Saturday, January 17, 2015

More Than a Music Teacher

I write this post with a heavy heart because I know no matter what I write in this post it will fail to adequately express how I feel. One of my all-time favorite people is battling cancer and is currently at home receiving hospice care. I am frantically typing these words in a hope that she will get to read them because I haven't expressed to her enough what an impact she had in my life.

With that being said, I dedicate this post to the amazing Mrs. Connie Meek.

Mrs. Meek taught choir at Crawfordsville High School. I first met her when my brother Jason was in high school and she was his teacher. I would go on to have Mrs. Meek as a teacher from the time I was in 8th grade choir, until the day I graduated high school. I had her for more classes than any other teacher in my educational career.

Now I love music. I love playing music and I love singing. However, there is no way I would have taken that many years of choir if I didn't have an amazing teacher. What made her so amazing? First of all, there is no doubt in my mind, or anyone's, that she loved teaching. I can not imagine all the hours she put into us as students between her full schedule of classes, musicals, Pride (which is a club about being drug free), and everything else that goes along with being a teacher. Most importantly, she loved us students. I can't tell you the number of times she pulled me aside when I was having problems and talked to me. She loved us and I loved her for it.

My mind is being flooded with memories. Even now I can see the smile on her at the end of a choir concert. The look of joy she would have because the way we sounded on day one of learning a song compared to where we were on concert day was always light years apart. It was never a look of pride in herself for taking this group of kids and making us sound wonderful. It was always, at least to me, a look that said, I'm so proud of you and look what you can accomplish when you work hard and believe. It's a look I've tried to express to my own students and children.

I remember all the times I got to sing the national anthem and even to this day I can't hear or sing it without going into my bass part. Well, I at least try to go into my bass part. Every time I hear somebody sing and the words say "don't you" but it sounds more like "don't chew" because they didn't enunciate properly, I think of her. Even though I'm not in any choir or part of any singing group, I will still find myself singing the warmups we did in choir. Every time I hear the Imperial Death March I don't just think of Star Wars. I also think, "uh oh, somebody just got caught chewing gum in choir." There are several songs we sang in choir that I will still break out into at random times. Peg Leg Pete, Every Time I Feel The Spirit, and Calendar Girls, just to name a few.

One of my favorite high school moments happened because of Mrs. Meek. I was not nearly as outgoing as I wanted to be in high school. If I'm being honest, I had a very low self-esteem. I never thought I was good enough. My senior year was a down year in the men section in concert choir. A few seniors opted out for whatever reason and I was the only male singer who had any concert choir experience. We had a bunch of freshmen and their ever-changing voices, plus a few upperclassmen who might have been in choir before but this was their first time in concert choir. I actually had a scheduling conflict because I was a calculus student and it was only offered at the same time as concert choir. I convinced my school to let me drive a few miles down the road to the next high school and take calculus there at the end of each day so I could still be in choir. It was a great year, with lots of great memories. At the end of the year we always had awards. Mrs. Meek was handing out the top award for the year. I couldn't believe it when she called my name. I wasn't the choir president, I didn't consider myself to be a popular kid, and I certainly wasn't the best singer in choir. She later told that she gave me the award because I stuck with her and worked so hard with all the guys all year long. I've never forgotten that feeling. It was a feeling that very few teachers ever made me have but it was one that I had frequently around Mrs. Meek. It was a feeling of pride in my work self. It was the feeling that if I could master this, what else could I master?

Hardly anything can match the feeling of somebody believing in you and how it causes you to believe in yourself. She never gave up on me. She never gave up on us. It's a feeling I tried my hardest to pass on to my students. It's a feeling I do everything I can to make sure my own children have.

These words are not enough. I read over them and I know I've fallen short. How do you put this much appreciation for an individual into words? I hope some of Mrs. Meek's former students read this and help me out here. I hope others share their thoughts.

Thank you Mrs. Meek! You did more than teach me how to sing. You taught me more than notes and lyrics. You taught me how to love what you're doing. You taught me how to love students as if they were your own kids. You taught me how to work hard and to never give up on something or someone you love. It has been almost 17 years since you were my teacher but I'm still learning from you today.

Thank you Mrs. Meek.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Four Ps to a Fantastic Following

I originally posted this blog on my school district's technology website.

If nobody is following you, then you're not leading.


It's a phrase that anyone in leadership has heard over and over again. I was recently in a leadership class at my church being led by a person from Kineo Resources. During the session as he was discussing the four reasons people will follow you, I reflected on what I had learned that night I thought about how it applies to education. Whatever your role is in education, you are a leader. However, the true mark of leaders isn't how great their ideas are; it's the number of people they can get to follow, plan, improve, and execute those ideas. There are four levels of followers each leader has and each level of follow is a reflection of the relationship between the leader and the follower.


Some people will just follow you because of your position. They do what you say because they are the student and you are the teacher, or they are the teacher and you are the administrator. It's a level of compliance based on the position you hold over them or because of your ability to "get them in trouble" if they don't listen to you. This is the lowest level of followers and the lowest level of relationship. If you constantly have to remind somebody that you're in charge, you're the adult, or you're the boss, and they're the student, they're the child, or they're the teacher, then you only have position followers. These followers might be compliant at best. They will do what you say when you're but might talk about you behind your back. This is also the entry level of following. We follow people because of their position and test the waters to see if we can build that relationship to the next level. When you realize you have a position level follower, it is your role as a leader to cultivate that relationship. The follower wants to see that you have a vision and a mission. They want to see that you have a plan and a purpose. Most of all, they want to see that there is a benefit to being your follower. If they can't see your vision and mission, they'll never buy into you. If they don't see a benefit of being a follower, then they'll never get to the next level of following.  


Permission is the next level of following. This level says, I give you permission to lead me. Ultimately, position followers are not true followers at all. True followers are followers not out of obligation, but because they give you permission to lead them. They are followers out of choice. They have begun to buy into you as a leader, therefore they are buying into your vision and your mission. They haven't seen the results of following you yet, but they believe the results are coming. This is the student who came into your class not liking your subject, but because they like you they give it a shot. They don't think they'll be good at math but because they have begun to trust you, they follow your instructions. This is the teacher who has bought into the vision of the principal and the district. They haven't seen the results in the classroom yet, but they trust the instructional leaders and therefore are implementing the plan to the best of their ability. There is only one way to continue to move the followers up to the next level of following, and that is through results. If a leader's vision and mission fails to produce results, then those who followed you out of permission are going to revoke that permission. You see it all the time is sports. A new coach comes in, builds a relationship with his or her team, they implement the new system, maybe have some immediate success but then things go south. They start losing games and the new system doesn't appear to be working any longer. What happens? The coach loses the locker room, loses permission, and then loses his job. The same thing happens in our schools. At some point, your leadership has to begin to consistently produce results in order to move to that next level of followers.  


When those following you begin to see the good results, then they move to that next level, production. This level says, I followed you because of your position, you built trust in me and I have you permission to lead me. Now I see the good results of following you, so I will follow you further. This is a great place to be. I think back to my high school algebra teacher, Ms. Rupar. She was a tough lady. She certainly taught through fear to a certain degree and I'm not sure her methods would work today but they worked back then. I remember listening to her because she was my teacher and she could put you in line if you didn't pay attention. Then I remember as the semester went on that I developed a good relationship with her. I learned that we could connect and she was actually very easy to talk to once you got over your fear of her. So I gave her permission to lead me. No longer was I doing things because I didn't want to get in trouble but because I didn't want to let her down. Finally, I found out I was pretty good at this algebra stuff and I had her to thank for it. I was getting consistently good results, so I kept following her. I don't care what your position is, how many degrees you have, or how many years you've been doing this, if you can't produce results, people will stop following you. This is where a lot of leaders falter because they realize they're not getting the results they want, but they aren't willing to change. They are not willing to adapt to a new way of thinking. Their plans become more important to them than their vision and mission. But if you, as a leader, can grow, change, and adapt throughout the process and produce results, then you have a chance to grow into the type of leader who leads people to that final stage of following.

Personal Development

We will all follow somebody who makes us a better version of ourselves. This level says, I will follow you because I am becoming the leader I want to become because of you. We reproduce after our own kind. Dogs breed dogs. Cats breed cats. Corn seeds are planted and corn grows out of the ground. Leaders produce leaders. I said it at the top of this post, if nobody is following you, then you're not leading. I also say, if you're not producing new leaders, then you're not leading. People will obey somebody because of their position. They will give permission to somebody they trust. They will follow somebody whose plans and leadership produce results. They will flock to somebody who helps them develop personally to the leader they want to be. This is the principal who changes schools and half the staff at their previous schools puts in for transfers to his or her new school. This is the teacher that every student in the school wants to have, like my high school Latin teacher Mr. Boone. Mr. Boone taught 11th grade ELA and Latin. By the time he retire, he taught five classes of Latin a day. He was such a great teacher who instilled within you confidence, a love for learning, and a passion to follow your dreams.  Every student signed up for Latin just to guarantee they had Mr. Boone as a teacher.


In the end we have to remember that there is more to life than producing good results. If you are just using people to get the results, you need them in spite of your results, you will lose your followers. We are in the people business. Our students need to know that we are interested in developing them as people and working with them so they will become the leaders they want to be. Our staffs need to know that we pour into them, not just to get results, but because they are worth pouring in to. It's all about relationship. Here, in just the start of second semester, let me challenge us to reflect on where we are as leaders. Are people following us just because of our position? Have people given us permission to lead them and are we honoring that permission by working with them to produce results? Are we doing more than producing by pouring into those who are following? Are we producing leaders?

Thursday, November 20, 2014

He's a Bad Kid

The best part of my mornings are getting to fix my three boys breakfast. Raising three boys you're just never sure what is going to happen while they are eating breakfast. My kids major in randomness. The other morning my youngest son started telling me about how he was missing a boy who was no longer in his kindergarten class. I told him that I was sorry that he missed him and asked him if they were his friends. He quickly responded, "No, he's not my friend. He's a bad kid. He gets on red every day."

I was taken back and honestly saddened by his comment about his classmate. You see, like many classrooms, my son starts his day on a certain color. If his behavior is defined as good behavior, then he gets to move up a color. If his behavior is defined as bad behavior, then he has to go down a color. Most days when I ask him how his day was he will reply, "I was on (fill in the color)." Here is what bothered me about this conversation at breakfast and what bothers me about frequent conversations after school.

  • He frequently defines the success or failure of his day strictly by what color he is on when the day ended. 
  • He judged a fellow classmate as a "bad kid" based on what color he perceived that student regularly ended his day on. 
Now let me say this as clearly as I can. This is not a complaint against his current teacher or school. My boys are having a great year. They have great teachers. They are all learning and happy. This post has been a long time coming. In fact, I spoke with my son's teacher today about it and got her permission to share the story about my son. Really made me even happier about her as a teacher. I love her openness and willingness to be a reflective educator. 

I was recently quoted in a piece about Class Dojo in the New York Times.  I was probably on the phone for over an hour with the reporter and it was a very pleasant conversation. The interview, a twitter conversation I got involved in, the subsequent NYT rebuttal from Class Dojo, a Skype session with somebody from Class Dojo, and then this conversation with my son all happened right on top of each other. All of this has my mind going and I had to blog about it. So here are some observations and things that I'm wondering about. 

Do tools like class dojo and using colors to track behavior build a positive classroom culture?

Culture is everything! Read Anthony Muhammad's books and you'll see what I mean.  Here is the thinking that I think public displays of rewards and punishments reinforces. 
  • Class favorites and class pets. "Oh Mr. Clark always gives Johnny Dojo points. He's his favorite." A lot of students already struggle with this mindset. Let's not reinforce it with bad classroom management practices.
  • This kid is a bad kid. As you know, I've seen this in my own son. He couldn't tell me anything else about that student except for his name and that he was a bad student. He based that on what somebody else in authority label that student. Inadvertently or not, it doesn't matter. 
  • Us vs Them. Is the way we handle classroom management bringing us closer together with our students or pushing us apart? Perception is reality. If our students view us as having it out for them or that "we never liked them", it doesn't matter how accurate or inaccurate it is, that's a hard mountain to climb. 
What message are we sending our students? 

One of my biggest complaints about Class Dojo is the imagery of little monsters being used to represent our students. I personally am not comfortable with it. I don't want my son to be depicted as a little monster. I don't want my students to be depicted as little monsters. 

My second biggest complaint with Class Dojo is that it's designed to be displayed. Now I know that teachers don't have to display it. Just like I know that teachers don't have to use the negative marks and the sound effects. However, the fact that those features exist promotes the public displaying of what should remain private information. 

Technology isn't neutral. You can take a piece of technology and use it differently than how it was designed but it was designed for a purpose. It's like the idea that guns aren't a part of the problem, just the people who misuse them. (My goodness, why am I putting this in here?) Give a group of kids a set of toy guns and see what game they'll play with them. Will they play "war" or will they play "peace". No kid says, "hey look at these toy guns we just got, lets go play peace with our friends." Yes, you can take almost any tool and use it in a beneficial way but that doesn't change how it was designed to be used. 

In a recent conversation I made the suggestion of removing the public and negative features from Class Dojo. The idea was rebuffed because half of the users would probably leave the platform. Now in all fairness, the ideas were written down. 

Ok, I'll get off of Class Dojo because I think they have good people working for them and they have been very open to conversations. You can use their product in a positive way.  Plus, I'd rather this conversation be more about the overall idea of classroom management, than just a single platform. 

Who owns the learning? 

If we as educators are defining what is good and bad behavior for them then when are we giving our students the chance to define their behavior themselves? More than just letting our students be involved in the creation of classroom expectations. We've got to get our students reflecting on their own actions and making their own course corrections as needed. 

Are we setting up our teachers and students for failure?

If you give out a reward or punishment for a certain behavior then you better be ready to give out that reward or punishment every single time that same event occurs again. That's an impossible task but the moment you stop, you've just sent a message to the student that the rules have changed. I do believe in the idea that we can punish by rewards.

Where do we go from here?

Ok, I've got to land this plane. Let me give you two easy suggestions on how I think we can all do a better job with classroom management. 

  1. Worry more about classroom engagement and less about classroom management. I've been saying for years that an active, engaging classroom and a mobile teacher are teachers' two best tools for classroom management. Be relevant, be engaging, be personable, and be empowering. 
  2. Keep discipline and rewards private. Especially discipline. If you see me pulled over on the side of the road, you can speculate all you want but you don't know why that cop pulled me over. Cops don't stop all of traffic just to deal with one violator. We shouldn't stop all learning just so we can deal with one student. If you're going to give rewards publicly then the rewards should be decided upon by the public for specific reasons to avoid the ideas of teachers having their favorites and popularity contest. 

Finally, let me leave you with two other great blog post. 

What do you think? How do you handle classroom management?  Am I completely off my rocker? 

Friday, August 15, 2014

It Starts with Listening #ferguson

I want to say thanks to my friend Chris Lehmann for pushing me to write this post. I don't often write about social issues, even though I have opinions, and I certainly have a voice. I guess it's just my own fear about how my voice will be received and probably about my own personal doubts that usually keep me from writing about social issues.

Another reason I think I shy away from social issues is because it's impossible for me to separate how I feel about social issues without including my religious views. I'm not ashamed about what I believe and I certainly make no apologies for my faith. I feel there is a time and place to share those views and I don't often bring those views to my blog.

However, last night after teaching my middle school class at my church and reading blog post from my friends on the topic of #ferguson, I found a point of intersection.

It's this idea that everything starts with our ability to hear. Of all of my senses, I think losing my hearing would be the worse to lose. I had this discussion with my class last night. Why do deaf people struggle with speaking? There's nothing wrong with their mouth or vocal chords. It's because they can't hear.

The same is true as you grow into adulthood. How can you truly speak on a situation if at first you don't listen? Check out this tweet from my good friend Bob Dillon.
I can't say for certain I know how this is all going to end. I do, however, have a suggestion with how this all should begin. It has to start with people learning how to listen.

When having these hard discussions with your students, start by listening to their hopes and fears. Start by listening to the voices from both sides of the situation before forming an opinion. Of course, I don't always get why there are even two sides to begin with but that's just me.

Move beyond speaking for just a moment. Think about how our ability to hear gives us direction. When the room is dark and you can't see your hand in front of your face, you stop and listen for a sound that tells you which way to turn. How can you truly know which way to turn and have direction if at first you don't listen? Play a little Marco Polo and you'll know that many times which way we turn starts with our ability to listen.

I finish with a personal story.

Most of my Saturdays I go to Beecher Terrace in Louisville, KY. It seems like each week there are violent crimes in that neighborhood. It breaks my heart as my wife, three children, and I walk through the apartment complex inviting people to church. It would be easy to spend all day there because the people who are there will talk your leg off. Probably because they aren't use to people actually listening to them and their needs.

It's not uncommon to have somebody thank me for being there. Sometimes it's just in word but I have been hugged a time or two. I've been warned by the guys on the corner when I walk up to them that I'm risking getting arrested if I'm seen with them but I stand there for a minute anyway. I just listen to what they have to say.

I'm not tooting my own horn here or bragging about my involvement because I fall short every week. I'm not making near the difference that I want to make. I'm not changing near enough lives and too many people are waking up to the same bleak reality the fell asleep to the night before.

If you don't think you have a neighborhood in your city like Beecher Terrace or you don't have kids in your schools that fear a situation like the one with Mike Brown will happen to them, then you are kidding yourself and you're not listening.

So I invite you to listen. Listen to your students, listen to your families, listen to the voices of great educators who wrote far more powerful pieces than this one.

Learning starts with listening. Change starts with listening. Hope starts with listening.

Thank you for taking the time to listening to me.


For more on this situation, please read the following post.

When Can We Talk About Race? by Jose Vilson
Conversations With My Son Regarding the Mike Brown Murder by Rafranz Davis
Just Start by Jenna Shaw
If this is the Goal of Education by John Spencer
What Do We Teach About Ferguson, MO? by Chris Lehman
What Do We Teach When Kids Are Dying? by Chris Lehmann
#Ferguson by Bill Ferriter 
To Be A Better Teacher, A Better Person by Philip Cummings