To the Parents of the Class of 2026

Tonight Nordonia will host kindergarten parent orientation, where I will welcome the parents of the Nordonia High School class of 2026.Image

2026!

That seems like a lifetime away, and I suppose it is for those incoming kindergarteners. In fact, it’s almost three lifetimes away for them. But I remember when I was sitting in a kindergarten parents’ orientation when the principal welcomed us, the parents of the class of 2013.

I thought 2013 never would get here, yet here we are. Time stops for no one.

So tonight I will welcome the parents of the class of 2026, and I will say what has become cliché: enjoy every minute, because it will fly by. You may be thinking that 2026 will never come, but it will. And before you know it you’ll be sending your son or daughter off to college wondering where the years went. You’ll be longing for those days of soccer games and cub scouts and sleepovers and pumpkin patches and all those other things that create bittersweet memories when you’re getting ready to send your child off to college.

To the parents of the class of 2026, enjoy this time. We will do everything in our power to keep your kids safe and to make them “college and career ready.” Make sure you do everything in your power to savor the precious moments that will be gone in the blink of an eye.

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If the Dance Floor Is Empty, Change the Song (and other lessons educators can learn from a mobile DJ)

In my senior year of college I began helping my buddy Rich with his DJ service. He had been in business for a few years, was starting to expand, and he needed somebody to help him out. For the next eighteen years, DJing became my full part-time job. It was only over the past couple years that I’ve given that job up (although I come out of retirement every once in a while to do a gig for a friend or relative).

DJing and education have a lot in common. Over my years in the business, I came to learn a few things.

1. If the dance floor is empty, change the song. Image As much as you might want to sit around blaming the crowd for being boring, that’s not going to fill the dance floor. What will fill the dance floor is playing great music and being interactive with the crowd. 

The same is true in the classroom. If kids are not engaged in a lesson, complaining about their lack of motivation is not going to solve the problem. Instead, differentiate your instruction to motivate each individual student. 

2. Nobody will remember the chicken or rigatoni or green beans, but they will remember if they had a good time. Every wedding is on a budget, and tough choices need to be made. We used to remind brides and grooms that in 30 years, nobody will remember what they ate, but they will remember if they had fun at your wedding. 

In the same way, 30 years from now most students are not going to remember the history or math or science lesson you taught them, but they will remember how you made them feel. Therefore, building relationships should be a top priority for teachers. Kids don’t care what you know until they know you care.

3. There are two kinds of people in the world: those who like Barry Manilow, and those who pretend they don’t like Barry Manilow.  ImageIf you pass out a few maracas and tambourines and play “Copacabana” at a wedding reception, chances are you will have a huge conga line dancing throughout the hall. And those who aren’t in the conga line–those who are sitting down pretending they hate the song–look closely at their feet. I bet anything they are tapping their feet and humming along. 

There are a lot of egos involved in education, particularly with students. Nobody likes to be embarrassed in front of their peers, especially kids. Sometimes kids will pretend not to be interested in participating in school because it might seem uncool. The savvy teacher will recognize these kids—the closet Barry Manilow lovers—and find ways to keep them engaged in learning while allowing them to maintain their image.

4. If you play Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline” near the end of dinner and nobody sings along, it’s going to be a long night. I used to call “Sweet Caroline” my Barometer Song. I would always play it near the end of dinner, when conversations started picking up, as a test to see if it was going to be a fun night. Invariably, if people sang along—especially to the “BAH BAH BAHs”—it was almost always a great wedding reception. But if nobody sang along, it seemed like those wedding receptions dragged, even though I’d change the song throughout the night. 

In the same way, if you don’t hook kids in the first days of the school year, it’s going to be a long year. Spending the first day of school in August teaching kids the rules will not prevent them from breaking the rules in April. Spending the first day of school in August building relationships and trust with students will prevent them from breaking rules in April. It goes back to three things: relationships, relationships, relationships. The tone is set at the beginning of the year, and it’s hard to recover if the tone that’s set is negative.

5. A bride only goes to a reception once, but a DJ goes to a thousand receptions. Brides are nervous. They want a perfect wedding, and they are counting on you to give it to them. Because a bride only gets married once, but a DJ goes to a thousand weddings, it is up to the DJ to take control, guide the bride and groom through the reception, and give them confidence that you will make sure it’s the best day of their lives. 

Kids (and their parents) only go through your class once, but you teach the grade or class for 35 years. They are nervous and don’t know what to expect. Your job is to ease their anxiety. How? Communication. It’s imperative that you engage your students and their parents in constant communication: email, Twitter and yes, even the phone need to be in your toolbox. I often say the phone is the most underused piece of educational technology today. Make the call home; nothing is more powerful in reducing anxiety than hearing the voice of another human being.

I loved working as a mobile DJ. I love working as an educator even more. But truth be told, DJing taught me a lot about being a better educator.

Data Have Flesh

Data have flesh.Image

I was reminded that today by our middle school principal, Dave Wessel (@NMS_Principal). We had our regular bi-monthly Administrative Team Meeting (ATM) this morning, and the district’s principals, directors and I met for nearly four hours working on all of those things that have been coming down the pike: CCSS; SGMs; OTES; OPES, SLOs, STAR; AIMS; etc.

(Everything in education has an acronym. The acronyms above all relate really to three things: What are we going to teach? How are we going to measure it? And how will we know we’re doing a good job?)

And then this afternoon I went to visit our middle school. I like to walk around seeing teachers and students in action, and I always check in at the office first. When I checked in at the office I ran into Mr. Wessel.

Mr. Wessel is a star, a true servant leader. He told me about two interactions he had with kids this week. One was a student who is homeless, forced to live in a motel in town. The other was a student whose parent is in prison.

Mr. Wessel’s concern was that with all of the initiatives that keep being mandated in the name of education reform, we can’t let all of the time and energy we are spending implementing these tasks prevent us from “walking beside a kid and letting them know we care.”

Data have flesh.

For every dot on a graph, there’s a face that needs us. Sometimes they just need an adult they can talk to. Too often they need food or clothing or shelter.

For all the work that we need to do beefing up curriculum and creating better assessments—and that is all good work—we can’t forget that education ultimately happens best when a caring adult develops a trusting relationship with a kid.

Old Friends Who Just Met

Sue is my administrative assistant. Her daughter Chelsea will be graduating from Highpoint (NC) University next week.

This morning Sue and I were talking about Chelsea’s graduation and my son Isaac, who spent last night in the Carrier Dome at Syracuse University with 500+ other prospective freshmen. I showed her a few pictures the Syracuse admissions office tweeted out showing all of the kids having a great time at “Own the Dome,” Syracuse’s orientation program for admitted students.

Sue said something profound: “You know what’s crazy? Right now he‘s hanging out with a bunch of kids who he has never met, and in four years they will be best friends. He will be in the weddings of some people he just met last night.”

People come into our lives without warning. A week ago, none of us had ever heard of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. Today, none of us will ever forget that name.

More commonly, though, as we wade through life we meet fascinating people. Smart people. Good people. People we learn and laugh with. People whose weddings we end up being in.

For a lot of educators, Twitter is that world. We build professional learning networks—PLNs—that challenge our ways of thinking and open our eyes to new perspectives. If you told me a year ago that I would meet people from Iowa and San Diego and Philadelphia and Wisconsin and Maryland and South Africa over the next twelve months, I wouldn’t have believed it. But I did.

It goes beyond the Twitterverse, though. We are social beings. In our daily lives we constantly meet new people, people from different backgrounds and different cultures. We need to take advantage of those opportunities. We need to engage in conversations with others; we need to ask questions; we need to show a little vulnerability and share about ourselves.

This is where learning happens, when people from different perspectives have the opportunity to talk with each other. We won’t grow if we only surround ourselves with what we already know.

Do you remember The Muppet Movie? Kermit, with the hope of making it big in Hollywood, heads west. Along the way he meets all your Muppet favorites: Miss Piggy, Fozzie Bear, Rowlf the Dog, Gonzo. When their car breaks down in the desert and all looks hopeless, Gonzo sings the movie’s most poignant line: “There’s not a word yet, for old friends who just met.”

The world is full of old friends who haven’t yet met. When you stumble upon one, say hello. You just might learn something.

A Discombobulated Thursday

ImageAbout halfway through my 40ish minute drive to work today, I realized I forgot my cell phone at home. No sense turning around, I thought. I’ll just go one day without it.

One word: discombobulated.

I’m like many of you…I’ve become so accustomed to being able to check my email, tweet information, look at my calendar–even just look at the time—any time and any place. Today I felt like you feel when you oversleep. Never quite right about anything. Out of place. Disconnected.

Sometimes I wonder what it was like to be a superintendent in the 1980s. Before standardized tests and curriculum. Before email and voicemail. Before Twitter and Facebook. If a parent wanted to see the superintendent, they called a secretary or mailed a letter and made an appointment. Accessing school leaders—any leaders, for that matter—was so difficult, so regulated. I’m sure it was much more peaceful for those “at the top.” But what did that do for the people they served?

The truth is it’s so much better now.

Technology has made it so that if somebody sends me an email, a tweet, or a voicemail between the hours of 6 a.m. and 10 p.m., there’s about a 90% chance that I will see it and respond within ten minutes. Within the last year I’ve called parents on Christmas Eve, Easter Sunday, and all hours of the night and day—including weekends—to respond to their questions and concerns.

It drives my wife crazy. She hates that I always have my phone on me, though I try to put it down during dinner and I never carry it into church. But she’s getting used to it because she understands my philosophy that leadership is all about service.

And it’s impossible to serve if you can’t be reached.

And frankly, for every phone call or email I respond to over the weekend, that’s one less I have to worry about on Monday morning (when I’m usually grouchy about a Browns’ loss!).

Tonight I am tying a string around my finger, because tomorrow I am going to remember my cell phone!

Will You Ride the Train?

ImageA few summers ago my wife Amie and I took our boys to Washington, DC for our family vacation. Everyone should get to DC. It’s such a great city, and the sense of history and patriotism you feel there is indescribable.

Our hotel was outside the city, and we rode the Metro into town each day for our activities. That summer was one of the hottest on record—near or over 100 degrees every day we were there.

One particular day we spent walking all over the city seeing all sorts of sights. By late afternoon we were hot, tired, hungry, and ready to ride the Metro back to the hotel for a dip in the pool and some dinner.

We walked into the Metro station and bought our fare cards, then had to ride an escalator down to the loading platform. My youngest son, Matthew, was first on the escalator. I was directly behind. Amie and Isaac pulled up the rear.

As we got about halfway down the escalator I could see our train arrive. The doors opened as people piled off the train. At this point we were near the bottom of the escalator, and when we reached the bottom I hurried Matthew onto the train.

I turned around to see Amie and Isaac still coming down the escalator, and then turned back to the train to see Matthew on board.

Then I saw the doors start to close.

Instinct took over and I jumped between the closing train doors. They sort of smashed me in my ample belly, and I was able to squeeze through to get on board. I looked out the window to see Amie and Isaac still standing on the platform as our train pulled away.

A few text messages later, Amie and I figured out that Matthew and I would get off at the next stop and wait for the others to catch up with us.

The rest of the ride was silent.

I’m not sure what was going through everyone else’s minds, but what was going through mine was the terror of almost having been separated. But more than that, I was thinking how terrified Matthew would have been had he been alone on that train.

We have kids alone on the train every day in American schools. These are kids who come from backgrounds of poverty, or abuse, or neglect. These are kids who have lost parents, who haven’t eaten, who spent the previous night taking care of their little brothers and sisters because there was no adult at home.

Imagine the fear these kids have, these kids who are alone on the train. They do not have the support system so many of us take for granted. And for so many of these kids, a good education is their only chance at a healthy, happy life.

These kids are alone on the train, and they so desperately need us to ride with them. Will you hop on board?

The Courage of Atticus Finch & Jackie Robinson

Only by coincidence did two works come together for me today. First, after work I finished reading a book I’ve been working on for about a week: Scout, Atticus, and Boo: A Celebration of 50 Years of To Kill a Mockingbird by Mary McDonagh Murphy. This book features essays from dozens of writers about their reaction and memories from reading the classic novel.

I’m a huge fan of To Kill a Mockingbird. Atticus Finch is my role model as a man and father. His gentle manner, his humble service, his bravery in the face of violent attacks: I can’t think of a more noble character in literature.

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One of Atticus’s most memorable quotes deals with courage being when you know you are going to lose before you begin, but you begin anyway.

Then, this evening I saw the new movie 42 with my son Matthew. The film is a powerful telling of the life of Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier in Major League Baseball.

Jackie’s manager Branch Rickey warns Jackie that being the first African-American player in baseball is going to bring many attacks. Rickey tells Jackie that he needs to keep his composure when attacked or people will use his lack of composure as “evidence” that Black players don’t belong in MLB. At one point Jackie and his manager Rickey have this exchange:

Rickey: “I know you’re a good ballplayer. What I don’t know is whether you have the guts.”

Robinson: “Mr. Rickey, are you looking for a Negro who is afraid to fight back?”

Rickey, exploding: “Robinson, I’m looking for a ballplayer with guts enough not to fight back.”

I think sometimes we focus way too much on being strong and tough and firm. To me, some of the strongest people in the world are those who are humble and meek. Bravery is more than putting oneself in harm’s way. Bravery is having the conviction of character to do the right thing, particularly when you are standing alone. Sometimes the easiest thing to do when attacked is to fight back. Courage is turning the other cheek.