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

The Transformation of Sister Isabella

I don’t remember my Kindergarten or first grade experience in detail. I only remember spending the days reading, painting, playing, and taking naps. I remember receiving lots of affection and caring from my first teachers, Mrs. Anderson and Mrs. Murphy. All this changed when I was in second grade.

My parents enrolled me in a Catholic school and the first day started with arguments at home. I was ready to go to school and was wearing my favorite blue jeans and beloved Spiderman T-shirt. When I sat down for breakfast my mother explained that I had to wear the school uniform. She asked, “Do you remember when we went to buy the uniform? It is used by all the kids who go to your school. You also have to wear it.” I knew perfectly well that I had to wear the uniform, but I hated it. The shirt looked like a woman’s blouse and the pants were a shade of blue so horrible that I got chills putting them on. Worst of all was the shoes I had to wear. My parents had decided that I could not wear tennis shoes. Instead, my dad got me a pair of black patent-leather shoes to wear with my uniform. I was sure that all the children would fall down laughing when they saw me in this atrocious uniform and shoes. Though I made all the excuses I could imagine in a desperate attempt to avoid this fate, I left the house crying and complaining about the ugly uniform and the horrific patent leather shoes.

I arrived at the school and as I looked around, everybody else was wearing a uniform. I thought, “Maybe it won’t be so bad after all. At least I don’t have to wear the girls’ uniform, theirs is even worse!” Then I noticed that all the boys had tennis shoes on. Nobody but me had the disgusting patent-leather shoes. I tried to make myself invisible and prayed for the day to end quickly. When the bell rang, the door to my room opened and my teacher, a nun named Sister Isabella, came out to greet us. I had never seen a nun so close and I was amazed. She was tall, pretty, and elegant. Her brown habit was stunning. She seemed so perfect and beautiful that I imagined that the Blessed Virgin Mary had come down from heaven to play the role of my teacher. Unfortunately, this vision was not going to last for long.

The first months passed without incident. School seemed easy to me because I already knew how to read, write, and do calculations. I finished all my assignments quickly and often found myself with nothing else to do. There were four other boys who sat near me that I gravitated to. Before long, I became very good friends with Jerry, Troy, David and Felipe. As soon as we finished our assignments we would talk. Sister Guadalupe reprimanded us for misbehaving and for distracting the other children. She warned us that if we did not behave she would punish us. I didn’t think my beautiful and heavenly teacher would really punish us, so I kept doing what I had been doing. Soon, Sister Isabella began taking away our recess time, giving us more homework, or making us stay after school for detention. I figured that as long as I was doing all my work and getting good grades, everything would be fine. This illusion was short lived.

One afternoon after lunch, Sister Isabella called all five of us to the front of the class. She began to talk about our behavior. Se said that we were a bad example for the other students, that we did not respect the rules of the class, and that our behavior was sinful. She said that we had no discipline to resist the temptation of sin and that for our sake she would help us develop this discipline. The longer she spoke, the more nervous I became. Something very bad was about to happen and that there was no way to escape the unknown punishment that was looming. I glanced over to her desk and saw a wooden paddle. My whole body began to tremble and I struggled to hold back tears. I got into my fair share of mischief at home and my dad spanked me for it. Never before had I been punished physically by anyone else and certainly not with a wooden paddle! The paddle was about eight inches long, five inches wide and one inch thick. I saw that it had holes and I imagined this would make it hurt more. The paddle was old and looked well-used. I wondered how many other children had suffered this pain. The five of us began to exchange glances and although we did not speak a word, we shared our thoughts without difficulty. We were all afraid and we did not want to be punished in this way. We were not bad as the teacher said and we did not deserve something as cruel as this. In those silent looks we made a pact not to ask for mercy, not to make gestures of pain, and above all, not to give Sister Isabella the satisfaction of seeing us cry.

One by one we had our turn. First she hit Jerry and then Felipe. Although they did not cry, their eyes were full of emotion. I thought that they must have felt pain, shame, and regret but their eyes showed none of this. It was something else I was seeing, but I could not identify what. Then it was my turn. When I felt the paddle smash my bottom it hurt a lot. The pain changed to rage and hatred. At that moment I understood that this was what I had seen in the eyes of my companions. Then it was Troy and David’s turn. When she thrashed them I felt more anger and hatred. Looking at Jerry and Felipe I knew they felt the same. Sister Isabella sent us to sit down and we did not utter a single word the rest of the day. I spent that afternoon thinking about the paddle and the pain that the nun caused me. It was no longer a physical pain, it was now a hurt that penetrated my soul. I looked at Sister Isabella and she did not look pretty to me anymore. Her appearance had changed and I saw her as an ugly and mean woman who hated children and who enjoyed hurting them. To me, she was the sinner. I decided that I would not bend for her and that she would not defeat me. If she had to paddle me every day for my behavior, so be it.

Sister Isabella paddled me many more times that year and each time my rebellion and the anger I felt for her grew. After that first paddling, I never felt like she cared for me or tried to help me. I gave her a wide berth as often as I could and wished for the year to end quickly. I never got paddled again after second grade. Although I got punished lots of times for talking too much and other minor mischief, I liked all the teachers I had from 3rd to 8th grade. Some teachers were kinder than others, some were more strict, but I felt that each of them cared about me and was genuinely trying to help me and my classmates. The negative feelings for Sister Isabella never faded, even now some 40+ years I still harbor some resentment.

Connections to my Professional Learning

I originally wrote this story in Spanish more than 20 years ago for a Spanish Writing Project I joined to improve my Spanish writing skills. I don’t recall what my intentions were for writing the story, but I’m sure it had nothing to do with connecting my personal experience to my professional work as a teacher.

Times have changed and now I routinely connect dots between my experiences and the experiences of others to all manner of topics related to learning, and student learning in particular. One theme I have been pursuing for some time is relationships. The importance of the relationship between the student and the teacher has been articulated beautifully by educators including George Couros, Sir Ken Robinson, Jimmy Casas, Jay Billy (The Innovator’s Mindset, Creative Schools: The Grassroots Revolution That’s Transforming Education, Culturize, Lead With Culture respectively).

When I think about Sister Isabella and my experience in second grade, it is so obvious that our relationship was damaged. Looking back I have no doubt that Sister Isabella had good intentions. I seriously doubt that she intended to be cruel towards me. I was disruptive and caused problems for her in the class. But I didn’t see it that way as a seven year old, partly because I was a seven year old and partly because of how I felt. What might have happened had Sister Isabella opted for a different method to address my misbehavior? What if her response to the misbehavior had been informed by a Restorative Practices approach? This kind of approach is based in teaching rather than punishing and gives the student a chance to learn from mistakes and restore damaged relationships with others.

What if…

These thoughts made me think of Sister Isabella in a new light. I can’t know what her why was nor can I know what her practices were informed by. I thought about my own journey in the classroom teaching grades 1 through 6. What method did I use to address classroom behavior? What was it informed by? The truth is, it was mostly a traditional approach and it was informed in large part by my own experience as a student. I had not read books about different approaches nor had I made connections with other educators that could have been enlightening.

I recently read Better Than Carrot or Sticks: Restorative Practices for Positive Classroom Management by Dominique Smith, Douglas Fisher, and Nancy Frey. The book unearthed memories about my classroom practices and reminded me about Sister Isabella and my second grade story. It was the catalyst for writing this post.

The following passage really resonated with me:

“…traditional discipline efforts focus on determining guilt and punishing the offender… the offender receives an undesirable consequence that typically involves shame, isolation, and exclusion.” p. 107

It perfectly describes what my 7 year old self experienced. When I think about what I “learned” from the experience, it sure wasn’t positive. I didn’t acknowledge my behavior, consider any harm I caused, or make plans to make amends. My reflection caused me to think about Rita Pierson’s Every Kid Needs a Champion TED Talk. This sketch note created by Sylvia Duckworth beautifully illustrates key points from the TED Talk. Thinking back to my experience with Sister Isabella I am struck by the thought that the experience was a missed opportunity.

Thinking about my current context as principal in an elementary school, I see many opportunities to continue building relationships with students and staff and to reframe how I respond to behavior with principles based in a Restorative Practice approach.

I will wrap up this post with one more passage from the book. After you read it, consider the implications for your educational setting. What does your current system teach kids unintentionally? To say it differently, are there behaviors we see that are perhaps an outcome of the system we perpetuate?

“Given the modeling with which they’re presented, it’s no surprise that many children learn to solve problems using rewards and consequences – through bullying for instance… when we misuse our power, we map a path for students to follow that is the opposite of what we intend.” p. 12

Why Is John Wearing a Dress?


Before we get started…

This particular post is not really about teaching, education, or leadership. I have been in a nostalgic mood the past few months and I came across this short story I wrote many years ago. I wanted to share it because it reveals a little but about my dad and my sister Clara.

You may know a little bit about my dad from Thankful for All The Things, a collaborative blog post from November 2018. He was most definitely very strict and regimented, surely a result of his time in the army. Our family friends would refer to my siblings and I as “los soldaditos de Eduardo” (Edward’s little soldiers) because we carried out his expectations to a T.  I have so many memories that highlight how strict and unwavering about decisions my dad could be and those that know me well have heard the stories countless times. They are hilarious now, though at the time my blood would boil from the anger or injustice I felt. But that’s not the whole story of my dad. He was extremely generous to others, he modeled daily the values of determination and hard work, and from time to time, he was quite the jokester. In fact, the root of this story stems from a prank he played.  I’ll get to that shortly.

Thinking about these various dimensions about my dad caused me to think about ideas I learned about in The End of Average by Todd Rose. Rose describes two opposing ideas that  psychologists attribute human behavior to, traits and situations. The first view holds that our personality traits determine our behavior; the second states that the environment is the driving factor for behavior. Rose posits the context principle of individuality, which states that “behavior is not determined by traits or situations, but emerges out of the unique interaction of the two.” As applied to my dad, we could say that at home and with regard to rules, my dad was rigid and unbending. At a party, you would not see those qualities, instead you’d see my dad yucking it up and very possibly wearing a wig or a lamp shade over his head. Just as is the case for all individuals, my dad’s behavior resulted from the interaction of traits and situations.

Ok, so let me set this story up and explain the photo. It was 1970 and we were living in Los Angeles. Since it was pre-internet, communication with family in Colombia was almost exclusively carried out via letters and photos (long distance phone calls were rare due to the cost). My family in Colombia knew that I was born a couple years earlier, but my dad wanted them to believe that there was a new child in the Martinez family and that this one was a girl. Yup, I was at the center of this prank, so I had the honor of wearing the yellow dress complete with gloves, handbag, necklace, earrings, and bow. And yes, I crushed it, just look at that expression on my face!

This story is told from my sister Clara’s point of view. It is a monolog that my sister is having with herself. I pretended that she was the one who dressed me up and this retelling has nothing to do with my dad. Clara has a nickname for me (Juanita Banana). I don’t know the origin of the nickname. Since the dress I’m wearing is yellow and bananas are yellow, it’s plausible that this story could have happened the way I tell it. Clara ismy oldest sister and we share a special bond. She has always called me her baby due to her caring for me extensively my first two years on the planet while my mom recovered from some serious health issues. She has always been my champion and defender. If you know me, you might guess that I got into a fair amount of trouble as a kid. She always stepped in and saved the day, or my hide. There were many times that my two big brothers wanted to pummel me for something I did. Clara would get between us and like a force field, they would shrink back. That was due to my dad’s influence. Luis and Jairo knew that if they did anything to my sisters, they would have to answer to him, and NOBODY wanted that.

Thanks for sticking with me on this post, I hope you enjoy the story.


Juanita Banana

Juanito, you’re such a cute baby. Eres tan linda como una muñeca, you’re as cute as a doll.  

Hey I know, today you really will be a doll.  My very own dress up doll that walks and talks.  

Having a baby brother when mamá isn’t home can be lots of fun!  Hmm…what can I do? I can dress you up! Should you be un vaquero, a cowboy?  Darn, we don’t have a cowboy hat or boots for you.  Maybe un payaso, a clown – we can use Luis’s costume from last Halloween. It’s here in this closet somewhere. Ah, I found it!  Ohno, it’s too big, it won’t fit you.

Hmm… Luis and Jairo are my size, none of their clothes will fit you.  Maria’s clothes will fit you. Too bad you are not a girl, I could have dressed you up all sorts of ways…  That’s it! Who says you have to be Juanito?  You can be Juanita – at least until mamá  gets home.

Let’s see, Maria has lots of clothes. What do you like mi hijo, my child?  That is a pretty dress, but I don’t think that pink is your color. What about this yellow one? Let’s put it on you and see. It’s perfect. Mi bebé precioso, my precious baby!  

Now we’ll put on white gloves, white earrings, and a white necklace. Oh mi hijo, que elegancia, such elegance!  Look at yourself in the mirror. You look beautiful. You really do look like a little girl in that yellow dress Juanito. You look more like a Juanita.   

Juanito… Juanita… yellow banana… Juanita Banana, that’s who you are now!!  

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.


A Smile Can Change Everything

Before we get started…

During a #4OCFpln Voxer conversation a couple weeks ago, Naomi Austin made this statement, “Be the reason that somebody smiles today.” Throughout the morning there were lots of acknowledgments within the group about how we so often do that for one another.

We have tremendous influence on others and I think that a simple smile can be a way to use that influence to seed positivity and love in others and in our world. That idea has resonated deeply for me. Perhaps it has to do with the theme that ‘relationships are everything” that has surfaced repeatedly this summer in my work with colleagues at @RowlandSchools and at @RascalPride. That theme is also central in books I read over the summer (The Innovator’s Mindset, Culturize, The Pepper Effect, Lead With Culture). Just this morning, Amy Storer referred to #positivenoise, an @adobespark remix campaign that Claudio Zavala Jr. started. There it was again: smiles, positivity, connecting with others, and relationship building.

The post below is an expansion of a message I sent to my staff yesterday to launch our first day of school on Monday, August 13. My wish is that those who read it take the message to heart with kids they serve, their loved ones, and all those they interact with. Let’s Be the reason that somebody smiles today.”


Give the Gift of a Smile Often

Teachers and staff, this is going to be an amazing year!  I can’t wait to see all the smiles that will light up the faces of our students and parents on Monday and continue every day of the school year. Every time you see a child or adult smile, you are in the presence of a special moment for him or her. Yes, every time, no matter how small the moment. Each smile is significant. Each smile is powerful. Each smile can be transformative. Let’s smile often and direct that smile towards others. How many times have you seen a child change their demeanor because something made her smile. Isn’t it magnificent? You can feel the positive energy radiate from the child. I bet you have experienced that moment too. Those times you were feeling down, having a rough day, or maybe you were just super focused and busy. And then that smile came and changed everything. All because of a kind word, a token of appreciation, a high five or hug. Someone gave you a gift that became your smile. And in that moment your life was different. You might be thinking, “Wait, a smile doesn’t change everything. It doesn’t change the reality or circumstances we may be facing.” Before you stop your thinking on that point, I ask that you consider that any moment can be a beginning, a beginning that can change a trajectory. And that can be everything for a student, friend, or loved one.

Let’s consider a smile a gift that we can share. We are in the life changing business. Let’s give the gift of a smile often and magnify the power of a smile with a kind word, a heartfelt gesture, or a physical touch. Let’s be the reason that someone smiles today and every day.

Let’s Catch Up, What’s New With You?

Before we get started…

I shared previously about my apprehension for writing, that blogging is definitely outside my comfort zone, and that I have been inspired to write and blog by all the wonderful educators in the #4OCF Voxer PLN. They have become my PLF (Personal Learning Family coined by Sarah Thomas).

After I posted my first piece, Change The World: Pack A Parachute, I received lots of positive feedback and many friends advised me to keep writing. I was moved by the comments I received, thank you to everyone who took the time to read it. I have chosen to continue writing and posting, even though there’s a voice inside me who screams not to and looks for any excuse to fill my time with anything other than writing (someone please cancel my Netflix).

In preparation of the coming school year, I recently sent a newsletter to staff communicating our theme of relationships. I am expanding on that communication in this post as a way to add some thoughts and be intentionally vulnerable. Why vulnerable you may ask? Well, I am working on some of the characteristics that George Couros identifies for an Innovator’s Mindset, particularly, empathy, risk taking, and reflective. You can read about all 8 characteristics here.

My Recent Newsletter: What’s New With You?

One of the major themes this school year will be relationships. We will learn more about that in coming weeks, but I want you to know that I am pledging to reframe what I do and how I do it with regard to relationships.

But first, I have to tell you why. I have “preached” many times how important knowing your why is. For everything we do in our school, there must be a why. Since we serve children, the why should be about them. I recently wrote a blog (my first ever!) and put it out there on the internet. If you haven’t come across it on Social Media, you are welcome to read it here. Here are the why’s I listed for myself in the post:

      – My why is about relationships and connections.

      – My why is about being my best self and encouraging others to do the same.

      – My why is about optimism, hope, and possibility. (I forgot to include  having FUN)

      – My why is about changing the world one tiny step at a time.

So, my why for relationships is all those points above plus the fact that we have to connect with people as humans before anything else. When we have a positive relationship with someone, our feelings of trust, confidence, empathy, and respect all increase. We feel more comfortable about taking risks with or for people we have good relationships with.

If I don’t know things about you as a person, shame on me. In that scenario, I have missed opportunities to learn about you and connect with you.  How could I ask you to do your best and be your best if I don’t genuinely make you believe I care about you. My words, actions, sincerity, tone, and more will reveal how much I care. And guess what?  I believe I have dropped the ball on that front many times and I must get better. There’s a running joke between Sonya (my wife) and I related to me crying when I watch some movies. She half laughs and half shakes her head because I get emotional over the silliest things on the screen, but MUCH less so in real life. I think she says something like, “You’re ridiculous.” And she is totally right. There’s a wall inside me that goes up from time to time and this slows down my connecting with others. I hope you’d agree that I’m not as bad as the Grinch and that my heart does not need to “grow threes sizes.” Clearly, I have some work to do. I know that if I am better at showing empathy and relating with others at our school, those actions will have a positive impact.

So, back to my pledge. I am going to have a daily goal related to relationships. This is not to say that I haven’t had this goal in the past. It is a reframing effort and action. I am going to double down on relationships. I have specific goals that are actionable and that I will monitor. In other words, I have a vision and a plan so I live into the vision. I hope that over time this year you will be able to say, “My principal cares about me. I know this because…” I have no doubt that if I succeed, the effort will resonate in your heart and it will positively impact your work in our school. If I fail, please tell me. I would much prefer you tell me directly, but I will distribute a survey to should you prefer to tell me anonymously.

So, what’s new with you? I am looking forward to seeing you soon, discovering that, and working on my relationship with you.


A couple of days after sending the communication above to my staff, I had the pleasure of attending a keynote by Sir Ken Robinson at the Better Together California Teachers Summit at Cal State Fullerton. Sir Ken Robinson spoke about the need for transformation in education. Below are some of the points he shared (I apologize in advance if I have any of it wrong):

    Teachers have become content providers. Teaching is not like Fedex, it is not a  content delivery system. Education is a relationship, not a delivery system.

    Human resources are a lot like natural resources…

          – they are diverse.

          – they are hidden below the surface.

          – they must be developed and refined.

          – we must find a purpose for the resource.

    The heart of education must be the relationships between the teacher and student or between students. Everything else is inessential.

    Educators are in the miracle business.


As I consider my plans for building relationships with my staff, I believe I’m on the right track. My pledge to “reframe what I do and how I do it with regard to relationships” is essential. I also need to do the same with students and parents. My hope is that by committing to relationships, modeling it for others to see, and providing space and time for relationships in the fabric of our school, we will achieve a transformation together. Will you join me on this journey?    


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.

Change The World: Pack A Parachute

Before we get started…

You should know that I am an apprehensive writer (maybe that can be a story for another time). My colleague, John Staumont, has encouraged me to blog for several years. In keeping with my “Dream Crusher” role in our partnership, I have resisted his good advice. I recently joined the #4OCFPLN on Voxer where I have discovered a treasure trove of ideas, discourse, and inspiration about teaching, learning, and leading. A few days, ago, Jamie Leach proposed a blog challenge and since then members of the group have written several spectacular posts. So to John and everyone on the #4OCFPLN I say thank you. Thank you for encouraging me, for inspiring me, and for helping me believe I could pull this off. One of the members in the group says, “What’s ordinary to some is extraordinary to others.” I’m not sure if this story will stand up to that, but I do know it matters to me and it shapes who I am and how I relate with others. Lastly, I want to give a special thanks to Jennifer Ledford for the inspiration I got reading her Teaching for Him post.


Chris and My Dad

It was just after 6:30am on Saturday, July 23, 2005. I was approaching the freeway on ramp on my way for a round of golf. My phone rang and I saw that my friend Omar was calling me. That was unusual. It was much earlier than I’d expect him to call on any morning. “Hey O, what’s up?” I said cheerfully into the phone. The words I heard next rocked my world, “John, Chris died last night.” I couldn’t believe it. We were only 37 years old, surely there was some mistake. My buddy from high school, gone? This couldn’t be. The friend who who was with me through thick and thin for the previous 21 years, gone? No way. My compadre (we were both godfathers for our respective son’s baptisms), gone? I could not accept that. Chris left this world due to an undiagnosed heart condition. At his funeral, I read Who Packs Your Parachute, the story of Charles Plumb and shared a little bit about Chris to the audience to highlight the special qualities about him. He packed my parachute in countless ways. I learned so much from him. I wanted everyone in the church to know how I saw him and what he meant to me. I am forever thankful to him and I miss him dearly.  Looking back, I realize that this was my way of making up up for not telling him what I felt.


Fast forward to 7:30pm on October 11, 2011. My mom, brothers, sisters, and I  were standing around my dad’s hospital bed. We were holding hands and praying as my dad drew his last breath. Cancer took my dad not long after his 74th birthday. He fought it for over a year so there was time for all of us kids to talk to him about what was coming. My dad grew up in a different country and in a different time. I loved my dad and he loved me, but we didn’t speak the words “I love you.” That’s just the way it was. The way we communicated changed some in my dad’s last months. I told him that I loved him and he reciprocated. I knew that saying those words and opening up wasn’t easy for him. Whether he responded or not was less important to me than telling him what I felt. The fortunes of everyone in my family changed for the better when my dad made the sacrifice of leaving Colombia, his native land. He didn’t know a word of English and had spent most of his life in the army. Coming to the United States had to be an unbelievable challenge. I needed him to know how thankful I was for the sacrifices he made for his family. I needed him to hear me tell him that I loved him. Who did I have to thank for that clarity? Chris of course, he was still packing my parachute. Had I not told my dad how I felt and how thankful I was, my regret would be too much to bear.


Why am I writing about my dad and Chris? Why am I posting this on a webpage about Educational Leadership? John S and I believe that nearly everything we do is related to leadership. I am writing this story because I believe that everyone is a leader regardless of titles. I am writing this because each of us has the power to pack someone’s parachute. I am writing this because everything we do should start with our why. For me, my why is about relationships and connections. My why is about being my best self and encouraging others to do the same. My why is about optimism, hope, and possibility. My why is about changing the world one tiny step at a time. The lessons I learned from my dad and Chris are aligned to the work I do at my school. I can acknowledge, be thankful, and praise others. Every minute of every day is an opportunity for me to make the world better for each person I encounter. Each student, teacher, staff member, and parent can be raised up or torn down by the way I choose to relate with them. So, what do I choose? If you don’t know, than I have done a great disservice to the memory of my friend and my father.