A Principal's Reflections

Education is a reflective practice. This blog provides my views on educational leadership, effective technology integration, innovation, and creating a student-centered learning culture.
  1. When it comes to work, I have had to battle some internal conflicts over the years.   Early on in my career as a school administrator, and then again in my work in my current position as an ICLE Senior Fellow, I had to be put in place, thankfully, by those who care a great deal about me.  In the past, the challenge for me had always been putting too much focus on the job and not enough time and effort on my family or personal well-being.  I am going to try to speak about my battles with the work-life balance and attempt to offer up some sound advice for all of us that, at times, can be consumed with professional work.  My perspective always comes back to some sage advice that my mother gave my wife and me when we became parents, “You never get this time back so make the most of it.”


    Image credit: http://www.saxonsgroup.com.au/blog/wp-content/uploads/2016/09/work-life-balance.jpg

    The work-life balance as I see it can be broken down into three main categories: professional, family, and personal.  The first two types are self-explanatory. Personal takes into account your lifestyle, health, friends, and anything else that contributes to your well-being.  When the demands of our jobs are factored in, finding a balance between these areas can pose quite the challenge.  Add the pressure that we all put on ourselves to perform at a high level and what results are a hole that at times is difficult to get out of. 

    When it comes to my professional work, I allocate my time each day to ensure tasks get done.  Yes, I am a list guy.  For the most part, I write out all tasks that have to be completed the night before.  I did this as a principal and still to this day embrace this practice.  Having a schedule and sticking to it helped me be more productive.  It forced me to prioritize specific tasks while delegating others that had no real impact on student learning. However, I am not a slave to my list.  Things beyond my control can and do come up.  That's where flexibility and patience come into play. Both attributes are instrumental in helping us achieve professional success, but also in achieving a positive balance in life.

    Let me share an example of what this looked like.  As high school principal, I conducted 2-3 unannounced observations a day.  The week before I would not only schedule these on my calendar, but I would also set time aside to write each up the same day so that I could conduct the post-conference with the teachers the very next day.  I not only committed to this schedule but also made it known to my secretary that I shouldn’t be bothered unless necessary. Some might think this is extreme, but this practice helped me to focus on getting my work done at school so that I could enjoy priceless time with my family at home each evening. The work-life balance starts here. I chose not to bring work home, period. Sometimes I would stay a bit later to get things done, but the weekends were off limits.  That was family time.

    Social media posed another challenge to the balance.  Twitter was a considerable time zap early on, and then the use of other tools began to take a negative toll on my time. Once I got that under control my travel began to turn the tables in the wrong direction.  In both cases, my fantastic wife took the initiative to explain how each was negatively impacting our family.  As my father always says, “There is nothing more important in life than family.” Never take for granted what you have right in front of you.  Social media has had such an incredible impact on my professional and personal life as well as many of you that are reading this post.  The key here is not to let it drive a wedge between those who depend on us the most – our family.  

    When it comes to social media and writing in general, I put time aside when I am either on the road or when my wife and kids are at school.  This small shift has had a magical effect.  When they are home, I am more present, both physically and emotionally.  We also commit to at least two family trips a year.  As far as travel is concerned, ICLE has been amazing, as they have encouraged me to scale back to achieve this balance.  I can’t explain how awesome it is to work for a company who actively promotes attaining and maintaining a work-life balance.  This has enabled me to be home more during the workweek and work towards eliminating weekend travel. As a cheer dad, this is crucial in the eyes of my daughter as all of her competitions are on weekends. 



    So, what about the personal component of the work-life balance?  Here is where all of us need to be a bit selfish.  Our well-being is not only good for us on a personal level, but it has positive impacts on our professional work and family life.  As a high school principal, I had a lengthy commute from Staten Island, NY to New Milford, NJ.  Each morning I had to drive through the gauntlet, which was my term for the journey that took me over the Goethals Bridge and then through a good stretch of the NJ Turnpike. If I didn’t leave early enough, I would be stuck in traffic for hours.  Thus, I left my house each morning at 5:15 AM. 

    Why that early you might ask?  This is where I began to add some balance to one of the three categories above.  On a personal level, I had to make the time to work out in the morning or else it just wouldn’t happen.  I would leave at this time to not only get my workout in but to also open the fitness center at 6:00 AM for students that wanted the same opportunity. Having a routine was nice.  With my crazy travel schedule, it is more difficult to be consistent. My rule of thumb now is a minimum of four days working out each week. If I do not achieve this, then I attempt to deprive myself of something I have grown to enjoy as of late – craft beer.  

    Equally as important in the personal balance category is trying to eat healthily. As a principal, I had a fairly strict eating regime that was consistent.  Now that has all changed when I am not home.  I am genetically prone to high cholesterol and am currently on a statin to control it.  With this condition life on the road becomes even more of a challenge because it is virtually impossible to eat the way I want.  Just look at the calorie counts of many salads, and you know exactly what I am talking about.  Every change matters, no matter how small.  For me I get my salad dressing on the side, avoid fried foods and desserts, and eat smaller meals throughout the day.  

    I really could go on and on about my ideas on achieving a balance, but that is not the reason for this post.  My hope is if you are dealing with some of the struggles that I have encountered this post might help you get a better handle on finding a balance that works for you, work, and your family.  Below is some general advice that applies to the three main categories outlined in this post:

    • Don’t let work get in the way of what’s most important – your family and personal well-being.  Establish a schedule that works for you and be “present” during family time.
    • Take care of yourself!  Try to make some small shifts to your diet and make the time to exercise a couple of times per week. Go to the doctor and get a check-up regularly. 
    • Scale back on the social media time.  I am one of the biggest proponents of PLN’s and engaging in chats is excellent for our professional growth. However, making the time for real, face-to-face conversations with our family over a meal is crucial to the balance.
    • Get outside!  Walks with the dog, family, or just on your own to reflect can be invigorating.
    • Make time for your friends and neighbors in your immediate area.  I have been doing this more and more when I am at home thanks to the push from my wife.  
    • Find or resurrect a hobby.

    I hope you all will consider sharing how you go about achieving a balance in your life as well as some of the challenges you face.  Achieving a balance all comes down to the fact that we care for those who we love, depend on, work with, and who depend on us.  When it is all said and done, I want to succeed on a professional level, but achieving success as a dad, husband, and friend in the eyes of those I care about is what truly matters. 

  2. I was recently working on my slide deck for a three-day workshop that will take participants on an immersive experience into digital leadership and learning.  My primary objective for all multiday workshops is to illustrate the vital role that technology can play in improving teaching, learning, and leadership.  Most of the first day is spent on emphasizing the importance of a pedagogy first, technology second mindset. The bottom line is that if we don’t get the instructional design right first, then the chances of technology improving learning outcomes is slim to none.  

    Throughout my slide deck are numerous questions to get participants to reflect on their practice and think strategically about changes that they or their school(s) need to make.  After having attendees discuss in groups their responses to each question I have them report out their thoughts using a variety of tools. For the most part, my integration of technology into workshops is to foster greater collaboration, showcase how to increase engagement authentically, formatively assess, and creatively showcase what they have learned.   In some cases, I will directly train educators on how to use various tools, but learning to use the edtech tools is the easy part.  Integrating them to support high-level learning and having evidence to support this is the challenging work. 



    Image credit: https://cft.vanderbilt.edu

    As I line up my reflective questions, I also determine which tools I am going to have participants use to share out.  My favorite and most reliable tend to be TodaysMeet, Padlet, Mentimeter, and AnswerGarden.  For the first day of this particular workshop, I had also planned to use Tackk and ProConIt, two lesser-known tools that I have been using for the past couple of years.  As I went into both accounts, I was shocked to learn that Tackk had suddenly shut down on September 30 and when trying to access ProConIt an error message notified me that the site was not working.  A few days later I still have not been able to access ProConIt successfully.

    Fortunately for me, I was able to swap out both tools for others that are similar.  The lesson learned is valuable for anyone using technology to support professional practice.  How would you manage if one day you walked into your classroom or school to discover that Google Classroom, Seesaw, or any other tool that was thoroughly embraced no longer existed? Technology comes and goes.  Sometimes it doesn’t work the way we want, in some cases, it fails to load, and then there is the chance that the tool ceases to exist.  

    In the classroom, we must be mindful of what is most important – the quality of the learning and the interactions between people. Both of these outcomes should never be driven by a tool, device, or program.  It is sometimes hard not to get sucked in by all the potential benefits that come with technology.  Engagement is one of them. Yes, we want kids engaged. However, it is critical that engagement leads to evidence of learning.  This point comes back to my mantra of pedagogy first, technology second. Technology should never drive our work, but instead be used strategically to improve teaching, learning, and leadership. 

    Technology is not a replacement for practice supported by research and what has been found to work consistently.  The ultimate failsafe is a well-designed lesson that gets kids to think while applying their learning in a meaningful way.  This is why using a tool like the Rigor Relevance Framework to develop a pedagogically-sound foundation first will help to ensure a quality learning experience with and without technology.  It is also important to understand that technology will not automatically lead to better results. We must be mindful of not only how it will improve the task(s) at hand, but also to not rely on it to the point that we can’t move beyond a tool or program if or when it ceases to exist or work.

    The same advice applies to the tools that many of us use to connect, learn, and grow.  The Personal Learning Network (PLN) is fueled by the connections made thanks to a variety of social media tools, most notably Twitter. How would you manage or cope if Twitter tomorrow decided to shut its doors?  To be honest, I think many connected educators wouldn’t know what to do with themselves. My point here is not to place all of our eggs in just one tool or platform. 

    Technology has enabled all of us to do some pretty amazing things when it comes to our professional practice and will continue to do so. Just be wary of losing focus on what truly matters. Without people, the tech doesn’t matter when it comes to learning. 
  3. We live in exciting times although it is often difficult to keep up with how fast society is changing. Many of us can remember a world where there was no Internet or smartphones.  Now we not only have smart watches, but rumors are swirling that a global Wi-Fi network powered by commercial airliners is in the works that will provide people access virtually anywhere in the world.   We keep seeing major disruptions across the service sector. Up until a few years ago, there was no Uber or Airbnb. Now millions of people are hailing rides and booking rooms in ways that are more convenient and cost-efficient. With the exponential rate of change we are seeing, it is a bit exciting to think about what the future holds.

    Education is beginning to experience some pretty exciting changes as well.  Across the globe, evolving technologies are being utilized to engage students in a variety of ways authentically.  Critical competencies such as creativity, collaboration, and communication are now easier to demonstrate through the use of numerous tools.  Classroom and school design are beginning to move away from what many of us experienced as students.   Flexible spaces, virtual learning options, and makerspaces are providing students with new opportunities to demonstrate what they know. Social media has flattened the world as educators have discovered how powerful this standard medium is in enabling the sharing of ideas, strategies, and resources regardless of time or place. Just like society, the future of education is bright.

    Image credit: https://teachingdigitaltechnology.wordpress.com/

    There is one caveat here though.  The pace of change in the education space has not matched that which we see across the world. Even though progress has and continues to be made, the paragraph above represents a small fraction of the education space. So, what gives? Why education needs to change has been discussed at length by authors and bloggers alike for years now.  If providing compelling reasons, research and opinions were enough I suppose education would look and feel a lot different at scale now.  We have also been exposed to all the many technology tools, programs, and pedagogical shifts that can support and enhance learning for students.  Some improvement claims are valid, while others tend to be on the fluffier side. With all this being said, change at scale still tends to be elusive. 

    The conundrum painted above is not as perplexing as one might think.  I often go back to the work of Simon Sinek and his Golden Circle.  The "why" and "what" dominate conversations, writings, and presentations in my opinion.  I am not saying this is entirely a bad thing.  This is ideal for short-term satisfaction, but the "how" is the key to sustainability and scalability. In Learning Transformed, Tom Murray and I went to great lengths to unearth the why by presenting a vast research base to validate the ideas presented. The how is framed through the Innovative Practices in Action (IPA's) found in each chapter.  What often holds educators and schools back is taking great ideas and showing how they can be implemented under a variety of conditions and contexts. The video below provides a bit more insight into our thinking around this.



    Change begins with you. Never forget that. The key, however, is to create a movement through collective actions that fundamentally improve learning for all.  Scalability matters if the goal is to build schools of the future by transforming teaching, learning, and leadership in the process.  Details on how this can and is being accomplished in the context of the real challenges educators and schools face on a daily basis can help move isolated pockets of excellence to scalable changes that influence all learners.  
  4. Innovation has been a hot topic of discussion for the past couple of years even though it is not a new or novel concept.  New ideas leading to improvements have been occurring since the beginning of time.  All one has to do is take a look at the evolution of the human species to see how important innovation has been leading to society as we now know it.   Leonardo da Vinci and Galileo Galilei could be considered the forefathers of modern innovators.  Their ideas and inventions paved the way for all who followed. The industrial revolution brought the topic to the forefront. Shortly after the likes of Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, and Alexander Graham Bell blazed a trail with some pretty amazing inventions that improved the lives of many.  

    The rise of entrepreneurs in every facet of society, coupled with advances in technology, continue to push the conversation. With changes to current professions, entirely new occupations, and different expectations to succeed in a world that we have no idea what it will look like, the pressure is on to evolve or else.  Innovation has not trickled but instead flowed into the education space. It seems like everyone is talking about the need to innovate to improve education as a whole as well as learning for students. As a result, we have seen some pretty amazing changes in a short period in schools across the world. 


    Image credit: http://oecdeducationtoday.blogspot.com/

    I am all for innovation in education and played my part as a high school principal to usher in changes, both big and small, that led to evidence of improvements in teaching, learning, and leadership.  It is important, however, to pause and reflect on what we are trying to accomplish.  A recent Edutopia piece titled The ‘No' in ‘Innovate' really got me thinking about this topic.  The author challenges all of us with the notion that sometimes the best way to innovate is to say no. Innovation for many has become just another thing added to a long list of initiatives or expectations. 

    Not all innovations are good for education when repeatedly packed on top of each other, and we can't assume that positive changes will always result.  It is also important to note that "saying" something is innovative and actually "showing" that it is are two different paradigms.  As the common saying goes, the proof is in the pudding.  A particular direction is needed to help align innovative change to the vision, mission, and culture of a respective school.  At the individual level, a basic need to support or enhance practice is at the core of a decision to innovate or not. It is important to consider both the short and long game as to what you hope to accomplish. 

    So how does one decide to innovate or not?  To help with this decision consider the questions below. 

    Why will it improve what you or your students do? 
    How do you know it has led to an improvement? 
    How do others determine if it has led to an improvement? 
    What is needed to scale the effort(s)?

    Innovation is a collective endeavor geared at not only individual but more importantly system improvement.  Research can be used to inform and influence the process but does not need to drive it.  What is important is to show how innovative practices can, and will, improve our work.  Evidence that illustrates efficacy helps move innovation from an isolated practice focusing on small pockets to scalable change that impacts an entire culture.  This is something Tom Murray and I showcase and discuss this extensively in Learning Transformed. Start small, but think and plan for big.  

    Innovate with a purpose, but make sure this mission extends well beyond an individual level.  In the end, it's not about how much you innovate in education, but the resulting impact of the changes on the collective. 
  5. Leaders often find and leverage tools, frameworks, and systems to support their own change, as well as that of their school or district.  There are many great options out there.  As a principal, I in particular, found success using the Rigor Relevance Framework as a means to integrate technology with purpose in order to improve student-learning outcomes.  This framework helped us to really focus on improving instruction first before throwing technology into the mix. This then became part of a set of strategies and competencies that guided our overall digital transformation efforts – The Pillars of Digital Leadership. My work now is focused on helping leaders, regardless of position, to leverage these resources to successfully implement and sustain needed change. 

    Outside of education there are other tools and frameworks that can assist with various change efforts, many of which come from the business world. Business leaders know that assessing the status of an effort prior to the change process is crucial.  Building awareness is also a key element. As an innovative leader, you are reinventing the school culture through a different lens. As such, it is important to get a sense of the journey ahead by taking stock of where you are in the current moment. Prior to leading any new initiative, you can use an adapted version of a well-known business tool to take a snapshot of where you perceive the current culture to be in its current situation. Using this adapted tool may reveal important data and insight that helps you understand the status of your culture in order to successfully implement sustainable change. 


    Image credit: hwww.business-to-you.com/swot-analysis/

    In BrandED, Trish Rubin and I introduced the SWOT analysis.  I will elaborate on how this tool can be used to create or enhance a brand effort, but in all honesty, it can be used to tee up any new change initiative.  SWOT Analysis is a useful technique for understanding your strengths and weaknesses, and for identifying both the opportunities open to you and the threats you face. Adapted from BrandED, here is how you can use this tool to implement a positive brand presence.
    Every business brand journey includes the use of this tool, an activity known as a SWOT analysis. In conducting a SWOT, the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats to brand success are stated and examined.  The SWOT activity is done in the very early stages of development of a mission so that the brand strategy can be assured of success (Armstrong & Kotler, 2015).  
    Adapted for educators, a SWOT analysis is a chance to understand how you perceive your school community and can help you articulate a brand that addresses the current state of the organization. Especially interesting to leaders will be the opportunities for growth that are identified, which can be used as tangible measures of brand success, and the threats that are challenging the school. Making those threats a target and finding ways to see opportunities in those challenges can strengthen the school’s brand. A SWOT analysis can serve you well in your initial reflections about both your personal brand and your school’s. A SWOT process conducted with frankness yields valuable information about the current state of an organization and directs decision making. Once the analysis is complete, it forms a direction for leaders as they take on their personal brand, as they can more clearly see themselves serving the needs of the community.  
    As business managers have found, putting yourself through your own SWOT analysis can even further inform the building of your own brand. Why do a personal SWOT? A SWOT analysis may goad you into real action as you advance your own brand in real time. Honestly assessing your strengths and weaknesses and reflecting on any opportunities or threats that are present in your leadership style can help you assess your capacities before you build a professional brand that you own as the storyteller-in-chief. 
    As you think about the changes you want to implement in your classroom, school, district, or organization take the time to conduct a SWOT analysis (see matrix below). This simple, yet effective process can help to identify potential pitfalls while building greater support for the effort. 


    Image credit: www.thirstt.com


    Cited sources

    Armstrong, G., & Kotler, P. (2015). Marketing: An introduction (12th
         ed.). Boston, MA: Pearson.