Monday, July 10, 2017

It's Okay to let Your Opinion Develop

Hard as it may be for many of us to accept, it's a reality that some opinions take time to change. We shouldn't' let insecurity creep in when we alter course and make a decision that wasn't ours to begin with.

Abraham Lincoln showed the world that a momentous resolution can take time to develop and it can be exactly the thing not originally intended. His action to emancipate slaves took years to be determined. Lincoln, as Elizabeth Brown Prior points outs in her book titled Six Encounters With Lincoln (2017), "[He] was forced to evolve his thinking [on emancipation] over time, as facts proved his assumptions wrong and popular clamor made his [initial] policies [on emancipation] obsolete."

Historians have rationalized Lincoln's hesitation to free 19th Century slaves (Brown stakes claim to the idea that Lincoln never latched on to the idea of perfect equality among the races). The more common thread among biographers is that he was a cautious politician who looked upon extreme change as harmful to progress. Regardless of the "why" Lincoln waffled on matters as important as freeing slaves, a modern leader can look to Lincoln's change of heart and take solace knowing some decisions do take time to evolve and they may be contrary to what was first decided.

I am no Lincoln but can certainly relate to the way his mind thought through the bold idea of  emancipation. Like Lincoln, I was compelled to drastically shift my position on a complex matter even though I was introduced to strong opinions to which I was encouraged to prescribe (but rejected) from the outset. I'm referring to the topic of student misbehavior and discipline; it is a discussion into which my school district dove over one year ago from my writing this article. I fostered a conversation about discipline and the use of traditional and punitive responses to behavior problems (detention and suspension among the most common). Some believed a complete rollback of suspensions and a replacement program in their stead was the key to effective behavior change. I thought this idea was too bold (it takes me a while to carry out momentous action as I am more into the gradual and steady approach to promoting change). I also didn't see how doing something so drastic and likely so frowned upon by many would lead to improving the culture change I know is important for the health of the school district.

For a variety of reasons, including the wisdom that comes from experience and time, I am now understanding the opinion first laid out that could have me make the sweeping change I didn't think I would ever embrace- eliminating the use of suspension to punish students who misbehave. Perhaps I need to recognize that the evolution of thought, opinion, and decision-making is a natural and human process that we must fully accept and not perceive as weakness? It would serve me and other leaders well to heed Nietzsche's point that “The snake which cannot cast its skin has to die. As well the minds which are prevented from changing their opinions; they cease to be mind.”

This post is part of my "Leadership Lessons From American Presidents" series.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

The Graduation Speech that Brought Some Parents to Tears (Message to the Class of 2017)

Be happy.

And a key to happiness is not being so serious. Most of us are way too serious. Just loosen up a little and don’t worry about what somebody else has to say or think about you. I know that seems easier said than done, and I promise it is probably going to take time for you to feel confident enough for this to happen. But when you’re ready for it, it will be an amazing feeling- The idea that you can just be you and not take yourself too seriously because you don’t care what other people think about you. 

I’m not saying there aren’t times when you have to be serious by the way. And here comes a second key to being happy. There are some serious things we have to deal with. Some of us have health issues. Some of us have (or may have) money problems. Some of us have relationship problems with people around us or people we’d like to love. Some of us have problems with politics. I’m saying that we have to find a way to get outside of our problems because if we get too far sucked in, we’ll stay in an unhappy place.

“I am an old man and have known a great many troubles, but most of them never happened” so said Mark Twain.

How many times have you thought about all the problems that may have happened but didn’t...that you thought were about to happen but didn’t...that you think will happen in the future but probably won’t? Listen to Twain- he thought about a great many troubles, but in the end, most of them never happened.

So just live in the moment. It's really hard not to think into the future or obsess about the past. I struggle with this every day. I think about the things I did wrong in my past. I think about the things that might go wrong in my future. Our thoughts can really control us if we let them. Half the time, the thoughts about our problems are just not real.

Stop and reflect- We don’t even realize when our mind is taking control of us with bad thoughts. It’s not until we get wrapped up in something we totally enjoy, like watching a great movie, going to an awesome concert, that we recognize how the negative energy in our head has control of us a lot of the time.

What were to happen if you simply said to yourself after tonight, “Hey- I’m not going to obsess about the past or the future; I’m just going to think a lot about the things around me, the people I’m with and the things I’m doing right now.”

I’m straight-talking about two keys to happiness here. First- Taking life too seriously leads to being a stressed out, scared, angry, boring human being in bad health. Second- Stop obsessing about the past and future because it will only drag you into a dark place out of which it will be hard to climb.

That’s what I have to share tonight. I really care about all of you so my message is coming to you from my heart. Just as much as independence, maturity, and kindness, so do I want you to come back to Highland Park High School to visit in the days ahead filled with happiness. That’s ultimately what I want from you. Don’t be so serious and enjoy life (without hurting anyone in the process).

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Where and how you Meet With People Matters

Educational leaders have their share of meetings with support staff, teachers, and peer leaders. Where these meetings occur can set the tone for the discussion. Failures and successes when leading meetings have led me to realize the following:

1. Post observation conferences are best facilitated in a teacher's classroom. It's helpful to have a discussion about feedback in a "safe" environment. Student chairs, desks, and the teacher's classroom comforts foster a comfortable setting for what can sometimes be a challenging conversation.

2. Art and music rooms can promote open and engaging discussion. Pictures of artists and musicians on the walls, instruments laying on the floor, and large drawing benches for students can compel meeting participants to feel freer and more creative when brainstorming solutions to tough problems.

3. Where you sit matters. People performing at high developmental levels benefit from collaboration. Sitting side by side when providing evaluation feedback or sharing in the decision making process sends a visual message that you and the individual are professional partners. I am very careful not sit at the head of a conference table when managing meetings. I want participants to recognize me as one of the collaborators helping make the decisions.

Sunday, October 30, 2016

Getting Past Those who Would Subvert- Focus on the Idea, not the Man

Leaders who mean well have nevertheless been forced to confront those who work against them for reasons of jealousy, spite, or zealous ambition. It's a difficult reality leaders must face- Some people just hope a leader will fail for the sake of failing.

Abraham Lincoln was confronted with tests to his leadership throughout his presidency. His treasury secretary, Salmon Chase, continually challenged Lincoln's capability and worked to subvert him from  the start to the finish of his cabinet career. Chase was known to have suffered from a lack of credibility among his friends and colleagues.1 In the last months of 1862, he played a major role in precipitating crises that twice threatened the fragile stability of Lincoln’s cabinet as a result of his ambition and attempts to overcome the need to build his reputation.He was, Goodwin points out in her acclaimed work, "Forever brooding on a station in life not yet reached" and Lincoln had the misfortune of having to manage his secretary's personal weaknesses despite the treasurer's great capabilities.3

Lincoln kept his attention on Chase's treasury initiatives despite the distractions his secretary threw at him, and sometimes contested these strategies if he felt they were wrong. Lincoln “[Focused] on the ideas [and] not the man” when dealing with Chase.4 Concentrating on his insecure cabinet secretary's professional work allowed Lincoln to rise above the pettiness of Chase's social-emotional foibles and keep the treasurer's agitation in check for three years during the height of the civil war. 

Educational leaders face the struggle against those who would see them fail. It would be wise to keep the fight about the ideas and not about the personalities at play. 

This post is part of my "Leadership Lessons From American Presidents" series.

1. The Lehrman Institute, Abraham Lincoln and Salmon P. Chase, Abraham Lincoln's Classroom.  Retrieved from

2. Beard, R. (2014). The rise and fall (and rise) of Salmon P. Chase. The New York Times. Retrieved from

3. Goodwin, D.K. (2006). Team of rivals: The political genius of Abraham Lincoln. New York: Simon & Schuster.

4. Signer, M. (2015). Becoming Madison. New York: Public Affairs

Friday, June 3, 2016

Social Emotional Learning is not Just Something you Hope Sticks on the Wall

One of my greatest flaws as an educational leader was my compulsion to promote new initiatives without considering how they would be institutionalized in the school and sustained over time. I helped my faculty "throw" wonderful ideas on the "wall" but didn't lead them to think about how these ideas would "stick" for the long term.

There are terrific social emotional learning programs on the market. Responsive Classroom, Peace Circles and Tools of the Mind immediately come to mind (CASEL provides a wonderful resource page that describes 23 of these strategies), but elevating these programs to school culture status is as important as bringing them to light from the start.

My failures and success have taught me how important it is to weave social emotional learning into the cultural fabric of the school (i.e. institutionalize). This can be done by:
  1. Installing rituals and routines (Deal and Peterson extensively researched the importance of doing so in their 2009 work)1

    For example- Create a routine at the elementary school that would have children and school personnel engage in a regular community activity at the start of every school day.

    For example
    - Schedule one middle-high school class period per week dedicated to team building activities and small group personal discussion.

  2. Repeat, repeat, and repeat- Don't let much get in the way of consistency and carry on the rituals and routines regardless of intrusions and distractions.

  3. Weave new “language” in everything that is said- Create mantras and make those mantras highly visible by posting them on the walls, video monitors, and publications distributed to the school community.
Carrying the culture forward calls for sustainability. This can be done in part by creating easy-to-read, small, go-to protocol books (social emotional learning “bibles”) that codify strategies. I've sometimes forgotten the importance of documenting those things I want to have passed down the generations. Knowing the culture-change I helped facilitate is memorialized makes gives me a sense of confidence that my successor will recognize the importance of sustaining the culture and will have a guide to help him or her do so.

I've also learned from experience the importance of assigning culture maintenance responsibilities to assigned positions in the school (as opposed to delegating these responsibilities to certain people who may have helped me change the culture from the start). This ensures longevity despite the potential turnover of personnel.

There's no problem with presenting an idea and gauging the reaction. Brainstorming proposals is a good way to get social emotional learning ideas rolling but think of longevity as being as important as the start-up process. "[Make] a single day's work an achievement for eternity" (actress Helen Hayes) and think of the kids who years and years from the present who should reap the rewards of the wonderful culture fostered from the outset.

1. Deal, T. E., & Peterson, K. D. (2009). Shaping school culture: Pitfalls, paradoxes, and promises. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Embrace the Valleys

I take to this quote from Michael Signer's work on James Madison (2015) whenever I hit the rough patch in my educational leadership work:
“Public life is a journey through peaks and valleys. All public leaders find their apotheosis at one time or another; very few can sustain the same achievement, or image, or theme, from one month to the next…” 
Solace in knowing not even the greatest figure heads in history hit the low points as well as the high!

This post is part of my "Leadership Lessons From American Presidents" series.

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Speak Like Miles and Coltrane

I've been speaking in front of large crowds of all kinds of people (students, faculty, parents, peer-leaders, members of communities and others) for 18 years and to this day I cannot bring myself to script a speech. I don't memorize my "lines" either (one of my intelligences is surely not the capacity to memorize big chunks of information) or spend a lot of time preparing what I'm specifically going to say.

What's my problem? Maybe I'm too insecure about my incapacity for memorization and this stymies me from preparing talks for large crowds. It could be laziness. Whatever the malady, I'm resigned to thinking "big picture" about what I will say when I have to speak formally in front of a throng of people; I let the details follow.

Pastor Mike (the Reverend Michael A. Walrond of the famed First Corinthian Baptist Church in Harlem) does the same thing I do, and he thinks of it like this, "I don't write them [sermons]. For me, the construction takes place in the pulpit. I think about the jazz improvisation. For Miles Davis or Coltrane to do improvisation, they knew the instrument, they knew the chords, they knew the keys. For me, it's the same thing..."

You can engage your audience if you know your stuff and have a passion for what you're talking about. This might be the way to effective speech making without formal preparation.