Personalization Starts with Relationships


If ever there were an education buzzword these days, it would be “personalization.”  Everybody wants to personalize the education experience for students.  I think that is a good thing.  Yet while we all might say it, we don’t often stop to really define our terms and describe what we mean.  Often, personalization is associated with particular pedagogies or instructional practices that we deem worthy of the title of personalization.  We might call these “personalization pedagogies.”  Things like design thinking, student adaptive content delivery, personal goal-setting and reflection come to mind as just a few of these so-called personalization pedagogies.

Another way we often think about personalization is with terms like “student ownership” or “student voice.”  This is the idea that education has historically been something we do to young people, as opposed to an experience that students design and shape themselves.  In essence, formal education is the “take your medicine because it is good for you and stop complaining” approach to learning.  If you went through the public school system, you may identify with this arguably negative perception of schools and classrooms.  In any case, our educational institutions are not renknowned for deliberately handing over autonomy and independence to young people.

For me, the true foundation of personalization is neither predominately about instructional strategies or even the degree of student ownership of the learning.  At its core, personalization is about relationships.  It is about students’ sense that the adults, mentors, and teachers in his or her life have a deep, authentic, and abiding belief in their ability as students to learn, grow towards their potential, and find purpose and fulfillment in life.   Students must know that they are loved.  Students must know that we believe in them.

As a principal in San Francisco, I led a high school that held student-teacher relationships at a premium.  Some teachers went by first names with students.  Most teachers shared cell phone information and encouraged students to reach out when they were either stuck with a homework problem or needed support navigating a personal crisis.  I know – most schools would discourage this type of interaction simply out of liability’s sake.  While I myself found some of these practices a little strange at first, over time I became convinced that teachers as a whole make themselves too inaccesible to their students.  In essence, our teachers embraced their role as advisors and life coaches for our kids – informal roles that our best teachers often take but that are rarely formalized or acknowledged as part of our profession.

Personalization was our institutional value that allowed our school to feel less like an institution.  Yes, we insisted on rigor and strong academic content – but it came on a foundation of genuine connection and care.  We held student “defenses” – individualized 60-90 minute presentations with question & answer periods at the end of the year, where each student would share and defend their growth and learning.  If ever there were a “personalizing pedagogy,” our student defenses would fit the bill.  In the ramp up to our student defenses, there was a lot of emotional release.  There were lots of tears and anxiety in the face of what often seemed a daunting academic requirement.  I often said that whereas most schools tend to wind down at the end of the school year, our school was just heating up.  The last 2-3 weeks of school were intense for everyone on campus.  But graduate after graduate would say that it was the combination of the academic rigor of the process with the intense human support and care, that instilled students with the fortitude and persistence to confront and overcome similarly intense hurdles later in college and in life.

Even the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards (NBPTS) acknowledges the student/teacher relationship as core to the professional practice of high quality teaching.  The very first Core Proposition for NBPTS suggests that teachers must demonstrate a real and tangible commitment to their students and their learning.  In their own words, teachers must “adjust their practice based on observation and understanding of their students’ interests, abilities, skills, knowledge, language, family circumstances, and peer relationships.”  Whatever those observations and understandings may be, it is done on a foundation of an abiding belief that “all students can learn and meet high expectations.”


A Vision for Teaching and Learning

SAUSD Framework for Teaching and Learning 2015 copy

When I arrived in Santa Ana Unified in July 2015 to be the Executive Director of School Renewal, I quickly assumed the role as the innovation guy.  Admittedly, that was by design, and I deliberately took up some habits and practices that I hoped would invite principals and teachers to consider new programs and instructional approaches in their schools and classrooms.  I encouraged school leaders to go visit schools using new approaches, and offered workshops to introduce staff to principles of design thinking and project based learning.  I started blogging and sharing stories about teachers and administrators who are innovating in order to provide more personalized learning environments and experiences for students.  I even started riding my bike to work every day – a la silicon valley startup (in my defense, I really did walk to work nearly every day as a high school principal in San Francisco, and biking was already a weekend hobby).  In other words, I tried to encourage new ideas and new practices by trying things out and reinventing myself.    

But, truth be told, I’m a bit of an institutionalist and a skeptic.  I graduated from Berkeley for goodness sakes, where they teach us to believe nothing until you have the cold hard data.  Question everything.  When I interviewed for the Assistant Superintendent of Teaching and Learning position with the district executive cabinet, I tried to come clean.  When it comes to instructional practice, I’m more meat and potatoes than I sometimes let on.  I love a classroom where the teacher knows how to use her skill and authority with confidence and precision.  I like homework.  I like a teacher who pushes kids to work hard.  I like the word rigor.  I like a teacher who doesn’t put up with nonsense.  In other words, I love great teaching – and believe that it is skill, and not just enthusiasm, that gets kids to learn in powerful ways.  I’m a huge advocate for student ownership of learning, but not at the expense of adult mentoring.  In other words, I believe that great teaching is at the heart of powerful learning.  From project-based, competency-based and blended learning, to small group, workshop or direct-instruction, the conditions for learning are created by skilled and caring teachers who themselves model what it means to be a learner and deepen their skills and repertoire.

My time in Santa Ana has taught me how to bring these two parts of my professional identity into one place.  Yes, I’m a National Board Certified Teacher who can get a little snarky when the latest curriculum adoption or instructional craze gets presented as the cure-all for student learning.  But I also brought together an XQ super school team right here in Santa Ana with the rallying cry that we need to rethink the school experience for young people in our country.   We need both.  Tradition and innovation.  We leverage the tried and true instructional practices to push student learning, while simultaneously embracing the opportunity to learn, practice, and master new protocols and strategies that have the potential to engage students in even deeper and more authentic ways.

In my opinion, nothing blends this belief in both proven practices and innovative potential and possibility than our framework for teaching and learning.  I’ll be doing a few posts related to the framework, but simply note here the central role it will continue to play in my approach to the work.   The framework highlights four key areas of emphasis in our approach to instruction: 1) how are we valuing and building on students’ languages and experiences to promote deep understanding?, 2) how are we providing frequent opportunities to collaborate around complex tasks to promote deep thinking?, 3) how are we personalizing learning to meet the needs of diverse learners?, and 4) how are we sustaining academic rigor to prepare students for college and career?  These four areas – language and cultural context, collaboration, personalized learning, and academic rigor, are our collective aspiration.  Within SAUSD, we already possess a tremendous amount of knowledge and expertise around these four key areas, while simultaneously having much still to learn, and even more to share across classrooms and schools to ensure that every student receives an engaging, transformational education.

We don’t need a brand new vision for teaching and learning and Santa Ana.  Yes, we need to deepen and refine our instructional skills, including our ability to encourage rigorous academic discourse amongst our students and to provide personalized feedback on their progress.  Yes, we need to value and celebrate the diverse experiences, assets, languages, and gifts that our students and their families already bring to the table.  Above all, we need to strengthen and share our belief that the students of Santa Ana, every last one of them, has the potential to achieve great things – in college, in their careers, and in their lives.  We have to aspire for the students of Santa Ana, our kids,  the same things we desire and expect of our own children.

It is in that spirit of purpose and solidarity that we do this work together.

What I learned at AltSchool

16 Jan 18 - AltSchool

Earlier this month, I had the opportunity to spend a day with the team at AltSchool in San Francisco.  If you aren’t familiar with their story, AltSchool is a B-corp educational enterprise, meaning it’s a private business with a double bottom-line.  Yes, they intend to make a profit.  But they also hold themselves accountable for their positive social impact.  The entire genesis of the B-corp financial structure is an interesting topic in and of itself (should all businesses aspire to do both?), but that’s a post for another day.

I’ve long been intrigued by what I’ve heard about AltSchool.  The basic overview has always been something to the effect of “AltSchool is trying to build the best digital platform in education, and they have Google engineers in their classrooms to help them build it.”  I’m a little embarassed to admit that it has taken me so long to get up to see what they are working on, and I am certainly glad that I did.

Here’s the basic overview.  AltSchool is about 4 years old.  They currently run 4 private micro-schools, 2 in San Francisco and 2 in New York.  Originally, their plan of action was to develop their digital platform and then scale up the number of micro schools that they run around the country.  Recently, they had a change of heart, and determined that they could have greater impact if they made their platform more widely available, including to public schools, and not focus exclusively on running schools themselves. That led them to shutter two of their schools in favor of focusing attention and resources on scaling out their learning platform.

So, what are they up to?  Here are a few of my big takeaways after visiting one of their schools and spending time at their home base.

Making Learning Visible

The AltSchool mission statement is similar to most schools’ statement of purpose – we help all students reach their potential.  It’s a good mission and I wholeheartedly agree, but it is not terribly different from the aspirations of most educational institutions.  There was a second statement espoused in AltSchool’s overview materials that caught my attention and proved much more compelling.  “Making learning visible for students, educators, and parents.”  That’s a powerful concept for education for a number of important reasons.

I often refer to the classroom as the black box.  There is a tremendous amount of knowledge and understanding in teachers’ brains – about what students need to learn and about how well each student is learning it.  But there is an information bottleneck – it’s up to the teacher to try to get as much of that information out to students and parents as he or she possibly can.  In high quality classrooms, the teacher has developed all kinds of systems to share this information.  In my daughter’s former kindergarten classroom, for example, the data manifested itself as writing samples, coloring exercises, and art projects all over the walls.  I could literally see every student’s progress towards the basic academic outcomes of the class.  In fact, when I walked into the classroom on Open House night, I quickly realized that student seat assignments were determined by ability level, just by noticing the work quality of students whose desks were grouped together.   It was as data rich a classroom as I have ever seen.  But even with my wife standing next to me, she couldn’t necessarily see at first how I was drawing my conclusions around the teacher’s systems of organization and performance monitoring.  It was all over the walls.

Sometimes these systematic efforts to share information come in the form of parent newsletters, or intricate data systems on the wall with stickers and measuring sticks.  Indeed, anyone on my Twitter feed knows that data bulletin boards in elementary classrooms are some of my favorite pictures.  In the secondary classroom, these efforts to make learning visible sometimes look like daily or weekly grade summaries on the wall.  Getting students enough useful information about what they are learning and how well they are learning it is requires a tremendous amount of thought and dedication, and it many classrooms, it simply doesn’t happen that well.

We talk about student ownership of their learning quite a bit these days in education.  But it is genuinely difficult to provide students with ongoing data and information about what we expect them to learn and where they stand.  Yes, most classrooms have traditional grading systems.  But we all know that in many cases, grades reflect a broader capacity to “do school,” and do not necessarily reflect an objective assessment of student skills as they are developing.

This is the genius of the AltSchool platform.  It’s trying to democratize information about how students are progressing.  Yes, it is a work in progress.  As with any good software product and user experience, the platform is constantly being improved.  The team of engineers and designers at the enterprise are open about the need to provide more robust tools to facilitate students’ ability to navigate within the system and provide goal setting streams and pathways that make sense.  Yet on the whole, the system is out there setting the standard for what it can look like to marry content delivery, assessment, and learning trajectories in a common system – and making that process as transparent to users as possible.

Aesthetics and User Experience Matter

I have often had a practice of taking my public school teachers and staff into sought-after private schools.  There is a design aesthetic and attention to detail in the way such places look and feel that we often miss in public school settings.  Yes, I’m aware that funding is different.  But my message is often that there is much, much more we can do in our public education spaces to embrace good design and curate welcoming, student-centered learning environments.  Quality private schools have to pay careful attention to the curation of their physical space, and that was certainly the case at AltSchool.  When I walked in the front doors of their Yerba Gardens campus on Folsum Street in San Francisco, I immediately noticed the television screen directly in front of me, scrolling through unique enrichment opportunities and other after school experiences students and families could sign up for.  Capoeira classes, a seminar for parents on safe internet use, etc.  To my right was a frosted glass door – opaque at eye level but then clear above.  The two-toned glass construction was eye-catching and allowed for students to have direct site lines to the sky and surrounding buildings from the classroom, while blocking passers-by from being able to see students directly.  There was an access keypad next to the door – a Kinder/1st grade classroom.  A young African American boy walked in as we waited for the elevator nearby.  He quietly punched in his access code and walked into the classroom.  Students are welcome to arrive anytime between 8 – 9 am, with instruction formally getting a start at 9.  Attention to detail is probably the best way to describe the campus.  It wasn’t grand or sprawling, just thoughtful.

The AltSchool Platform has a similar dedication to aesthetics and an enjoyable user experience.  From basic design elements like a soft color palette and intuitive user controls, you get a clear sense that the engineers behind the software are constantly channeling their inner design-conscious user.  A number of team members I spoke with referred to a deliberate effort to maintain a sense of simplicity within a system that supports a rather complex set of content, assessments, and goal-setting tools.  Content is organized into what AltSchool calls content “cards.”  These cards represent mini-lessons or mini-units, and can either be used in supplemental ways to what is happening in the classroom, or as the primary delivery method of instruction.  I spent some time building some “cards” myself, and the process was quick and easy.  Within 30 minutes, I had converted one of my thematic units into a short series of cards.  I already had my own playlist.  For a project-based learning teacher like I was, this was the system I wish I had access to when I was in the classroom.


Perhaps the most surprising aspect of my visit was the central nature of the teacher in both the AltSchool platform and in their micro-school classrooms.   I think I was expecting the AltSchool instructional model to be primarily tech-driven and more openly skeptical of the the importance of the teacher.  Certainly, some of the accusations that are made about an enterprise like AltSchool is that they are trying to use technology to replace teachers.  The opposite was true.  In fact, AltSchool has two teachers in every classroom.  I didn’t necessarily expect that I’d be greeted by robots or have to wear a virtual reality headset, but I certainly thought I would see kids looking at screens in every classroom.

That wasn’t what I saw.

What I did see was nurturing learning spaces, small group instruction, center-rotation (yes, with some teacherless centers using software to drive student learning), and reading and writing workshop.  As the students got older in age, I definitely saw more screens.  When asked explicitly about screen time, AltSchool said that in the early grades, it is no more than 5-10%, maxing out around 25-30% by the time students are in the middle grades.  This makes sense too.  Most of the middle to upper class families that can afford a private school education have serious concerns about over-exposure to screen time during the course of their children’s school day.  The AltSchool platform reflects this attempt at a blended balance.  Yes, a student could theoretically spend all day on the software, but it isn’t designed as a replacement for the classroom experience.  It’s designed to help organize curriculum, pace and monitor student learning and progress, provide tools for goal-setting, and allow for more feedback to both students and parents.

Good Days

5 Dec 17 - Good Days

I don’t really see my work life in terms of good or bad days.  On the whole, I genuinely enjoy the purpose and challenge of my work.   I feel deeply satisfied with the idea that I’m giving my best energy, thinking, and labor on a day to day basis to the task of creating powerful learning environments and experiences for kids.  Of course I’m still a human being who feels disappointment with setbacks, and I’m no stranger to frustration when confronting organizational inertia or unnecessary obstacles.  But across the board, I feel a persistent satisfaction in my work.

And then, sometimes, I really do have a distinctively good day.

Like yesterday, for example.  It’s hard to explain, but every so often I have a day that surprises me in terms of both the actual work I accomplish and my emotional state as I pass through that work.  I don’t think you can precisely engineer good days – often there is some luck involved – but my experiences yesterday got me thinking about some of the common elements of a good day at work for me.


The most defining characteristic of a notably “good” day, is when I experience some degree of culmination, hit a major milestone, or enjoy some closure.  My definition of culmination is when we experience some palpable sense of progress or success.  Yesterday, for example, I had an advisory council meeting for one of the projects I lead.  For months, we had talked about adding key strategic partners to our team.  We had discussed launching a redesigned website.  On multiple occasions we had planned to formally file for incorporated status with the state of California.  Each subgoal brought with it countless tasks, from making calls to potential partners to drafting agendas to reviewing bylaws to sitting down to actually create a website.  It’s a project that in many ways never has real closure.

But yesterday, over the course of our monthly 90 minute meeting, I felt an incredible sense of culmination.  We sat with an expanded team.  We received the draft of our fledgling organization’s website (which I had created).  We finalized our intention to incorporate – and we paused as necessary to send the reminder emails, calendar the follow-ups, and ensure we were locking in our progress.

Of course there are moments when we hit clear milestones that bring concrete closure.  Graduation ceremonies.  A job promotion.  A birthday celebration.  Often, those events become some of our best days.  But even without a full stop or external recognition of success, we have those days where things come together and put a smile on our face.

Deliberate Connection 

Leadership is not primarily about writing strategic plans, reviewing documents and providing feedback, or even making data-driven decisions – as important as all of those tasks might be.  Leadership is about developing and shaping an organization’s culture and consistently pointing everyone towards excellence.  It’s about setting a vision and then reinforcing that vision through ongoing interactions and conversations.  Yes, there is important technical work inherent to moving the organization forward, but transformational leadership implies moving people towards heightened levels of engagement, skill, and commitment.

On my good days, I take time to connect with the people I have the responsibility to lead.  I have the opportunity to learn about the work happening at all levels of the organization, and reinforce my vision through the corresponding conversations.  Yesterday, for example, I started the morning by informally seeking out members of my team, connecting briefly about the weekend, and then learning about the tasks and potential obstacles they were facing at the outset of the week.  I tried to provide encouragement, redirection, reinforcement, and sometimes tangible support.  These conversations were short, and within 45 minutes I felt like I had a good pulse on our collective trajectory for the day and week.

Of course sometimes I have pressing tasks that bring me straight to my desk.  That turns the tables where my team members have to come to me when they get stuck or need clarification.  I feel much more in control and purposeful when I’m initiating the interactions and offering support before others feel the need to come ask it of me.

Successful Prioritization

I am somewhat religious about a daily checklist – it’s a practice that has persisted across both digital and handwritten platforms for me.  And almost without fail, I put more on that list than I could possibly hope to accomplish given the time and commitments of the day.  You would think that after so many years as a working professional, I would have disrupted my own counterproductive tendency to over plan my time, but I haven’t.  In my defense, I have developed a useful practice of identifying what I call my “big 3” – the three most important tasks of the day that I try to knock out before moving on to other things.  But still, I experience daily, unnecessary emotional tension when I haven’t checked off everything on my list.

On a good day, like yesterday, I was courageous about removing commitments that simply weren’t moving my work forward.  I cancelled participation in a webinar.  I was honest with some colleagues about a project I had committed to that was drawing on my attention and time but that I felt was not adding adequate value to the organization.  In other words, I said ‘no’ a few times.  I took things off the to do list – to be forever unchecked.  Of course any truly good day has to feel deeply productive at its core, it’s not just about saying no.  But to a large degree my ability to focus on the most important, high-leverage projects is dependent on my willingness to walk away from less important work.


A lot is said about the food courts, lounge rooms, and flex schedules of Silicon Valley startups and tech companies.  As with anything, I think reality might not exactly match up with the sometimes exaggerated picture that is painted in the media about the work cultures of some of the best places to work.  Yet I do think that some companies have learned to harness the best thinking and creative energy of their people by building flexibility and adaptability into their schedules.

For the most part, schools have incredibly inflexible schedules. While most work places did away with punchcards and whistles a long time ago, schools still use bells to signal start and stop times.  Kids cycle in and out of classrooms on highly routinized schedules, and there typically is not much room for flexibility.  As educators, our  lives are dictated by the master schedule.  Part of my core work is focused on helping teachers and administrators rethink some of these traditional constraints, but even in the tightly managed work day on a school campus, I think there are ways to find space to re-energize.

Some of my best teachers had firm commitments to lunch time spent on a basketball court or walking the campus.   Whether it’s a spin class immediately after school with colleagues, or a long run when the final bell rings, a lot of educators find that they have better energy when they find ways to get moving and sweat a little throughout the day.  Similarly, I wasn’t afraid to use 20 minutes of my lunch for a quick nap when I felt my energy waning.

Yesterday, I used my lunchtime to squeeze in a short workout in the small staff gym.  It was by no means a full strength or cardio circuit, but it was enough to energize my afternoon.  In addition to the physical stimulation, I enjoyed the psychological boost of knowing that by mid-day I had already knocked out some major tasks AND done a little exercise as well.  It started to free up some of my mental space for planning out my evening, knowing that instead of needing to find time to exercise after putting the kids to bed, I could choose to work on a home project or just relax.  Add just for good measure, since it was a good day, I put that evening time to use cleaning out in the garage.


Adventures in Bullet Journaling

It has been about 5 months since I started using a bullet journal with regularity.  I already filled up my first notebook and am on to my second.  Back in September, I shared some of my favorite page types for boosting my focus and productivity.  Specifically, I shared my Daily Log – my daily to-do list, and the notes I take during meetings to keep me engaged and to facilitate easy sharing with others.  I’m still using both of those pages with regularity, but now in month #6 I’ve added a number of page types that have been helpful.

I think it is important to note that I still have some mixed feelings about my bullet journal.  On some levels, it is deeply cathartic to break out my colored markers in the middle of the day to mark progress on my daily goals and summarize the major points of meetings and other interactions.  It’s like an adult coloring book.  I can attest to the fact that the journal helps me stay on target with daily, weekly, and monthly goals and priorities.  It is definitely a boost to my productivity.

At times, however, I find my bullet journal getting in the way of my focus and creativity.  Sometimes the aesthetics of the thing don’t allow me to be as free-flowing with ideas as I would like.  A notebook should be a space that encourages experimentation, sketching, and drafty diagramming.  But I can’t seem to bring myself to include a first draft of something I know is going to be ugly or awkward.  So I leave it out.

So while there are definitely some things I’m still working out in terms of my expectations and practices with the bullet journal, I definitely have some go-to uses for the journal beyond what I was doing when I first got started.  Here are a few of those:

The Month At-A-Glance

22 Nov 17 - Adventures in Bullet Journaling

In my first journal, I experimented with a few different formats for the month at-a-glance page, and didn’t really like any of them.  I finally settled on a style that combines a month calendar with the big goals in different areas of my life.      It’s working – at least for now.

The Gratitude Log

22 Nov 17 - Adventures in Bullet Journaling 1

I’ve seen different takes on this on a number of bullet journal websites.  Often, the gratitudes are integrated into the daily log.  I tried that, but it didn’t seem to work for me.  So I switched to try to dedicated one page for the month where I record one thing I’m grateful for for each day.

The Fitness Tracker

22 Nov 17 - Adventures in Bullet Journaling 2

This is a carry over from my first journal.  It’s worked really well, especially since I’ve finally gotten into the regular habit of counting my calories every day.  Some people might argue that counting calories every day is no way to live life.  I wouldn’t necessarily disagree, but for me at least, there is no way for me to maintain or lose weight without being mindful every day – at almost every meal – about what I am eating.  When I slip into mindless eating, which is very easy for me to do, I simply overeat.

Site Visit Summaries 

A big part of my responsibilities at work involves visiting the principals I supervise and their schools.  I’ve experimented with different systems for capturing notes about our discussions and my observations.  Now I’ve been created a visit summary to help me document what I am learning about the principals I am supervising, and so that I have an easy reference later on when discussing each principal’s goals and areas for improvement.

Tools of Improvement Science – Systems Mapping


If you are having a conversation with an Improvement Science aficionado, it won’t be long before the conversation shifts to a discussion of specific practices and tools that are closely associated with helping organizations or individuals improve.  The common mantra is that Improvement Science helps us “get better at getting better,” and the mechanism for continuous improvement can be found in the application of a set of tools and practices Improvement Scientists have identified and tested.  Empathy interviews.  Journey Maps.  Systems Mapping.  PDSA cycles.  Fishbone diagrams.  There are actually quite a few of these tools, and each one is designed to illuminate a different aspect of the improvement journey.

My personal favorite is system mapping.  Perhaps it’s because I’m a visual learner.  Systems mapping is an attempt to create a visual overview of a process, outlining explicitly the relationships and sequences that we assume are the part of any given system.  In essence, we are lifting the hood to take a look at how things work together (or as is sometimes the case, are not working together) and then represent those relationships in a visual map.  A systems map takes a flow chart one step further as it seeks to identify the weak points in the system that are leading to underperformance.  The map then serves as a launching point for determining potential interventions that we want to test to improve the system.

I find systems mapping to be incredibly illustrative.  It can become apparent very quickly that a room full of organizational leaders who thought they had a common understanding about how something gets done actually possess very nuanced and incomplete views of what happens in practice.  It’s like putting together a puzzle where everyone has a different piece to contribute.

At work, for example, I’ve recently been using systems mapping to help improve our process for approving substitute teachers for professional development.  You might think the process would be fairly straight-forward.  You need subs.  You ask for permission to get subs.  Permission is either granted or denied.

You would be very wrong.

For starters, we are in the midst of a serious, if not severe, substitute shortage.  There simply are not enough quality substitute teachers to fill our vacant positions on a daily basis.  Despite efforts to continuously recruit and hire good people, attrition is high and the best substitutes get snatched up – as they should be – for long term gigs or as full-time classroom teachers.  That puts a daily cap on how many subs we have available.  To add to the challenge, we have a lot of competing interests for professional development.  Of course that is a good problem since we want our classroom teachers to have opportunities for quality professional learning.

That all adds up to a simple equation of supply and demand, which means there are ALWAYS more requests for subs than we have the capacity to meet.  That drives a scarcity mindset, and when people start hearing “no” with regularity, it puts increasing pressure on a system that only worked moderately well even in the best of times.  Admittedly, my leadership responsibilities have little to do with substitute requests, but when everyone I am working with and trying to support is constantly referencing a system that is causing distraction and even spreading mistrust, it’s hard for me not to get involved.

Where do you start when you are trying to improve a system that you don’t know a tremendous amount about?  You start asking a lot of questions of the people who are closest to the work – and you begin to develop a map of the system.  So that’s what I did.  I started by putting my initial assumptions on paper, and then learning more by investigating the details of the system.  Committing those details to a visual map allows us to make our assumptions explicit, and develop shared meaning and understanding about the system.

Fast forward several weeks to today, and we’re still very much in the process of working through our new system.  One of my tasks today is to update our system map to reflect where things stand as of today.  The intention is to not only use the map to help us continuously improve the system, but to make that system transparent to its users.


On Being Principal – Defining Moments

2 Nov 17 - Defining Moments

Most of the time, I emphasize the importance of consistency and alignment over time as the primary strategy for realizing an organizational vision.  In other words, you have to play the long game, accumulating small wins over time.  I’m a big fan of continuous improvement, and that defines my core practice as an administrator.  But sometimes, principals face moments that present special opportunities to define themselves as a leader and truly impact the culture of the organization.  Often, those opportunities come in moments of crisis.

One of those moments came for me at the end of my first year as principal.  Our leadership team, and entire staff, had battled throughout the year to strengthen the school culture as one that embodied mutual respect and pro-social behavior amongst our students.  We latched on to the idea of the Warm Demander, a conceptual framework for building strong, respectful relationships between students and teachers.  In essence, being a Warm Demander means your students know you genuinely love and care for them, and that you will kick their butt if they don’t live up to their potential.  Our instructional leadership team embraced the opportunity to engage staff in conversations about what high expectations of student learning looked like in classrooms, hallways and shared spaces.

Over the course of the year, we moved from system to system, constantly improving along the way.  In some cases, we tinkered.  In others, we made a complete overhaul.  We moved our referral system to a digital system that allowed us to more easily track and analyze discipline data.  We implemented random tardy sweeps to encourage more on-time behavior.  We designed a system of positive behavior intervention and supports.  We deliberately highlighted and celebrated our students who had made significant growth – both academically and socially.

Obviously, I’m biased.  I was the principal and felt tremendous efficacy about our collective improvement work.  Of course we had setbacks and moments of tremendous disappointment – both in ourselves as leaders and in some of the decisions made by our students.  We weren’t always successful.  But we persisted.  As we approached the end of the school year, it felt like we had made significant progress.

As graduation neared, several staff members approached me out of concern for certain student behaviors that had historically disrupted graduation festivities at the end of the school year.  I ensured my staff that we had permanently committed to high expectations and wouldn’t settle just because the school year was coming to a close.

I had made a deliberate point to communicate with my seniors that they needed to attend graduation rehearsal in order to walk across the stage at graduation.  Of course there might be reasonable conflicts due to illness, but this wasn’t going to be something to sluff off.

On the morning of the rehearsal, all but three of our students were present.  While I intended to be true to my stated expectations, I had my own heightened sense of concern for my three missing students – I certainly wanted them to participate in graduation, and so I encouraged classmates to reach out directly at the same time that I was calling home and trying to track down the students to get them to rehearsal.

When the three young men finally arrived, nearly an hour late, all three were clearly under the influence of marijuana.  In some contexts, this might seem like an easy decision, but this is San Francisco we are talking about, and recreational marijuana use amongst 17 and 18 year old adolescent young men was hardly a criminal or serious offense.

With the support of my admin team, I made the decision to bar the three young men from the graduation ceremony.  My calls home to family informing them of my decision brought immediate reaction and anger.  How could I deny these young men the culminating moment of a hard fought education?  Parents and family members packed into my office, pleading, and then demanding, that I change my decision and allow the young men to walk.  As the pressure mounted, teachers began to take opposite sides – with teachers openly advocating on both sides of the decision.  I was threatened with lawsuits and physical violence.  One of the young men was so incensed that he shattered the glass entry door to the school as he stormed out.  What was supposed to be the culminating moment of celebration for the school year descended into a deeply contested crisis.

As the final day of school came and went, opposition to my decision stiffened.  I received several phone calls from former staff members and the previous principal asking me to reconsider.  Students hinted at a walk out.  I couldn’t imagine anything more awful as a first-year principal than a student walkout at graduation in protest of my leadership.

Internally, I wanted nothing more than to relent and allow the young men to walk.  I’m a people-pleaser, and I don’t like to see people uncomfortable or experiencing difficulty when I have power to assist.  But I’m also deeply committed to exercising the leadership necessary to move schools and organizations to the next level of performance and shared values.  This decision very much felt like a critical inflection point in driving home the message that above all, I was committed to holding high expectations as the principal – regardless of the consequences.

I should note that my supervisor and superintendent Gia Truong supported my decision.  As was her approach to developing principals, Gia refused to overrule me and make the decision herself and instead engaged me in a serious of questions to ensure that I understood and could articulate my own thinking on the matter.  I think she knew this was a decision that was killing me – and sometimes I wonder whether she herself was curious what I would do in the end.

In the end, three young men didn’t walk at graduation.  There was no walkout – although I had to sweat it out the entire ceremony as I was unsure what might happen.  I clearly remember crafting a statement for my staff – making it clear that I too was struggling with the decision, and that I was not entirely sure that it was the best outcome for the three young men involved.  I was, however, certain that given our struggles and history as a school, that it was the right decision for our collective community.

Over the days, weeks, and months that followed graduation, and with the benefit of time, many of my staff came forward to express their appreciation of my commitment to act with integrity in a difficult situation and for being transparent with my decision-making process.  Even some of those who were most vocal in their opposition approached me to share their feelings of respect for my decision.  Years later, that first graduation came up with some frequency when staff members shared stories about me.

In the end, I truly do believe that we made the right decision for our school.  Of course I’m not entirely closed to the idea that things could have played out differently and still have had a positive outcome.  I certainly still ache a bit on behalf of the young men involved.  But seeing a tough decision through in a crucible moment provided me with a resolve later down the road that made it easier to make difficult decisions when the pressure mounted.  It wasn’t just a defining moment for the students and staff for whom I had stewardship – it has shaped how I perceive myself as a leader.  It’s a decision that stays with me.