Thoughts on the Breakthrough Coach

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Have you ever attended a professional seminar that got people visibly agitated?  That’s only happened twice to me.  The first time, it was an undersecretary for the Department of Education during the early years of No Child Left Behind under the George W. Bush presidency.  She really liked the metaphor of “don’t beat a dead horse” and used some actual images of a dying horse.  Not a happy audience.

The other time was a little more subtle.  It was when I attended  Breakthrough Coach training with Malachi Pancoast.  Malachi didn’t whip the audience into an angry frenzy – but he definitely stirred some emotions with his unapologetic thesis for why school leaders are not as effective as they could be.

Here’s the general thesis.  The primary role of the school leader is to observe the system at play in the school he or she leads and then provide ongoing and actionable feedback to make it work better.  This applies to every aspect of a school’s functioning – from instruction in the classroom to how parents are greeted in the front office.  In essence, the principal is the coach, constantly making adjustments to ensure the increasingly optimal functioning of the system.  Malachi encourages principals to get out of their offices regularly and spend as much time as they can where the game is being played – in classrooms.

None of this seems particularly controversial.  Indeed, most school leaders know intuitively that improving instructional practice is the holy grail of their leadership legacy.  Principals know that spending time with teachers and students in classrooms is what they should be doing.  Of course, this leads most well-intentioned principals to feel some guilt about the disconnect between what they know they should be doing and what they actually do with their time.  It brings about a self-consciousness that is baked into the psyche of most school leaders.

The beauty of the Breakthrough Coach is that Malachi doesn’t sugarcoat this disconnect.  In fact, he emphasizes it.  He is explicit about the fact that he expects the principals in the room to be defensive.  He knows the retorts to expect.  “You don’t know what my job is like!”  “I would be in classrooms, but the district bombards me with meetings and paperwork!”

I won’t go into all the details of the training.  It would ruin the fun and surprise of it all.  Nor am I suggesting that every school leader should adopt every aspect of Malachi’s refreshingly practical tools and approach to leading a school or organization.  But there are a few general design principals from the breakthrough coach that I have found to be essential.

Observe the System

You can’t lead from an office.  You have to be out there where the work is happening, watching and talking to kids and adults about how they experience the system.  You have to ask questions and suspend your own assumptions and biases.  You have to really try to understand what is going on around you.

I once sat in a meeting where the Chief Academic Officer wore a safari hat – her plea to teachers and principals in the system was to consider themselves data collectors.  From a leadership perspective, you need good data to make good decisions.  Sometimes, you have to go get that good data yourself in the form of observations and conversations.

Have the Hard Conversations

Learning to see the system is primarily an analytical task.  The leadership component comes from the emotional toll associated with constantly asking people to change.  Sometimes you are asking people to change routines or processes.  Sometimes you are asking people to change their attitudes and beliefs.

Regardless of the change, providing feedback can be uncomfortable.  As my mentor and supervisor Gia Truong often told me – leadership is essentially a series of hard conversations.  Malachi’s perspective is that as leaders, we are avoiding far too many of those hard conversations.

Your Value Isn’t Measured in Hours

Working long hours doesn’t guarantee an impact on student learning.  Malachi drives this point home – asserting that most school leaders often sacrifice their personal interests, their health, and their personal relationships on the altar of their professional identities.  He points out how we’ve allowed the principal’s office to become our de facto home – with couches and fridges and all the accouterments of home.

Malachi’s invitation is to get out of the office, to go home, to be present for the people in our personal lives who also need our attention and love and support.  The truth is that balancing school and home life for a school leader is a genuine challenge.  Perhaps some of the initial discontent amongst participants of the Breakthrough Coach is due to this perceived oversimplification of the time demands placed on principals.  It’s a fair critique.

Yet deep down most principals know Malachi is right.  Our years roll by, our children grow older, and all the time we privately fret about the tradeoffs we make in order to run our schools.  In a labor-oriented field like education, and where time spent with children does have intrinsic value, there are only so many ways to achieve balance.  Efficiency helps.  Talented staff helps.   I’ve reflected on this element of Malachi’s sessions more than perhaps any other.  Our potency, our energy, and our visionary clarity is often fed by a centered and balanced life.

On the whole – I’m a big fan of the Breakthrough Coach.  In my mind, it is a training well worth the time and money.  It’s a fresh, somewhat unconventional take on management, and it is guaranteed to get you thinking about your purpose, your role, and your efficacy as a principal.


On Being Principal – Rough Beginnings


Imagine it’s the first day of the school year.  As the new principal, I position myself on the front stair steps that lead up to our high school, perched on a hill atop the solidly working class Excelsior neighborhood in San Francisco.  I happily greet every student who passes by.  Some students are warm and eager to introduce themselves, others seem indifferent to my presence.  For my part, I am full of optimism and excitement about my new job.  As students are streaming past me, I vaguely notice a commotion off to my right, followed by a girl’s surprised scream.  Soon a young man is standing in front of me with blood running down the side of his face.  I quickly shift gears from enthusiastic greeter to crisis manager as I usher the young man and several onlookers into the front office.  Within the first five minutes of my first day as principal, I’m already conducting an investigation into a fight that had occurred between two of my students who decided to settle old debts on their way to school.

As those first days turned into weeks, I found myself digging deeply into my emotional, physical, and intellectual reserves in an effort to stay above water and actually lead.  I had perhaps underestimated how the expectations to play so many roles each day would weigh on me.  In addition to building relationships with students and staff, managing crisis, and recruiting students to the school, my days (and nights) were spent dealing with an unimaginable array of responsibilities and challenges.  Even then I considered myself lucky, as I had a caring and patient wife, a network of equally overworked but committed school leader friends, and an unusually supportive superintendent.  In many ways I received both personal and professional support that many new principals may never experience.

“Being a principal is an impossible job.”  That’s the best and most honest advice I ever received as a principal.  It came from a principal colleague as we stood on a street corner two blocks from my school, watching students leaving school for the day.  I was just a few months into the job, but it felt much longer.  I had aged.  I had spent more than one evening on my living room couch, in something of a daze.  It probably shouldn’t be a surprise that a brief encounter on a street corner with a fellow principal quickly found me confiding about the immensity of the leadership challenge I was facing.

“Daniel, just remember that everyone wants something from you.  Everyone has a problem, and it wasn’t until I reconciled myself to the reality that I couldn’t fix everything or meet everyone’s needs that I was able to start thinking about the most important things I should be doing.”

It was advice that made me think back to a statement that Richard Elmore made to my cohort of 42 aspiring principals as part of the School Leadership Program at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.  He was blunt and to the point.  “The very characteristics that likely got you into Harvard will keep you from being a transformative school leader.”  He was speaking to our potential tendency to be perfectionists, to avoid conflict, and to mitigate risks and go by the book.

Now I was in the principal chair, and the immensity of the leadership challenge was humbling.  Everything felt urgent.  It was hard to decipher between putting out fires and doing work to encourage more long-term strategic shifts.  Sometimes I was actually putting out fires.

Frankly, the daily rigor of being the principal was intense in a way I hadn’t entirely anticipated.  It required the very best of my thinking and virtually all of my energy, and even then I felt like I was falling woefully short.  In many ways, it was precisely the type of professional experience I wanted and had aspired to.  I just hadn’t completely realized the degree to which the role would immediately push and challenge me.

Tools of Improvement Science – Systems Thinking

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Mechanistic controls.  Tight interdependence.  Centralized authority and clear hierarchy. These are concepts we often associate with bureaucratic organizations.  Perhaps the most common visual metaphor for such systems is the picture of interlocking cogs and wheels.  “You’re just a cog in the machine,” is a phrase that has crystalized into a euphemism for a lack of agency or power to create change or exercise independent thought within a bureaucratic system.

While I do think that many of the bureaucratic controls alive and well in our organizations have outlived their usefulness in the context of our dynamic, information ubiquitous and fast-paced society, my purpose is not necessarily to bemoan bureaucracies.  To the contrary, my purpose is to point out that even in traditional bureaucracies – such as a large public school district – the metaphor of the cogs and gears simply doesn’t hold up.

In Santa Ana, for example, we’re engaged in a partnership with the CORE Districts and the Carnegie Foundation to use the tools of Improvement Science to better understand our current systems of operation and make deliberate, strategic decisions to improve those systems.  At the center of this work is learning to think with a systems perspective.

To help our district and school leaders adopt a more systemic perspective on their work improving outcomes, our improvement coaches Juli Coleman and Amanda Meyer from CORE designed a game they called the “Butterfly Game.”  Taking cues from the idea of the Butterfly Effect, the game is designed to help participants experience the interdependence of working within a system, and how small changes can sometimes cause large perceptible shifts.  However, unlike in the metaphor of cogs and gears where causes and effects are predictable, the game reflected the much more unpredictable nature of improvement work.

We started off standing in a circle.  The only rule we were given was to identify two other people in the circle, and then when we heard “go,” position ourselves equidistant from those two people without making it obvious who we were tracking.  Immediately on “go,” everyone in the circle started moving, trying to make physical adjustments to stay equally distant between their two human guideposts.  To the outside observer, this impromptu system was little more than chaos.  To participants, there were clear, if unseen, relationships influencing our every move.  Of course we all had chosen different people to track, and that interdependence spread messiness everywhere.  People were crashing into tables and nearby trees – paying such close attention to the the people they were positioning against that they failed to spot stationary obstacles.  When a participant came late to the circle from the bathroom, nobody really paused to clue her in to what was happening, so she did the best she could to figure it out without looking and feeling confused.

At some point, the movement slowed down to a trickle, and the system seemingly came into equilibrium.  Then the game designers decided to make a few structural changes, moving just a few participants from one location to another – citing the promise of greater efficiency and effectiveness as the motivation for the move.   When we heard “go” a second time, the system immediately started moving in response to the structural shifts imposed on the system.  I myself had difficulty avoiding a collision with both tables and other participants as they adjusted their positions.

Again, the system eventually settled into a tenuous equilibrium.

The debrief of this experience was rich in drawing out metaphors and parallels with our work as systems leaders.  Relationships are deep and often unseen.  We can’t always define the rules of the system but often can see and measure their impact.  Small changes can cause unpredictable outcomes.  We sometimes neglect newcomers to the system or allow others to sustain contact or injury without taking much notice.

Yes, we have to work together to get the work done – but the systems within which we are working are much less linear and predictable than we like to admit.  Often, our solutions offer technical, linear fixes to systems where human intuition and human error are in constant play.  The tools of improvement science are meant to equip us as leaders with analytical practices that slow down our shortcut-seeking, solution oriented administrator brains.  Instead, we apply methodical, analytical processes that help us get better at getting better.

Adventures in Bullet Journaling

When I started my current job just over two years ago, I made the decision to go paperless.  The idea was to completely minimize the physical objects I needed in order to do accomplish my work.  I removed all of the file folder cabinets that welcomed me in my new office.  I opted for a desk without drawers.  I used the job transition as an opportunity to experiment with some of my personal systems for organization – and I was eager to go as completely digital as possible.  I started using Evernote and Reminders as my software programs of choice to manage notes and daily priority lists.  I purposefully chose programs that synced seamlessly across my devices – and to a large degree these systems have worked incredibly well.

Fast forward to a few months ago as I was revisiting some of my productivity practices.  I had successful gone paperless.  I’ve avoided paper inundation in my office, and I carry access to virtually everything I need.  For the most part, my colleagues have figured out that they shouldn’t be offended when I pass back their handouts at the conclusion of a meeting.  I’ve taken pictures, annotated documents as necessary, and am ready to move on.

There was only one problem.  My digital notes were boring and uninspiring.  Sometimes I would find my mind wandering to other pressing tasks in the midst of a meeting without anything concrete to keep me tethered.  Despite accessibility, minimal stuff, and fantastic search capacity, my electronic organization system was leaving me cold.  Maybe the decision to abandon all of my tactile productivity tools was too hasty.

So, a few months ago I started doing a little research.  In the end, the blogs and Pinterest posts had me convinced that I needed to give bullet journaling a try.  So I bought myself a notebook and a set of markers and started to experiment.  I thought I might occasionally share some of these bullet journal adventures – which truly have brought me nothing but joy.

The Daily Log

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Probably the most utilitarian of my page formats.  It’s nothing more than a list of reminders.  I use a square checkbox for tasks, and I use a circle checkbox for events or meetings.  When I first started, I also left space for a daily reflection or gratitude.  While often insightful, the daily reflections have proven difficult to sustain.

Shareable Notes

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I spend a lot of time in meetings where information is shared that would be helpful to other people who, for whatever reason, are not able to attend.  I’ve gotten into the practice of taking pictures of a completed note page and either texting or emailing it as a summary sheet.


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IMG_4388Perhaps the single most useful aspect of my journal is how easy it is for me to stay focused on the content of a meeting or presentation.  I’m in deep listening mode all of the time because my brain and hands are engaged in capturing the most important information to integrate into my notes.  For example, every principal in our school district prepares and delivers an hour-long data-summit that provides an overview of past performance and outlines future goals.  These meetings are incredibly important, but mentally, when you’ve attended a few dozen of them, it can be hard to stay completely focused.  I started taking notes of the presentation and it has been incredibly helpful in sustaining my attention – plus I have a easy reference to each school’s major initiatives and challenges.

Our Journey to the XQ – Inception to Selection

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It was almost exactly two years ago when we first learned about the XQ SuperSchool competition.  I remember getting a few messages from friends and former colleagues in the charter school world, who were buzzing about a new player on the education reform block.  That organization, the XQ Institute, was putting up at least 50 million dollars to “rethink high school.”  In other words, they had an ambitious agenda to transform what we believed could be possible in a high school education.  We would just have to convince them that our team and design was worthy of their attention and money.

Of course my friends encouraged me to start a team “on the side.”  That meant continuing my job during the day as a district administrator with Santa Ana Unified, and reserving my evenings and weekends to put together an independent proposal for XQ funding.  While that invitation was intriguing, I deeply believe that innovation and ambitious thinking are nowhere more needed then within our school districts themselves.  It felt deeply hypocritical of me to publicly profess a belief that districts can and should innovate and lead the charge in accelerating student learning while then opting to innovate elsewhere when the opportunity presented itself.  Of course I still give myself the freedom to change my mind should evidence strongly suggest it, but I felt strongly (and still do) that districts can carve out a meaningful space for innovation.

In any case, I decided to pitch the idea to my boss, then Deputy Superintendent David Haglund, who gave me the green light to pursue the idea.  So we started to host a series of design sessions – with students, administrators, community members – really, whoever wanted to participate.  The purpose of the sessions was to elicit participants’ best thinking about the assets and values of our Santa Ana community, as well as get input about the programs and structures that would best meet the learning and developmental needs of our future students.  From the very beginning, I had a strong sense that whatever the design, it would need to be a reflection of the history and values of our community.  We figured that if we authentically connected with our community, the design for the school would emerge.

And emerge it did.

During a short 3 month period, we met with over 2,000 of our SAUSD high school students around the city.  We designed a unique input-gathering process where we showed up with 30 packets of multi-colored tickets at each of our high schools.  With the principal’s help, we would identify 30 students who each received a packet of 10 tickets each, and tasked them to share with their friends and acquaintances.  These were no ordinary tickets, either.  Each color represented a different “type” of student within broad categories – the athlete, the artist, the nerd, the rebel, the model student, etc.  We wanted to try to get something of a random sample of students who wanted to be there and were intrigued with the strange invitation.  The invitations culminated 2 days later in 200-300 students assembled around tables in the gym, where they used their phones to vote on discussion topics and to give us the feedback and insight we would need to design our Super School.

We held somewhat similar design sessions for both administrative staff and community partners.  Using a modified design-thinking protocol, we sent pairs out to interview each other, capture the most important design elements they heard from their partners, and then brainstorm how those design elements would translate into school programs and practices.

After a few of these sessions, some fundamental design principles started to emerge.  The school needed to be authentic, giving students opportunities to be “real” with each other and with their teachers.  The school needed to feel supportive and safe.  The school needed deeper connections to the working world and the people in it.  The school needed to be more respectful of student opinions and perspectives.  The school needed to do a better job getting our students access to college and other post-secondary opportunities.  And of course students wanted better food.

We collected countless pages of input.  Often that input was in written format, but we also encouraged participants to sketch whenever it felt appropriate.

I clearly remember the day the circles started showing up.  The city of Santa Ana had graciously donated the use of a spectacular room at the top of the Santa Ana Train Station, and we had used the opportunity to invite community partners and organizations to engage in a design session with us.  We had a nice cross-section of organizations, from the Bowers Museum to the Santa Ana Business Council to nearby universities.  When the session concluded, we spontaneously gathered in a circle to reflect on the experience.  Several participants smiled as they unveiled sketches of a school in circular format.  A school where kids were talking to one another.  A school where kids felt included.  A school where community and business partners felt integrated and welcome.  A school that wasn’t boxed in by gates and bells.

And that’s the process that gave birth to the idea of Círculos.  Over time, several of the participants in these design sessions just kept showing up to discuss and collaborate.  Our team came together organically in this way, a mix of district and school staff.  Each founding team member brought with him or her a unique set of skills, experiences, and purposes for contributing.  For Matt Cruz, the principal at one of our alternative high schools, Círculos became a place to imagine how every student might have powerful, meaningful relationships with caring adults.  For Mark McLoughlin, board president of High School, Inc. Círculos represented a way to build upon his ongoing work to more deeply integrate the local business community into the education of the young people of our community.  For Madeleine Spencer, a local community advocate, Círculos would be a way to connect young people to the organizations pushing for a more integrated and responsive community.   Of course those are just a few of the many people who have brought their best energy and thinking to this initiative.

We submitted our designs and supporting materials at each benchmark of the design year, which stretched almost an entire calendar year.  We were thrilled to advance through each stage of judging, making it all the way to the finalist stage as one of the final 50 designs that were still in competition.  We even had a visit from a film team from New York that had been contracted with XQ to document the journey of teams around the country.  We interpreted this visit as a positive omen that big things might be headed our way.  As the final deadline approached, we eagerly anticipated what it might feel like to be chosen for the big prize.

And then we weren’t chosen.  It was very difficult to read the letter indicating that we hadn’t been selected as a Super School winner.  It felt like somehow we had let our community down.  And yet, just as we were working through our disappointment, I sense a new determination to keep pushing and to bring elements of the Círculos design to life.

And so we kept working.  We mapped out possible places were we could pilot the flexible learning environments we had envisioned in our design process.  We kept up development of our competency-based dashboard.  We started experimenting with the circle pedagogy in our team and department meetings.  By January, we were in full program development stage, working with a team at Century High School to develop a school-within-a-school we were calling Century Flex that drew heavily on the design concepts of Círculos.  We were in the midst of expanding our dependent charter school, Advanced Learning Academy, to open high school grades and to similarly experiment with flexible learning opportunities for our students.

And then, unexpectedly, we got a phone call in May that the film crew wanted to come back to document our progress.  You can imagine my mixed emotions.  We certainly wanted to celebrate and document the progress we were making, but I was worried that somehow we might be the token “sad team” in the documentary that came so close to victory but then fell short.  It makes for good television, but I didn’t necessarily want to set up our team for that.  Despite our reservations, however, we agreed to be filmed.

When the film team come out, they spent an hour or so getting footage of us together working on design plans in collaboration with students.  At one point, they asked us to go outside to get some footage of us practicing a circle discussion.  When we came back inside they had set up a monitor, and told us to gather around for an important message.  A few moments later, Laurene Powell Jobs and Russlyn Ali were on the screen, asking us about our work.

Then they told us they wanted to contribute 2.5 million dollars to help us build our Super School.

There were tears, and shouts of joy.  Certainly we were (and are) incredibly excited.  But what was even more meaningful in many ways was what they shared next.  They expressed their appreciation for our perseverance and tenacity as a team, and commented on how, of the many applications they had reviewed over the previous two years, ours stood out for its heart and passion.

And that is really the core of our core values.  We deeply want this for our kids and our community.  We aspire to rewrite and reimagine what is possible in a high school education.  And we’re doing it right here in Santa Ana.


Nail the Vision Speech

Vision SpeechPractically ubiquitous with the start of the school year is the vision speech.  It’s that moment when everyone is officially back together after summer vacation.  There is a palpable excitement in the room – and some anxiety – considering that the first day of school is right around the corner.  The superintendent or principal or organization figure-head has the mic and the floor and the mandate to inspire and set direction for the coming school year.

Arguably, we all put too much emphasis or faith in the content and delivery of that speech.  Certainly we know that the success of an organization depends on many factors and variables that go deeper and further than speeches and storytelling.  Yet, the vision speech persists as an essential component in the toolkit of leadership skills.

But why so much emphasis on one declaration of purpose and direction?

Perhaps it is because education is such a deeply human endeavor.  After all, learning brings with it a range of new relationships, conflicts, experiences, and struggles.  It is deeply social in nature.  From academic discourse to high expectations, our learning trajectory is plotted amongst the relationships and interactions we have with other human beings.  Not surprisingly, education is deeply emotional work.  We wade through triumphs and tragedies because the outcomes we seek are not physical products.  We seek learning, transformation, and strengthening of the human lives around us.

In my current district, the superintendent’s vision speech typically comes on the morning of the annual leadership symposium.  That was just over a week ago, and our superintendent did not disappoint in her acknowledgement that this would be a key moment in defining her leadership.  She launched with a short film tailor-made for our community, referring to the stark contrast of poverty that most of the families in our district experience with the incredible wealth of surrounding neighborhoods and communities.  Indeed, Orange County California is well-known for it’s wealth, sunshine, and beaches.  It should probably be as well-known for it’s degree of economic and racial/ethnic segregation.   Our superintendent captured the sentiment with reference to A Tale of Two Cities.  Like Dicken’s novel, or John Edward’s stump speech of the Two America’s, the message was designed to reinforce our urgency to accelerate student learning and break down barriers to access and opportunity.

The moment got me thinking about some of the elements that make for a powerful vision speech.

Authenticity is key

It doesn’t matter what you say or how convincingly you say it, you have to convince your audience that what you are saying represents the real you.  That can be tricky, since those you lead have plenty of data points from months if not years of interaction that either corroborate your vision or stand in contrast to it.  Even more than your speech, you are your vision.

As leaders, we all have strengths and weaknesses.  When it comes to the vision speech, you can put your foot on the accelerator when talking about what you know you do well and what there is ample evidence to support.  On the flip side, a powerful vision speech will take time to honestly acknowledge and reflect on those areas where there is either real or perceived weakness.  Glossing over your deficiencies is a dangerous practice and only fuels the fire of your biggest critics.  Of course you don’t want to perseverate on your weaknesses, and nobody wants to hear a downer speech of confessions and second-guessing.  But you have to walk that fine line between confidence and arrogance, and much of that happens in the space where you share some of your more authentic reflections.

In our superintendent’s speech to launch the school year, for example, there was ample time dedicated to highlighting accomplishments and improvements over the past year.  The speech was celebratory.  Yet, for me at least, the most powerful moment came as the message shifted into a reflective tone.  We just experienced a layoff and budget reduction process that was painful.  There were times when leaders within the system felt frustrated and angry.  Our superintendent acknowledged how she had not always attended to the human element of leadership, and recommitted to engage in both listening and attending to human needs within the system.  It resonated strongly and opened up ears to other elements of the speech that came later.

It’s Never Enough

In any relationship, if we only hear about what is wrong with us or what we need to do better, then it won’t be long before we check out.  We can only handle so much critical feedback before we get defensive.  In fact, most adults struggle with any negative feedback at all.

So start with the sweet stuff.  Acknowledge improvements and gains.  Call out exemplary effort and intention.  Publicly reinforce the behaviors, attitudes, and actions that match what you are looking for in your organization.  It’s not a gimmick.  It represents a recognition of the good work that is happening in the organization – wherever that may be.

But you can’t stay celebratory too long.  You don’t want to neutralize the even more important message of urgency around equity of student learning.  We’re not there yet.  Far from it.  Especially for our most marginalized students and communities, we have to be willing to sit with the discomfort of knowing that we are falling short – that our instruction can and must be better.  The vision speech has to push hard on any sense of complacency.

Symbolic Leadership

If there ever were a time for a heavy dose of Symbolic Leadership, this is it.  Yes, leading an organization requires the creation of purposeful structures, strategic management of human capital, and insightful political maneuvering.  But the vision speech gets at human emotions and motivation – this is the time to inspire.  As Bolman and Deal describe it, Symbolic Leadership is the acknowledgment that organizations are messy and often ambiguous, and that creating shared meaning and purpose are essential to the practice of leadership.

So, remind us why we do the work we do.  Tell us what is at stake.  Convince us we’re the right people for the task.  Paint the image of new possibilities and show us the way we are going to get there.

Leadership vision can be inherently dangerous in that it explicitly calls out what you think the organization lacks.  It’s a public statement that important things are currently missing.  There is a gap, if not a gulf, between the current practices and outcomes and what you envision as possible. Mustering the energy and faith necessary to successfully bridge the uncertain space between current conditions and your version of the future is the central purpose and challenge of leadership.  You must convince your organization that what is on the other side is worth the risks and losses that the change process inevitably will bring.

Clarity & Delivery

Good delivery takes practice.  Sometimes it requires a lot of practice, and everybody knows when you are reading a script.  Really, this is one of the most important speeches you give in your professional life, so take the time to practice.  Memorize it if that is what it takes.  It should come across as natural – part of who you are.

And if you are going to make this a multi-sensory, multi-media experience, then make it look good.  Get the graphics right.  Make it visually appealing.  In our superintendent’s most recent vision speech, it was clear that the accompanying slide deck had been given a lot of attention.  The color schemes were consistent.  It was error free. The videos she showed had been thoughtfully curated, and they generated the desired effects – laughter & emotion and a sense of deeper human connection.

Hire someone to help if you need it – you are putting your vision out there, and these are the things that will stay with people over time.  In the case of our superintendent’s vision speech, there are countless Twitter and Facebook images out there sharing elements of the vision beyond the immediate administrative and managerial staff.  I imagine that many of the graphics and images will be recycled and reused throughout the year to reinforce the vision and remind people of our priorities.  It’s an investment worth making.

In some ways, I can catalogue my leadership experiences and (hopefully) impact through the vision speeches I’ve given throughout the years.  And while I know they are important, even I get surprised when someone comes back a few days, weeks, months, and sometimes even years later, and reminds me of something that I shared that has stuck with them in a meaningful way.


Our Journey to the XQ – Key Design Elements of Círculos

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I have at least a few blog posts to write now that our Círculos concept has officially been granted super school status by the XQ Institute.  We’ve actually known for a few months that this was coming, so you can imagine how hard it has been not to share.  Obviously, there are some good stories to tell about how we got here, and about the amazing team members and collaborators who have made it possible.  But I thought it would be nice to start with an overview of some of the key design elements of the program.

Community Values

It would have been easy to respond to the invitation to “Rethink High School” with a Jetson’s-like school of the future.  Instead, we wanted a school that could blend state of the art instructional practices with an authentic connection to the values and identity of our community.  From using a Spanish name to integrating community partners to incorporating circle discussion practices and protocols, Círculos is a school that reflects the tremendous assets of our Santa Ana community.

Our Manera de Ser, or “way of being,” outlines the habits of mind and cognitive skills that we envision for all of our graduates.  These ways of being are defined by the 6 C’s – Courageous, Critical, Capable, Creative, Curious, and Communicative.  We aspire to develop students who go on to the college and life with a broad set of skills and a growth oriented mindset that will allow them to pursue their goals, learn from their mistakes, and persevere en route to success.  These are the types of skills that help define what it means to be a santanero.  We want students who are deeply proud of their identity and heritage – and that sense of belonging and inherent

Our Signature Pedagogy

The name of our school captures the spirit of our endeavor – the circle.  We take our inspiration for the circle discussion from a variety of sources, from the well-known classroom practice of Socratic Seminars, to the emerging role of circles in establishing Restorative Practices on school campuses, to the discussion protocols of some of the most prestigious private schools in our country.  We want academic discourse, and we want a lot of it.  We want authentic connection between teachers and students and community members every single day.

Every morning, the day begins with a circle check-in.  This practice, common in some schools that practice daily advisory classes, allows students the opportunity to check-in physically and emotionally for the learning of the day.  Students and adults alike share their triumphs and challenges, and offer support and solidarity.  The morning circle is also the time to make public commitments to learning goals for the day, giving students a chance to articulate what it is that they will be focusing on.

Every afternoon following lunch, students gather for another circle, this time to break down a shared text.  This daily commitment to textual analysis and academic discourse will deeply root students in literacy practices that will prepare them for the rigors of college coursework – a heavily text-dependent learning environment.  In essence, our students engage in a socratic seminar every single day.  You can imagine their level of comfort engaging in sustained academic discourse after four years of daily practice.

Ambitious Place-Based Learning

Círculos will have no central campus.  This is the statement that brings the ambition and unorthodox nature of the school into sharpest focus.  School no longer occurs primarily within a building we call a school.  We take the community and world around us as our canvas for learning.  Círculos aspires to offer one of the most ambitious place-based learning environments in the country.

Imagine the first day of the semester, coming together to hear Mentor Teachers pitch the project they are planning for the coming semester.  One mentor intends to investigate the factors that drive homelessness in Orange County.  Another mentor is interested in understanding the development of urban farming and sustainable food production practices.  A third mentor indicates her intention to learn more about community health and the systems that potentially lead to improved outcomes for the community.  Students listen intently, because after hearing all the overviews, they then have to rank-choice vote for their top selections.  And the project they choose will dictate the physical location of “school” for the next semester.

Each project will be the home for a circle of 25 students.  Students studying the factors and impact of homelessness might take up residence in a City of Santa Ana office.  Those interested in understanding sustainable food production might spend their semester studying at the urban farm plot at the Orange County Heritage Museum.  The group looking at systems to improve community health may spend most days at Latino Health Access downtown.

A-G Aligned Curriculum & Robust Intervention Support

Academic rigor is at the heart of our Círculos design.  Our students will continue to work to meet the requirements of an A-G aligned curriculum through a flexible learning program that integrates blended learning into whichever physical space our students find themselves.  In other words, technology allows us to turn any physical space big enough to accommodate a circle of students into a classroom.  A portion of every day will be dedicated to supporting students as they progress through their A-G aligned coursework, supported on a digital platform.

To ensure students receive the targeted content learning support they need, we’ve developed what we refer to as “intensive” days.  Intensive days refer to the targeted support and tutoring that comes as students leave their normal project homes to meet up with mentor teachers who can work with them specifically within areas of struggle.  For example, a student struggling to make adequate progress within an Algebra class, could spend one or two entire mornings during the week working closely with other students and a mentor teacher who focuses on developing their algebra content knowledge and skills.  In this way, students experience a deeply personalized approach to helping them pace through their A-G coursework.

Professionalism at its Best

Sometimes people equate blended learning or place-based learning with veiled attempts to undermine the role and importance of certificated teachers in classrooms.  Círculos assumes exactly the opposite.  At the heart of any genuine shift towards personalization is the need for powerful, caring relationships between teachers and students.  We even add the word “mentor” in front of teachers to reinforce the sense that teachers are more than content delivery agents – they are a critical component in the development of young people.

In fact, anyone familiar with the design and management of a flexible learning space will likely tell you that the complexity of the work calls for increasingly skilled teachers.  So much so, that a major element of our Círculos design calls for the creation of a comprehensive training and professional learning component for our staff of mentor teachers.  Imagine the degree of competency required to support students as they move through both an A-G aligned curriculum plus engage in such ambitious project and place based learning.  To that end, we are developing what we call the Codex – an interactive learning space for teachers that reinforces our professional values, builds instructional capacity within our signature pedagogy and other key strategies, and highlights the skills and mindsets embedded within our Manera de Ser.  It’s an ambitious professional learning agenda, and it absolutely relies on highly skilled and motivated teachers.