Navigating Landmines

I’ve been looking at my blog dashboard, staring at the unpublished drafts of post from the last 6-12 months. There are so many things that I wanted to share, but I chickened out when it was time to publish them. Why, you ask? Honestly, it’s because I don’t like playing politics and there are so many hidden politics in education it’s unreal. Sometimes it feels like I’m walking through an old landmine. I know I’ve said this before, but transparency is not always well received in this industry. But I still feel an obligation to share my journey, and I plan to do just that!

I wish I could tell you that I am not nervous about it, but that would be a lie. It’s important to me that when I share my journey, I share all of it: the good, the bad, and the ugly. And while it’s one of my core beliefs, it also still scares me. But one of my absolute favorite quotes simply says this, “So you’re afraid. Good. Be afraid and do it anyway.” That’s been on of my anchoring principles throughout my life. That last part that says “do it anyway” reminds me that fear is going to come up. There’s nothing that any of us can do to control that. But we can control how we respond to fear.

The next post you read on this site will be an honest reflection of my leadership journey through public education. It is my sincere hope that through the experiences shared here, we can ALL learn how to better lead, serve, & guide those charged to our care.

Leadership and Learning – Part One

My last post, The Importance of Staying Connected, was completely focused on the need to stay connected to classroom. As leaders, we definitely have to make time for experiencing new learning alongside classroom teachers. We should also be making time for personal growth and development. There are a variety of ways to do this: attending conferences, going to regional training events, district-based professional development, etc. How do you/we personalize that experience? I have found that the best way for me to grow is to focus my attention on the things that I am the most passionate about. That can be a hard task, especially with the daily demands that come along with being an administrator at any level. In this next series of blog posts, I plan to share strategies & resources I use for my own professional growth. Ready?! Let’s dive in!

“Leadership and learning are indispensable to each other.”

 – John F. Kennedy

Professional Books Focused on Personal Growth & Development

There are plenty of books out there that will tell you they discovered the magic formula to becoming a leader. I’m here to tell you that there isn’t one. Are there commons characteristics of good leaders? Of course those exist. Are there books available that discuss those characteristics? There are so many I’ve lost count. If you look on the books shelves in many offices (maybe even yours) and in the professional learning library on many campuses & district offices you’ll find multiple copies of the most popular titles available. But reading a book will never teach you how to be a good leader; it will only teach you how that person became a good leader.

In order to be an effective leader, you have to be willing to first work on yourself. What are your biggest areas of growth? What are the aspects of your personality that will inhibit your growth as a leader? Figure out the answers to those questions, and then look for books that will help you grow and develop in those specific areas.

“Leadership development is self development.”

John G. Agno

Personally, I like to focus on books that are short, quick reads. As a wife & mom with a full-time job that requires so much attention, I don’t have the energy to devote to 200+ pages of much of anything. I also like to look for books that include self-assessments for the reader to engage with. Titles like this allow you personalize the content so that you are directly focused on the areas that will allow you to see the biggest results. There’s nothing wrong with having more than enough knowledge in any given area. However, in my opinion there is also added value in laser focusing on a specific skillset so that you can quickly implement the changes that you desire. The titles that I have spent time with most recently were/are directly connected to areas that I wanted to see improvement.

For example, when I first took this position, I quickly learned the meaning of “the squeaky wheel gets all the grease.” This bothered me greatly, but I didn’t know what to do to avoid the pitfalls of the squeaky wheel. It seemed as if the system was set up to grease the squeaky wheels. And because my brain defaults to systems & processes, my only solution was to figure out how to change the system within my own department. To help with the process & to help work on a new way of thinking, I picked up a copy of Shifting the Monkey by Todd Whitaker. During the next school year, my focus was on making meetings more meaningful and purposeful. To do that, I focused on becoming a better facilitator myself. Based on the recommendation of a dear friend & colleague, I picked up a copy of Lemons to Lemonade by Garmston & Zimmerman. I loved how this book walked me through assessing my own skill level, and then personalizing the work that I would do to get better as a facilitator.

In both of these examples, I was able to quickly consume the information, internalize the message, and apply the new learning to my current situation. In my opinion, both of these quick reads have been some of the best professional development I have experienced as a leader. I would encourage you to search for professional books that meet the needs that you have in the current moment. There will never be a time when we are given more hours in a day or more days in the week. But we can change what we do with the hours & days that we are given.

What are some short, quick reads that you would recommend? Please comment and share below. I look forward to hearing from you, and I’ll hope you’ll join me for the next installment in this series.

The Importance of Staying Connected

Sometimes, even though we don’t want to admit it, as leaders we’ve been away from the “action” too long. Obviously, we are still in education so we are not that far removed. However, without intentionally staying connected to the realities of the classroom, we run the risk of being out of touch with what is actually happening. And that can have a serious impact on the quality of our work.

Going into this school year, I decided to focus all of my summer professional learning on the demands that teachers face each day. I attended 14 hours of core content driven PD sessions that my district offered. I sat in sessions with a nameplate that simply stated Ashley M.; no title or last name was given. I wanted an authentic experience and to see the teachers’ natural reactions to what was being asked of them. I learned a TON about how different the classroom is since I left (and that wasn’t that long ago). I’ve only been removed the classroom for six years, and from campus support for two. My, what a different landscape it truly is! I wish more of our leaders would make the time to have these experiences because they undoubtedly have an impact on the expectations that we have of our teachers and staff.

The image shows flexible seating with chairs that have detachable writing tops that are hanging on the hooks on the side.

Too often, we hear about changes being in how a room is arranged. We know that the days of students seated in perfect rows facing forward are long gone…or at least they should be. We know that flexible seating is taking over, and that students learn in a variety of different ways. What we don’t hear enough about is how the culture of today’s classroom environment has shifted. And when we start to understand the cultural shifts, that when we begin to get to the tip of the iceberg regarding the transformative practices that should be taking place.

As I sat through my first day of teacher professional development, two things were evident to me. The first, being that as an educational leader, your presence matters to those you support. The second big aha moment for me was that there is a horrible trend of miscommunication in K-12 systems. In this case, a small amount of effort truly went a really long way. I was able to connect with these educators from a place of trust and transparency. Let me explain.

At the end of each of my sessions, as people started talking and probing more, I decided to reveal my title/position. You would’ve thought I was on an episode of Undercover Boss. The teachers I encountered were so appreciative of the fact that I made time in my schedule to learn along side of them. There were even two teachers who specifically spoke about the lack of leadership presence in our summer professional development sessions. They expressed their frustrations and the fact that they feel like often times their administrators don’t know enough to properly evaluate them each year because they don’t stay current with what is happening with curriculum.

Picture shows a bridge over a large chasm with rapids flowing underneath.

While participating in these sessions, I also realized how deep the communication divide has become. As leaders, we have to stay connected so that we can build a bridge across the communication divide. There were so many differing stories of what messages that were relayed from central office to campus specialists to teaching staff. There was also an overwhelming number of inaccuracies in teachers repeating what was represented to them in terms of district expectations. Additionally, there was a gaping disconnect between what teachers are doing and what we are asking them to do. It was almost as if maybe the people making the decisions were quite aware of just how much has changed.

I don’t share my experience to put anyone else on the spot or to make people defensive. I share my experience so that we can all learn from them together. After all, every great educator should be a lifelong learner! And that’s the purpose of my blog, of sharing my story. If we can learn from each other’s experiences, imagine the collective greatness that could result. Maybe we really can change education, thereby changing the world (which is why we all became teachers anyway, right?).

I leave you with this. Stay relevant. Stay connected. If you don’t intentionally make the time to do so, you’ll never do it. You will always be too busy. There will always be something else that needs to be done. But our teachers need us to make the time. And Our students need us to make the time. We can’t afford not to. So take a moment before you close this page, look at your schedule for tomorrow or even next week, and make the time. I promise it’s worth it.