Failure Is Not An Option?

I blew it. Messed up. Failed big time. Yup. I sucked! Writing about my failures is the last thing I want to do. However, someone recently told me vulnerability was a good thing. So, here it goes.

As a principal, I am responsible for many moving pieces. My primary job is safety and learning. I have many other important tasks as well to keep the machine running. School culture and climate, helping students, teachers, and parents feel part of something bigger than themselves is important. Nobody learns when they do not feel welcome or loved. Relationships really do matter for everyone at our school. However, I cannot help but consider the current academic results of our students. It is disappointing to admit we have not demonstrated the growth or met our targets. 

Internally, I want to come up with reasons why and excuse my leadership. It would be easy to blame someone. But who can I blame? I cannot blame the students. They did what we asked them to do; show us what you have learned. Nor can I blame the teachers or the parents. In fact, what good does it do to blame anyone? Shifting responsibility to others only maintains my situation. In fact, I need to get out of the situation I am in. 

I honestly struggled with this reality for several weeks. I was angry and defensive. Our school, “my” school, was underperforming. Of course, I shared this only with my closest friends and my wife. Why risk vulnerability and expose me to public humiliation by sharing it beyond this small circle? It is so much easier to stay safe and hide behind a mask. However, it took my time of vacation to process this serious topic of failure. 

My fear of Failure

Given my recent setback with my instructional leadership, I set about reading up on failure. It was perfect timing as the new year granted me many articles on the topic of goals and resolutions (and why so many of them fail). What I found was fascinating and reassuring. I have begun a process to develop some of my personal and professional goals that will challenge me to stretch and grow. I may share some of these in the future, but I thought I might share some concepts of what I have learned so far.

When we fear failure, we risk becoming mediocre. 

  • Risk avoidance creates safety, but this philosophy would never have helped mankind land on the moon.
  • No one dates mediocre.
  • People are looking for complex solutions and thought partners, not stale answers or safe bets.

When we face our fear of failure, it is good to give it a name.

  • By naming something, we call it into being. This nominalization allows us to deal with the fear of failure. We can describe it, quantify it, and give it other qualities.
  • Once we name it, we must make a decision on what to do with it.
  • The ability to have choice allows for Agency. When we are in control, we have power.

When we choose to fight our fear of failure (and mediocrity), we require a plan.

  • We need to invest time to envisioneer something big. 
  • Any plan must include the risks, the rewards, the contingencies, and the cost of inaction.
  • Understand no plan survives contact with the enemy. The journey may be more important than the outcome you seek.

As I spent time looking at the beauty of failure, the topic of goals, why they fail, and reflecting on my current personal and professional life, I was struck by how easy it is to play it safe. Where are you at with your personal and professional life? How is the fear of failure keeping safe and mediocre? Are you willing to adventure out? 

A ship in harbor is safe, but that is not what ships are built for. – J.A. Shedd

My First Day of School

I sat in my blue plastic chair behind my desk. If you’re a teacher, you know the one I’m speaking of. It’s just an adult-sized chair you find in a classroom, and it signified I lacked the experience to either buy my own chair or steal one from an empty class before the start of school. It was the beginning of the third period, and my students were working on some crossword or word search ditto as they sat in rows. The classroom was sterile as I had put little on the walls. You could hear their pencils scribbling across their paper and periodic whispering.

It was the first day of school for these junior high students. It was also my first day of school as I had missed the opportunity to open a class during my student teaching. My day probably began like most students. I dressed up in my back-to-school clothes. For me, these were brown slacks and a creme colored dress shirt. I even wore a tie. However, I think I spent 15 minutes trying to get my tie to be the correct length. I anxiously stood at the door of our apartment as my wife took my picture. I had no idea what to expect. I had no idea I would be writing about this day almost 30 years later.

I shifted in my seat and continued to read my students “All About Me” note cards. This was one of those strategies they taught you in the teachers’ school so you can get to know your kids. It was also the same school that promoted, “Don’t smile until November.” Unfortunately, I wasn’t getting to know my students as much as I was evaluating their writing. Their penmanship was awful. I could hardly read their writing due to the misspelled words and slang. I still didn’t know their names yet, but Royce was badgering Ashley about something, foreshadowing a pattern for the year. “You better deal with this now and show who’s in control,” I thought. I looked up from the cards and placed both hands on the desk. Pushing my chair back as I stood, the scraping sound of metal feet on the newly waxed tile floors stopped the talking, and all students eyes met mine.

I barked, “Hey! Stop talking and finish your work!” The room fell silent, and the eyes of the students quickly fell away to their ditto. I had that sense of power surge through me and thought I had things under control. The first two periods had gone well, and I was not going to let this group get the best of me. I looked down and my desk before I sat down. That’s when I saw it. I could feel that rush of blood leaving my head. It was the third period. My mind screamed, “All morning? How could my zipper be down all morning and I not notice it until now!” I quickly sat down and ever so carefully put my hands in my lap. My left hand grabbed the cloth, and my right hand quickly jerked the zipper up. My mind was racing in my embarrassment. “Did they see? Does anyone know?”

I have no other memories of my first day. The embarrassment overshadowed all else. I told no one until several years ago. I can only wonder what memories my students had of their first day with me. I have no doubt it was unmemorable as well. I look back on this incident with mixed emotions. I laugh at the insecurity and terror I felt. I am also ashamed of my immaturity, as I was focussed on me and not my students. I had no support staff to guide me. No PLN or framework for supporting behavior. It was old school rows, discipline, dittos, quizzes on Friday, and detention for talking back. It was the way it was, but I am still not proud of how I started my career. I also look back at the beginning of my career and wonder who was more nervous that first day.

Today, I see the first day of school through a very different lens. As my colleague John Martinez shares, we smile because it can change everything. We try to make students and parents smile on the first day and every day. I am proud our teachers collaborate around building relationships and implementing Positive Behavior Interventions and Support (PBIS) at our school. You will not see many classrooms (if any) in traditional rows. Nor will you find time-killer word search dittos. The first day of school is one where we welcome students and let them know we are excited by their wonder, their curiosity, and their desire to be so much more. We are excited to find help our students find their voice, to help them grow, and to help them create.

I am grateful the first day of school will be different for our students than it was for my students so many years back. I have learned so much from colleagues and my mistakes over the years. We will smile on the first day. We will engage students’ minds on the first day. We will make it a safe place to learn and connect with others on the first day. In doing so, we strive to make the opening day memorable, so students are excited to return the second day. And if we do this well, from the heart, the adults will feel the same way; eager to return. I just want to remind everyone to check themselves in the mirror before they leave home.


Beliefs > Actions > Vision

Co-authored by John Martinez, Sarah Opatkiewicz, and John Staumont

At a recent retreat for administrators, the topic was leadership (what else?). One group presented how the media often portrays education (both teachers and administrators). Negative stereotypes are either the boring teacher (Ferris Bueller) or tyrannical principal (Lean On Me). Both portrayals belittle the work and effort that so many dedicated professionals pour into their work.

One important responsibility of the building principal is shaping a vision of academic success for all students. The question is, how does this happen? Does a principal give the mandate for the vision like Joe Clark, the principal in Lean On Me? Too often in the case of tyranny, the change and “vision” last as long as the leader is there or the leader finds themselves marching alone on to battle with their quest with no followers. We want the adults (and students) in the building to contribute to change with their thinking and perspective, so we hope that you’ll agree with us that this is a poor example of vision creation and delivery.

We probably can agree that a vision requires a brief statement that is future-oriented and requires the organization to truly stretch. This is a pie in the sky long-term goal. If the vision can be achieved in 12-18 months, then the vision was not lofty enough. Moving the organization toward the vision requires consistent and collaborative action. In turn, the daily actions of all stakeholders should be aligned and guided by the vision. However, do all the actions in every organization always align? Obviously not. Therefore, how do you get an alignment of actions to move toward the vision?

Most leadership literature speaks to the power of a collective vision within the organization. For a school, this primarily may be the teachers. However, there are many stakeholders within a school setting (Parents, classified staff, and students). As with a tapestry of many threads and colors, when more voices are interwoven into the process the work becomes more intricate and complex, but the end results more vibrant and beautiful.  Each of these groups is comprised of individuals with individual beliefs. Actions will spring from beliefs. The role of the leader is to help uncover those beliefs and help individuals bring them to the surface.

We can argue whether beliefs are binary or have varying degrees of influence. Some of us hold beliefs but do not always act on them in a binary fashion. My willpower for a bear claw while on a diet is much lower depending on circumstances (and the bakery). What do the people you work with believe? What do parents believe? What do students believe? How do you balance differing or conflicting beliefs within an organization? This exercise in itself can be powerful before you even embark on creating a vision.

Working through a process of gathering the voices of a larger group is time-consuming and will slow the process down. However, it is one way to ensure the voices of your stakeholders are heard and valued. When only a select group are involved in the process a whole section of stakeholders feels disconnected and possibly resentful of the vision. It also gives you a platform to communicate your beliefs and vision to your community. There is power in declaring publically what you believe and where you would like to take the organization. While not a vision, it does communicate your vision as the leader. People need to know you have one and this is a great opportunity.

With that background, we (three elementary principals) chose to communicate what we believe about learners (children and adults). We desire to begin our year declaring our beliefs so we can begin the conversation with our communities and develop our collective visions. At the same time, all three sites are focussing on writing for the coming year and believed it would be good to model what we are asking students to do (create and publish content to impact the world around us). Therefore, in keeping with our effort to shape our culture, promote our writing effort, and begin our visioning process, we would like to clearly communicate our beliefs for all learners.

Beliefs for ALL Learners:

  • Maslow before Blooms (safety, belonging, feeling successful before academic content)
  • We are a learning organization
  • Align our work to a shared vision
  • Relationships, Relationships, Relationships (it’s all about relationships)
  • Continuous growth (always build on successes and learn from failure)
  • Personalized Learning for adults and students
    • 5Cs: Collaboration, Critical Thinking, Communication, Creativity, and Curiosity
    • Differentiated to address interests and needs
    • Take ownership of your learning
    • Move from your point A to B (and so on)
    • Share your learning with others (connected)
    • Apply the learning
    • Voice and Choice
  • High expectations for self and others
  • Embrace a mindset for innovation and empowerment (shift away from compliance)
  • Know your “Why?”
  • Have fun

We understand this is a work in progress. You may find things that are unclear or that we omitted. You may find things you disagree with. We actually hope that is the case because diversity in ideas and discourse drive us to think more deeply, reconsider our views, and articulate our beliefs more clearly. As when reorganizing a home or restoring a car things tend to get messy before they get clear. The work continually refines itself and unveils omissions as a collective clarity is built. We invite you to review our beliefs and consider them along with your own beliefs on learning for all. Tell us what you believe we are missing. Ask for clarification. Point out the error of our ways. In the end, we want to have some discourse around important ideas so we can positively impact the lives of students and adults (all learners). If our role as principals is shaping a vision of academic success for all students, then we need honest feedback from all stakeholders in order to shape our own vision. Hopefully, the dialogue will also present an opportunity for others to explore their beliefs and join us in our efforts.

Mrs. Opatkiewicz is the principal of Shelyn Elementary in Rowland Unified. Shelyn is launching a Mandarin dual-immersion program. Follow her on Twitter @ShelynSharks.

Building Leadership Capacity

Reflections On Our PLNs

When I was a kid, I had a big yard with an orange orchard behind our house. My friends and I would play outside all day until the street lights came on or we heard the whistle or call from one of our parents. There was an older group of boys who always tried to raid our forts or intrude upon our games, but our small band of brothers kept these marauders at bay. We learned to build sturdy forts, throw oranges at moving targets, and create secret codes. You might say this was my first personal learning network (PLN).

I throw fewer oranges today. I still associate with a group, but the structure and purposes are very different. Instead of building forts, I attempt to build leadership capacity in my staff and others. While throwing oranges at each was entertaining as a kid, the collaborative work I now do with adults is much more rewarding. I am also more intentional with my participation because my focus is to become a more effective leader and cultivate leadership in others.

Our Leadership Framework

The focus for Between the Johns centers around our efforts to be effective leaders and support the innovative use of technology. We will be using many sources, but our framework will be based on research supported by the Wallace Foundation. Harvey and Holland’s 2013 report on the school principal points to five effective practices. Number three of these five is Cultivating Leadership in Others. As John and I prepared for our podcast on this topic, we reflected on how we attempt to cultivate leadership in others. We quickly found ourselves talking about our PLNs and their influence. We agreed there was tremendous power in the PLN to build our leadership capacity and to support leadership development in others.

PLNs Are Significant

It is 2018. Therefore, PLNs can be physical and virtual. As John and I talked, we identified examples of both formats that were excellent resources for us as site leaders. Vroom (2017) calls this like-minded PLN a tribe. John and I compared our current tribes for commonality (both present and in the past), and we agreed the tribe itself was not powerful enough to cultivate leadership in others. The power came from the intentionality of our involvement. That intentional focus was critical if our PLN was to impact our leadership and influence our leadership of others.

Another benefit of current PLNs is the asynchronous role technology can play in allowing PLNs to influence greater numbers. Our present work with podcasts, blogs, and Twitter allows for the exchange of ideas at all times of day versus specific hour or location. That ability to connect with our tribes when we have time (or energy) increases our likelihood to be engaged and intentional with the exchange of ideas. This reciprocity is critical for personal growth. Sheninger (2014) calls out the obligation of “connectedness” because leaders typically focus on self-development. The virtual nature of today’s PLNs facilitates that involvement, reciprocity of ideas, and increases the likelihood the participant experiences leadership growth. The participant can bring back those ideas to facilitate the growth of leaders back in the workplace.

Cultivating leadership in others is critical to any principal, teacher-leader, coach, or district office leader. While there is never enough time in the day, it is an obligation to continue to learn and grow in our field. We create the conditions for success at our work sites, and PLNs are a powerful way to learn, share, influence, and bring back ideas to grow leadership in others.

  • Do you have a tribe (PLN)? If so, is it physical, virtual, or both?
  • How intentional are you about your learning, the learning of others within your tribe, or expanding the influence with others outside your tribe?

The Significance Of Shout-Outs

Finally, John recently shared with me his insight from a podcast, Teaching Tales with Brent Coley (2018). Brent’s guest was Angela Maiers, and she spoke about the incredible value of noticing others. As we talked about this, we both agreed that noticing others was important to our topic of cultivating leadership in others. Regardless of how busy we become in our roles, we must take time to notice others; especially those that have helped cultivate leadership in us.

  • How do/can you let others (especially those in your PLN) know they matter?


We asked some of our PLN partners to give a shout-out and recognize either individuals or their PLN. Here are a few that came in.

“Hello, I’m Michael Jephcott, a Technology Integration Specialist for the Bassett Unified School District in La Puente, California.  I have been helping our district lead the way in developing and deploying computer science and computational thinking at the elementary level.  Without the encouragement and support from my Twitter #PLN most of this work would not have been possible. So thank you, @annkozma723 @bribriggs @TechTomBUSD @MsGeekyTeach @judyblakeney @chonito928 @jcorippo @MsHaughs @cogswell_ben @codeorg and @drezac”

“I’m Cindy Bak, proud principal at Valencia Park Elementary School in the Fullerton School District. I’m helping to cultivate leadership and build capacity in my leadership teams to take ownership in the decision-making processes of the school. Together, we will reflect on our identity as an innovative, forward-thinking, Apple Distinguished School school and together, identify our next steps in moving our school forward to provide the most engaging, relevant, and rigorous learning environment for all students so that they may discover and explore their passions, find purpose and act with purpose, and unleash their full and unique potential. I want to thank the Fullerton SD Ed Leadership Team, Fullerton SD Tech TOSA team, Cotsen Principal Tech Network, and all of my fellow principal friends for being a thought partner along this journey in my first year as principal. Your encouragement has been a source of support during challenging moments and your critical feedback has been a catalyst to spur on deeper reflection and professional growth.”


Harvey, J., & Holland, H. (2013). The school principal as leader: Guiding schools to better teaching and learning. The Wallace Foundation.

Vroom, C. (2017). Professional learning networks: Harness the power of professional growth. Principal Leadership; Reston, 17(7), 52–54.

Sheninger, E. (2014). Connectedness: The New Standard. Principal Leadership; Reston, 14(7), 46–52.

Coley, B. (2018). Angela Maiers & Noticing the Value in Others.

Expanding our Personal Learning Network (PLN)

A Journey

Welcome to the beginning of the journey between two principals (John Martinez and John Staumont). The geneses of Between the Johns came from our recent visit to CUE 18. I will not go into all the details of how and why since that will defeat the purpose of our upcoming podcasts.

A Purpose

We will explore the power of personal learning networks (PLNs) and their influence on educational leaders. While we primarily deal with school principals, all educational leaders use strategies to support, scale and sustain technology integration and innovation within their area of influence. Our effort is to uncover and share those ideas to help leaders expand their PLN. 

A Call

Follow us on Twitter @BetweentheJohns. We are currently exploring podcasting, audio mixing, microphones, and hosting. We are expanding our network to include knowledgeable people in this area of technology, and we hope to have some podcasts up and running soon.