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.

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.