Sunday, June 18, 2017

Unearthing the Why

There are so many important questions that we have to ask and attempt to find answers to. Many of these questions start with what, how, and why. Simon Sinek reminds us that the most important questions we should be asking need, and should start with, a focus on why. Check out this shortened version below of his famous TED talk.



His simple golden circle brings some needed context that can help to drive meaningful change in any organization. For the most part, every organization knows what they do. Some organizations know how they do it.  However, as Sinek goes on to explain, very few organizations know why they do what they do.  The why centers on purpose, values, belief, and feelings. The what, and to a certain extent the how, have a certain amount of clarity around them. The why is a totally different animal as it is always fuzzy in nature.  It is difficult to articulate at times, thus we take the path of least resistance and focus our questions and efforts on the what and the how.


Image credit: https://inspireca.com

The why matters more than ever in the context of schools and education.  All one must do is step into the shoes of a student.  If he or she does not truly understand why they are learning what is being taught the chances of improving outcomes and success diminishes significantly.  Each lesson should squarely address the why, preferably early on, but this could also be tied in during a closure actively.  What and how we assess carries little to no weight in the eyes of our students if they don’t understand and appreciate the value of the learning experience. The same could be said regarding entrenched practices such as grading and homework that are in dire need of change.

A focus on the why is a good start, but holding ourselves accountable is another story.  Therefore, as principal I directed my staff to include an authentic context and interdisciplinary connections into every lesson and project. We ensured accountability through numerous unannounced observations, collection of artifacts, and adding a portfolio component to the evaluation process. Unearthing the why became engrained in the very DNA of our culture. Relevance should be a non-negotiable in any learning task. If a student doesn’t know why he or she is learning something that is on us. Learning today and beyond must be personal for every student.

Our work does not stop here.  In the larger picture students also need better responses as to why they need school and education for that matter. Students need to understand better why school functions to serve them both inside and outside the classroom.  A renewed focus on creating schools that work for kids through uncommon learning strategies that are not being implemented in schools at scale can help to transform numerous facets of traditional schooling. The why led us to embrace and implement Bring Your Own Device (BYOD), academies (school within a school), personalized learning, virtual learning, makerspaces, and Independent Open Courseware Study (IOCS) options. Transforming learning is a momentous task that must be driven by unearthing the why across all facets of school culture. 

This conversation should also translate to our own work.  We say what we do and how we are different, but is this enough to change practice or perception? It is critical that educators can articulate the why related to their own work.  Take technology for example. Actions of many educators in terms of learning and using technology tend to infer that the overriding focus is on the wrong thing. Some questions I commonly run across include: What are the latest apps and tools I can use in my classroom or school? How can I integrate technology to improve learning? These questions aren’t necessarily bad per se, but they often dictate the level at which tools are used. Just look around at the sessions at many technology conferences.  When sessions like 50 Apps in 50 minutes have standing room only while Improving School Culture has a fraction of attendees it aligns more with the what and how.

Whether it comes down to effectively using technology, growing professionally, innovating, or improving instruction, Sinek reminds us to always focus on the why first. This allows us to bring clarity to our ideas, align pertinent research, and identify practices in action for further support to instill a sense of value in the work at hand. Students must believe in their school and the value of learning. Educators must believe in the mission, vision, and goals of a school to improve. They must also believe in the pursuit of better ways to grow that move beyond sound bites, flashy tools, and ideas with little substance.  Unearthing the why is the key to sustainable change and transforming practice. 

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Value-Added Schools

No, this is not a post about value-added evaluation practices.  I believe that ship has sailed. There is a great deal of research and evidence out there that pretty much debunks the claims of many in the world of education reform that accountability systems based solely on student achievement data have any merit. What I would like to discuss are ways that schools can provide increased value to students based on changes to the learning culture.  A school can and should provide a meaningful learning experience for students.  If they do not see any value during the time spent in buildings then the chances are that opportunities to learn, and ultimately achieve, will be squandered.


Image credit: www.theinfohound.com/

Value-added schooling became important to me during my early years as a high school principal.  In 2009 as I took a device from a student for failing to follow school policy that student responded to me that school was like a jail.  This encounter translated into an “aha” moment.  It made me critically reflect not just on our policy towards student devices, but also on a wide range of elements that impacted the learning culture at my school. What I learned was that our policies, procedures, and programs weren’t necessarily geared towards the genuine interests and needs of our student body.  This is when we began our journey to create a school that worked better for kids than the one that had generally functioned better for the adults.
"Value-added schools capitalize on methodologies, ideas, and tools to better understand students while improving the learning experience."
Value-added schools place less of an emphasis on control, compliance, conformity, and certain rules that we as adults have a hard time rationalizing to students because they are so ridiculous.  Since students are unique individuals with a variety of needs and interests, the focus must be on creating policies and structures that are more kid-centric. Kids should want to come to school and learn. It is incumbent upon us to take a critical lens to our work and culture and make both small and big changes to add more value to a child’s experience in school. Building a greater sense of trust and leveraging this to develop powerful relationships are a consistent goal that we can all agree on.  Value-added schools:

  • Focus more on learning as opposed to grades.
  • Integrate more opportunities for play in K-12.
  • Implement personalized (time, path, place, strengths/needs) and personal (interests, passions, relevancy) learning strategies.
  • Actively address the “cemetery effect” by utilizing research-based and design thinking strategies to transform classroom learning environments.
  • Emphasize student agency (voice, choice, advocacy) as a right for all
  • Re-think homework and outdated grading practices to create a culture focused on R.E.A.L learning.
  • Capitalize on the power of relationships by adding makerspaces, charging stations, thinking games (i.e. chess), and healthy food/drink options to common spaces to promote conversation between everyone.
  • Treat connectivity as a life-line to this generation of kids and provide equitable access either in the form of devices or Internet. access. Connectivity is a way of life for our students. Take it from them and they will check out.
  • Add an array of after-school programs that connect to interests and careers of the future.
  • View technology as a ubiquitous component of the student learning experience rather than an add-on.

Sometimes our own beliefs and experiences get in the way of what’s possible. Thanks to the student who set me straight, many of the strategies above were embraced, implemented, and sustained during my time as a principal.  We not only added value, but were able to show efficacy in our work going forward. Don’t let your mindset or that of others hold you back. Thinking differently is a start, but we also need to act differently if we want to transform learning. Focus on the “what ifs” instead of the “yeah buts”. Don't prepare students for something. Prepare them for anything. Say yes more than you say no. Most importantly, be more empathetic by placing yourself in the shoes of your students.

So how have you helped to create a value-added school? I would love to hear and share your ideas. 

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Associate for Success

I cannot overstate the importance of trust in establishing the foundation for relationships.  In addition to trust various other elements contribute to the growth and strengthening of relationships.  One that might not readily come to mind is association.  The act of associating with others can contribute to positive relationship building and is linked to the awareness of your own defined leadership persona. Associating behavior is the essence of the classic model Management by Walking Around (MBWA), which is also sometimes referred to as Management by Wandering Around.  MBWA came to light in 1982 in Peters and Waterman’s classic management book, In Search of Excellence

The authors profiled the innovative owners of Hewlett-Packard who used MBWA as their signature way of communicating with their organization—not through emails, calls, or memos but by associating: They deliberately got to their people in repeated touch points, in regular face-to-face casual moments. It sounds commonsensical to do, but it was innovative at the time and still produces results. For those leaders needing practice in associating, this strategy can give you a chance to flex your relational muscles. MBWA isn’t haphazard; it is achieved with strategic thought. Getting into a daily routine of associating with a wide range of stakeholders, internal and external, is of primary importance to leadership and to the promotion of a school brand. Adding associating— the deliberate flexing of your communicative muscle as a part of your daily to-do list—builds trust, respect, and forms a base for school leadership power.


Image credit: frederickmordi.files.wordpress.com

Use any of the many free communication channels available online that support an associative online daily routine as you take MBWA onto the digital and social media stage. Go on a hunt. Deliberately identify people you want to associate with in digital spaces and build relationships. There are opportunities for “walking around” in digital spaces today that weren’t existent in 1982. The power of association had a profound impact on me when Trish Rubin saw the chance to associate with me. It came from seeing that potential relationship source on TV after CBS NYC aired a story about how my teachers and I were using Twitter as a teaching, learning, and leadership tool. Our ensuing face-to-face conversations laid the foundation for how digital tools could vastly improve associative behavior. The digital world provides endless opportunities to associate with like-minded educators as well as experts in the field.  


Image credit: www.free-management-ebooks.com/

Consider adding the power of associating to your leadership toolbox.  If you need structure, set your phone on a timer and give yourself 3 minutes to associate with others at various points in your day both face-to-face and virtually. Push yourself to associate daily. Use the Google Calendar Speedy Meetings setting to keep your connecting to short (5–10 minute), meaningful, real-time or online meetings. Just the intention of reducing meeting length from 30 minutes on your calendar can help you be more efficient. Move outside your comfort zone. Identify and reach out to people beyond your brick and mortar building to push your thinking and gain invaluable insight on ways to improve your professional practice. Associating with people that you might not agree or see eye-to-eye with can help to build relationships that you might not have thought were possible. 

All stakeholders, including students, should be on your associating radar. Talk with them about school culture and initiatives. Ask for their impression of the school vision, mission, and values to gain insight on what can be changed as well as to cultivate greater student agency. Seek ideas and suggestions. Smile and say thanks, then follow up selectively with some of these new ambassadors. Include aspirational associations. Associate through “reach” in real time or online. Look above you in a metaphorical sense. Whom do you want to build a relationship with that may have a higher stature? Start wandering around in digital spaces where your prospects are engaging. Twitter is a good resource for this, and once you have “professional collateral” to share that shows who you are, you can use it to associate for connection.

As you associate, “see” around your circle. See people whom you may have the tendency to overlook or to take for granted: Service providers of any sort, businesses, media outlets, professional organizations, senior citizens, very young people, and diverse newcomers to your community can be part of your association plan. They are valuable contacts in their own right and may have additional associative power. Wander around, listen, ask questions, and engage to develop more associative relationships that can complement and improve your ability to lead change. So how have you leveraged the power of associative behavior? What other strategies would you provide to help others associate to succeed?

Content for this post was adapted from BrandED: Tell Your Story, Build Relationships, and Empower Learning. Get your copy TODAY!

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Learning Transformed #LT8Keys

It has been quite the ride since I changed my perspective on teaching, learning, and leadership eight years ago. Prior to 2009 I basically saw technology as just an add-on and something that could spruce up a lesson.  An ironclad Internet filter was in place to “protect” students and ensure that none of them could go off task.  Social media had to be blocked for all and I, for one, wasn’t going to waste any of my precious time using it professionally or personally. Learning spaces had to conform to the perceived rule of law in education.  This meant desks had to be in orderly rows, mobile devices out of site, and common areas free of anything that could distract students from the task at hand – achievement on standardized tests.  Professional development consisted of two mandated days where everything was basically dictated to staff based on district or school needs.  

I could go on and on, but thankfully I had an epiphany and from 2009 on began to work with my staff and students to transform our school through innovative strategies. Thanks to social media and my Personal Learning Network (PLN), I began to embrace new ideas, think differently, and critically reflect on my professional practice to be a better leader.  Successful and sustained change not only happened, but results followed. The work over those years put me into a position of authoring several books and sharing our successes across the United States and then the world.  

Even though this was gratifying work there was still something missing that I could not put my finger on until early in 2016.  It was at this time that I had one of the most thought-provoking conversations with my good friend, Tom Murray. As we discussed all facets of the current educational landscape, buzzwords, fads, opinions, and trends, we came to the realization that there was a need to bring everything together, align all the talk to research, and illustrate through a practitioner lens how to transform teaching, learning, and leadership.  We pitched a book idea to ASCD that wouldn’t just tell educators what they should be doing, but more importantly show them how it could be done.  The idea became a reality, helped me make more sense of where my journey was leading to and provided the opportunity to co-author a book with one of my best friends.



In Learning Transformed, Tom and I lay out 8 keys to drive needed change now. We focus deeply on the why, but go to great lengths to detail the how. Research underpins each key to provide greater rationale and substance for the ideas presented.  This is followed by what we call Innovative Practices in Action (IPA) that brings purpose and clarity so that all educators and schools can begin to implement these strategies to usher in transformative change.  The 8 keys are outlined below:

  1. Leadership and school culture lay the foundation.
  2. The learning experience must be redesigned and made personal. 
  3. Decisions must be grounded in evidence and driven by a Return on Instruction (ROI).
  4. Learning spaces must become learner-centered.
  5. Professional learning must be relevant, engaging, ongoing, and made personal.
  6. Technology must be leveraged and used as an accelerant for student learning.
  7. Community collaboration and engagement must be woven into the fabric of a school’s culture.
  8. Schools that transform learning are built to last as financial, political, and pedagogical sustainability ensures long-term success.

Toward the end of each chapter, you’ll hear from some of the best educational minds working in schools today. These educators are breaking through barriers, overcoming obstacles, and helping families break the chains of poverty, all while providing dynamic learning opportunities for all students by fundamentally redesigning the educational landscape in their districts. These vignettes, shared as Innovative Practices in Action and written by the school leaders themselves, relate success stories from districts large and small, from urban to rural, and from some of the most economically challenged communities. Each of these school leaders has intentionally designed his or her way to amazing student success where learning has been transformed.

During the writing process, Tom and I spent a great deal of time reflecting on our practice and that of countless educators we are blessed to work with around the world.  To that end we created an extensive study guide to go along with the book.  For each chapter we have created numerous questions to facilitate critical reflection on professional practice and the learning culture that is currently in place.  You can access the study guide HERE. Our hope is to take readers on a much deeper journey on how these 8 keys can be successfully implemented and embedded in a school or district culture. It is also our hope that readers will extend the conversation to Twitter using #LT8Keys as both Tom and I are eager to engage with all of you.

We can no longer wait. Time is of the essence. It is our obligation to prepare our students for their future and not our past. We must create and lead schools that are relevant for the world our students live in—not the world we, or our staff, grew up in. We must do this . . . starting today.


"Given how quickly and profoundly the world is changing, there are few more urgent challenges than the transformation of our schools and education systems. Some people are still unconvinced of the need for this transformation: others are unsure how to make it happen. Learning Transformed is addressed to all of them and to every other educator, administrator, and policymaker with a serious concern for the future of our children and our communities. It draws on the best research about the need for change and on the strategies that work and those that don't. More than that, it's seasoned throughout with deep, real-world experience of teaching and learning, policy and practice in innovative schools and pioneering districts across the nation. Learning Transformed is both a compelling manifesto for the schools our children need now and an inspirational blueprint for how to bring them about." - Sir Ken Robinson

It is our hope the this book will inspire all of you like it did for Tom and I when we were writing it.  We are honored and humbled to have endorsements from Sir Ken Robinson, Arne Duncan, Linda Darling-Hammond, Robert Marzano, Michael Fullan, Dan Pink, Heidi Hayes-Jacobs, Andy Hargreaves, Todd Whitaker, and so many more education luminaries.  Order your copy today and join us in a quest to transform learning across the world.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Rise of the Edupreneur

Entrepreneurs love what they do. They do what they love, are dreamers, but they also are doers and go-getters. Entrepreneurship may be missing from your resume, but shifting your perspective will change this as you experience the rush and benefits of an entrepreneurial mindset.  This exciting new trend is taking root through disruptive innovation in the workplace. The characteristics of entrepreneurial thinking go well beyond just that of innovation. Individuals and organizations that embrace this mindset shift develop dynamic behaviors that impact their organizational culture while leading to school improvement. Below are some key elements commonly associated with an entrepreneurial mindset:

  • Initiative
  • Risk-taking
  • Creativity
  • Flexibility
  • Critical thinking
  • Problem Solving
  • Resilience
  • Innovation

The elements above can be directly applied to your role as an educator.  In BrandED, Trish Rubin and I discuss the rise of the edupreneur and how this thinking can be a catalyst for transformative change. It’s time to not just think, but also act as an edupreneur to usher in needed change. This edupreneurial persona, one based on openness, can creatively cultivate new relational value and garner trust among members of your community. See what’s worked for successful entrepreneurs who’ve met their own goals, and find a fit for your continuing professional development. While embracing the listed elements above, think about the following strategies that Trish and I believe lead to edupreneurial leadership.


Image credit: www.psdgraphics.com/

Surround yourself with inspiring people

Relationships matter to edupreneurs. Do this in real time through face-to-face associations and with your closest validators. Use the wealth of TED Talks, webinars, and YouTube content online to get inspired. Follow the hot topics in leadership, communication, and relationship building. Start to follow them online. Connect to Mention and Google Alerts to get tailored feeds and information about those key areas you need in order to increase your own edupreneurship.

Get feedback every day

Talk to people about branding and the innovative climate for school reform. Share how applying a few powerful select business strategies is empowering your school leadership. Test the waters on social media with thoughts, quotes, and content that match the topics you are advancing. See the results from your peers near and far.

Ask questions 

Don’t be afraid to ask questions about the new direction you are setting as a leader. Get feedback. Be curious and search for answers. Leverage social media or go with face-to face conversations. Just ask!

Find happiness

Entrepreneurs work out of a passion. So do edupreneurs. There is joy in innovating, challenging the status quo, marching to the beat of a different drummer, and experiencing success through non-traditional means.

Embrace brandED

Work to present yourself with a unique brand value (UBV), which is a key to edupreneurship. Celebrate every benchmark for your school. Talking about big and small tangible accomplishments is part of communicating value. It’s the small moments that create big accomplishments, the proven results and gains with the community that can complement test score reports and expand the idea of value. Join the brandED conversation to unleash the edupreneurial drive to transform education. 

Be a continuous and curious learner 

This is a no-brainer for educators. Continue your study in the manner of a trend spotter. Look out—online, in apps, or through print resources—for the latest trends and research in leadership, pedagogy, initiating school change, technology integration, and whatever other topics inspire you. Search outside your own educational backyard to learn from other disciplines. The digital world allows us to see thousands of bits of information that can be woven into new creative thinking for growing our edupreneurial thinking and leadership.

Work to expand your network

Grow your relationships upward for your community with “reach targets,” the great people you aspire to meet with whom you can share the school brand and engage for support. Grow relationships downward with those good people that complement your network. Build relationships with service providers who help students. Talk to bus drivers, crossing guards, security staff—anyone who provides support to the community—about your vision, goals, and outcomes. Finally, network horizontally with your peers and other leaders in real-time associations, and online through hangouts and chats. Invite them to share their thinking and content about education brand. Promote relationships so that deeper connections can form, leading to cobranding exchange between yourself and other leaders.

Become a writer 

Take the time to write about your efforts in becoming an edupreneurial thinker and doer. Making visible the thoughts and reflections that are part of the journey can be the first-draft thinking that starts you on the way to sharing your personal professional brand.

Be persistent 

Entrepreneurs have the will to carry on; with that same spirit, edupreneurs don’t give up. We demonstrate our persistence on a community-wide stage. Belief is an essential part of brand development. Be the chief believer in your school brand by becoming the storyteller-in-chief.

Exhibit patience 

Entrepreneurs who are successful have a tendency to wait. Some entrepreneurs are actually procrastinators of the highest degree. Edupreneurs move at a pace that can ensure their success. Don’t rush the process. Focus on the work of your students, staff, and district. In time, the results of your improvement strategy will come to fruition.

The time has come to not only embrace new ideas and ways of thinking, but also the way in which we employ these assets to usher in meaningful change. 

Content from the following post was adapted from BrandED: Tell Your Story, Build Relationships, and Empower Learning.  Get your copy today!

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Empathy and Leadership

It is easy to knock people down. Building people up is at the heart of empathetic leadership.” - @E_Sheninger

No significant relationship can exist without trust. Without relationships, no significant learning occurs. As I continue to research and reflect on strategies to build powerful relationships with others, the topic of empathy has a consistent presence.  In simple terms, empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. So how does this connect to leadership?  I pulled a few connections from an article by Bruna Martinuzzi that address this topic. Below are some highlights.

  • Empathy is the oil that keeps relationships running smoothly.
  • Research by Dr. Antonio Damasio has shown people with damage to part of the brain associated with empathy show significant deficits in relationship skills, even though their reasoning and learning abilities remain intact.
  • Empathy is valued currency. It allows us to create bonds of trust, gives us insights into what others may be feeling or thinking, helps us understand how or why others are reacting to situations, and informs our decisions.
  • Tips to become more empathetic include listening, encouragement, know people’s names, don’t interrupt, be cognizant of non-verbal communication, smile, be fully present, and use genuine praise.
  • Empathy is an emotional and thinking muscle that becomes stronger the more we use it. 

Let’s be honest.  Empathy is not a typical component of core training and coursework in the field of education.  It is something that we typically learn from our parents, friends, and colleagues.  In my opinion, empathy should be a core component of curriculum in schools and the culture of any organization. Truth be told, this at times can be a difficult lesson for many of us to master. Talking about empathy and demonstrating it are two entirely different concepts. Our mindset and certain pre-dispositions put our own feelings and needs before others.   This is not always a negative, but something that many of us would agree must change.  

As leaders, it is important for us to imagine ourselves in the position of our students, staff, and community members. This gives us a better perspective on the challenges and feelings of those we are tasked to serve. Better, more informed decisions can result from “walking in the shoes” of those who will be most impacted by the decisions that we make. The image below does a great job at articulating four key elements of empathy.



As Theodore Roosevelt once said, “Nobody cares how much you know, until they know how much you care.” A culture of excellence is created through relationships built on trust and sustained through empathy. Showing we care can be as simple as listening intently, demonstrating emotional intelligence, or being non-judgmental when others open up to us about their feelings, concerns, or challenges. However, actions that bring empathy to life can have a profound impact on others. To see what I mean check out this brief video below.



As you think about your professional role as a teacher, administrator, board member, entrepreneur, or in any other field, reflect on how you can be more empathetic towards the people you work with and for. For some of our students the only empathy they might receive occurs within the schoolhouse walls. Regardless of your leadership position, understand that trust is a currency that should be valued above all else. If people don’t trust and relate to you then chances are you are a manager, not a leader. Empathetic leadership not only builds trust, but creates a culture where students want to learn and adults strive to perform their best. In BrandED, Trish Rubin and I discuss the powerful role empathy plays in the stories we share and the relationships we strive to build. 

Make empathy a part of your professional role. In the end you will be a stronger leader and a better person for it.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Our Work is Our Message

The following post is adapted from BrandED: Tell Your Story, Build Relationships, and Empower Learning

Branding matters in the changing world of learning, fueled by powerful digital resources (Sheninger, 2014). It’s time to make a choice – define or be defined. Telling a powerful school story and reaching an audience have never been more possible than in today’s digital world, and never more necessary for a leader to embrace in a new world of competition and choice. Early brand adopters such as Brad Currie, Robert Zywicki, Joe Sanfelippo, Tony Sinanis, Angela Maiers, Vicki Davis, and Gwyneth Jones, are already out ahead of the pack on digital media, and they are passionate about what they do. They are inspired by their initial success and have developed professionally in ways that make them unique compared to other leaders. A brandED mindset takes professionals to the next level, adding strategic thinking and action steps for brand sustainability.

School leaders build a positive brand presence in the name of school improvement, to advance better teaching, learning and leadership, and to develop stronger school communities. The work advanced in the area of servant leadership reinforces the importance of having a brandED strategy. Sipe and Frick (2009) identify the following seven pillars of servant leadership:

  • Person of character
  • Puts people first
  • Skilled communicator
  • Compassionate collaborator
  • Has foresight
  • Systems thinker
  • Leads with moral authority

The pillars of servant leadership speak to the underlying mission of brandED leaders; they define leadership as something to be shared, distributed, transparent, and focused on success and happiness. BrandED does not rest on the shoulders of one person. It is a distributed, collaborative, service-oriented school improvement effort articulated through the power of storytelling. 


Image credit: wedesign.la/how-to-tell-your-brands-story/

The marketing principle that guides business brand is its drive to build relationships. BrandED educators focus strongly on that aspect. Successful school leadership in today’s digital world is fueled by connectivity. Aren’t educators always building, brokering, and sustaining relationships? Focusing on relationships is a cornerstone of any leadership effort and one that supports a brandED strategy. Relationship building is a never-ending process, and in education it is not a part of a “sales cycle” (Connick, 2012) but is instead a part of an “awareness cycle.” For any school leader, being relational is as important as being knowledgeable.

BrandED behavior strategically focuses on relationships forged and sustained through trust. Mutual trust is a core element of brand loyalty in business and in schools, thanks to the digital age. A great workplace is created through organizational credibility, respect, fairness, and a foundation of trust (Mineo, 2014). The work involved in brandED development relies on building welcoming access in real time and online so that people feel connected and happy in their work. Access is supported by people who know that the calendar isn’t just about scheduling the day’s appointments but also about making time for a ritual of building trust. Your purposeful strategic effort to create relationships is vital.


Image credit: hwww.digibutterfly.com/

As you begin to develop your own brandED mindset and strategy, especially through a time of innovation, the following focus areas are places in which to access new connectivity for your own brand and the school’s brand. In each area, work on building relationships that promote both your brand and the school’s.

  • Student achievement. Standardized test scores are most often used to evaluate the overall effectiveness of a school. Public relations and communication efforts focused on evidence of growth in this area and in other academic and nonacademic areas can be conveyed through social media. Doing so will help create and strengthen a school’s brand presence and convey why the brand matters. It is important to remember that this cannot be your only focus, as achievement will never tell the whole story of success (see other pillars below).
  • Quality of teachers and administrators. Student learning and achievement are directly linked to the quality of the school staff. Stakeholders are often more than willing to move to towns with higher taxes that attract the best and brightest educators. Utilizing social media to convey staff statistics can build the confidence of any community, which has a positive impact on a school’s brand. Hire, support, and retain the best while also consistently sharing their great work.
  • Innovative instructional practices and programs. Course offerings, curricular decisions, unique programs, and innovative instructional practices play a key role in student engagement while also having a positive impact on student outcomes (Whitehurst, 2009). Unique course offerings, curricula, and programs make a school or district stand out. The publication and dissemination of this information sends a powerful message related to college and career readiness and the ability of students to follow their passions.
  • Extracurricular activities. Extracurricular, nonacademic activities are a valued component of any school community and help develop well-rounded students. Leaders who use social media as part of a combined communications and public relations strategy spotlight these activities to gain the attention of stakeholders.

Narratives both large and small are valued as tangible evidence of the school’s worth.  Stories come in different sizes and hold different purposes, but simply said they keep the engagement going. Sharing through big and small ideas aligned to the focus areas above will result in greater transparency that will help to build better relationships, support, and admiration for your noble work. It's time to join the brandED conversation.

Connick, W. (2012). The seven stages of the sales cycle. National Association of Sales Professionals. Retrieved from     
     https://www.nasp.com/article/AE1B7061-3F39/the-seven-stages-of-thesales-cycle.html

Mineo, L. D. (2014). The importance of trust in leadership. Research Management Review, 20(1), 1–6.

Sheninger, E. (2014). Digital leadership: Changing paradigms for changing times. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

Sipe, J. W., & Frick, D. M. (2009). Seven pillars of servant leadership: Practicing the wisdom of leading by serving. New 
     York, NY: Paulist Press.

Whitehurst, G. J. (2009). Don’t forget curriculum. Washington, DC: Brookings. Retrieved from 
     www.brookings.edu/papers/2009/1014_curriculum_whitehurst.aspx


Sunday, April 30, 2017

The Significance of Trust

The glue that holds all relationships together — including the relationship between the leader and the led — is trust, and trust is based on integrity.” ~ Brian Tracy

Success in life hinges upon the ability to build and sustain relationships with others. This fact allies to both our personal and professional lives.  Many elements combine to form a relationship, but there is one specific facet that is more important than others.  Trust is the bedrock of any relationship.  Without it the chances are pretty good that the relationship will not withstand the test of time. In our personal lives trust is built over time through a combination of behaviors such as honesty, integrity, dependability, communication, and empathy.  It is something that is earned and as such, time must be spent to build it. When in place, a relationship thrives in a mutually beneficial way.  

With all the time and energy that goes into building a relationship it can be undone in an instant. Trust can be lost through acts of secrecy, dishonesty, ego, and selfishness. There is no balance here. Trust must be earned and nurtured over time. Marriage is a great personal example where trust helps to build a bond prior to tying the knot.  Leading up to the proposal is a time period where two people work to build trust and eventually determine whether or not they love one another.  I think it goes without saying that you can’t love a person who you don’t trust. Sure, trust in one another can be tested during the course of any relationship, but without trust the relationships cease to exist.


Image credit: http://www.euroscientist.com/

Trust is just as important in the professional world as it is in our personal lives. Without it nothing of substance will ever materialize. Research validates this statement. I recently read an article titled The Neuroscience of Trust by Paul Zak.  Below is a key finding from his research.


Compared with people at low-trust companies, people at high-trust companies report: 74% less stress, 106% more energy at work, 50% higher productivity, 13% fewer sick days, 76% more engagement, 29% more satisfaction with their lives, 40% less burnout.

Wow!  The results above speak for themselves.  As leaders we need to critically reflect on how we not only improve, but also develop trust in and with the people with whom we work.  Before I expand on a list of strategies that can assist in developing trust and building relationships I want to definitively state the one behavior that unequivocally creates a culture devoid of trust….micromanagement.  Leaders who micromanage don’t build up the others around them. Instead they miss a golden opportunity to empower others to unleash their hidden talents and become leaders themselves. Controlling everything and the continuous scrutiny of the actions of others destroys morale while undermining a key principle that it takes a village to raise a child. In the case of education, it takes the actions of the collective, rooted in trust, agency, and empowerment to achieve sustainable results.

A culture of trust will never be established if micromanagers abuse their power. Below are some quick strategies to build trust in any culture:
  • Delegate tasks to build capacity in others. 
  • Use a process of consensus for major initiatives and changes. All stakeholders, including students, yearn to have a stake in culture changing decisions that impact them. 
  • Develop pathways to improve student agency to build a greater sense of trust among learners, but also focus on educator agency.
  • During meetings and conversations be present both physically and mentally. Listen intently and act to illustrate that the ideas of others are valued.
  • No matter what it takes, try to find practical solutions to give people you work with the most precious resource of all – time. When doing so remove the fear of failure. As principal I created the Professional Growth Period (PGP), which was our take on genius for staff. 
  • Guide people through conversations on the “what ifs” instead of spending precious time on the “yeah buts”. Thinking big and allowing others to actively pursue and implement innovative ideas show others that you truly believe in their work. This is how we can being to transform leadership.
  • Use observation and evaluation protocols as a means for growth and improvement, not as an “I gotcha”. Engage others in reflective dialogue around professional practice, afford the opportunity to align evidence to support any written narrative, and provide additional points of contact if someone has a bad day when being observed/evaluated. Use walk-throughs to provide targeted feedback to prepare educators for more formal evaluations.  Return on Instruction (ROI) matters.
  • Keep your word.
  • Don’t ask others to do what you are not willing to do yourself.
  • Avoid self-promotion. Instead work tirelessly to openly commend and build up the work of others.
If you tend to micromanage, stop now. Think about your actions and how they might be negatively impacting the people you work with.  If you are not a micromanager, reflect on how you can utilize some of the strategies above to build better relationships through trust.  What else would you add to the list above?

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Competencies vs. Skills

The 21st Century skills discussion and debate has waged on even prior to the onset of this century.  The ensuing conversations have provided an opportunity for schools, districts, and organizations to critically evaluate what students need to know and be able to do in order to succeed in the new world of work.  As we have moved further into this century the number 21 has less of a meaning, but the skills are still important.  Thus, many educators, including myself, now refer to these as essential skills.  Over time they have evolved beyond just communication, collaboration, creativity, and global awareness to include entrepreneurship and emerging technological proficiency.

The other day I was speaking with Rose Else-Mitchell, a wickedly smart educational leader, who pushed my thinking on the whole skills conversation. As I was reviewing a talking point for a webinar that I was to facilitate later in the day, I brought up this image and discussed the skills that students needed to be critical thinkers in the 21st Century and beyond. After looking at what I had on the slide and listening to my analysis, she commented that I was (or should be) referencing and explaining competencies, not just skills, which students will need. This really got me thinking. 

As I reflected on her feedback I began to dive deeper into what the difference is between competencies and skills as well as their implications on learning.  Below is an image that until my conversation with Rose I would have just viewed as another catchy way to visualize digital skills that students (and adults) need. However, I am now more focused on how we can begin to address these as competencies to really prepare students for success in a disruptive world.


Image credit: www.weforum.org/agenda/2016/06/8-digital-skills-we-must-teach-our-children/

While skills are an important part of learning and career paths, they’re not rich or nuanced enough to guide students towards true mastery and success. Skills focus on the “what” in terms of the abilities a student needs to perform a specific task or activity. They don’t provide enough connection to the how. Competencies take this to the next level by translating skills into behaviors that demonstrate what has been learned and mastered in a competent fashion. In short, skills identify what the goal is to accomplish. 

Competencies outline "how" the goals and objectives will be accomplished. They are more detailed and define the requirements for success in broader, more inclusive terms than skills do. There is also an increased level of depth that takes into account skills, knowledge and abilities. To succeed in the new world of work, students will need to demonstrate the right mix of skills, knowledge, and on-the-job ability. A skill is a practical or cognitive demonstration of what a student can do. Competency is the proven use of skills, knowledge, and abilities to illustrate mastery of learning by solving problems. 

In order to really see the difference between a skill and competency I came across this great communication example provided by HRTMS
A person can become a good presenter through practice, learning from others, and education but in order to be a strong communicator one must rely on a combination of skills PLUS behavior and knowledge.  A person can learn how to be a good presenter but only a strong communicator has advanced language skills, the knowledge of diverse cultures, and behaves patiently when communicating.   In short, skills are specific learned activities like mopping the floor, using a computer, and stocking merchandise, while competencies are skills + knowledge  + behavior like problem solving, communication, or professionalism.
Competencies, therefore, may incorporate a skill, but are much more than the skill.  They include a dynamic combination of abilities, attitudes, and behaviors, as well as knowledge that is fundamental to the use of a skill aligned to a learning outcome. The Rigor/ Relevance Framework helps us move from a focus on skills to competency-based learning. The acquisition and application of diverse skills is foundational, but moving to Quad D requires the use of skills, knowledge, and abilities to illustrate cognitive growth and authenticity through solving real-world problems that are unpredictable in nature. 

Success in a digital world will rely on much more than skills.  It's time to shift our focus an energy on developing and assessing core and innovative competencies that will serve all students now and in the future. 

Sunday, April 16, 2017

6 Tips to Move Large Change Efforts Forward

Change is a process, not an event.  Saying this and fully understanding the intricacies involved with the process of change are two totally different things. Change isn’t something that can just be willed on a person, people, or organization.  Mandates and top-down directives rarely become embedded and sustained components of school culture because once the focus changes (and it always does) then all the time, energy, and frustration transfers to the new initiative. These “flavor of the month” rituals driven by a need to embrace the next big thing drives everyone crazy and only exasperates the whispers of this too shall pass, which eventually morph into a chorus of resistance.

Let me be blunt.  Change for the sake of change is a ridiculous waste of time and resources. Improvements are needed in every school and district.  Some changes will be mandated from your respective state. In some cases, these will be hard to swallow, but from an accountability perspective you will need to dig deep and display what constitutes real leadership even if this is not modeled by the people in power above you.  Nobody likes change and this includes many of you!  Our brains are wired to keep us safe and be risk-adverse. This is not to say that many people are not willing to try to implement new ideas and strategies, but when we do there is often a sense of fear and concern as to what happens if we are not successful.  Rest assured it is a natural part of the change process.

Image credit: http://outsourcemag.com/

Large change efforts can stymy even the most ardent leaders who pursue different and better. There are so many moving parts, people to please, and hurdles to overcome that getting derailed is a reality that must be put front and center from the beginning. Below I am going to offer some tips on how to not only move large change efforts forward, but to also ensure sustainability and efficacy.  The tips and strategies below are framed around one large change initiative that I helped facilitate as a high school principal - a new teacher evaluation system in our district. NJ mandated every district to adopt an evaluation tool that was more detailed and moved away from the traditional narrative report.  Here is what we learned:

  • Be a part of the solution – Large-scale change typically happens at the district level. When I found out that the district was going to be selecting a new evaluation tool I immediately volunteered to be a part of the process. Regardless of your position don’t sit by idly on the sidelines. Get involved!
  • Do your research - In this case, we had to adopt a new evaluation tool and there were many choices available.  My team and I did an exhaustive study to narrow down the choices to what we felt were the best four options.  We also looked at the research that supported each tool.  
  • Embrace the 4 C’s – In this case the 4 C’s are Communication, Committee, Collaboration, and Consensus. Success of any change, minor or major, begins with effective communication. Your entire staff and community need to know the what, why, where, and when associated with the change. Communication never ceases to be a prevalent component of this process. Next, form a committee and make sure diverse voices and personalities are represented.  For the change to really take hold supporters and critics alike must come together. Establish committee norms to facilitate an environment where the goal is to collaborate to come to a consensus as to what is the best way to move the change forward.  In our case, we reviewed the research on each of the four evaluation tools being considered, allowed each company to pitch their product to the committee, and then openly debated which tool we felt would work best for our school district. 
  • Implement with intent and integrity – Once consensus is reached it is time yet again to communicate clearly why the decision was made and how implementation will proceed. The focus should be on how this change will improve teaching, learning, and/or leadership. Provide as much information that validates why the change is being implemented and be honest if any questions or critical feedback arise.
  • Provide adequate and appropriate support – Needless to say professional development (not the drive-by variety) is critical for large-scale change to succeed. After deciding on an evaluation tool, we provided in-house trainings on not only the tool itself, but also how the process of conducting observations and evaluations would change. The support continued on an on going, as needed basis until the feeling was that the path to sustainability was well on its way.
  • Evaluate, reflect, act – Nothing is perfect in the field of education.  As such we must always look to improve, not just sustain, a change initiative. The process of reflection and evaluation on a consistent basis helps to create a culture committed to growth and improvement.  Taking action to make things better leads to a culture of excellence. 

So there you have it. There is no recipe for change, but experience informs us on how we can make the process a bit smoother eventually leading to success.  

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Better Decisions, Better Leaders

The only thing that might be harder than embracing change is making tough decisions. A hallmark of great leadership is creating the conditions to arrive at consensus when major decisions will impact the entire school or district. Giving others a say and allowing for critical conversation is a sign of strength, not weakness.  As change is a process, not an event, discussions, feedback, and reflection can and should take time in order to make the best decision possible. This helps to ensure successful implementation and sustainability. 

As a leader in your classroom, school, district, or organization the buck stops with you.  Actions are what truly matter and ultimately determine your effectiveness.  Actions change things and your decision to act under a variety of circumstances is more important than ever.  Decisions made by leaders have always been placed under a microscope, but the digital world has opened the process to even more scrutiny.  Many decisions must be made at the individual level and leaders understand this. In an age of mandates, directives, budget cuts, and a lack of time, getting some support to guide the decision- making process is a good thing.  Enter the Eisenhower Matrix.


Image credit: http://jamesclear.com/eisenhower-box

As I was perusing my Twitter stream the other day I came across this tool and immediately saw its value. Educational leaders are faced with a barrage of decisions daily and sometimes they come in clumps.  During my time as a high school principal this seemed to be more the norm than the exception. So what do you do when faced with juggling numerous issues at a time? Some decisions have to take precedent over others. This tool can assist you with deciding on and prioritizing tasks by urgency and importance. Through a critical reflection of the decision at hand you can begin to sort out less urgent and important tasks that can be either delegated to someone else or not do at all. Below are some simple tips to consider when using the matrix to improve productivity by making better decisions.


Image credit: http://www.ciaraconlon.com/

The Eisenhower Matrix illustrates that indecision is an option available to leaders. In your respective position begin to align items to each box that correlate with the types of decisions you have to commonly make.  The uniqueness of your position and professional beliefs will result in priorities that differ from your face-to-face colleagues and those in your Personal Learning Network (PLN). Delegate when possible, but own the decisions that will have the most impact on your students, school, and district.  

As you begin to follow through on making both difficult and not so difficult decisions, be cognizant of what must come next, which might be even more important that making the decision in the first place. Be an active part of the process through modeling actions to bring about change. Don’t be a boss…be a leader. Anyone can tell others what to do. Showing them how is what separates real leaders from the pretenders.

Sunday, April 2, 2017

The BrandED Conversation

People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” – Maya Angelou 

When I was asked a while back to write a book for Jossey-Bass, I was relatively non-committal.  I had just finished back-to-back projects that resulted in Digital Leadership and Uncommon Learning, which took up a great deal of my time.  In my mind I needed a break from writing and on top of that really had no clue what to write about. For me, the ultimate goal I establish when taking on a book project is to try to write a unique piece that either greatly enhances existing work in the education and leadership space or creates an entirely new niche. I’m not going to lie – in this bold new digital world this is extremely hard.

The acquisitions editor at the time never gave up on me. This made me think hard and reflect on what topic I was truly passionate about. I eventually settled on branding in education, but not for the reason you might think. During my career as a principal branding became synonymous with the successful digital transformation that occurred at my former school. Using digital tools, we crafted a new narrative about the amazing work that was taking place that was backed by evidence of results.  We showed that embracing innovative practices aligned to a sound pedagogical foundation could create a learning culture rooted in meaningful learning and relationships. Efficacy, in part, was transparently integrated in our stories of struggle, systems change, and success. The power of telling our story galvanized and inspired us in ways we never could have imagined. 

The outcomes described above might never had come to pass had it not been for Trish Rubin.  In 2009 as I began my journey to becoming a digital leader, she relentlessly reached out to me and explained how I was incorporating branding principles in innovative ways.  Trish, a former educator turned business maven, helped me realize that a focus on telling, not selling, was creating unique value to my school community.  As a result we embarked on a journey to delve into how a brandED mindset could help promote, sustain, and amplify the great work taking place every day in schools across the world. We scratched the surface in 2013 as I worked with her to include a chapter on branding in Digital Leadership, which later came out early in 2014.  However, there was more to this story.


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As I reflected on my journey with Trish my mind became set on writing BrandED as a way to pay if forward with Trish and thank her for how she helped me as a leader. She opened my eyes to a concept that resonated not only with me, but also my stakeholders and countless educators across the world. She helped me address my own bias with a business only view of branding and together we worked to unlock the benefits of become the storyteller-in-chief.  To model this, we wrote the book using a conversational tone. Chapters have been re-titled conversations as we take readers on a journey through the history of brand and how a mindset shift can leverage powerful aspects resulting in an improved learning culture, expanded school performance, and increased resources. 
"If you want to change education, change the story being told." 
With change in education the brandED conversation is more important than ever.  As greatness occurs every single day it is imperative that we share in transparent ways to create a new status quo using brandED strategies. Quite simply, if you don’t tell your story someone else will.  Define before being defined. It is our hope that our book will lay the foundation for all educators to tell their story, empower learning, and build relationships. Relationships are built, in part, on feeling. BrandED illustrates to readers how feeling can be cultivated through image, promise, result, vision, belief, emotion, and value.  Below are some key takeaways:
  • Leverage digital tools to become the storyteller-in-chief and build better community relationships
  • Strengthen internal and external communications among students, teachers, parents, and other stakeholders
  • Increase resources by establishing strategic partnerships and strengthening ties to key stakeholders
  • Promote connectivity, transparency, and community to build a positive culture that extends beyond the schoolhouse door to build powerful relationships
As with all books BrandED has been a labor of love.  One thing that Trish and I emphasize throughout the book is how the strategies presented connect to research. Some other key aspects include reflective questions at the end of each conversation to help readers think critically about how to implement the strategies presented.  There are also practitioner stories throughout the book that illustrate how brandED thinking can positively impact learning and leadership. Finally, the book wraps up with numerous resources curated in an appendix including digital tools that can be implemented immediately to begin, sustain, or enhance your brandED journey. 

On behalf of Trish and I we really hope you enjoy reading this book as much as we enjoyed writing it. Grab your copy today and join the conversation on social media by using #brandEDU. Below are a few reviews.

"Branding instead of being branded. Defining instead of being defined. Innovative educators must stand up for their ideas and actions instead of being judged and branded by external agencies using standardized measures. Eric Sheninger and Trish Rubin present an excellent guide for educators and education leaders to tell their stories through BrandED."
Yong Zhao, PhD, Foundation Distinguished Professor, School of Education, University of Kansas and author of Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Dragon?

"A great resource for educators who want to strengthen their connections with students, teachers, parents, and the wider community. These two innovative leaders don't just capture how to tell the story of a school—they show how to create it."
Adam Grant, New York Times bestselling author of Originals and Give and Take

"Every day in every one of your schools, great things happen. How does your community know? Schools that are Future Ready boldly engage their community to build relationships and empower both students and families. Powerful yet practical, BrandED is the perfect resource to help your school share its story with the world."
Thomas C. Murray, Director of Innovation, Future Ready Schools

"Eric and Trish demystify what it means to brand one's school by providing eight compelling conversations that not only lead to a deeper understanding of branding, but provide relevant ways for school leaders to frame their work… . In the vast sea of information in which we currently reside, using the BrandED Leadership methods described in this book will help school leaders reach their audiences in ways that create trusting relationships and loyalty."
Dwight Carter, Principal, New Albany High School

"Disruption is the new normal. And the great disruptors of our time are shaping the culture itself in innovative ways. Eric and Trish's book BrandED sends a very compelling message to school leaders that developing and executing a smart, innovative brand strategy can disrupt the best practices' conventions of the existing school system. Like great disruptive brands from Apple to Uber, educators now have the ability to get the community engaged and immersed in the school's brand equity—and BrandED provides the roadmap for getting there." 
Scott Kerr, Executive Director of Strategy and Insights, Time Inc.