The Best Path from Point A to B Is the High Road

Image “Joe, remember you have no friends.”

A superintendent I worked for told me that many years ago as we discussed my hopes to one day become a superintendent myself.  What she meant was this: when you are superintendent, you are by yourself. You have no comparable person in the school district. You have nobody you can go to for advice or venting. You are on your own. You are a one-man wolf pack.

So every month or so I get together with a group of superintendent colleagues from the area. We discuss current topics in the field, discuss difficult issues we are working on to gain a different perspective, and learn from each other about how better to serve our communities.

We met today, and one of the most meaningful pieces of advice came from a colleague across the county: the best path from point A to point B is the high road.

Leaders in any field are subject to a continual barrage of criticism. The same is true for superintendents, principals, teacher leaders, board members, PTA presidents–anybody in a leadership position.

People use a variety of forms to criticize decisions you’ve made, policies you’ve enacted, and even make personal attacks. The critics sometimes appear at public meetings; sometimes they write anonymous letters; sometimes they send emails or write letters to editors or even take out paid advertising.

Their hope is to draw you into an argument or a debate, to put you on the defensive so that you appear unprofessional or imbalanced. 

This is true: when you wrestle a pig you both get dirty, but the pig enjoys it.

While it can be tempting to engage in arguments, the best path from point A to point B is the high road. The greatest leaders rise above their critics. They do not stoop to the level of personal attacks or get drawn into unwinnable debates.

School leaders need to remember that the high road is the only road to take. Even when critics attack and bully and try to pull you into the mud, responding with character is never a bad decision.

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Lessons from My Sister, a Teacher Who Left Too Soon

ImageNext Monday my sister Kelly would have turned 48. She died six and a half years ago after battling cancer on and off for twenty-five years. I wrote her obituary, which said in part that “While cancer took her life on Feb. 27, it was Kelly who won the war. For Kelly’s energy, sense of humor and passion for life live on in all who knew her.”

She was a teacher.

Kelly left behind her husband, Tony—maybe the greatest brother-in-law anybody could ever ask for, a man who stood by her through the roller coaster of her last few years. And she left three awesome kids– Lexi, Garret and Leanna–who were in grades 3, 2 and pre-K at the time.

Time passes, and Tony is happily remarried and the kids are doing great. We miss Kelly a lot. In every room she was the person who was happy, enthusiastic, and just plain fun.

Kelly learned that her cancer was going to be terminal about seven months before her death, and so this is what she did: Kelly took her video camera and drove to all the places where something special happened in her life. She videotaped herself at each of the places, telling the stories she knew she would never have the chance to tell her kids.

The time she cut her knee on the sliding board at the pool and had to get stitches.

The time she changed clothes with our cousin Carol in the backyard in an attempt to confuse our parents.

First job. First boyfriend. First car.

And so now her kids have a memory of their mom, and the stories of her life.

Kelly taught me a lot about education. She was a fantastic teacher: innovative, child-centered, and instructionally sound. But she taught me more about life.

Kelly reminded me that life is fleeting. Every day we read tragic stories in the news of untimely deaths. We don’t know what tomorrow will bring. So, because life is so short, we shouldn’t spend a second of it being miserable or negative or vindictive or angry. Kelly reminded me that we need to be grateful for every breath we have and act as if we truly are grateful.

And Kelly was a reminder that our kids are our most precious commodity. We need to give them as much time as we can and the best time that we can. We need to tell them our family stories, teach them our family traditions, and help them understand they are a part of something bigger than themselves. That’s how we build a legacy, by connecting the next generation with the past generation.

That’s why six and a half years later I feel like Kelly is still around.

(The picture shows my sister Kelly in the center, surrounded by her kids in the yellow shirts, and four other cousins).

Fumbles Happen; Great Teachers Stick to the Game Plan

ImageI have almost completely kicked the habit of listening to sports talk radio. The incessant banter about steroids, Tim Tebow, the scandal of the week, and all the woeful Cleveland teams had worn on me to the point where I just could not listen any more. Sports talk radio is a bastion of negativity, and I simply had enough.

But I listened to some sports talk yesterday as I was driving home from visiting my son at Syracuse University. It was a football preview show in which the hosts were discussing what each NFL team needed to do to win that day.

After about fifteen minutes of listening, I came to this revelation: you could completely ignore the names of the teams they were talking about and nothing would change. The show offered cliché after cliché: the BLANKS need to run the ball today; the WHOEVERS need to create turnovers; the INSERT TEAM HERE needs to protect the ball; the WHATCHAMACALLITS need to play defense.

You could say any of those things about any football team, at any level, playing anywhere in the world, and you would be right. To be a successful football team, you need to run the ball, protect the ball, play good defense and force turnovers. They are clichés for a reason, and that reason is because they work. They are the universal game plan for winning football.

Like football, great teaching also has a universal game plan. That is, you can say certain things would be successful in any classroom in the world, in any grade level, for any ability level of student, and you would be right.

I offer these:

  • Build positive relationships with kids.
  • Set expectations that cause students to stretch but are within their reach.
  • Ensure students understand the objective of the lesson.
  • Assess what you teach; teach what you assess.
  • Use assessments to inform instruction.
  • Create lessons that engage students.
  • Ask great questions.
  • Follow the Essential Elements for Effective Instruction

Nothing in that list is earth shattering. We educators have been told to do each of those a thousand times. I’m sure you can add more items to the list. If every teacher did those things in every class every day, we would be doing pretty well.

Easier said than done? Absolutely.

Every football team knows they have to protect the ball, but fumbles happen. Trust me; I’m a die-hard Cleveland Browns fan. I have nightmares of Earnest Byner in the 1987 AFC Championship game against Denver.

Fumbles happen.

Fumbles happen in the classroom, too. We let a sarcastic comment hurt a relationship with a student. We ask questions that too frequently are on the bottom of Bloom’s taxonomy. Our students do poorly on an assessment and we choose not re-teach to mastery. Fumbles happen.

When fumbles happen on the football field, great teams don’t quit. They send out their defense and keep fighting to get the ball back.

When fumbles happen in the classroom, great teachers don’t quit. They keep following the game plan, implementing proven strategies, and reflecting on adjustments to make for tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow. Like football teams that watch post-game film, educators too need to be reflective of our practices and never stop working to improve until every student reaches mastery.

Or until the Browns win the Super Bowl.

Whichever comes first.