Kindness Can’t Be Random

It’s been a while.

I began this blog in the hopes of clarifying my own thinking and, perhaps, contributing perspectives that may not have gotten (in my mind) sufficient attention. Every now and then I realize that I need some distance.  Some time for reflection. And, as usual, the universe lays a trap and there goes the plan.

The trap this time was a video clip that I saw earlier this week on Facebook. Take a look (spoiler alert… tissues are almost mandatory). It’s a clip from a Garth Brooks concert. . I recall seeing it before but had blissfully forgotten the ambush. In the clip, Garth Brooks is performing and sees a lady who is holding a sign that catches his attention and changes the evening for him, for her, and for the audience.

As I replayed this clip in my head over the next couple of days, what emerged were two words… kindness and compassion. Two words that I hadn’t included in my posts about the components of leadership but should have. I thought of all of the kids I taught who may have been holding up signs that I missed. I thought of all of the teachers and staff members who were holding up signs that I should have seen but didn’t. I thought of kids I didn’t reach with my teaching, adults I didn’t reach with my leadership. And the words echoed… kindness and compassion and I realized that they are two critical elements in the process of building caring, trusting relationships and the culture of safety that makes risk-taking possible.

I thought of how easy it would be to ask kids in our classes, adults in our care, “What is the most important thing you’d like to say right now? What’s the most important thing you’d like someone to hear?” How easy would it be to train ourselves to look for “the signs”? To move beyond kindness weeks?

I’ll close this with a quick anecdote and a few questions. (I’m also working on brevity)

A couple of days ago we were meeting with an elder care attorney. I shared the name of the attorney who had recommended her to us. She never hesitated and replied, “He’s a good attorney… and a kind man.” What an eloquent tribute.

How many of us would be proud to know that people consider us kind? That we had a role in the growth of our students towards kindness? What could we do intentionally to insure that this happens? What might we be doing that incidentally gets in the way? Is kindness a value in your school? Is compassion? How can we grow a culture of kindness and compassion in our school community? What have you done? What can you do?

I Dare You to Share This…


Actually, that’s a lie. I beg you to share it.

A bit of history

Bernie Josefsberg and I crashed and burned together in the 1980’s after having been recruited (Bernie from New Trier HS in Chicago and me from a few miles away in rural NJ) to do something wonderful in a local high school. Our reach for wonderful far exceeded our grasp and, after a few years, we were left with a deep and lasting personal relationship and some pretty tough lessons about bringing change to school cultures. We both moved on in separate directions – each of us exploring leadership roles that would eventually lead us to this point. At one of his “new homes” Bernie penned the following piece which he was kind enough to share with me during one of his recent bouts of file purging.

I have struggled at times (most of the time actually) to find the words that might be the key to unlocking the door of understanding for parents and educators… the understanding that the needs of today’s learners are not being and will not be served by trying to create better models of the schools they attended. The necessary responses to this challenge will not be found in doing school better. They must be found in doing learning better.

In his letter to his staff in 1995, Bernie found the words. This letter generated and continues to generate a variety of responses. Both Bernie and I would love to read yours.

I hope you find Bernie’s thoughts enjoyable and his words useful. Enjoy.


The Far Side Gallery 4 – Gary Larson


Prompted by the advent of the 21st-century as well as compelled by the current contents of schooling, many professionals, policymakers and laypeople are offering their visions of 21st-century schools. I’d like to join the crowd and offer the humble suggestion that we get rid of the school disciplinarian. At first blush, this idea seeing might seem nutty. After all, the end of the 20th century does not arouse spontaneous cheer about the human condition nor about the status of such values as honesty, self-control or hard work. Since we are awash in the nasty effects of impulsivity and self-indulgence, it hardly seems sane to eliminate the one individual in the school charged drawing lines and imposing consequences. At the very least, and even in the “best” of schools, a certain number of students experience the kinds of difficulty that require the disciplinarian’s particular attention.

Nonetheless we should forego the disciplinarian, provided we also relinquish the presumption that schools are primarily places that “contain” teenagers on the sidelines while real life occurs elsewhere. From this presumption flows a necessity for the coercive controls embodied in the figure of the school disciplinarian. So long as we perceive schools as places of adolescent containment, schools will continue to invite the very behavior that is properly deplored (though rarely eliminated) through the disciplinarian’s limited arsenal of punishments. Simply put, late 20th century teenagers do not make good inmates. Their experiences and knowledge distinguish them from preceding generations of high schoolers, as do their perceptions of what the future holds in store for them. Nor, given the requirements for healthy 21st-century living, do we want them to suppress their considerable energy and talents. Good inmates do not make for good students, nor more importantly, do they make for good citizens.

Paradoxically, the departure of the school disciplinarian will allow us to focus upon the true source of disciplined and responsible conduct – namely a self-governing interest in sharing the benefits of a community that is “care-ful” of its members. Many of the widely circulated visions of the future emphasize desired economic benefits, to be employed by those who have advantaged themselves through individual merit. Thus, the fully educated student of the 21st-century becomes the competent competitor in a globalized economy. Knowledge is power and the power we value is economic. We therefore envision ingeniously technologized schools that expand the supply of ingenious “knowledge workers.”

This is a legitimate concern. We should safeguard our economic well being by making schools technology enriched learning centers. Because of that technology, it should be possible to associates school with customized learning paths, instant performance feedback on “authentic” tasks and constant interactivity across cyberspace. Such capabilities will go along way toward reviving our schools.

However, my own futuristic vision adds some critical features beyond the technology. In my imagining, school becomes a humanely conceived place where young people acquire the arts of mindful living – a place where they learn to concern themselves with “common wealth” as the best guarantor of self health. Indeed, schools should be a place where students learn to set an extra place for their neighbor at the common table of our society. We each sit at that table and, from the standpoint of the person seated next to us, we are each someone’s neighbor. If nothing else, enlightened self-interest should give us pause not only for thought, but for thoughtful action.

More than machines are required to redeem our hopes for the schools into 21st-century. In its rules, roles, and relationships, the future school of my imaginings enacts an affirmative view of human nature. Its informing beliefs about teenagers, about how they learn and what they need to learn, will anchor arrangements that impel them towards productive and good adult identities. In such a place, the school disciplinarian, for lack of work, will have no role to play.

B. Josefsberg

May, 1995

A Perfect Storm is Brewing — Let’s stop treating symptoms

Note:  The following post was prepared as an opinion piece for a New Jersey media outlet.  While the references are NJ focused, the issues are universal and the suggestions for action apply to any of the states I have visited in my consultant/coaching work.

Perfect Storm SCreen Shot

00:00, 30 NOV 2012

A Perfect Storm is brewing as we see an increasing number of conditions threaten the existence of our system of public education as we know it … and this might not be a bad thing.

The current discussions, proposals, negotiations about the revision of the funding formula here in NJ are a distraction just as they are in other states throughout the country. We are wasting valuable time and resources discussing ways to more equitably, more fairly, more effectively fund a system of education that no longer meets the needs of the majority of American learners. We are watching the world as we have come to know and, sometimes, understand it change before our eyes.

Who could have predicted Uber? Or Amazon? Or Facebook? Who could have predicted that in the 10 years since the announcement of the iPhone our entire means of communication would be upended? Retail chains that have been a part of our lives since we were children are closing. And we are stuck arguing over the funding of a system in which the latest Gallup survey on student engagement reports that by 11th grade, over one third of our students are actively disengaged in school! And our response… almost 30 years of school “reform” based on the development, implementation and assessment of ever more rigorous standards with no significant gains in achievement, declining faith in our system of public education, and continued declines in student engagement.

Imagine a board meeting of Walmart directors facing such results and saying, “Damn, what we’ve been doing isn’t working, let’s do more of it.” But wait, isn’t that what Sears did, what Macy’s doing? Isn’t that what we’re doing with our school funding discussions? Our goal? Let’s make the funding formula fairer. Of course we should make funding formulas fair.  Who would argue in favor of less fairness?  But for the record, we’ve tried that and we’ve demonstrated that (a) we can’t do it and (b) it continues to be an exercise in trying to do the wrong thing better.

Developing a better funding formula so that we can continue our attempts to make schools better is not terribly different than Sears relying on better floor displays and marketing to address changes in the buying habits of their former customers. More floor space and attractive displays were an ineffective response to the convenience and pricing of Amazon and other on-line retailers. Funding the current version of schooling is no better.

Finding a more equitable means of funding schools that serve the needs of a declining “client” base and don’t serve the needs of far too many is a untenable direction. Thinking that various choice options that are now being discussed with greater receptivity provide a better answer is just a sign of our continued commitment to asking the wrong question. Bad questions rarely yield good answers. We have been trapped into responding to bad questions regarding the sustainability of our schools for far too long now. It’s time to move beyond them.

We are beginning to see more creative and productive options. We are seeing these at all levels of learning? What do these look like? In almost all instances, they continue the commitment to concrete – i.e., physical – centers for learning. But they also recognize that a solution based on a refinement of the current organization and structure of schools is no longer either sustainable or effective in meeting the needs of students, families, and the economy as they have emerged. They challenge the notion that all learning that matters must occur within the walls of a school building. They challenge the notion that what is worth learning has been defined and determined by “knowledgeable” adults and is best organized by discrete content and with learners of similar ages. They challenge the notion that teachers deliver information to be learned. They engage their stakeholder communities in discussions and explorations. They make use of learning centers, both physical and virtual, to support expanded choices for learners.

To date these have occurred on a small scale, largely beneath the radar. Without some diligent work you might never encounter the successes of the Big Picture Schools, AltSchool, The Apollo Program, St Benedict’s Prep, the Design Studio, etc. Each of these programs provides an example of one or more responses to the challenges listed above. They represent alternatives to the current system of schooling. They bear witness to a reality that schools don’t have to look as they have for the past hundred years. They need not adhere to the organization, the structure, the staffing and the delivery system of the past. Bringing them to scale as viable alternatives will require some considerable “unlearning and some intentional action.

Removing the obstacles to innovation… dealing with a room full of elephants

I have spent more than 50 years in education. In that time I have worked at all levels of schooling (K-12 through graduate school). I have served as teacher, administrator, union leader and negotiator. For the past 10+ years I have traveled throughout the country visiting and supporting schools and school districts. Like many of us, I have heard seemingly endless cries for innovation, better teaching and more creative leadership. And I have learned that we continue avoid conversations about the “on the ground truths” – those things which demand change but remain unspoken and unchallenged. Here’s a start.

Revise the mission of the state department of education away from its current role of compliance monitoring. If “innovations” are deemed acceptable to the agency only to the extent that they perpetuate adherence to learning that is school centered and organized according to traditional school programming, we can’t be surprised by the lack of genuine innovation.

Encourage through legislation and policy level regulations, the transition from manufacturing unionism to professional unionism. Since the passage of the collective bargaining legislation, the evolution of the unionism in the educational sector has, for a variety of understandable and predictable reasons, focused on what is referred to as manufacturing unionism – i.e, wages, benefits, employee job protection, etc. Both the direction of the role of the state agency and the focus of manufacturing unionism have the consequence of insuring the continuation of the status quo. There have been no examples in this age of technology where protection of the status quo has enhanced a company’s/institution’s response to change.

Lastly, it is time to open discussions and responses to what is widely regarded to be a dysfunctional relationship in the governance of school systems. Analyses of successful responses to change continue to reveal that cultures of positive relationships, trust and transparency are fundamental and causal to the introduction and success of innovative practices and institutional change. At the same time, it has become unusual for new superintendents to complete the three year term of their initial contract. It is well past time for the organizations that represent boards of education (NJSBA) and chief school administrators (NJASA) to engage in meaningful discussions aimed at the development and maintenance of of productive, collaborative and sustaining relationships between board members and superintendents.

The challenge facing our state and others throughout the nation is not rooted the state’s funding mechanism. It lies in dealing with realities that we have chosen not to confront. It lies in continuing to insist that “we can’t” when we really mean “we won’t”. We have demonstrated in the years since Abbott v Burke that the issue of improving the learning experiences for our children is less related to funding formulas than it is to our unwillingness to look beyond what we have always done for solutions. We remain “married to malls” when malls are dying.

A change of Pace…

Jay Armstrong GradIt’s that time of year here in NJ… the time for graduations and, naturally, graduation speeches. Having attended, by my rough count, approximately 35 I’ve become a bit jaded. This week, in the district where my wife works, a remarkable young teacher shook me. In the tradition of the district, Jay Armstrong had the opportunity to share his thoughts as a result of his award as Teacher of the Year last year. He is a teacher and a writer. For more pieces of his writing and additional insight into his approach to teaching, I highly recommend that you visit his web site.

I realize that each of us is touched by different things… things rooted in our life experiences. Jay’s words touched me and I wanted to give him the chance to speak to you as well. I’ve reprinted the transcript here.

Note: In the event you’d like to listen to Jay’s talk, here is a link to access the audio file.

Transcript – graduation address, Robbinsville HS

Introduction (or my attempt to get the crowd to listen)

First and foremost, I’d like to thank the rain.

Because like study hall or lunch or AP Literature class I used the rain delay to write this speech.

It has not been proofread.

And most of this is written on napkins I found in the commons.

I’d also like to thank…

Dr. Foster, the Robbinsville High School Administration,  the Robbinsville Board of Education, colleagues, family, friends, returning Ravens and of course the graduating class of 2017…Thank you.

I appreciate it. I really do.

But I have a ask to question…

What do you say to a stadium full of people who really don’t care what you have to say?

It’s the predicament I’m in right now.

Understand, I’m honored to be here.

But I know my role.

I am your impediment.

The longer I talk, the longer it will take for us to enjoy the sweet elixir of summer.

My job is to fill the Robbinsville sky with poignant wisdom and worldly perspective as a capacity crowd collectively thinks…

“I hope this guy doesn’t take too long.”

I know how unforgiving those bleaches are.

How the June sun is currently burning a hole through your retina.

How you have surveyed the parking lot and proclaimed, “we are never getting out of here.”

In fact, as irrational as it sounds, some of you are contemplating ditching grandma and her one good hip and walking home and not returning for your car until August.

So… the question remains…what do you say?

Maybe I’m being a little too critical, a bit hyperbolic. I know there are a few people in attendance who want to hear me.

My wife.  Cindy and I are the American dream …we met in high school, married, bought a house in the suburbs, had 3 adorable children and bought a large SUV that looks like a minivan but it’s really an SUV… I’m sure Cindy would like to hear what I have to say.

My mom is here.

My brother Keith is here… Keith told me that he would only listen if I make frequent allusions to the Beatles and give him an air high 5 when I do.

And statistically, one of the 87 Twamley* boys would like to hear me.

(*the Twamleys are a set of triplet boys in the graduating class)

And that’s about it.

4 people.

In the whole stadium.

My wife. My mom.

Keith as long as I allude to the Beatles and give him air high fives.

And one of the 87 Twamleys.

Let’s breakdown my situation even further…

What do I say to 221 soon to be high school graduates who know everything?

Seriously. You do.

If you didn’t, they wouldn’t let you graduate.

That’s a rule in New Jersey… along with other rules like no left turns and knowing all the words to Springsteen’s Thunder Road… the greatest song ever written.

So there’s you–the class of 2017, the smartest people in the world…

And then there’s everybody else.

To most people here I’m a stranger.

And what stranger wants to hear advice from another stranger especially if the advice-giving- stranger is punctuating their suit with a pair of sneakers.

So what do you say to make people listen when the promise of summer and freedom and adulthood are achingly close?

I’ve been turning over this question for weeks.

Turning over the thought that I will spend hours writing this speech, you will spend minutes sort-of-listening and in seconds everything I say will be forgotten.

Then I realized that this moment we are sharing, right here, right now is a microcosm for life.

Because once you graduate, the world is waiting for you and the world doesn’t really care what you have to say.

The class of 2017, for 12 years, you’ve been groomed in a school district that has put you first, has listened to your voice.

A district that has held your hand, entertained you, coddled you, pampered you, made you feel special.

And in a few minutes, once you graduate and if you ever escape the parking lot traffic… the cruel world will turn to you, laugh at your ideas and tell you to be quiet.

So if this is a microcosm for life, and I was graduating high school today what would I need to hear?

I decided the best way to deliver this speech is by telling two stories.

Two stories that have made me the person I am today.

One from high school, one from adulthood.

Two stories that.. ready for this Keith… “come together” (high five) to teach one lesson I wish I learned when I was 18.

Because at 18, I really could have used the…”Help” (high five)

Do you realize what I just did there?

Do you?

That’s two Beatles allusions in 2 sentences.

 The First Story

The first story goes like this…

I’m 14 years old, sitting in freshman English class pretending not to care. Because that’s what the cool kids do– pretend not care.

My teacher, Ms. Baker, is handing back our essays–an assignment that required us to write as a Puritan woman being falsely tried as a witch.

I don’t like high school much. The lesson are boring and the homework annoying. The only class I can tolerate is English class.

As I tell you this I can hear the clacks of Ms.Baker’s heels on the classroom tile floor.

Ms.Baker arrives, hands me my essay, smiles and tells me I have talent, that I should keep writing.

She spins and clacks away and before I can smile the kid sitting behind me, the middle linebacker on the freshman football team, whispers “loser” in my ear.

Right then in freshman English class I submitted.

Right then I began to distrust myself.

If my high school offered a class on intuition… I’d failed.

For a long time, almost 20 years, I silenced my voice, my desire write and connect to others because I was afraid of what other people might say.

I listened too closely to opinions.

Don’t listen.

I bought the fabrications the world was selling.

Don’t buy them.

 The Second Story

The second story is one that most of the graduating class is familiar with.

On the first day of the school year I decide that instead of handing out a syllabus, or introducing classroom procedures I would simply to tell a story.

A story that I hoped had enough drama to hold the attention of a room full of angsty 12th graders.

This year I introduced my students to the writing strategy known as full circle.

Full circle is also a band from Central New Jersey currently on hiatus. They have lovely album called “This Long Used Trail”  available on Spotify and Soundcloud.

In fact….As you wait in post graduation traffic in your SUV that looks like a minivan but is not a minivan, you just need extra cargo space to fit your kid’s beach toys… you should check them out.

To model the full circle strategy it’s only fitting on the last day of school I tell the same story I told on the first day of school which only seemed like… “Yesterday “ ( high 5)

Class of 2017… this might blow your mind…on the first day of class, while you were admiring each other’s tan……I was writing the end to our story.

All at once I was saying, “Hello, goodbye” (high five).

No, Joe Natalie*…

(a student who, after a rousing lecture on Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Road… if I was God.)

I am not God…

I am the Walrus (Keith … high five)

Senior English…


What… What…

The second story goes like this…

It’s March 2010.

I’m in my car driving south on 95, into the heart of Philadelphia.

After muscling through evening traffic I find myself on North 20th Street, a block away from the Philadelphia Public Library.

I get of my car, shut the door, turn up my coat collar to the whipping wind and walk south along North 20 Street.

At the corner of Vine Street I hook a left, climb a flight of stairs and find myself in the quiet warmth of the Public Library.

I cross a marble floor, move down a staircase, into an auditorium to see and listen to my literary hero- whose words strengthened my beliefs on writing, storytelling and love and beauty and the purpose of life.

For 90 minutes  author Tim O’Brien, writer of The Things They Carried, read from his novel and talked about it. He fielded questions and gave writing advice to novice writers like myself.

Then it was over.

I exit the library, hook a right onto North 20th and march into the howling wind.

I progress up North 20 with the library is on my immediate right.

When I look over to my right… I see Tim O’Brien, alone, leaning against the library, under the throes of a lamp light, smoking a cigarette.

I stop.

I turn toward him.

I must be 30 feet from Tim O’Brien, my literary hero.

I step forward.

29 feet.

Like some anxious fanboy I turn over all the things I’m about to say to him.

28 feet.

I reach into my bag and pull out my copy of The Thing They Carried. One of the most important books of the 20th century.

27 feet.

It’s at 27 feet where I got nervous. Where I began to distrust myself.

I take a step back.

28 feet.

What would I say to a stranger that is compelling and interesting? What do I say that would inspired him to listen?

29 feet.

The march wind whips my back. Why would a ground breaking author waste his time with me?  What if he told me to shut up and go home?

I slip my copy of The Things They Carried into my bag and turn and head north, and open my car door and drive home and pull into my driveway and crawl into my bed and realize in a way I’m still 14, still sitting in freshman English class, still distrusting myself.

Class of 2017, there will be many fine chapters in your book. Stories of victory, love and pride.

Scoring your dream job.

Feeling the love while slow dancing to Lil Wayne’s “How to Love” at your dream wedding.

And the swell of pride felt when you buy an SUV that looks like a minivan but is an SUV so your family can enjoy the extra leg room.

But those chapters are often short.

The chapters where sadness, regret, shame are the subjects are the longest, hardest to finish yet they are the stories that make life interesting.

They’re interesting because they test your intrinsic commitment.

My two stories are about regret and judgment and distrusting myself.

Yet I’m so grateful for them, for what they taught me–how you must endure difficulties to find out who you are and what you stand for.

For the last four years you’ve been a cliché.

A brain. An athlete. A basket case. A princess. A criminal.

You’ve played a stock character in a stage production.

But what will you do now?

Those cliches are cute in high school and movies about high school but in the reality of adulthood cliches are boring and uninspiring.

Intuition does not get easier with age.

Self-reliance comes with a real cost.

And a fear of judgement lingers long after high school.

I can only hope that you find the courage to trust yourself, to take the risk to be heard.

You’re impressionable–miles away from figuring out who you are and yet you’re about to change in immense and unknown ways.

Change for yourself and what you believe is right for you.

Trust your change.  

Like this speech, high school will end. Your graduation gown will lie in rags at your feet. And adulthood will begin.

But your identity, your voice, your story is just taking shape and important questions await…

What will be the subject of your next chapter?

Will you be a minor character in your own life?

Will your story be the thing that connects you to others?

It’s so easy to plagiarize your life.

Don’t do it.

It’s so easy to believe your own fiction.

Don’t believe it.

Before I go…

I challenge you…

To relax.

Trust yourself.

Avoid cliches.

Be authentic.

And toil until you to find the courage to tell your story with absolute allegiance to your truth.

Finally, I have a last request…

To quote the ancient Detroit philosopher Eminem…

If you had one shot, one opportunity to

seize a picture  with the class of 2017

would you capture it or just let it slip?”


Class of 2017 and everyone in attendance…

It’s been an honor and privilege…

Good luck with the traffic, thank you and be well.


A video is worth lots of words

Took a bit of a “clear my head” break.   I’ve been working on a white paper dealing with some of the implications of our current practices and our culture on the future of public education as we experienced it as students, parents, and educators. As a boater and fisherman, I found myself seeing the current direction as a kind of “Perfect Storm”. I’m hoping it ends better.

As a spoiler alert, the white paper and any related shorter pieces that appear here are likely to be more challenging than uplifting. Stay tuned.

Following a pattern I now recognize as normal, I was knee deep in crafting the paper when suddenly I realized that the universe wanted a detour. I had been reflecting on a pair of slides that I saw in a presentation by Yong Zhao in which he depicts the current role of schooling throughout much of the world and contrasts this with what he argues to be the “right thing” for education. I hope you’ve had the chance to get to know Dr. Zhao and his work. If not, I hope you’ll check out his work here.

Zhao narrow funnel

Zhao expanding funnel.png

As you can see from his second slide, Zhao is calling for a new paradigm for educating our children… one which moves well beyond the current narrow focus on academic standards and large-scale assessments.

I was feeling pretty good that my memory actually worked as it should and that it had gotten me back to Zhao’s slides.  Basking in my own self-congratulations was not to be, however, as I saw a notification that a new post had been placed on one of my Facebook groups.

Here’s what the universe wanted me/us to see. It’s very short…

This kind of caring doesn’t happen by accident. Why were you supposed to see this today? Is it a challenge? An affirmation?

School Choice… A new definition


Illustration of Pogo quote by Walt Kelly, 1970

As some of you know, I’m a fan of Jan Resseger and  her blog.

Jan is a staunch supporter of equitable access for all to a quality education. She has been following and writing about the impact of a largely under-regulated charter school “industry” and, more recently, about the push by the current administration to move the voucher, privatization agenda. I would like to offer some additional thoughts for consideration.

Pogo’s not right but he may be on to something. In the discussion of choice, vouchers, charters, etc. we are not THE enemy, but we are not always our own best friends.

In the time I’ve been writing this blog, I’ve found myself returning to a theme. It stems from work done by Peter Drucker and Russell Ackoff. Drucker wrote that a focus on efficiency involves a commitment to doing things right; however, a focus on effectiveness involves doing the right thing.

As our world seems to move/change with increasing speed, the expectation for leaders to solve problems quickly has too frequently been at the expense of the need to define the problem correctly. Doing the right thing, for me, involves spending sufficient time to get a clear picture of the problem – i.e., moving beyond solutions that are targeting symptoms and focusing on the identification of the root cause, the core issue.

Repeating Peter Drucker’s thinking about the difference between doing things right and doing the right thing, I wonder what would happen to our national conversations on public schooling, if we conceded the possibility that the choice, voucher, privatization discussions have, as their focus, the need to “do school” better. But what if “doing school better” is a symptom?

Taking this a step further, I wonder what our debate might look like if we seriously explored the possibility that the question is not whether or not charter schools, private schools or public schools are better schools but whether the concept of school as we have experienced it is still the appropriate vehicle for insuring a quality education for our kids.

In my work I’ve spent time in private, public and charter schools. In each category, some are better than others. But they are all a pretty recognizable variation of school. Regrettably, and regardless of label, too many represent a form of “marching backwards into the future.”

Is it conceivable that we are getting deeper into what Drucker described as trying to do the wrong thing righter?   Is it conceivable that “choice” might be the right word, but is being applied too literally and too narrowly?

What would happen if we committed to building our public system around choice? Not choice defined as expanded number of course options within a structure that has changed little in 100+ years. Not the false choice of allowing parents/students to attend another school within the district. Not the ideological driven “portfolio” approach to school diversification.

What would happen if we defined choice as building learning around the needs and interests of the learners? About providing choices of learning within our schools that can occur both within and beyond the walls of a building? What if parents didn’t feel that they had to change schools in order to exercise choice… that choice was central to the ways kids learn in their local, public school?

This is not simply an intellectual exercise.

  • The media is overflowing with reports of district budget crises in both urban and rural districts. Combining this with the success of Grover Norquist and friends have had in labeling any and all taxes as bad, we are seeing the acceleration of funding shortfalls in schools throughout the country.
  • The current examples of choice have resulted in a landscape littered with the hulks of buildings half-empty or abandoned in our urban centers.
  • The current examples of choice have resulted in, and continue to result in, yet one more form of white flight.
  • The current system of underfunding schools and further reducing their resources through monies diverted via voucher, opportunity scholarships, tax credit programs, etc., is not sustainable. What if we look at the urban and rural funding dilemma as the “canary in the coal mine”?

Stephen Covey pointed out that we have gotten quite good at managing the day to day, hour by hour issues dealing with efficiency, focusing on the here and now. He pointed out further that Day-Timers and calendar apps are not a sufficient replacement for the compass, the tool that helps us stay on course as we travel. We need a compass check.

We, and here I mean those of us working in schools, need to confront the possibility that the structures and organizations that we’ve enjoyed as students and have labored in as teachers are neither capable of meeting the needs of the majority of our young people nor are they sustainable in their present form.

We need to confront the possibility that schooling best meets the needs of students whose life circumstances make them best suited to success based on the measures of success that we currently use.

We need to confront the possibility that one of the biggest threats to the system as we have come to know it is our own unwillingness to accept that there is a threat… and that the solution does not involve winning the battle of charter/private school choice options, but in the creation of choice options within our schools. It does not involve emulating programs that have been successful maintaining and verifying the performance of the already successful, but in finding the openness and acceptance necessary to make things like student agency, micro-school options, interest, competency, and community-based learning the defining drivers in the school culture.

To avoid this “right thing” issue is to insure the continuation of arguments over how to make the wrong thing better.

Some time ago, a young teacher asked me what she needed to do to be successful on her path to promotion. I suggested that, although it wasn’t written down anywhere, I had come to realize that as an administrator in such circumstances I found myself asking two questions… (1) Why should I hire this person? Or (2) How can I not hire this person? I suggested that she needed to work at making the second question the only one an interviewer would ask.

While there are numerous arguments possible about the value of school choice, privatization, vouchers, etc., the discussion may miss the larger issue. Why should my child have to relocate in order to enjoy the choices that we know are critical to the kinds of learning opportunities that our young people need and deserve? And, perhaps, most importantly, “How can I not send my child to my local public school?”

What’s next…

  • What kinds of choices do kids have in your school?
  • How would you rate them?  Real world, important, pretty superficial?
  • How might you offer more choice to your students? In your class? In your school? In your district?
  • What are the obstacles to offering greater choice? In your class? In your school? In your district?
  • What questions would you add to this list that might enhance the discussion?


Beliefs Point theWay

compassNote: This post is long… It may require one or more adult beverages.  

It draws heavily on the work of Will Richardson. If his words and thinking resonate with you, you might be interested in checking out these sites: Modern Learners and Will Richardson’s blog . Also, my thanks to Eric Fiedler, the principal at Lacey Elementary School here in NJ.  He is a consummate adult learner.  His questions, his curiosity and his reflections continue to be a guiding voice in my explorations of leadership.   This piece  is much better for his willingness to collaborate. 

As is now becoming the norm for my writing, this piece, too, started out as something different. I had planned to make the transition from the recent focus on leadership to an exploration of Will Richardson’s contributions to the discussions about the need to move beyond “schooling” to a focus on how do we cause powerful learning. The beginning of what has evolved here remains pretty true to that intent; however, once again, life intervened.

In a recent conversation with Eric, he mentioned that he was now beginning to ponder how he might open the conversation with his staff about the dissonance between the current focus driven by federal/state mandates (dominated by the emphasis on accountability, assessments and test scores) and the need to focus conversations and intentional actions on what kids need to know, be like and be able to do in order to be life ready. He is an excellent school leader and has clearly (and successfully) lived a commitment to caring conversations, the building of strong relationships as well as to the development of a sense of trust and safety for both kids and adults alike. In spite of this, he expressed concerns that his message of the need for reorienting school-wide actions with core beliefs would be heard by the staff as a message of failure, a message of disappointment with their efforts, a feeling of “not good enough”.

I asked if he would join me in the development of a plan that might serve as guidance not only for his work but also for others struggling with similar concerns. What you’ll be reading is the blending of two perspectives: mine, seen largely through the perspective of my coaching role and his, reflecting his daily, on the ground experience leading a school in today’s environment.

A word of caution: In my years working with the International Center for Leadership in Education (ICLE) I often heard Bill Daggett emphasize in his talks that each school has “its own DNA”.   What that means is that no model plan will fit each school. What we are looking for as we write are guidelines for a journey, knowing full well that in one school the steps may have already been accomplished and in others that same step may require much greater attention.

The Beginning – Context

In my world context is king. There is growing consensus that the context for the work we are proposing is defined more or less by the following:

  • This is a time of incredible frustration for educators. The longer you’ve been engaged in the work, the more panaceas you’ve experienced, the more distrustful you’ve become of the next greatest solution.
  • The latest panacea – the reform of schools based on the standards/assessment focus – began in the 1970 and was raised to an art form in 2003 with the implementation of NCLB.
  • When this panacea didn’t bring about the desired results, the reformers quickly identified teachers as the root cause of the disappointing student achievement, ignoring all research identifying the role of poverty and class and its correlation with student performance.
  • Alternatives to so-called urban “failure factories” in the form of charter schools and, most recently, voucher and choice initiatives further build upon and reinforce the narrative of ineffective public schools, lazy teachers, and inflexible teacher unions.
  • Within this landscape, there is growing awareness that the policies of the past decade or so have resulted in the lack of time and, sometimes, resources to respond to a growing awareness of the disconnect between what our kids need and what we are being told to provide.
  • The dominant response this context has been fear and compliance. It has also been the devotion of energy to the protection of the system that has been the passion of so many educators, teachers and leaders alike.

It is against this backdrop and within this context that leaders find themselves looking for ways to encourage a fresh look at how we might bring our beliefs about kids and learning into closer connection to our actions and practices.

This post is based on the belief, as well as the examples we have seen, that there is an alternative to the fear, compliance, and self-protective responses. It involves:

  • Moving beyond the fear-based “circle the wagons” response;
  • Moving beyond the comfort of “this is how we’ve always done it”;
  • Revisiting the beliefs that we hold about kids and learning to reinforce with and for another the “why” of our commitment to kids and learning;
  • Collectively and collaboratively identifying practices and policies which are inconsistent with our beliefs and which, in some instances, actually inhibit the realization of these beliefs.

Summary – Context and implications

  1. The leader must establish a common understanding of the context in which we, as educators, find ourselves.
  2. The leader must establish that this context has too often encouraged us to lose focus on our core beliefs and to “hide in our rooms” rather than do the work of aligning our practices with our beliefs.
  3. The leader must establish a commitment to a identifying and doing what Peter Drucker has called the “right thing” in contrast to simply trying to do bad ideas better.

Note: A critical steps in this process involves the development of a collective commitment to understanding of what it is like to be in the shoes of the “other” (whether that “other” be kids, parents, fellow teachers, or school leaders) at this time of intense pressure and waning support.

Moving Beyond Context

In a previous post, I shared that that the primary cause of falling into the trap of  focusing on doing things right rather than doing the right thing is the tendency of organizations to allow the desire for efficiency and convenience to gradually and often imperceptibly move us away from our beliefs.  For example,  while we believe (and have strong supportive research) that all kids (and adults) are different – that they learn in different ways, and at different rates – we have developed organizational practices and patterns which conflict with this belief.

A while back I shared with you a slide from a TED Talk given by Will Richardson in Vancouver. This is an exceptional talk and I would urge you to take the 16 minutes to look at it. It offers a great explanation of the challenges facing us as we look at moving beyond “schooling” to learning. Richardson’s talk along with several by Ken Robinson offer us language that we can use to help the members of our education community recognize that ‘marching backwards into the future’ holds no promise for our students and adds increasingly to the frustrations of our teachers.


Step 1 – Working though the belief process – one approach

But beyond adding to the depth of our conversations about context, Richardson’s talk also highlights the ways in which beliefs and practices are too frequently in conflict.  The slide I previously shared from Richardson’s presentation was one which combined two concepts that he was using to introduce his talk.

Richardson shared that in his years traveling the world to visit schools and do presentations, he has asked over 50,000 people to describe the conditions where deep learning occurs╔ learning that is productive, learning students engage with and which they will remember. I want to take a look at the two concepts here separately.

Richardson’s first slide lists the most frequent and most consistent responses to the question “What are the conditions that are present when we experience deep, powerful learning?”

Screen Shot 2017-05-08 at 9.11.55 AM


On this next slide, Richardson lists what most of his audiences (and I suspect you as well) have listed as the conditions which actually exist in most schools.

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Gap Analysis

Richardson’s two slides about the dissonance between what we know about the conditions for deep powerful learning and the actual conditions under which such learning takes place in schools seem an excellent starting point. In ‘olden’ days this used to be known as “gap analysis”,  looking at the difference between “what is” and what “we wish” and looking at ways to close that gap.

Example: Look at the first few conditions that Richardson identifies as being at odds with the conditions that promote powerful learning – sitting in rows, fixed time blocks of 45/60/88 minutes, one sized curriculum, one subject area focus, aged grouped co-learners. And now we come back to the role of leadership. Without the relationships, trust, and followership that we explored in earlier blogs, a serious discussion of the gaps between our beliefs and our actions is unlikely. Suggestions (or worse, mandates) for eliminating or modifying these result in responses dominated by fear and self-preservation of the status quo – i.e., the safe and familiar. At best, one gets compliance and another ‘program’ that staff members can add to the already too long list of things “we used to do”.

And so the first step in that “belief gap analysis journey” comes back to an understanding of leadership and an assessment of the current culture of the building.

In the best of all worlds, the school has a great culture, one where the relationships are deep and caring, the levels of trust high, and the sense of safety and openness to risk taking are pervasive. But what if they’re not? How do I deal with obstacles when the culture in my building is less than ideal? Perhaps I’m new to the building and have inherited the results of less effective leaders. Perhaps my previous behaviors have contributed to the culture and I lack confidence in the level of “followership” in the building.

As we’ve explored such possibilities and reflected on the places we╒ve seen where such obstacles exist, we decided offer two approaches. The first of these is based on schools in which the desired culture of trust and safety has been successfully formed and nurtured.

The second approach is geared to places where there isn’t sufficient trust and safety to move beyond responses that would be characterized by fear, self-preservation, protection of the status quo, etc and involves the need to work on two fronts: the development of the desired components of a positive culture and the commitment to what we call “little bets”. The work in such circumstances is not necessarily harder, but it is slower.

Once the context for the discussion has been established, a leader’s next step in the process of developing understanding and commitment to the ways in which the school as learning community might approach discussions relating to the need to align beliefs and actions is an honest assessment of the culture.

If the DNA supports and nurtures a culture of trust and safety, productive and  meaningful discussions with the entire staff are possible and, most frequently, welcomed.

If the DNA of your school does not include a pervasive culture of safety and trust, it is unlikely that whole staff discussions of beliefs and practices will lead to much.

In short, where the school’s DNA does not include a wide spread culture of strong leader/staff relationships or a culture characterized by feeling of trust and safety, it is possible to engage smaller numbers of ready and willing staff in conversations of context and belief/action consistency. Not only does this move the issue of belief/action resonance along, it also provides onlookers with the opportunity to reassess their concern about trust and safety.


  • Establish the context for moving beyond compliance with the so-called “reform culture”.
  • Make use of the many resources like Richardson, Robinson, Kohn, etc. to help make the case of moving beyond the focus on “schooling” to a commitment to deeper, more powerful learning.
  • Assess the degree of staff readiness – i.e., is the culture of relationships, trust, and safety strong enough to engage the entire community in the discussion of beliefs and the completion of a “gap analysis” – i.e., the dissonance between beliefs and current policies and procedures.
  • Begin the work of belief alignment

Strong cultures

  • Engage the entire staff and community in the process
  • Reaffirm beliefs – Richardson’s list of conditions provide a good starting point; Clark Adlrich’s purposes for school –  i.e., help kids learn how to learn, learn how to do, and learn how to be –  are also an excellent starting pointIdentify intentional practices which are consistent with the beliefs and which will reflect themIdentify the practices which inadvertently impede progressIdentify actions that will enhance the supportive practices and eliminate or modify those which are counterproductive

Weaker cultures –

Immediately and longer term –

  • Commit to introducing and enhancing practices that lead to cultures characterized by the strong, trusting relationships, and the sense of safety required to encourage risk taking behaviors.

Immediately and shorter term

  • Begin the process of seeding small bets –
  • Identify staff members who are regarded as leaders – i.e., they have attracted followers
  • Personally invite them to an informal meeting at which you indicate you wish to engage them in a conversation about the context that you’ve previously shared
  • Schedule and publicly announce the general topic of the meeting along with an open invitation for interested parties to attend
  • Engage the participants in the Richardson task of identifying conditions that support learning as well as the conditions that exist in the school.
  • Invite engaged participants to participate in one or more “little bet” initiatives aimed at closing the gap between beliefs and school practices and policies.

Caveat – the activities of their “bet” cannot disrupt the lives of those not involved in the initiative. In an earlier blog earlier blog I referenced the Apollo School in York, PA. This “school within a school” or micro-school exists within a larger high school and serves as an excellent example of the ways in which little bets can provide “test kitchens” for ideas without negatively impacting the less adventurous.

What next?

This is a pretty long piece.  There are more details that we can share; however, what to share would be best determined by you, the reader.  If you would like to dive deeper into any of the steps or thoughts in this plan overview, let us know and between the two of us, we’d be happy to continue the conversation.

Be well.