Sunday, May 26, 2019

The Challenges Educators Face

We live in amazing times.  Technology, most specifically social media, has flattened the world. Remember when we had to get all of our professional literature and information from journals, books, conferences, over the phone, or people that we came in direct contact with? Educators now have access anytime from anywhere to people, ideas, resources, strategies, and feedback.  As much as this has been a game-changer for so many, we now have better access to research and evidence of improved student outcomes to really hone in on the types of changes that are needed in classrooms, schools, and districts across the world. 

Even with all the positives associated with what I listed above, the truth of the matter is that much of it doesn’t matter when the realities educators face are not given the attention that they deserve.  Just because something sounds good on Twitter and during a keynote or looks good on Pinterest and Instagram does not mean whatever is being promoted will work. Context matters. Finances matter. Facilities matter. Staffing and community support matter.  I have been blessed to not only deliver keynotes and workshops but also to facilitate job-embedded coaching on a long-term basis. It is the latter component of my work where I see firsthand the challenges educators are facing regardless of zip code.  This work has provided me with a more empathetic lens and has allowed me to tailor and personalize the coaching process as well as the feedback that is delivered.  

Image credit: NEA Today

How I see things is still limited and can be influenced by bias. Now don’t get me wrong. I see some significant obstacles and challenges thanks to the long-term work I am engaged in. However, I wanted to move beyond me and focus on the people who are in the trenches on a day to day basis.  This led me to pose a question on Twitter, asking educators to share their particular challenges.  You can see the tweet below. 

Here is a summary of the majority of the responses:
  • Fear of failure and willingness to fail forward
  • Helping educators understand and integrate maker-centered learning
  • Helping teachers and leaders break down silos and understand it is not a competition but a concerted push to provide students with learning experiences they need.
  • Effective strategies to remind adults we are preparing kids for the future not the adults for the future
  • The mental health of students. We don’t have the support needed for emotionally or mentally challenged students that are in the regular education class.
  • Dedicating time to fortify universal instruction and systematic procedures while continuing to attend to the intensive needs of the high volume of kids in crisis & experiencing trauma.
  • Inspiring high school students to choose teaching as a profession.
  • Attracting the best and brightest to the field
  • Boys’ achievement and engagement. There is a considerable disparity at present in our school across all years.
  • Finding the balance between "meet students where they are" and "getting them where they need to go." Many educators are clear on the former, then handhold & scaffold low expectations. Others are better at the latter then lose a good % of their class by not differentiating enough.
  • Lack of alignment of educational institutes knowledge with the practical world. Educational institutions are preparing the future leaders, and due to lack of such coordination they fail to groom themselves as per new emerging trends and increase their absorption level in industry.
  • Work-life balance 
  • Implementing Innovative student-centered learning that improves outcomes 
  • Matching sustainable grading practices that reflect learning
  • Empowering teachers and maintaining alignment to mission, vision, curriculum, etc.
  • Feeling genuinely supported in taking risks and being innovative in the classroom.
  • Students not taking responsibility. Even taking responsibility for picking trash up that they dropped.
  • Inclusion and REAL collaborative teaching... integration of universally designed practices to help all students (which covers social justice, restorative practices, SEL) and somehow helping more teachers embrace that accommodations are not cheating.
  • Screen time for students
  • Making technology purposeful, not just tech for the sake of it
  • Students don’t hold the information anymore as they can get it anywhere. There is a need to teach them not only to access safely and critically but also to apply and construct new knowledge.
  • Motivating digital immigrant teachers and administrators to have a growth mindset to try new strategies and tools.
  • Using interactive whiteboards like projectors
  • Teacher-student ratio
  • Principals seem to be regretting their decision to go into leadership as they have too much on their plate and not enough time. More supports are needed.
  • There is always a new program being purchased. It's used for a few years and then discarded, leading to a high level of initiative fatigue.
  • Real evaluation and accountability
  • School overcrowding, support of libraries by districts, and limited access to libraries
  • Principals with control issues
  • Antiquated buildings, facilities, and resources
  • Ideas that don’t align to consider the realities educators have to deal with
  • Drive-by, one and done professional development that is not on-going, job-embedded, aligned to research, have evidence to back up the investment and lacks accountability for growth.
There are a lot of challenges listed.  What would you add to the list above? 

By putting these and others front and center, efforts can be made to develop practical solutions. Before any new change or mandate, considerations have to be made as to the feasibility (and sustainability) of the idea, strategy, or investment.  Case in point. If you are asking teachers to differentiate instruction on a daily basis, class size and resources matter. Or if you are committed to blended learning, then a combination of pedagogical change as well as updated spaces is needed. It behooves all of us to consider reality when ideas are presented, whether through social media, workshops, professional development days, in books, or during keynotes and presentations.  The struggle for many is real, and they need our support.

Sunday, May 19, 2019

The Relationship Between Failure and Success

In life, there are certain truths. One of these is that to succeed, many times, you must first fail. Obviously, this is not always the case, but if you are like me and many others, success doesn’t come easily or on the first try.  Learning to ride a bike is one of many great examples that proves my point.  The process begins with training wheels to build up confidence, get a feel for pedaling, and learning how to brake.  Watching a child zip around on his or her bike at this stage is exhilarating, yet an anxious experience because of what comes next. Then the real challenge and test of resolve begin when the training wheels are removed.  Anxiety on the part of the adult sets in while fear and self-doubt creep into the mind of the child.  I can vividly remember falling numerous times. In the end, though, each failure became a building block for eventual success.

The point of the bike story and countless others is that failure should not weigh us down and in turn, prevent or obscure a pathway to success.  To this day, my personal and professional lives are fraught with varying degrees of failure.  However, I know full well that I would be in a much different place today in both regards if I looked on these experiences as negative and constantly dwelled on them.  This is not to say that I never did both. Sometimes it is hard to get over the hump when we don’t believe in our abilities and ideas. In the end, though, it all comes down to mindset and learning from mistakes.

There is a distinct relationship between failure and success. William Arunda sums it up nicely:
“Failure is not a step backward; it’s an excellent stepping stone to success. We never learn to move out of our comfort zone if we don’t overcome our fear of failure. The most progressive companies deliberately seek employees with track records reflecting both failure and success. That’s because someone who survives failure has gained invaluable knowledge and the unstoppable perseverance born from overcoming hardship.”
To succeed, you must accept that the chances are you are going to fail first. We have seen this lesson time and time again from famous failures throughout history.  The relationship between the two imparts some valuable lessons, which can influence our behavior now and well into the future.  Below are some essential learnings from failure and success:
  1. Determination is the fuel. You will get knocked down. The question is, will you get back up? Try and try again until you achieve the result you and others want.
  2. Use failure as a valuable form of feedback, which can lead to improvement and ultimate success.
  3. An agreement with ourselves to face fear head-on to tackle obstacles and challenges that are always part of the equation. Ignoring or shying away will always result in outcomes that are not favorable or acceptable in the long term.
  4. Mistakes are opportunities to learn. The key is not to make the same mistake twice.
  5. Consistent effort makes all the difference. 
There is a lot more that can be learned from this relationship.  After focusing at the individual level, it is essential to look beyond ourselves and towards the bigger picture.  System-wide success hinges on viewing change as a process, not an event. As the adage goes, there is no “I” in team.  Failure and success then become a shared responsibility where the “downs” are worked through, and the “ups” are collectively celebrated. In the end, we either sink or swim together in schools and organizations.  The choice is yours.  

Sunday, May 12, 2019

Zoning in on Change

The comfort zone is the great enemy to creativity; moving beyond it necessitates intuition, which in turn configures new perspectives and conquers fears. - Dan Stevens

There are many impediments to the change process. One of the biggest culprits is fear.  Many times, this either clouds our judgment or inhibits our motivation to take needed risks to both challenge and upend the status quo.  In other cases, we might be afraid of failure.  I often reflect upon how, throughout the course of history, many of society’s most celebrated success stories went through the heartache and letdown of not succeeding at first.  To put it bluntly, these famous failures have influenced our current lives in countless ways.  In their eyes, the act of failing was a catalyst to learn from mistakes and eventually implement ideas or create solutions that have fundamentally changed the world. Henry Ford said it best, “Failure is the opportunity to begin again more intelligently.” 

Another factor that has a negative impact on change is contentment.  An aspect of human nature is that when we are in a state of comfort, there is no real urgency to do something differently or better.  These mental habits lead to the creation of comfort zones that we rarely step outside of. Why should we if everything is great, right?  Or so our mind has us believe in a false dichotomy. The result is that we often then reside in a zone that is most comfortable, resulting in risk-averse behavior that impedes personal and professional progress.  What typically morphs are fallbacks on some of the most dangerous phrases in any profession such as that’s the way we have always done it, or it’s always worked this way. 

Comfort and fear are intimately connected. Whether separate or together they represent zones that many of us fall into and have trouble at times finding a way out of no matter how hard we try.  They work as powerful forces to keep us in respective lanes that are perceived to provide benefits, either individually or at the organizational level.  The reality though is that these zones hold us, and those who we serve, back.  For change to become business as usual and something that is pursued when needed, it is crucial that we identify where we are currently. The image below provides not only a great visual but also some critical context as to how we can put more energy into zones that lead to changes in practice. 

The main idea here is to find comfort in growth. As you look at the elements depicted in the image above, where do you see yourself dedicating the most time and energy? Be careful not to look at this as black or white.  There is a great deal of gray in each of the zones above.  I for one have added many additional elements through reflection to help move the majority of my efforts to learning and growth.  Consider developing questions aligned to each, using stems such as why, how, when, and what.  Improvement and ultimate success in the endeavors we are engaged in rely on acknowledging the zone where we spend the most time and making consistent efforts to invest more in learning and growth. 

Sunday, May 5, 2019

Recognizing the Digital Assets You Have at Your Disposal

We live in amazing times where readily accessible research and connectivity converge to not only transform practices but also provide the means to share them for the benefit of others.  However, there is a big difference between talk or desire to innovate and an evidence base that illustrates an actual improvement grounded in better outcomes.  Now, I am not saying that real results don’t exist.  On the contrary, I have seen this firsthand from some fantastic educators whose schools I have been blessed to work with on a long-term basis in the role of job-embedded coach.  I have also been blessed to observe great examples that members of my Personal Learning Network (PLN) make available on social media. My point though is that there is definitely room for growth in terms of validating all the talk with substance.

We should all want to do better in this area as the field of education needs more practical strategies that are weaved into the rhetoric.  I am all for a great story that pulls at different emotions. When it is all said and done though, the teacher and principal in me wants a good dose of reality that clearly moves from the “why” to the “how” and “what” of the implementation process. The talk will only take us to a certain point.  The same goes for other avenues that are more popular than ever. Fancy images, catchy videos, and verbal hyperbole don’t go nearly far enough in articulating how change is being successfully implemented in ways that align to curriculum, standards, evaluation systems, varying socio-demographics, and budget constraints.  Together, educators can change this and help move the profession where it needs to go.

The digital world provides each and every one of us the means to show in detail how change and innovative practices are being implemented successfully despite the many challenges faced in classrooms, schools, and districts across the world. Talking about what has been done and the act of telling others what they should do has to be followed by showing what the strategy or practice actually looks like when successfully implemented.  Here is where educators can collectively show, not tell, how innovation and change have or are improving outcomes.  It begins with a focus on improving teaching, learning, and leadership followed by utilizing an array of digital assets at every educator’s disposal to share and amplify.  

Image credit: CATSY

Below I go into each in detail and how you might better leverage one or all. 


There is nothing easier than whipping up a tweet or update to be posted on Facebook or LinkedIn.  Text represents a great way to get ideas and strategies out there quickly and easily. The one downside with Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn is that posts are relatively brief and often short on needed context vital to help educators deeply understand how to implement a strategy or concept. Blog posts are a great option to get into the nitty-gritty of change. More on this later.


A simple strategy to add more context to tweets and social media updates is to add a hyperlink to supporting research, mainstream media pieces, blog posts, or other resource sites. Artifacts such as assessments, lesson plans, unit plans, projects, and examples of student work can easily be converted to a sharable link using Google Docs. Links to your resources and work can be archived and annotated using a social bookmarking tool such as Diigo


Here is where you can really begin to leverage digital assets. Many of the shortcomings associated with just sharing through text can be overcome using images.  The human brain processes images 60,000 times faster than text.  Instagram by far is my favorite tool for bringing more clarity, detail, and context to what I share online, but Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn all support embedded visuals in any update.  When I coach, I love taking pictures of how educators are scaffolding (questions and tasks) and improving assessments as well as examples of innovative student work that aligns to standards. For curation purposes, you might want to consider either creating a Pinterest account or regularly updating the one you currently have. 


It is hard to imagine a more robust digital asset than images, but video definitely takes the cake. A one-minute video equates to well over one million written words. Think about how any educator can seamlessly film learners working together on a project, how changes to classroom design are being appropriately supported with needed shifts in pedagogy, and ways in which technology is being used in a purposeful fashion to elicit higher-order thinking. It is also a great way to openly reflect on your ideas and successful strategies being implemented in your classroom, school, or district.  I have begun to do this regularly using a combination of Periscope, IGTV, and YouTube. Once my live video is shared on Twitter using Periscope, I then upload the archive to both IGTV and YouTube. The link is then shared across LinkedIn and Facebook. Check out my YouTube channel for all of my reflective videos to date. 


One of the best professional decisions I ever made many years ago was to start a blog.  I consider this my most potent and practical digital asset.  Everything previously discussed can be meticulously woven into a post that moves well beyond the why to also emphasize the how and what.  If you are not blogging, it’s time to get over the hurdle.

In my books Digital Leadership (2nd Edition) and BrandED I go into each of these in great detail as well as provide specific strategies that can be immediately integrated into professional practice. I hope that more educators will take advantage of the digital assets they have available to share their amazing work in ways that are substantive in nature. Together we can show what indeed works, celebrate excellence in innovation,  and change the narrative in the process.