Sunday, August 20, 2017

The Impact of an Educator

I fondly remember when I was first asked to consider what my future career path might be.  Mrs. Williams, my kindergarten teacher, asked the class to draw a picture that articulated what we wanted to be when we grew up. I immediately knew exactly what I was going to draw. That was the easy part. The difficult task, for me at least, was to then utilize what limited artistic abilities I had to create an illustration that depicted my future career. To this day I still remember the image I created of a farmer tending to his crops. This was a natural career choice for me as a six-year-old having grown up in a rural area of northwestern NJ with a farm right across from our house. I had no idea how to farm, but being outside the rest of my life was good enough for me.

As I aged the thought of becoming a farmer faded as I began to focus more on careers in the biological sciences. Growing up surrounded by nature and spending each summer at the Jersey Shore helped to kindle and sustain an interest in this area.  I never gave much thought, nor did either of my brothers, about becoming an educator. Quite honestly, I told myself, and my parents, that I would never become an educator.  My response might have stemmed from the fact that I really didn’t understand what they actually did and the impact they were having on kids. All I knew with a great deal of certainty was that a career in education was not in the cards.

My mom, after taking many years off to take care of us, eventually became an elementary teacher where she had a celebrated career.  I say celebrated because at her retirement dinner I was able to witness firsthand the impact that she had on students and colleagues alike. Their stories of her passion and dedication for helping kids learn made me so proud. My father was a successful school administrator for what seemed like forever.  He held many positions, but what I was most in awe of was the fact that he was an elementary principal at the same school for close to 30 years.  When he retired they gave him a key to the city. I don’t know if you can be more successful than that. I never knew the impact my parents had as educators until after I myself became one. Hearing story after story about their work as their careers ended taught me that sometimes the ultimate reward for an educator comes years after we have had direct impact with kids or adults. 


Image credit: http://www.teamworkandleadership.com/

Herein lies the motivation behind this post.  I recently received a text message from a former student and athlete of mine. It started off like this:

"Coach Sheninger, is this still your number?"

My response was a simple yep.

He then went on to text me the following:


"Well hey, its Spenser Brenn just in case you lost my number. Sorry if it’s super early. As sappy as this is going to sound…."

I really was not prepared for what followed next, but I can tell you that his words below touched my heart and soul.


"I was just working out with my athletes and kids yesterday and it reminded of when I was in high school. You let me workout with you and would push me in the weight room, classroom, and on the football field. I have always been asked why did you want to become a teacher and coach. To be honest, I wasn't sure of that answer until I had this moment yesterday when I realized that those seemingly trivial moments of the two of us working out at lunch or study hall were more impactful than most other moments during high school for me. You were tough on me (a pain in the butt, or at least in the eyes of a stupid high school kid), deservingly so, considering I was a pain right back to you. However, you taking me under your wing and motivating, mentoring, and challenging me (whether you knew it or not) meant and still means more to me than you probably know, or more than I knew until yesterday. So I just wanted to reach out and say this - a small gesture like working out with a pain in the butt kid meant the world to him. It showed that you cared, something he, and all people, needed at that time. Thank you. I now know why I became a teacher, a coach, and a mentor to the youth."

It goes without saying that I was totally humbled by Spencer’s message.  As educators we all chose a profession that would not lead to riches in a financial sense. We chose to become educators so that we could not only help kids learn, but hopefully impact them well beyond just grades and achievement.  Education is a calling. It is a calling to make a difference.  That’s what educators do on a day-to-day basis.  Never forget that your work matters and that each day you get up in front of a class, help lead a building, or collaborate with others to run a district that you have an opportunity to positively impact kids. This also applies to your work with adult learners. 

Below is the response I sent to Spencer.


Well you just made my day, well week actually (maybe the entire summer). Life is so much more than what we are made to think is important. Everything comes down to relationships built on trust, empathy, compassion, understanding, and honesty. I really never knew until later in my education career that one of the most important things we can do is to show kids we care. It's not until much later in life that we learn of the impact we have on our students. You will one day be in the same position as me, a proud person humbled by the feedback that you receive knowing that you positively influenced others. Thank you so much for taking the time to send that text. It meant more than you will ever know.

Why did you become an educator? Who were those people and experiences in your life that led you to your current role?  In my new role, I still see myself (and other amazing speakers and presenters) as an educator. Each day is still a calling to try to make a difference.  Whether or not I make a real difference is in the eye of the beholder. Nonetheless, I am driven by the same passion I had as a teacher and principal to help others see the greatness that is within all of us.  

Thank you to every educator out for the work that you do.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Leading is Not Easy

This post, like so many, has been inspired by something I read.  One of my favorite sites to glean more insight and knowledge on leadership is Inc.  Even though the site shares content specific to business growth and innovation so many of the articles and opinion pieces connect to leadership in the education space.  By using Flipboard I have instant access to many of the pieces that appear on Inc thanks to the fact that I have leadership set as one of my magazine categories.  If you are not using this app please download it to your mobile device.  It is one of the best ways to create your own personalized magazine based on your interests and social network activity that you can literally flip through.

The other day Flipboard exposed me to this gem written by Nicolas Cole titled The Brutal Truth About Why Being a Leader is So Hard.  The premise of the article, as the title implies, is the inherent difficulties associated with any leadership position. Cole goes on to explain the following:


"What's difficult about leadership is that nobody ever sits you down and "teaches" you what being a real leader is all about. There's no class in early education that defines leadership. Peers in group projects tend to label leaders as "overachievers" (and not in a good way). In college, leadership is reduced down to who is going to talk the most during a presentation. And even on sports teams, the leader is usually the best player--and wears a letter on his or her jersey as a trophy of their accomplishments."

His synopsis really resonated with me.  It is difficult to adequately prepare any leader for the challenges he or she will face as well as the decisions that will have to be made.  There are so many unique variables that just cannot be taught.  Learning about how to prepare a budget is entirely different than creating one on your own when all the unique challenges are factored in.  It’s tough work knowing that difficult decisions will have to be made at times, including letting staff go.  Making decisions in time of crisis is also a topic that is regularly explored in leadership courses.  The solutions addressed always sound great in theory, but their application typically isn’t very practical.  

Looks can be, and are, deceiving.  Talking the talk has to be accompanied with walking the walk. That’s the hard part. It’s relatively easy for people to tell others what they should do. However, true leaders go through the challenging work of showing how it can be done.  Here is some sage advice that I learned long ago as a new principal who started drinking the digital and innovation Kool-Aid long ago – “Don’t ask others to do what you are not willing or have not done yourself.” Modeling is one of the most impactful elements of leadership. It builds trust leading to powerful relationships.  

Accomplishments and success are earned through the actions that are taken that result in evidence of improvement.   Leaders know that it is not the work of one person that moves an organization in a positive direction, but rather the collective efforts of all.  The premise of every decision and action has to be geared towards the “We” instead of “I”.  It’s not about coming up with all the ideas, but helping people implement not only the ones you develop, but also the ones that they develop. Leading from the front is an outdated style that doesn’t foster shared ownership.  



It’s our experiences that help all of us to develop into better leaders coupled with the support we get from colleagues. From experience, we learn that trying to be right all the time only makes the job exponentially harder.  Work inside out to make leading a little easier by focusing on the why, how, and what in that order. Make the time to hone your communication skills, as you will not find an effective leader who is not an effective communicator.  Mastering this art is no easy task and takes constant practice and reflection in order to improve.

Regardless of your position leading is hard, yet gratifying work.  Keep an open mind, regularly reflect, pursue learning opportunities that push your thinking, and understand that you will never have all the answers (which is quite ok).  It is also helpful to be flexible.  I leave you with some more thoughts from Nicholas Cole that might just build greater leadership capacity in you and others:


"True leadership is the ability to communicate and effectively reach each and every person you work with, in the way that works best for them. 
It's the ability to be flexible. 
When everyone else is stressed, you're calm. 
When everyone else is out of gas, you inject more fuel. 
When everyone else doesn't know what to do next, you lead by example. 
When someone has an issue, you work with them and listen to them on a personal level."

Stealing from Ghandi, be the change you wish to see in education.  Just know that any change journey is not an easy one. 

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Avoiding Initiative Overload

As many of us know all too well, the process of change is not always a successful venture. It is fraught with twists and turns, not to mention challenges that come in all shapes and sizes. Out of the chaos excuses materialize, further complicating the process.  One common excuse, or challenge depending on your point of view, is too many initiatives at once.  In business, some estimates indicate that 70 percent of change initiatives fail. That’s right. Research has shown that up to 7 in 10 corporate initiatives have not led to sustainable change (Blanchard, 2010). 


Image credit: johnrchildress.files.wordpress.com

Initiative overload is just as common in education as it is in business. The numbers referenced above could easily correlate to education, and the percentages may even be worse. Today, schools and leaders work to juggle numerous initiatives simultaneously.  This can result in a drain on resources as well as a lack of focus on the primary task at hand – improvement of student learning. While each separate initiative is established to improve school culture, the more tasks that are added to the proverbial plate increase the likelihood that they all will not be sustained over time. For every new initiative launched, another one slows down or ceases altogether.

Tony Sinanis, a newly appointed superintendent and great friend, tackled this topic on his blog. He makes the point that many initiatives are problematic from the start.  


"I would argue that initiatives, as they are generally rolled out within education, are often doomed for failure before they even have a chance to impact educators and learners.

Tony goes on to outline four specific reasons, based on his experience as a practicing school leader, why too many initiatives can be problematic:

  • Initiatives are about a program and not about a skill set.
  • Initiatives are piled one on top of the other.
  • Initiatives are often about doing the new "trendy" thing in education and not about doing what is best for OUR kids.
  • We are shocked when educators express feeling overwhelmed by a new initiative and are in need of more time to successfully implement it.

Tony provides some wise advice for all educators as we grapple with mandates, directors, the “flavor of the month”, and a need to innovate while also increasing achievement. A general understanding that the student learning experience must be transformed has created incredible opportunities for the future yet has simultaneously caused significant turmoil. As school leaders work to redesign their schools, they must be careful not to immerse themselves, their teams, and their students in an alphabet soup of initiatives. This is something Tom Murray and I address in Learning Transformed. In our experience, initiative overload is one of the primary reasons that transformational change fails. When making investments in the form of time and money, think about where you will get the most bang for your buck. Investing in people is the best investment one can make. That’s the key to sustainable change.

Throughout the book, we present a plethora of research, evidence, stories, and practical steps to transform learning, but school leaders cannot lead change in all areas, at all times. It’s easy for leaders to get excited about what could and should be, especially for those who are most passionate about creating new innovative opportunities for students and staff. Although well intended, too many ongoing initiatives can easily dilute the effectiveness of sustainable change. Avoiding initiative overload by maintaining a laser-like focus on what evidence indicates is required and essential for sustainable growth and transformation. 

It all comes down to this basic piece of advice. Do one thing great instead of several things just ok. Leading transformational change isn’t easy. But our kids are worth the effort. 

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Beyond Perception

"People only see what they are prepared to see." - Ralph Waldo Emerson

Life is full of twists and turns as well as ups and downs.  In my opinion, it is a never-ending test that determines the trajectory of our career paths.  It is not about passing or failing, but rather taking what we have learned to improve our position in life, whether that be professional or personal. Never did I once think that my professional life would have evolved as it has.  I was fortunate to become an administrator at the relative young age of 29. Three years later I became the Principal of New Milford High School. It was in this position that I really began to learn about effective leadership.  


Image credit: http://jonlieffmd.com/

My journey to become an administrator almost didn’t come to pass.  As a teacher, I was only afforded the opportunity to work with a limited number of students who I had the pleasure of teaching.  To increase my potential impact on more students I coached three different sports (football, lacrosse, ice hockey) and volunteered to advise the environmental club.  I was hungry to have an even greater impact on more kids, which led me to pursue my administrative credentials.  Excited and determined to lead change in a broader context, I began to look for administrative openings where I could serve more kids. I could not wait to face and overcome the challenges ahead while working collaboratively with a staff of educators committed to helping students learn.

My excitement quickly turned into despair.  Countless cover letters and resumes were sent out with no response. I then worked to improve my cover letter and made sure my resume articulated how highlighted experiences applied to the field of educational administration. What followed was a pleasant surprise.  I began to receive numerous interviews and was on top of the world. My confidence grew, but just like a roller coaster ride it soon plummeted. In many cases I didn’t make it out of the first round, as it was determined that I lacked the needed experience.  When I eventually became a finalist for positions I often lost out to others that had applicable experience.  I sure don’t miss those interviewing days.

I was plagued by the perception that my age and lack of experience would prohibit me from doing the job of administration. Truth be told that many of us have been in this same position.  The best way to counter this perception is to keep moving along and constantly seek out our experiences that will prepare us for new positions.  If you are a teacher or instructional coach ask your administrator if you can volunteer as an intern. We did this at my former school. In lieu of a non-instructional duty, teachers could request a yearlong administrative internship where they assisted with day-to-day leadership tasks. This was not only a great help to me and my team, but more importantly it gave these teachers relevant experience that they could put on their resume. If you are an aspiring administrator or looking to move up the ladder, find ways to get involved with the budget, observations, evaluations, curriculum development, walk-throughs, professional development, and master scheduling.  

Perception always surrounds our work and us.  As I have moved on from Principal to my new role as a speaker and author many people assume that I am, or always have been, gifted in these areas.  The reality though is that I struggle in both areas. Public speaking has been a bit easier for me than writing. I was always terrified to speak in public prior to social media. My worst day of the school year was graduation when I had to deliver a speech and then correctly pronounce all the names of the graduating class. This posed to be quite the challenge when the parents of your students speak over 40 different languages. To successfully get through this I meticulously planned and wrote the speech weeks prior to graduation.  I also met with every single student beforehand to phonetically write out their names.  

Over time I became a more confident and polished speaker. Through social media I found my voice. It was naturally easier to speak in public when afforded the opportunity to present on the work of my students and staff. This does not infer that I am now a gifted speaker.  Some might think this is the case, but again this is far from the truth. I work harder now than I did as a principal to prepare for diverse audiences who all have different needs and expectations.  In reality, it is the preparation beforehand and attempts to share strategies that are not only practical, but also aligned to research that aid in my delivery.  

Writing on the other hand is something with which I struggle.  As an author of six books, numerous articles, and a blog, I am dogged by a perception that I am a good writer. Quite frankly I am not in my humble opinion.  Over the years I have had to deal with some harsh critical reviews. One reviewer of Digital Leadership said the book shouldn’t be published.  Each week I labor over creating a blog post.  Coming up with a topic is hard, but what’s even harder is putting succinct words to create a post that people want to read and find valuable.  I begin writing on Monday with the goal of having a post ready to go by the following Sunday. My mom also edits all of my posts and I try to get feedback from family and friends before the post goes live.  She says my writing has really improved, by as my mom I think that is what she is supposed to say to build my confidence. 

So why do I continue to write then? Just because I am not as gifted as others doesn’t mean that I don’t have important ideas and thoughts to share.  Every time I write it is a constant reminder how I am working to overcome a weakness and turn it into a strength. I battle the perception that some have placed on me, but more importantly I tackle head on the perception that I often develop for myself.  Reality is determined by what people see and the actions that we take behind the scenes.  I am not sure any of this actually makes sense to you, but in my reality it makes perfect sense to me.

Perception is important for our students and their success. They should never perceive that they are inferior to their peers if they don’t do well on standardized tests or more traditional, one-size-fits-all assessments. Some students just don’t learn this way.  We also have to be careful of developing a perception that some students don’t want to learn, as we are unaware of the challenges or demons they are tackling at the moment.  All kids (and adults) have greatness hidden inside them. It is the job of a caring educator to help them find and unleash it. 

Don’t let perception define you, your work, or your students.  Helping others to look through a different lens can lead to a more accurate reality, which benefits all of us.