The words Data Retreat and Empowerment do not seem like they belong in the same sentence. That could not be further from the truth. On Monday, like a lot of school districts across the country, the DC Everest School District sat down as schools to look through our data and identify actionable goals for the upcoming school year that align with district priorities. Still doesn’t sound like much fun? It is when you look at what happened on Monday.
As a young teacher at Oshkosh West, I worked under a number of principals who felt that a top-down approach would move the school where it needed to go. After all, the principals were experts and professionals and we expected them to have all of the answers. Too often, though, they were experts in their content areas and sometimes sound school managers but could do little to move the needle on student achievement. Towards the end of my time as a classroom teacher, two administrators – Ann Schultz and @Erin Kohl – trusted the staff as professionals who believed in teacher self efficacy and they let go of the reigns.
Ann got some tough feedback her first year as our principal and rather than rationalizing it away or dismissing it, she took that feedback and made meaningful changes to empower staff the following year. It was the beginning of a turn-around.
Erin came in after a career in elementary education and quickly recognized what a tremendous staff she had and she continued to leverage the power of her staff and leaders. She worked with a team of staff leaders who read Jim Collins Good to Great and developed their “Hedgehog” focus – that one thing Oshkosh West could do great. And then she worked with staff and got out of their way.
This takes me back to the photo that leads this post. In the middle of all of our messy work, we took time out to take in the wonder of the full solar eclipse. Some staff members took a quick look and passed welding masks or glasses to other members so they could experience the same totality. I became even more impressed when some of the staff took the equipment to a group of student athletes so that they, too, could share the experience.
That one small act exemplified the work we had done that morning and afternoon. Teachers wanted to share their passion and excitement with students and each other. As administrators, we jumped right in with our staff and enjoyed the ride – rather than act as task masters who had to complete an assignment.
As we went back inside to continue our work, the excitement seemed to carry over into the room. As administrators, we solicited even more staff input into our building goal and how we might measure progress towards that goal. Several staff members also looked for ways we might solicit student input into our decisions. I felt the same excitement that Ann and Erin must have felt years ago as they let go of the reigns and trusted the staff to make decisions that will support student learning and achievement.
Yes, there will be pockets of staff that will resist or not share the “wonder of totality” that we did, but I believe in the power of those teachers in that room. I believe that one small act like making time for the eclipse can change the dynamic and begin to change a building’s culture. And I believe that this is just the beginning. DC Everest Senior High School is a great school – I believe we have changed trajectory towards becoming a phenomenal school. I cannot wait to see where this rocket ship takes us.
How about you? Can you pinpoint the moment where everything changed at your school? In its culture? In its success? I’d love to hear how some of you have experienced totality.
This past week, as the start of school draws closer, the “momentum” of a large high school has gained speed. Meetings have shown up on my calendar, and more requests for my time have been made. That made it difficult to stick to my goal of completing a minimum of one blog post a week. So, here I am on an early Sunday afternoon, in my office, working on a post I have thought about for weeks.
Several years ago, a mentor whom I admire greatly, told me, “Jeff, when someone offers you a seat at the table, take a seat at the table and figure out the rest.” I mostly got his point, but only after reading an article about Sheryl Sandberg on the Stanford Graduate School of Business website, did I have a true understanding of that phrase.
In the article, author Theodore Kinni shares Sandberg’s recounting of a conversation she had with Google CEO Eric Schmidt. Like me at one time, Sandberg weighed the pros and cons of her current job and found there wasn’t much to like, BUT…that was because she couldn’t see in herself what some others already saw in her. Schmidt told Sandberg, “You love the mission. This is a rocket ship. When you get offered a seat on the rocket ship, you don’t ask what seat.” Schmidt knew what Sandberg did not yet understand: sometimes, taking a more junior role or a position that doesn’t make sense to you, can lead to bigger opportunities that we have not yet even pondered.
During the entirety of my career, I have been known as the “Tech Guy,” “Tech Guru,” “Twitter Master,” etc. And a lot of that is my own doing because of the fortunate set of lucky breaks into which I have stumbled. In college, a job as a computer lab assistant led to opportunities as a technician and eventually as the coordinator of an entire office of students who ran the technical operations for the Residence Life department at our school. In my last semester, I even got paid to create the first actual website on campus back in the days when nobody knew HTML and we had to hard code everything – no Google Sites or Square to help us. I could easily have become a technology director and rested there comfortably.
And over the next two decades, curiosity and technical know-how opened a series of doors for me that I could never have imagined. Along the way, I have had to figure out the best way to tell people to NOT try to be like me. Twenty years of working with technology made it as easy as breathing for me, but I soon realized that it did not come as easy for others. How could I best help people see the power of technology to make their lives as educator easier while also moving forward learning for students? That would take longer to answer.
Along the way, I encountered like souls, but they seemed more interested in how they might monetize their expertise and less interested in sharing their knowledge for the benefit of others. Some of my colleagues would probably say I lack an entrepreneurial spirit – and they may be right – but I had difficulty looking at trying to leverage my learning for money. After all, nobody had charged me for my opportunities to learn. Yes, some of them used me for cheap labor, but the hours and hours of learning I got to do with someone else’s resources were far more valuable to me than money.
After giving you all of that context, allow me to pivot back to my main point: Worry less about your “Brand” and more about finding your voice. As a high school AP, I am charged with helping developing our school brand, and that makes total sense to me. We use Instagram, Twitter, Facebook – and soon SnapChat – to tell our story and allow the world to peek inside our walls and see the opportunities created every day by students and staff at DC Everest Senior High School. We should create, maintain and elevate our school brands because so many outside forces want to paint schools in a negative light.
“People aren’t brands,” she says. “That’s what products need. They need to be packaged cleanly, neatly, concretely. People aren’t like that.”
On the personal side, I am struck by the case Sandberg makes when she says, “The proper goal of hard work is not personal gain, but organizational contribution.” Sandberg pushes further to argue that “People aren’t brands,” she says. “That’s what products need. They need to be packaged cleanly, neatly, concretely. People aren’t like that.” That feels right to me. And it is why I ask those whom I serve, “What do you need from me to make that happen?”
I’m a learner. I’m a husband. I’m a dad. I am a friend, and I am a son and a brother. I am a lot of very messy, complicated things. I don’t have a brand, but I have a voice.
Several years back, I had a colleague who helped kids a ton but focused an awful lot on what personal gain could come from their efforts. I get why some folks want to copyright their work – though many organizations claim rights to the intellectual property generated on their time with their equipment – but when I ask “Who am I?” I never think of my brand. To paraphrase Sandberg: I’m a learner. I’m a husband. I’m a dad. I am a friend, and I am a son and a brother. I am a lot of very messy, complicated things. I don’t have a brand, but I have a voice. And along my journey, I think I have final found that voice – and a use for all this technology know-how – and I intend to use it to serve and empower others.
So many people contributed to helping get me where I am today. To not “pay it forward” would feel like turning my back on all the folks who saw something in me that I did not and invited me to take a seat on the rocket ship. I have changed seats and even rocket ships several times, but that sense of wonder never wanes. And my new seat on a new rocket ship feels very “right.” I hope and believe that my voice, far more than any attempt to brand myself, will allow me to help change something in the world. For me, the opportunities I have should result in opportunities for others. Otherwise, what is the point?
How about you? Have you found your voice? If so, how are you using that voice to benefit others?
Quickly checking my Facebook feed the other day – my PLN has joined me there as well as on Twitter – I came across a post by former MLB player David Ross in The Players Tribune about Elite Glue Guys in baseball. I knew it would eventually become a post about the “glue guys” (No patriarchal offense intended. The term, as coined, is “glue guys.”). I gave the article a second read, and something didn’t feel right. Partly because of Ross’ inexperience as a writer. Partly because his examples didn’t seem “glue”-like. After a third read, I almost gave up – it felt like there was no story here.
A quick google search for “glue guys” finally yielded fruit. Buried in a list of returned hits, I found a post by former NBA player Shane Battier about glue guys. Best of all? Shane Battier is the prototypical glue guy.
Not Duke University superstar Shane Battier.
I’m talking about NBA journeyman Shane Battier.
The best part is that Battier understands the importance of a glue guy and admits he was that guy.
I knew my value was helping us notch victories however I could. So there were certain things that I did to ensure that my team was always as prepared as possible. For example, I used to ask really basic questions during film room sessions. – Shane Battier
Battier goes on to share the types of questions he would ask
“Coach, can we run through that last set one more time?”
“Hold up coach, which direction do I roll out of this pick?”
“Wait coach, which player is supposed to switch here if the point guard drives?”
“Sorry, can you run through that set just one more time?”
Yeah, I was that guy.
Nobody likes that guy. I know that.
Education “Glue Guys”
This got me thinking about glue guys in schools. In my long tenure at Oshkosh West High School, I knew plenty of glue guys. From the colleague who responded to every district or building initiative with a litany of questions to the colleague who knew her peers did not dare to ask even simple questions, so she asked for them. And no, nobody liked when they asked questions because it always made the meeting longer. Check out this YouTube Mix of every meeting ever if you have forgotten.
We need these types of glue guys to have success as an organization. If we blindly accept every initiative without asking questions, we might always go in search of the shiny new thing. If we never help a colleague who lacks the confidence to ask questions, they may never find that confidence.
The Team Organizers
Even in a results-driven world, relationships matter, and the team organizer plays a crucial role in helping the rest of the team find balance, laugh, and communicate. In my time at Oshkosh West, a variety of people filled that role, organizing staff socials outside of school, having the annual “Venison Feed,” and making sure we celebrated births, grieved deaths, and much in between.
One of my favorite events – perhaps because it came at a needed time – was the annual chili cook off started by my former principal, Ann Schultz. I may be biases here, since I won the cook off in back-to-back years, but Ann made sure we carved out time in the day so ALL staff members could come to the chili cook off at the same time – no small feet with a staff of 150+.
You see, Ann knew that we needed time to commune, time to “dish,” and time to just relax and talk with each other as friends. I have no statistical data to support this, but I believe the work of Ann and so many others at West has contributed to the view of West as a successful school. When looking at adding people to your team, please keep in mind the need for these “glue guys” when making hires.
Not everyone can put the success of the team above personal success. Those who can, contribute as much – if not more – than the “stars” on the team. During my time as an associate principal at Clintonville Middle School, one teacher in particular served as a maximizer. Tiffany O’Toole, just like Draymond Green and Andre Iguodala, maximized the skills of so many teachers in our building and helped even teachers with whom she did not directly work elevate their teaching games. This despite the fact that on any other team, she would have been the unquestionable star. In fact, she may very well have been the star, but the success of the team was more important than her success.
Tiffany co-taught with two teachers directly, but when others in the building saw the success those teachers had, they would seek her out and ask questions. Working with the most successful teacher in our building, Tiffany helped him see “gaps” in his game and worked to help him fill those gaps. By adding technology to his game, he became even better and students flourished.
One of our 8th grade ELA teachers worked with some of the most challenging students in the building. Tiffany collaborated and planned with her to all students to become makers. Their Shark Tank project allowed students who had seen little to no success in school to find their passion and and earn applause from people outside of school.
Have you made sure to include a Tiffany on your team? If not, you should because they allow others to shine.
Elite Glue Guys
As Battier notes in his post, first ballot Hall of Famer Tim Duncan of the San Antonio Spurs functioned as a glue guy his entire career. Nobody would question his greatness as a player, but his true greatness was in making the players around him – and thus the team – better. Sometimes, the rockstar teachers do this as well. Some of the best teachers I have ever known could have tooted their own horn, tried to monetize their work or prevented others from using their work. Instead, their greatness inspired others and he did everything he could to help others get better.
My longtime friend and colleague, Trent Scott, is one of those Hall of Fame teachers who looks at how he can make his department and school better. He could easily make the speaking rounds sharing his strategies for not just getting a high percentage of students to pass the AP Language and AP Lit tests but getting a high percentage of 4s and 5s on those tests. Instead, he focuses on how to bring in new Rockstars and cultivate a culture of Rockstars in the English Department at Oshkosh West. Trent tries to share the wealth, where possible, and makes sure other teachers have the opportunity to work with the same types of students he often drives to success.
Just like Tim Duncan, Trent is always where he is supposed to be (Well, except for that one time that he moved to California for a year and taught at The Kings Academy so his wife could be closer to family and he left me in charge). That consistency and unselfishness has allowed the entire department to succeed and earn recognition.
Moving To A New Team
Just as in the NBA, educators may move to a new team. I have done moved to a new school in a new district in a different part of Wisconsin. I have only met a few teachers in my first month-plus on the job, but I love the passion I see so far. I can’t wait to find out who the glue guys are at D.C. Everest Senior High School. The success and track record at this school stems from the often unseen work these folks commit to the school. In just a few more weeks, I’ll get to see what drives #EverestPride.
Bring. It. On.
The past few days have provided great opportunity for reflection, horror and inspiration. As I noted in a Twitter post last night, at one point I almost felt overwhelmed.
What led to this overwhelming feeling? Well, it all started with a Mindshift article titled “Why Discipline Should Be Aligned With A School’s Learning Philosophy.” As I read that article, I reflected on my early teaching career. I felt a combination of shame and horror as I though about my interactions with students and administrators regarding student discipline. As I painfully revisited those interactions, I felt like I was “dreamwalking” in an episode of Jon Harper‘s My Bad titled “I Was A Hypocrite with a Double Standard for Learning and It Made Me Weak.” Mentally, I apologized to those students, and even attempted to reach out to former administrators to apologize for Jeff See 1.0.
If we give students the opportunity to improve or correct mistakes in every other learning area except discipline, what message do we send them about school?
After allowing myself 15 minutes to feel self-pity and remorse, I started reflecting about the difference in my academic teaching practices and my discipline teaching practices as a young teacher. Ultimately, I asked myself “If we give students the opportunity to improve or correct mistakes in every other learning area except discipline, what message do we send them about school?” The English teacher in me cringes at the awkwardness of that sentence, but at the time it felt “right.”
So, Instead of my usual short, pithy comment when sharing articles on social media, I share the article on Facebook with that poorly worded sentence.
Then I continued with my article dig – using the Nuzzle App – and came across a fantastic post by George Couros titled “Finding Inspiration in Yourself.” In the article, George highlighted the challenge of “trying to inspire others to action, when you can’t find ways to inspire yourself.” The piece really resonated with me, and I started thinking about my new role in my new building in my new district and wondered how I could inspire myself to reflect more and share my risks, struggles, and challenges with my new team of educators.
As I wrestled with that thought, my PLN friend, Mark French replied to my comment on Facebook.
Hmmm…why would someone want to steal something I said? Nonetheless, I told Mark he could use the quote.
And I went back to revisit George’s post. George said, “Take a breath and think about where you are today, and then think about where you have come from. It would be easy to think about the negatives, but try to focus on things that you have overcome and that right now, and find growth.” That took me back to Mark’s request, and I reread my original comment. Despite the rough wording, that was my original thinking about a topic with which I struggled so often early in my teaching career. The new lens I have as a building admin has me asking questions I could never have asked as a young teacher trying to manage five classes and learn a new curriculum.
At that moment, I could not help but feel inspired and realize that something I experienced and though made someone else think. Suddenly, I finally understood what Angela Maiers has told us for years.
I won’t get carried away. It was one original thought and it resonated with a few of my Facebook friends and PLN members. More importantly, I can see how far I have come and how I now make sure that students know and staff know they are important and matter. And I have more thinking to do about the mixed messages we send kids about school when we allow them to “fail” and improve with every aspect of school but discipline.
I have to see if I can find those former students now and apologize in person. I’m so sad that they only knew Jeff See 1.0. Jeff See 5.0 cares much more about them as people and understands that despite my “cutting edge” thinking about allowing students to make mistakes in their academic work and correct them to learn, I absolutely failed them when it came to discipline learning.
And to my former administrators: Keith Rodda, Tom Parker, Chuck Grable, Pete Cernohous, Jay Jones, Tom Wissink, Julie Mosher, Matt Zimmermann, Tim Doleysh, Lexi Ballweg, Ann Schultz, and Erin Kohl…I’m sorry it took me so long to understand. I wish you, too, had worked with Jeff See 5.0.
Update: This post was inspired by Chad Everett’s post about the work of back to school.
Since starting my new job as Assistant Principal at D. C. Everest Senior High School, I have had many conversations with friends outside of education about the work that happens during the summer months. Responses range from “What can you possibly have to do in the summer?” to “You haven’t started work yet, right? I mean it’s summer!”
What many in and out of education don’t understand is that summer months allow admin to accomplish the most (in term of logistics). During the summer, students have gone and staff numbers drop drastically. This is when the boring “grunt” work happens: summer newsletters, planning for meetings throughout the year, filling unexpected and expected vacancies, planning social media strategy, reviewing thew master schedule for last-minute changes or shuffling for staff changes, and on and on. The differences between the school year and summer drive the nature of our work.
- During the summer, administrators can take the time to accomplish these tasks, because during the school year we spend our time focused on clearing the road so teachers can teach and students can learn. During the school year, our days get blown up by student behavior or parent concerns or district mandates.
- During the summer, administrators have a more flexible schedule, so they can balance work with home a little more easily. During the school year, school, students and staff dominate our thinking and actions.
- During the summer, administrators try to get out and meet kids and community members in non-school settings so they see us as people, not just admin. During the school year, we move out into classrooms to observe and deal with whatever drama the day may hold.
So, while summer presents different types of work opportunities, those opportunities still exist. If we use our time wisely and well during the summer, we hope that students, staff, and families don’t notice anything because we have done our work well enough that it just runs smoothly.
On a final note, our teaching staff also does quite a bit during the summer. While some staff members take all summer away to re-charge – some need that time to be their best for students the next year – others are working just as hard, if not harder to make sure our students have every chance for success. You may see them in their yard relaxing one day, but did you notice the other days that they served on interview committees or planned professional development for their peers or mentored the new hire so they could transition into the building smoothly?
How have some of my edu peers spent their summers getting ready for the new year?
I honestly cannot remember the last time I took an actual break from educating and leading. For my entire career, I have put in extra hours, losing family time I can never get back. All of that has changed this summer. After getting hired as the new assistant principal at D. C. Everest Senior High School, the only way we could make it work because of the long commute and the long hours required of an AP was for me to move in with my in-laws while my wife, Jenny, stayed at home so our daughter, Meghan, would have a “home base” in her final year of nursing school.
That’s right. I spend week nights at my in-laws and weekends with my family in Oshkosh or the trailer in Green Lake, WI. As challenging as this arrangement is, it has added clarity about what is important and requires attention.
Before accepting this position and making all of these life changes, I learned that I would become a grandpa next year.
That little peanut above is my grandchild. I don’t even know if we have a he or a she, but it does not matter one bit. That child served as a wake-up call. I cannot serve others – as a husband, father, grandfather, family member, and leader – if I do not take time to be “present” in my life when life happens.
Seriously, school and the upcoming year could not have been further from my mind.
I took actual vacation for the first time EVER. My laptop bag and iPad stayed behind at home while Jenny and I took a road trip and just enjoyed our time together out-and-about.
I stopped thinking about school and enjoyed the view from a Tiki Bar in Elkhart Lake, WI. We even took a photo in front of “Antoinette” in Plymouth, WI, the “Hub City” of the dairy industry. We did take and post pictures, but my thoughts stayed on that precious time with my wife the entire time. Seriously, school and the upcoming year could not have been further from my mind.
Those two folks on the left are my amazing in-laws, Mary and Ken Lawrence. Without them, I could not have said yes to the phenomenal opportunity here at DCE. On the right is my godson, Max, who may or may not even know I’m his godfather – we see him far too seldom.
Neither of us have ever seen me relaxed before.
My point here is that even though I have returned to the work of preparing for the school year, I will keep remembering to find the balance. After leaving work yesterday, Mary called and said her sister, Lois – the spunky lady just to Mary’s left – had invited us to watch Max perform on the patio at a local restaurant. I immediately said “Yes,” and I’m so glad I did. I cannot ever remember feeling as relaxed as I did yesterday evening. I enjoyed singing along as Max belted out Darius Rucker’s “Wagon Wheel” and the Eagles’ “Hotel California.” And I laughed along with my family members as we told funny stories. I was reminded of when I came home that first weekend, and my wife greeted my with “What’s wrong with you? You look different.” You see, neither of us has ever seen me relaxed before.
Work Will Always Be There
I came into work early this morning, so I could write this post and watch the response to the promo video I spent yesterday filming and editing to tease the upcoming home opener for varsity football. Work was right where I left it, and I easily picked up where I left off yesterday. The difference this time? Last night, the only thing that mattered was time with family and friends. When I leave tonight, I will head to the trailer in Green Lake and enjoy laughing with my youngest sister, Rebecca, and my brother-in-law, Regan.
Don’t lose sight of what is important: your significant other, children, grand babies, family, and friends. Make work important and your passion while at work, but in the words of the venerable sage: