

As an Elementary School Principal at a school where we are pushing 21st century learning with most classrooms focusing on collaboration, communication, critical thinking, and creativity I have spent the past two weeks wondering if the decision we have made as adults to begin our focus with introducing collaboration strategies, gradually building the other c’s into instruction, is not  a mistake?  Should creativity become our focus rather than our capstone?  If creativity becomes our focus how do the adults designing cutting edge lessons overcome the same struggle I faced in something as simple as building a Lego from the depths of my imagination instead of the pages of a direction booklet.

Over the the past 6 years I have worked side by side with many teachers who were trying to find a way to bring creativity into their rooms.  Here are the three main reasons I have seen adults stumble with creativity and the three counters I have worked with them on to push through.

  1. Fear has been the number one factor holding adults back.  What if’s are usually the dialogue that initiates the hesitancy.  What if the kids don’t like it, What if the adults don’t like it, What if it doesn’t work, What if I lose control, What if we don’t perform on the test…you get the point.  The best response and counter to fear is those teachers hearing me say, “you won’t know if you don’t try and if it doesn’t go the way you want it to I will help you figure it out.”  Creating a culture of risk taking and support is crucial to beating fear.
  2. Comfort has consistently been number two.  With most situations that call for creativity or taking a risk I have heard teachers often say that this would be easier if we could see it, can we visit a classroom already doing it, where else is this going on, etc. I go back to the Lego book.  Directions make it easy and everyone knows you can’t become a master builder if you are always following the directions.  Creativity means taking risks and sometimes its better to become the classroom doing it first.  This one is a little more tricky to overcome but I have found the best way to beat comfort is to either show the teacher by doing it myself or celebrating the teacher for taking small steps that end up leading to something big.  A cycle of celebration can do wonders for your culture.
  3. Mindset typically becomes the third obstacle I see when it comes to creativity.  I typically see teachers fall into three categories when trying to bring creativity into their classroom.  They either jump, teeter, or run.  The jumpers are easy.  They just need for me to get out of the way and possibly provide funding as I can.  Those that teeter usually need a little push, some supplies, tools, or support and they are typically falling right after the jumpers.  The runners become the tricky group.  As a leader I have to decide, do I want to chase them down or let them go which typically becomes a tough decision.  If I know from past races I can’t outrun the runner I let them go and focus my efforts on those teetering.

So…you can learn a lot from Lego.  There is nothing wrong with the direction books, they lead you to some wonderful sets full of play-ability and style.  But maybe, as adults, we need to make time to build without the book just to see what happens?

Mech 3