Why I Lead; or, a 37 Year Streak Ends

ImageI was absent my first day of kindergarten.

I don’t remember much about it other than it was 1975, I was four years old, and I stood out front by my mailbox for what seemed like hours waiting for a bus that never came. I’m sure the reality is I waited for maybe half an hour until my mom called the bus garage to find out that they had mistakenly told her I was in the afternoon class when I was supposed to go in the morning.

So the next morning I went to kindergarten and already felt behind. My classmates seemed like they already knew the daily routine, and David Varga had drawn just the most awesome dinosaur I had ever seen. How would I possibly catch up?

Over the next 37 years I have not missed the first day of school as a student, a teacher, a principal, or a superintendent.

My streak will end on August 22.

While 4,000 Nordonia students are beginning what will be another incredible year, I will be in Syracuse, New York, dropping my oldest son Isaac off at college.

I know I’m going to be sad leaving him. I’ve caught myself tearing up already speaking to people about him leaving. But I couldn’t be more excited for the opportunities that lay before him. His life right now is a blank canvas, and next Thursday he opens the first jar of paint. For some reason this Natasha Bedingfield song has been running through my mind a lot lately: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b7k0a5hYnSI

As a career educator, to me this is what it is all about. Those 4,000 Nordonia kids who will come through our doors next week? I want for them exactly what I want for my own son. I want them to be curious, to be risk takers, to be prepared, and to be committed to making the world a better place. I want them all to experience the first day of college or be prepared for fascinating careers in jobs that may not yet even exist. I want them to know that they can do and be anything they want. My job–no, my mission–is to ensure that we provide them with the skills and the self-confidence to follow those dreams.

I’m not going to be there for the Nordonia kids on August 22 or 23. I’m going to be there for my son.

But I can tell you my commitment as the superintendent of the Nordonia Schools is to inspire every student to value learning, community, and excellence.

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Advice for New School Administrators: Don’t Ignore the Power of the Popsicle

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It’s one of my favorite days of the summer. On Tuesday the Nordonia High School administrative team (@CaseyGWright, @kltann and @dwbrom) and I will stop at the grocery store, buy 150 Popsicles, and take them to our kids at Band Camp.

We want the band to know how much we support them and how important they are to the district. A high school band is one of the greatest ambassadors for a school, and they are not always given the appreciation they deserve for the spirit they bring to games, parades, and other community events.

And quite honestly, the gratitude and support the band kids and parents show us is amazing, simply because we do something a little unexpected like buying them Popsicles. We might spend about $50 out of our pockets, but the return we get in terms of trust and positive relationships is priceless.

My advice to new administrators everywhere is this: don’t underestimate the power of the Popsicle. The most successful leaders are those that do the unexpected.
In his book The Greatest Miracle in the World, Og Mandino wrote, “The only certain means of success is to render more and better service than is expected of you, no matter what your task may be.”

People expect school administrators to be at the Friday night football game. They don’t expect them to bring Popsicles to band camp. Or go to the bowling team’s match or the Mock Trial team’s performance.

People expect school administrators to return phone calls and emails within 24 hours. They don’t expect to receive a phone call within five minutes of emailing a concern to an administrator on Christmas Eve. They will likely say, “I didn’t realize you were working today.” And your response will be, “I’m not. I’m home with my family celebrating the holiday. But you have a concern that is bothering you and I want to help.”

It takes a ton of work, and a ton of time. But if you are a new administrator who can find ways to render more and better service than is expected of you, you are much more likely to build trust and relationships with the community that will help insure your success.

Great Teachers Know When to Cut the Grass

ImageI was cutting my grass this morning, grumbling to myself about how this rainy summer has caused me to mow the lawn at least twice a week since April. And then I thought about last year, when the drought gave me about a six-week reprieve from mowing.

Some summers you mow a lot, and others you hardly mow at all. Isn’t that exactly what good teaching is all about?

In other words, good teaching is contextual. The best teachers know that no formula, no recipe, no set order of things is going to work for all kids all the time. If the grass needs cut, you cut it. If it needs watered, you water. If it needs aerated or grub controlled or any of those other things, that’s what you do.

Those of you who have followed me on Twitter for a while have seen me tweet many times a few similar thoughts. If the dance floor is empty, change the song. Teach for 35 years, not one year 35 times.

No two years are the same. No two classes are the same. The best teachers understand this and constantly adjust strategies for instruction and motivation to get the best from each student.

Furthermore, those teachers who are most successful see each student as a single blade of grass and tend to each student’s needs accordingly. Those who are less successful see their class as a lawn, and give the same treatment to all kids whether they need it or not.

Yes, there are some things that should never change. Great teachers have fundamental core values that are unwavering and guide them in their work. They always maintain great communication with parents. They never use sarcasm with kids. But overall, they understand that each student is unique and should be treated as such.

This all goes for you school administrators too. School leadership is incredibly contextual. School leadership is not as simple as enforcing a rule book. If it were, we would not need school administrators. We could hire a bunch of low-paid clerks who could follow recipes instead of making complex decisions.

The best school leaders know that much of what they do involves shades of grey, and their job is to take a complex situation and make the best, most reasonable decision possible for the given circumstances. And they know that a similar situation may necessitate a different solution next time.

Like the best teachers, the best school leaders have unwavering core values, always treat people well, and never use sarcasm. And the best school leaders know that the students and employees they are responsible for are treated as individuals for their individual needs.

This is not easy work. It involves a great deal of vulnerability. The best teachers and administrators have the ability to admit when they are wrong, the ability to apologize for their mistakes, and the ability to say when they don’t know the answer.

The worst teachers and school leaders are those who never admit a mistake, those who are going to mow the lawn whether it needs or not, all the while saying, “it’s the responsibility of the grass to need cutting.”

So that’s what I thought about while I mowed the lawn today. Agree? Disagree? Let me know.

In the meantime, go enjoy what is left of this beautiful summer. Play outside. Spend time with your families. Maybe even mow the lawn.

But only if it needs it.