Saturday, April 22, 2017

Adventures in Leadership: Standing in the Gap

This post is written in honor of my 8th graders, who completed their National History Day projects on the theme “Taking a Stand in History”.  Somehow, this morphed into an ongoing joke in our orchestra room, and whenever students grab a music stand, they remind each other to “take a stand”!  Ah, the humor of middle schoolers...

As a leader, you are often faced with a choice of whether to step up and take charge of a situation or stay back and see what happens.  Some leaders like to be up front and be in charge.  There is nothing inherently wrong with this, but it has the potential to limit the rest of the team by not giving them the opportunity to make mistakes and learn themselves.  Other times, leaders can be timid, and shy away from confronting tough situations.  This can leave teams floundering, as they are left to fend for themselves in an unhealthy way.  Several years ago, I was given the advice to filter my desire to step up as a leader through the lens of if it would cost me something personally.  If so, go for it, and be prepared to be the “sacrificial lamb” for whatever might come as a result!  If it doesn’t cost anything, then think hard about why you are wanting to jump up front - is it for your ego, or is it really best for everyone?

While this is a very simplified view of leadership, this advice has come back to me over and over as I continue my journey in educational leadership.  

Leaders have to make decisions...and then deal with the effects!  Whether it is in the form of pushback, relational stress, or simply investing time and energy to make something happen, this is often a sacrifice!  Yet there is beauty in the sacrifice as well.  By standing in the gap, leaders have the opportunity to protect their teams from the full brunt of whatever happens.  They can snuff out the little (and big!) problems before those problems ever get to the point where they affect the rest of the team.  They are giving some of themselves for the sake of others.  And that is a task worth pursuing!

Standing in the gap can be difficult, though.  It takes a lot of resolve, conviction, and energy.  It can be lonely.  Your sacrifice may not even be seen or known by those you are working for!  Often, it would be easier to stay silent.  It would be easier to hope it all works out...or let somebody else step up and deal with all of the backlash.

But there is peace in knowing that you are standing up for what is right and doing what you can.

Today, I had the opportunity to stand in the gap for some of my students.  It wasn’t the world’s biggest issue, but there was a moment in which I knew I had to make a decision, and that it would cost me.  And while it has certainly added stress to my day, I am also encouraged.
...I’m encouraged that others are being empowered to advocate for their students, too!
...I’m encouraged that there is movement on some of the issues, and they are already being fixed!
...I’m encouraged that the backlash hasn’t been nearly as bad as I worried it could be - proof that our minds often go to worst fears which can be unfounded and unreasonable (so STOP worrying so much)!
...I’m encouraged that I actually had the courage to do this.  I don’t think I would have a year, or even six months ago.  But with my #oneword2017 being LEAD, I have become more and more comfortable with different facets of leadership.

These encouragements keep me going when I am dealing with a barrage of emails, phone calls, and tricky conversations.  More opportunities will undoubtedly come, and I hope I will continue to grow in wisdom to know the right times to step up and when to step back, courage to stand up when necessary, and joy to keep smiling through it all!

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Adventures in Leadership: Beginning Reflections

Most of my blog is written to chronicle my adventures as a traveling music teacher.  Lately, though, I have been taking on a new role - that of an educational leader.  This summer, I will be the site leader (basically acting principal) for an elementary school in my district.  Since January, the other leaders & I have been meeting to plan, prepare, and interview staff for our summer school.  In no particular order, here are some of my reflections about the process:

  • The chance to dream is fun!
    So often, I get stuck in my day-to-day at school.  Although we have certain guidelines we must abide by, it has been energizing to realize that I can influence the culture of my building in a big way.  I have spent many hours imagining how I can make the best, most supportive environment possible for students & staff.  I know that it's easier said than done, but I have enjoyed thinking through what makes a great school culture.
  • Having a support system is essential.  Since there are several sites for summer learning in our district, there are several leaders who are working closely together during this planning phase.  We have grown closer together as a team, and I am thankful to work with these amazing people who genuinely care about what's best for kids and are unafraid to work hard for it every day!  As many of us are going through the process of getting our admin license and job hunting, it is also meaningful to have cheerleaders and the support of others who are in the same boat.
  • Try as we might, we can't fix everything. 
    Leaders have limitations, too!  As much as I want to make things perfect, there are certain things about our program that frustrate me that I have no power to change.  This has helped me give grace to my leaders - even in a position with more authority, there are things that are given to us that we can't do anything about.
  • Communication is everything!
    Okay, maybe not everything, but a leader's words often hold more weight than others', both in building people up and also if used negatively.  This has encouraged me to really watch my mouth and do less complaining and less worrying (at least out loud).  On the contrary, it has pushed me to be more positive and more encouraging to those around me.  It has also made me think about how transparent I am with students, parents, and other staff members about my decisions, and how to communicate important information in a way that feels comfortable and non-threatening to others.
  • Aim high, but don't get lost in guilt.
    I have a goal for this summer to be in every classroom every day.  I have a goal to do some kind of intentional positive notes, emails, or phone calls home (not sure of the specifics yet).  I have a goal to get to know all of my students' names and greet them when they me to school every morning.  Will I reach all of these goals?  Probably not 100% of the time.  Situations could come up that eat up my time and prevent me from being as involved with all of the students as I would like to be.  When I shared these goals with a colleague, she encouraged me to back off on my expectations.  I thought about it, but decided that there was no reason for me to lower my goals - as long as I don't beat myself up if I can't reach them all of the time!  I really believe in the value of the ideas I've laid out, so I may as well start each day with the intention of accomplishing these goals.
  • I can lead out of my strengths and in my style.
    As an aspiring educational leader, it is easy for me to look at what others are doing well and try to imitate that.  While I believe we can learn much from others, I need to filter everything through my personality, beliefs, strengths, and style of leadership - otherwise it just ends up seeming fake!  Through this position, I have had others share some strengths they see in me that I don't even notice or think about.  This has helped me see that I am at my best when I am real, and when I forge my own path rather than follow somebody else's.
I have really enjoyed the position so far, and I can't wait to officially meet my staff for the first time in a week!  I will continue to reflect on this new adventure here - thanks for following along with me!

What advice would you give to a new principal or educational leader?

Saturday, April 8, 2017

Find the Force #6 (Genius Hour #6)

It's amazing what happens when you give students a stake in their own education.  That's what our Force Projects are all about (you can read more about our journey at Find the Force #1#2#3#4, & #5)

After several months of hard work, the time came for my students to present their learning through their Force Projects!  We were not able to get through all of the presentations on Day #1, but it was exciting to see what some of the groups came up with.

I was up-front with the students ahead of time that I would not be grading their presentations.  I did not want this to be a big, stressful event, rather a chance for them to talk about their learning without the pressure of a polished final product.  This went hand in hand with our goal to make it about the learning process, rather than a grade (true engagement vs. compliance).  They are being graded, however, on what they learned from others' presentations, as shown through a reflection form they are filling in for each group.

Overall, I would say the presentations were a success!

  • A student-composed song
  • A music board game
  • Blueprints for gloves that would make instruments light up
  • Presentations on the history of music, culture, and instruments
  • A Kahoot game
  • Performances on secondary instruments
  • A homemade ukulele
We also heard students share about the many different directions they started in before settling on their final project.  We heard about the little things they learned through the process - about music, about working together, and about themselves as learners.

Of course, the presentations weren't all perfect, and I like to reflect on what went well and what could be improved in my blogs.  Some things I noticed include:

  • Many of my students were unsure about how to present.  Though we went through some guided thinking about presentations, the basic skills of speaking clearly, facing your audience, and using visual aids rather than just talking were not always present.  I left it wide open because I wanted to reflect the wide range of projects, but I realized that I need to coach my students a little more in the core elements of a good presentation, regardless of what they learned about.  Next time, I will probably also have groups do "practice presentations" for one other group, so they can work out the kinks in the flow.
  • I need to come up with a better workflow for students who have technical aspects to their presentations - our ancient computer means that logging out, logging a new student in, and pulling up their presentation takes a long time, which ended up being wasted as everyone else sat and waited.  Once I had them share their files with me, it worked better to pull it all up from my account.
  • A couple of audience members really struggled with paying attention because they were trying to put a few last-minute touches on their own projects.  In my second period, I made it very clear that we needed to show respect to the presenters, and that seemed to give students permission to hold each other accountable to not sneaking in work time on their projects - they policed themselves very nicely!
One of the most interesting presentations came from a group that actually had very little to show.  They spent most of their time trying to decide what to work on, then switching, then trying something and realizing it was far above their current playing ability, etc.  As a teacher, I struggled with how to guide this group - they were certainly learning a lot of things that didn't work, but I wanted them to settle into something they could explore more in depth.  Granted, they also struggled with working together a bit and did not always use their time very productively.  In their presentation, they took us through their whole journey of all of the things they tried...and that was it.  There wasn't a finished product or happy ending.  It resulted in a very interesting class conversation about how sometimes learning is messy, and it doesn't always take us where we expect.  These students were still able to articulate what they learned from the experience, even though it would not have looked like much on a traditional rubric or grading system.  While I continue to ponder ways of holding groups a little more accountable, I also felt encouraged to see them owning the fact that they didn't have much to show for their time, but they did have a lot of learning they could talk about.

We only got through about a third of the presentations, so I am excited to see what continues to come as more students present!  They really are blowing me away with their creativity and learning - given the chance to explore their interests, many students will go above and beyond what they might for a "normal" school project!  I will finish this post off with some pictures and videos from our first day of presentations:
Homemade ukulele - from scratch!

Musica: Board game including cards with definitions and prompts like,
"Choose a song & person to do a violin/viola/cello battle with!"

Presenting on the history of music
in different cultures!
Student-created Kahoot! about the history of the cello

Students performing on new instruments they learned!

Saturday, April 1, 2017


A word that keeps popping up in my life lately is RISK.  Which seems to go hand in hand with my #oneword2017 of LEAD.

We take risks when we try new things in our classroom.  Sometimes our ideas work great!  And sometimes they fall flat on their faces.

We take risks when we share our stories online.  Some people may love what we are doing!  Some may judge us or leave negative feedback.

We take risks when we invest in relationships.  Often, they are incredibly life-giving!  But people are human, and sometimes they disappoint us.

Lately, I have been feeling called to risk putting myself out there a bit more.  To step out, to step up, and to try things beyond my comfort zone!  That's what leaders do - they have the courage to try new things, even when it's not easy.

Some of my risks have paid off and ended well.  Others haven't.  But in the process, I can't deny what has happened in my character.  I've grown.  I've gained confidence.  I've learned about myself.  And things that used to feel out of my reach aren't quite so scary now.

It's a growing process, and I won't pretend that the disappointments are easy.  Yet I know the journey is bigger than any one moment.  My character, my teaching, and my philosophy are all the result of millions of little moments that have shaped me over the course of my life.  They will continue to add up to guide me to where I need to be in the future.  And that perspective allows me to get back up and continue taking risks.  To keep pushing and learning and growing, knowing that the ups and downs are a part of the bigger picture of me becoming the person and leader that I need to be.

Whether you are on a mountaintop or in a valley right now, don't give up.  Don't stop taking risks!  They are the only way to move forward.  It's worth it.  I am committing to do the same as I continue on my journey to learn to LEAD.