Who Knew Swimming Lessons Could Help Me Learn About Culture

When I was in high school and college my summer job was to life guard during the day and teach swim lessons in the morning. While I had always wanted to be a teacher, I had no experience teaching swim lessons. So, the program was set up that you watched a veteran swim teacher for one session (Nancy was maybe 2 years older than me) and then you took over for the next session. I would watch Nancy for an hour, have a 15 minute break, then teach my own class of 5-7 little kids. I loved it and the kids all learned how to swim in that 2 week session. Most important thing I learned was that the kids needed to feel safe with me or no learning occurred. That lesson has traveled with me through my entire career as an educator. For growth to occur, people need to feel safe.


Recently, I read Dan Coyle’s book, the  Culture Code     The book is a great read, and helped me to better consider how great culture is built. I had assumed that groups either have great culture or not. That while, there are commonalities between groups that people love to be around, building the culture was more of a hit or miss proposition. Turns out, according to Dan Coyle (and backed up with examples of groups with great cultures) that there are specific skills that help to create that culture that so many of us would love to experience and to be a part of.

The three skills; 1) Build Safety, 2) Share Vulnerability and 3) Establish Purpose. Building safety was something that I did when I started teaching the swim lessons. If the little kids did not feel safe, then they would not release the tight hold they had on my neck long enough to learn to swim. But building safety in any school, or organization is important. New Teacher Orientation, New Student Orientation, New Employee Orientation needs to go further than how to log in to the computer system, and helping the newbie find the bathrooms. Organizations with great cultures create a sense of belonging from the start. There also needs to be an awareness that being new is something that lasts through a whole cycle. So New Teachers, can greatly benefit from ongoing meetings to talk about all that is coming at them. Having a great mentor can help too.

As I had gotten a few years under my belt in administration, I felt more comfortable in the role and in my own skin. This allowed me to be more able to admit when I screwed up. Sharing vulnerability helps others to feel a little more comfortable when they make a mistake. I don’t know about you, but my most significant learnings on the job came from my screw-ups. Finally, establish purpose. While serving as an administrator in a Catholic High School, I worked with a group as we crafted our Mission and Vision Statements. It was time-consuming and pain-staking work. We would spend entire meetings discussing and arguing about one word. At the end of our allotted time to create the statements, we rolled it out for approval by every group imaginable connected to the school. The statements went into handbooks, and on posters to be in every room on campus. We practically dislocated our shoulders patting ourselves on the back so much. One big problem though, the vast majority of our teachers and students could not tell anyone what the statements were without reading them. We did not do the work to establish our purpose and make sure that every member of the school community knew what that purpose was.

Great cultures are so important for an organization to be successful; pick up the Culture Code by Dan Coyle to learn some necessary skills.

Classical is Important in Places Other Than Wardrobes

The amount of change that is occurring in the educational world can be intimidating and overwhelming.  I am sure that statement holds true for many different endeavors besides education, but my focus is on the learning sphere.  One of the difficulties with all the change is where to begin to — well —change.  Especially in education, is it to focus solely on the pedagogy?  Educational technology?  Curriculum?  Assessments?  Professional development and learning?  The vastness of the scope can be mind-blowing, as well as paralyzing.

So rather than picking one area to focus on first, why not come up with a strategy to use when approaching all of the changing areas?  In the book, Bold Moves, the authors, Heidi Hayes Jacobs and Marie Hubley Alcock, propose three overarching pedagogical clusters that they call antiquated, classical and contemporary.  This is tied into there questions that Jacobs first proposed in her book, Curriculum 21: Essential Education for a Changing World.  What do we cut (antiquated)?  What do we keep (classical)? What do we create (contemporary)?

Some of the greatest difficulty that we all have with cutting anything is the attachment to a way of doing things, to an idea, to a part of the curriculum or to a form of assent is that phrase that is the enemy of any change — “But we have always done it that way”.  If a school, or a business can create an environment or culture of trust and mutual respect, it is possible to do away with that phrase, or at least to not give it so much power.  All people need to feel that there is a freedom to fail and then get back up and go again.

“What do we keep” is the question I believe will have the greatest impact in a school setting because it is a place where true sharing can occur between teachers with longevity in teaching, but perhaps who are not the most current on pedagogy, assessment, or tech skills.  This is where faculties can dig in together and examine what is considered timeless in education.  This offers that place where veteran teachers can contribute to the discussion and practice.  The give and take between all of the age groups in a school is so important if the school will be a place where learning is going on non-stop.

If the “What do we keep” question is used well as a launching point for collaboration, then the third question “What do we create” is a logical next step.  Once everyone in the school has a voice — teachers, students, and administrators — very cool new ideas can be tried, retried and grown upon.  I know I have said this before, it is truly an exciting time to be in education.  With all the exciting changes that can be taking place,  creating a safe, collaborative environment is a foundational step no matter what the question may be.

How Long Does it Take to Set a Table?

One of the voices and proponents of change in education that I have followed for some time is Ken Kay.  He is currently the CEO of EdLeader21.  In 2002 he cofounded Partnership for 21st Century Skills which is how I learned of his work.  You get the idea that he is all about promoting the 21st Century Skills needed in our schools to help our students be their best.

I came across him again recently in the book,  Bold Moves for School   by Heidi Hayes Jacobs and Marie Hubley Alcock (a really great book by the way and material for another post soon).  In the forward Kay talks about how the first phase of the 21st Century in schools has been the “table setting” phase and that it is time to move to a deeper level of implementation in all school systems.

If we think of the concept of “table setting” in our schools, then how long does it take to set a table?  We are now in 2018, nearing the end of the second decade of this 21st Century.  So as a school, where are we, and as an individual educator where are we?  Is the table set yet?

The Table is Set!

Goodness knows, many schools have brought technology into the schools in a major way.  1:1 technology is more the norm than the exception.  Add to that all the infrastructure behinds that scenes that no one sees, and we know that significant financial resources have been directed towards making schools 21st Century places of learning.  But does the technology add to student learning or is it a newer more trendy tool?  Is the laptop, or tablet a newer version of a notebook or overhead projector?  Is a worksheet that is now available online any less a worksheet?

I contend that the teacher is the critical component to moving a school from the “table setting” phase to the actual meal.  I believe there are three components that are key for moving on to the meal.  Being a life-long learner is so important for educators, I would say it is even a necessary core competency for anyone in life.  Having a high quality professional development program in place in a school is also very important. The terrain will change, but the path forward can be more easily found through high quality professional development.  Finally, having a deep level of collaboration happening in a school is necessary.  Education is not a solitary endeavor.  Collegiality is nice, but if the school has a culture of trust and collaboration, so much more can happen.

It is past time for our schools to be moving on from the “table setting” phase — Bon Appetit!

The Rule of Thirds

The lines of learning are getting real blurred and that is a good thing.  Doesn’t really matter what profession you look at, the lines of learning are getting blurred.  One way to think of where we were in education, not even a full generation ago, was there was a time when the teacher was called the “Sage on the Stage”.  Then the shift was for the teacher to be the “Guide on the Side”.  Now in examples of vibrant classrooms, or learning environments I would say that it is hard to know who is the teacher and who is the student because those roles can be interchangeable.  The shift is all for the better in my way of thinking, but certainly there can be struggles for all involved.

I believe that one improvement in learning is there are so many more resources to use for growth and development.  Twitter has expanded the way we communicate with others who are in the field about new ideas and methods.  Podcasts allow us to connect by listening to other’s ideas and experiences and then either incorporating parts or all of the ideas/experiences.

One podcast I would suggest is by Don Wettrick: StartEdUp podcast In a recent episode about VR in the Classroom, I heard Don talk about his own Rule of Thirds. Included are these three points; 1) are you passionate about it?, 2) What (new) skills are you going to acquire? and 3) Who does it serve other than you?

The Rule of Thirds can be applied to group projects as some guidelines to help students know what the parameters could be.  Imagine the start of a project where the students get to focus on their passions and they must acquire new skills that are tied to the passion.  The last guideline is that teens are being asked to serve someone other than themselves. That sounds like a win-win-win to me.

The Rule of Thirds could also be great if you were wanting to set guidelines for professional growth and development.  I would use the three points when working with teachers who are forming Professional Learning Teams in school.  Give teachers the encouragement that they need to branch out into areas where they have always wanted to go, but have been afraid of failure.  Maybe the new technique or method did not work the first time the teacher tried something new, but the success comes when they have attempted something that they are passionate about, they acquired new skills and they are serving others.  All of us need to learn each day for our own growth and development as persons, as professionals and as role models for our students.  If you are looking for a little help to stretch outside your comfort zone, then consider incorporating the Rule of Thirds.  So you can keep growing and moving forward serving others.

3 Most Important Things In Leadership

Whenever I have a new opportunity come my way, I try to find out more information about the opportunity as quickly as possible.  So when I had a chance at my first Principalship I decided to talk with folks who were currently serving in leadership positions to get their input.  I did not ask them what they thought about my taking on a new opportunity.  I asked them about their experience when opportunities came their way.  More to the point, what are the three most important things to remember when serving as a leader?  Then the follow-up question, what three things do you wish you would have known that could have saved you from a huge mistake.  It was and still is  interesting how many times reflecting on the mistakes help to determine what are the three most important things to remember.  So one asterisk to add to the list of three important things, is to become a reflective practitioner.  Save that topic for another blog post.

Ready?  Here are the three most important things to remember about being a leader; 1) It’s about the people, 2) It’s about the people and 3) It’s about the people.  That was the answer given to me by a veteran Middle School Principal.  At first I thought it was a pretty lame answer.  Then I lived into my leadership role and discovered the advice was pure gold.  No matter how you slice it, what ever you are trying to accomplish, it is only by working with and for others that your goal has any chance of being reached. In any business model the most valuable asset of the school or company are the people that make up the enterprise.  In schools, it is the faculty, staff, and administrators working together set the tone and create the culture for all whom are served.  It is hard work, with trust and a shared commitment being critical foundational components.  My experience is that when you work in a school that is people centered with a shared commitment, a common goal and a deep level of trust, it has been almost a Camelot moment.  Certainly memorable and something that all continue to strive to reach.

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.               Margaret Mead

One final thought.  When I talked about people being the most important thing to remember in leadership, it is essential to remember that the leader also needs to check their ego at the door.  I view leadership as being synonymous with being a servant-leader.  The mission of the organization is first.  See the big picture, know your role but know too, that the leader is not the epicenter.  On the occasions when I have checked my ego and worked with a thoughtful, committed group, we changed our corner of the world.

Reaching Outside the Comfort Zone

Within the past year I put the wraps on a portion of my career that included over 30 years in school leadership and administration.  Each successive position pulled me more away from directly serving the students to indirectly serving them through the business side of a school.  My passion, what really gets my blood boiling, is my life-long love of learning.  Now I have some more time to dedicate to my passion.

I have always been someone who craves learning but even more I love to share that learning.  Now with a little more time available, I thought blogging was one way to get my ideas out to a wider audience.  But frankly, I found the idea of the public sharing a little scary, no really I found it extremely scary.  Interestingly enough it was two blog posts that convinced me to take a leap and get started.  Posts by Mandy Froehlich https://mandyfroehlich.com/2017/10/27/what-is-the-point-in-blogging/amp/ and George Couros   https://georgecouros.ca/blog/archives/7909gave me the needed push to begin.

My reasons for blogging probably match many other’s.  Lots of input and no output makes for a very full mind.  There are so many resources that are so available that consuming new ideas, information and materials could be a full time pursuit.  One of the reasons that I am blogging is to create one area of output.  I hope by getting thoughts penned to paper, or to a blog post, will help my to clarify those thoughts, to have a path to articulate thoughts and ideas, and to put those thoughts and ideas out to the broader community for feedback.  I do think that being a reflective practitioner is essential to ongoing personal growth no matter what the field of endeavor; I am hoping that blogging will provide another path for that reflection.  Finally, the scary part of blogging is being stretched out of my comfort zone.  Growth can occur due to many different reasons, being stretched and pulled certainly is one way.  So here goes the leap!