Let’s Talk About Clearing Pathways After the Pandemic

Of all the things that future generations may look back upon with wonder, one will likely be that in 2021 we still judged a student’s intelligence based on what she could retain solely in her own mind.


What is the pandemic preparing us to talk about? There are likely multiple topics we’ve pushed aside over the years and allowed to fester. We had that privilege. Perhaps we no longer do, or at least won’t once the pandemic is over.

The first topic has likely been a concern since the early days when teachers and schools first started giving grades – cheating.

Cheating has been in the news a lot lately as K12 and colleges of all kinds ended the fall semester. And of course learners have been completing assignments and assessments from different physical locations – some in the classroom and some not. When we can’t physically see each other we often assume the worst. Even West Point is involved in a cheating scandal.

Undoubtedly students of all ages are using all the tools available to them and the utilization of many of those tools is currently considered cheating. But tools to get an advantage have always existed. Money and power have always granted unequal access to success in school. Private tutors, purchased “study guides”, powerful parents, all contribute to an unequal playing field.

The internet is just democratizing this access to knowledge and support. In the past, a less privileged student may have been limited to his teacher, a textbook, and maybe a family member to support his learning. Now, there is a world of tools and support at that student’s fingertips. Wolfram Alpha and Grammarly or something like them will always exist from this point forward.

These tools – and the desire of young people to collaborate – are not going away. Also, these tools and the ease for students around the world to collaborate will become faster and cheaper every year.

My intention in this post and others is not to share solutions or even fully-vetted thoughts, but rather to point a light toward topics that the pandemic is preparing us to talk about.

As K12 leaders we need to talk about how we are allowing “cheating” to be defined. Cheating still exists of course. We don’t want students using someone else’s work to demonstrate mastery of a standard, that is lying and lying hurts everyone and our society as a whole. However, we want them to demonstrate their ability to learn from each other and elevate the knowledge of their peers. We want them to demonstrate their ability to vet information online and utilize all the resources available to them.

I worry though that if as K12 leaders we stay behind the curve related to how we learn and collaborate in 2021 and beyond, we will be punishing behaviors our students will need to be successful in the future.

I want a positive-sum future with more pathways to success than most of us had as students, and I worry some of our current paths are cluttered with remnants of of the past. These remnants look at public education as a negative-sum, finite game, where for every winner there must be at least one loser.

It doesn’t have to be like that.


What are your thoughts? What other topics may the pandemic be preparing us to talk about? Share in the comments or tag me on Twitter.

What is the Pandemic Preparing us to Talk About?

What is the pandemic preparing us to talk about?

There are many discussions or topics we shy away from or speak about from the fringes as leaders in public education. It’s usually under the auspices of “not being ready” for the types of changes we know may be expected as an outcome of these discussion. So we use the passive shield of “not being ready” or saying our team is not ready and avoid hard topics.

The pandemic though has no respect for our lame excuses. It does not care if we are “ready.”

What if the pandemic is here to prepare us for these conversations? What if it is here to force us to confront some of these big ideas that we know are decrepit bastions of a bygone day which we keep around because we are afraid what throwing them out really means. Maybe we worry about what change will force us to give up? Or as leaders we worry how hard it will be to get others to give it up. It’s especially interesting if what we are confronting worked for segments of our students, teachers, and parents.

At some point though, we are going to have to stop putting gas into our Teslas and pretending it’s working.

So what are some of these topics?

I’m going to bring up a few here on the blog over the next few weeks. There will not be any answers, but rather a space to help me and others make our thinking more transparent. These topics don’t have clear answers and we need to be ok with that. Embrace the ambiguity and nuance.

We just can’t pretend we can continue to dodge the topics in a post-pandemic world.

The first topic for next week will be Cheating, which some might say is really a conversation about Grading, which some might say is really a conversation about Winners and Losers.

What other topics or ideas might the pandemic be preparing us to talk about? Share your ideas in the comments below.


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Awareness in the Land of Unknown Unknowns

I recently shared a few ideas on knowns knowns and known unknowns for public K12 education heading into 2021. This week, we wade into the anxious and murky world of unknown unknowns. We usually don’t know what lies around the corner, but if we are paying attention then we know something is there. It’s going to present itself whether we like it or not. All we can control and plan for is our ability to respond.

One of my favorite quotes comes from the poet Jane Hirshfield:

By keeping those three maxims in mind we can practice making peace with the unknown and find opportunities to practice our own skills of awareness. Recently, I have been reminding my team that we need to “keep our heads on a swivl.” That idea of maintaining situational awareness was imprinted on me during high school by a football coach and was cultivated professionally by many years as a bartender and middle school assistant principal.

Likewise when I’ve wondered into trouble or made mistakes both at work and at home, it could be attributed to three things: not paying attention, failing to notice connections, and not the maintaining readiness. Or to put it Hirshfield’s way, not paying attention, forgetting that everything is connected, and not being ready when inevitable change happens.

Today, living in a world full of unknown unknowns is not a symptom of the pandemic. We may be more aware of change since COVID-19 entered our lives, but just because we were less aware before does not mean the regular state of existence is not constant change.

We all have different ways of responding to life and changes. Different ways of embracing the nuances we encounter every day. My methods have varied wildly over the last 42 years and even those methods that did not appear to serve me well at the time have been valuable teachers.

These days I have three practices I try to hold true to in order to maintain awareness and respond to change with intention. They seem simple, but my experience is that they are force multipliers.

1. Prioritize sleep. I go to bed so early my kids make fun of me.

2. Strenuous exercise. It keeps the demons at bay and softens the edges in a healthy way.

3. Limit or eliminate alcohol. This has been a new practice for me over roughly the last 18 months. I can’t point to any behavior change that has had a more wide-ranging positive impact.

I’m sure these practices will change over time, but all I know right now is that when I’m following them with fidelity, everything else is just a little bit easier. I respond just a little bit better to the inevitable unknown unknowns. And when I’m not as intentional about these three practices, the unknown unknowns can hit me hard. I simply don’t respond as well.

So my challenge to you is to identify 2-3 personal practices you can control and you recognize have knock-on positive effects. Focus on being intentional about those few behaviors, build simple habits, and you will grow your ability to maintain awareness in a world of unknown unknowns.

It’s all you can do.

Three Key Known Unknowns Heading into 2021

Last week I wrote about three known knowns. This week, I want to throw out three key known unknowns to keep in mind as public education leaders heading into 2021 in order to plan for the 2021-2022 school year.

  1. We know we don’t know if the significant number of Pre-K and Kindergarten students who did not enroll at the start of 2020 will enroll in 2021. We also know we don’t know what their homeschool experience has entailed. In Round Rock ISD we recently interviewed a sample of these parents and we expect the vast majority of these students to return in 2021. However, we don’t know that for sure, and we don’t know how different the learning experience has been for these students compared to our pre-k and kinder students who have been enrolled with RRISD. These students will be reintegrated in 2021 having had very different educational experiences in 2020.
  2. We know we don’t know when or if students will no longer have the option to learn from home. Will we start the 2021-2022 school year with campuses still instructing two sets of learners? I hope not, but we don’t know. As public education leaders, we don’t know when our state governing entities will require all students to return to campus in order to receive funding. This known unknown creates ambiguity in managing our current reality and planning for the future. We also know we don’t yet know the best way to support and train staff to teach in this environment. Simultaneously being responsible for teaching a group of students in person and at home at the same time is entirely new. We are learning more and more every day as teachers discover what works and what doesn’t, but we know that we are still very much in the learning phase.
  3. Finally, we know we don’t know the lasting impact the pandemic will have on our campus and district-wide organizational culture. Just like our students and their families, we as employees are in the midst of the most challenging professional year most of us have ever experienced. And with these challenges come disagreement, resentment, and regret. But there is also heroism, growth, and joy. We don’t yet know the long-term impact on our culture because we are currently immersed in the experience, but we know we will never be the same. When the pandemic is over we must spend time processing together and recognize that we are all going through something stressful. And people like me need others to hold us accountable to create that space and not just move on to the next thing.

So those are just some thoughts on known unknowns heading into 2021 and specifically looking around the corner to fall 2021. If you are interested in learning more about using known knowns and known unknowns in your planning, check out this resource from Ed Elements. I’ve been impressed with just about everything they create.

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Next week to wrap up this three-part series I’ll share a few ideas on navigating a world over the next year where the reality of unknown unknowns are always present. Sign up for my mailing list above to make sure you get it, pass this along to a friend, and leave your thoughts in the comments below.

Nodes in a Network Not Stations in a Sequence

This is part 4 of my 7-part series focusing on The New School Rules. If you missed previous parts, check them out here. Before we start, please take a moment and sign up for my newsletter.

One of the important features of responsive teams is that they are structured like nodes in a network instead of stations in a rigid sequence. One of the characteristics of network nodes is that they have their own purpose, individual accountabilities, autonomy, and authority. In other words, the bosses and leaders no longer command the pieces on the board.

The New School Rules

Last week we learned new ways to think about planning, but this week we dive into deep structures around how we build our organizations and even our identities. Chapter 2 in The New School Rules by Anthony Kim and Alexis Gonzales-Black looks at teaming and the way we create systems that allow teams to either flourish or stagnate.

The “New Rule” around teaming is – Build Trust and Allow Authority to Spread. Keeping with our overall focus on responsiveness we will look as deeply at how our teams are structured as we do at the tasks we ask them to perform. I can’t think of any campus or central office structure that does not have staff divided up into teams or departments. Those two contexts may look slightly different, but a commonality in most settings is that the work of the team floats vertically rather than horizontally.

Projects, expectations, goals are often assigned in a hierarchical approach from a principal or director and the team then performs those tasks while reporting back up the chain to said principal/director. Teams will at times work together, but that collaboration is based around meeting the expectations set from above.

According to the authors, this hierarchical model allows leaders to grant authority to teams but it is gifted in a conditional and limiting way. This conditionality leads to teams playing it safe or focusing on ways to maintain that authority rather than becoming a flexible and learning team. When authority – like anything else – is a scarce resource we compete to either maintain or capture it from others. Then this competition distracts our teams from their purpose.

Ask yourself where and why you are granting conditional authority and you will find all roads lead back to trust. Trust in our teams and trust in ourselves as leaders is a fluid state or being. I try to think about conditionality often as a parent. “Where might my kids think my love, respect, or praise is conditional depending on their actions?” I hope they don’t think my love is conditional. They are judging my actions more than my words and I hope those actions and words or congruent, but I’m sure they are not always aligned. Congruence between our words and actions build trust.

And trust builds teams that move a campus, department, or company incrementally forward. Trust builds teams that can adapt to inevitable, demographic changes, funding issues, or changes in leadership positions.

Kim and Gonzales-Black suggest we must build trust in two ways in our organizations on pages 53-54:

  1. The first level is the trust between individuals on teams. The purpose and goals of the team come first, and team members commit to productively surfacing tension instead of avoiding it or sweeping it under the rug. Having trust within a team means important discussions happen directly with the group, not in side meetings , campaigning, and gossip.
  2. The second level – within an organization and especially between teams – is equally important. It means that information flows between groups and is accessible as needed. Communication takes place about what teams are doing and what help or input they might need. This type of organizational trust acknowledges that other teams are doing work that is as good and important as your team’s and they are doing it with the best information they have to get the work done.

So how do we build this trust? We will revisit this question when we wrap up this series looking at all six “new rules” outlined in the book because my hunch is that building individual and structural trust is so important and yet so difficult that it takes a comprehensive system to allow trust to grow. The authors outline several ideas around talking about tensions, defining purpose, and building strong team habits that are all valuable. And if you have a copy of the book, please take time to read those sections.

But I’m going to wrap this up here before we go too long with one tip of building trust. Be relentless about actually doing what you say you are going to do. I struggle with this at times because it feels so good to say “yes.” We over-commit. And each time we don’t follow-through we lose trust. So be stingy with your “yes’s” and be liberal – yet transparent – with your “no’s” and you will build trust.

The other big idea around “building trust and letting authority go” I’ll leave you with is to start looking at your teams as nodes in a network rather than stations in a sequence. We want our teams to bump into each other when they need to learn and be on their own when they need the space to do the work. As the leader we create the space that allows this to happen. Or, we create the railroad tracks that point in one direction with multiple stops along the way. Stations in a sequence only work in a stable and predictable setting.

Public education has been with us for a long time, but it is not a stable and predictable setting. We are in a people business and never really know what each day will bring. We need teams and teams of teams that can think for themselves and make the best decisions closest to the action. So trust yourself enough to set up a system through strong hiring and coaching that propagates unconditional authority among your teams. Then step aside, manage the environment, clear obstacles, coach, and facilitate connections.

Next week we look at Managing Roles – Define the Work Before You Define the People. This third new school rule will help us think beyond job descriptions understand that we all manage our own work and step into multiple roles depending on the current reality.

Rather than being able to step into different roles with clarity and purpose, our titles become a uniform we can’t take off.”

The New School Rules, Page 66

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The Beauty of Educative Planning

This is part 3 of my 7-part series focusing on The New School Rules. If you missed previous parts, check them out here. Before we start, please take a moment and sign up for my newsletter.

We need to approach planning as a way of thinking, not a set product or plan that has value in and of itself.”

The New School Rules, pg. 11

Say what you will about Mike Tyson, but his response to a reporter prior to a fight about his opponent’s preparation nails the problem with our over-reliance on plans. “Everyone has a plan until they get hit,” he said, “then like a rat they stop in fear and freeze.” The origins of that quote float back through history tweaked by various prize fighters and military leaders. And it resonates as much in the workplace as it does in the ring.

In schools, we operate on an annual planning cycle. We set annual goals – often in the summer – and then often do our best to adhere to that plan and those goals. The main concern I have with this approach is that we are usually addressing last year’s deficits rather than today or tomorrow’s opportunity. Our system discounts current realities and values adherence to the plan over agility and front-line decision making.

The authors of The New School Rules propose a new way of planning in Chapter 1 that adopts the idea of, “plan for change, not perfection.” Here is another comparison of planning approaches from page 19:

Page 19 – The New School Rules

But how do you “plan for change” and still assure those around we are not just making stuff up as we go? Something I may or may not have been accused of in the past.

The authors suggest we build roadmaps instead of manuals. “In order to become more responsive and successful, organizations need to move away from plans that act as manuals and focus on building roadmaps and logic models. Rather than dictating specific actions, these approaches give people the tools they need to make quicker and better decisions on their own.”

A roadmap orients us to a common destination. It has suggested routes and highlights potential obstacles and points of interest along the way. A roadmap also paints a picture of a successful destination. But a roadmap gives flexibility in decision-making along the way and pushes that decision to the people closest to the action. Everyone has the option to follow the roadmap step-by-step, but those wanting to adjust and make the path work for them have that option. Essentially we are defaulting to a system that encourages differentiation and only falls back on rigidity as a last result.

Empowering our teams to make adjustments to a plan will help us as leaders focus on coaching our teams, painting a picture of success, and clearing obstacles along the path. This shift in focus from serving the plan to serving the people helps us use planning as an educative experience where we learn more about ourselves along the way. When reaching that destination then, rather than celebrating and giving credit to the plan, we honor our work and the thinking that took place among our team. The team is now stronger and ready for the next opportunity.

The authors paint a picture of successful planning as when…

  • There’s a greater sense of being alive
  • Teams and organizations have a clear and motivating purpose
  • Everyone is continuously evolving, improving, and aiming higher
Page 33 – The New School Rules

Where in your daily work has planning become a finite rather than infinite activity? Where has the plan itself become the focus rather than the people? Where can you give more agency to the performers of the plan and help guide them on a roadmap rather than script each move as in a manual?

As with most things, it’s about balance. At the end of the day, your teams need to arrive at the destination. Just remember that the arrival at the finish line or the completion of a plan is not the end of the work. It may be the end of that project or that school year, but we are playing an infinite game. And the goal of our infinite game is to keep playing and continuous improvement, not to win or lose.

Meeting a goal and sticking with a plan that destroys a team along the way is shortsighted. That approach may work when a singular outcome at a singular point in time is all that matters. That’s finite thinking. And finite thinking only serves us when we are ready to stop playing the game. I’m not ready to stop and I hope you are not either.

Thanks for joining me on this look at chapter 1 of The New School Rules. Next week we will think through chapter 2 together and examine a new way to look at teaming. Here is a quick quote as a teaser:

In the hierarchical model, good leaders aim to grant some degree of authority to their staff and teams, but this authority if typically contingent – it’s a grant and can be taken back at any moment. This dynamic erodes trust and doesn’t allow authority to spread.

Page 45 – The New School Rules

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Three Ideas to Help My Friend

A friend recently asked for a couple book suggestions that might help her navigate her work life. She is struggling with the negativity she feels she encounters with her co-workers. She wants to maintain her relationships with her teammates, but feels herself becoming influenced in a way that does not feel healthy.

I should say up front that this friend does not work for the same organization I do, so stop trying to figure out who it is.

Most of my readers work in public education and the vast majority of us work on teams. So, it is a pretty common situation to be on a team with others who are not bringing the same vibe to the work as you are. Our inherent negativity biases make it easy to fall into patterns of pessimism. And even if personally we are trying to confront that bias, if those around us are feeding theirs then we are running a daily obstacle course that leaves us beaten down.

Then the real kicker is that we need our teams to be successful. Even if your work seems independent I challenge you to think how much better that work would be with the support of a team.

Hopefully by now, we realize that we can’t change other people. Even the label of “positive or negative” we place on each other is framed in our own minds.

We may not even be able to quickly change ourselves, but we can change our environments, build habits, and build our understanding of ourselves and examine our perceptions of those on our teams. Through those habitual, environmental, and empathic changes we may then notice our daily experience with our teammates has shifted in the direction we hope.

Here are three resources that come to mind:

  1. Awareness: Conversations with the Masters – I’ve pretty much been continuously reading this book over the last few years. It’s great to always have on hand and jump into any chapter. I enjoy it because Anthony de Mello helps me recognize my own role in the creation of my experience. Also that it is acceptable to speak your mind and with authority.
  2. 5-Minute Journal (Or some other morning gratitude practice) – My morning gratitude practice these days usually consists of walking my dog. But, it’s not just the walk. It’s the path we take that crosses a medical district. We routinely walk past folks being wheeled into a physical rehab on a gurney, others heading in for their morning dialysis treatment, or a family holding hands as they walk into a surgery center. We walk past where my first son – who is healthy and happy – was born. Finally we walk past Austin Cancer Center and I say a quick thank I have been so healthy post Thyroid Cancer – coming up on 10 years. Anything I have to deal with that day will be easier than what the people Maeve and I pass on our morning walk are experiencing. However you choose to give thanks in the morning, it sets you up to give others and ourselves grace throughout the day.
  3. The Daily Stoic – The Stoics remind us that we hold the discipline of perception within us. Situations and people are not good or bad, or positive or negative. Rather we decide how we will frame every interaction and our response. The famous Stoic emperor Marcus Aurelius tells us in his Meditations, “When you wake up in the morning, tell yourself: the people I deal with today will be meddling, ungrateful, arrogant, dishonest, jealous and surly. They are like this because they can’t tell good from evil. But I have seen the beauty of good, and the ugliness of evil, and have recognized that the wrongdoer has a nature related to my own – not of the same blood and birth, but the same mind, and possessing a share of the divine. And so none of them can hurt me. No one can implicate me in ugliness. Nor can I feel angry at my relative, or hate him. We were born to work together like feet, hands and eyes, like the two rows of teeth, upper and lower. To obstruct each other is unnatural. To feel anger at someone, to turn your back on him: these are unnatural.” The Daily Stoic is a short daily passage that helps us frame the day.

These were just some initial thoughts to share with my friend concerning a common struggle. Do you have other suggestions?

Share them in the comments.

Laying The Groundwork for The New School Rules

This is part 2 of my 7-part series focusing on, The New School Rules. If you missed part 1, check it out here. Before we start, please take a moment and sign up for my newsletter.

“The ideas we present here are based on the belief that static and rigid organizational systems no longer work – whether the organization is a huge corporation, a startup, a school district, or a school team, information is traveling too fast and the rate of change is quicker and more unpredictable than ever before.”

-The New School Rules

Before we jump into the main content of The New School Rules, let’s think about the ideas of responsiveness and holocracy. These two pillars of organization and management philosophy are key elements of the six practices we will dive into next week.

Let’s think on responsiveness first. How would you describe the current structures of your campus or department? Are those systems built to respond to current needs of students and teachers? Or are the systems and structures designed to create needs to which the students and teachers respond?

According to the authors, “A responsive organization, as we use the term, is one that puts responsiveness at its foundation-responsiveness to new information; to the needs and talents of staff, teachers, students, and the community; to unforeseen challenges and opportunities.” Essentially systems are created that allow for agility and flexibility. If a current process or practice is creating rigidity or hierarchies, then it is examined and likely dismantled.

“Responsive schools and districts embrace

  • an iterative and evolving approach to planning and structure,
  • meaningful autonomy for teams and team members,
  • approaches to sharing and receiving information and feedback that build trust and engagement and allow for timely and effective decision making.” -The New School Rules

Partnering with this idea of responsive organizations are elements of a management practice called Holocracy. Holocracy is an approach to people management that shifts a the majority of decision-making authority to individuals and teams rather than an organizational hierarchy of decision approvers.

Check out the video below for a deeper overview of the ideas around Holocracy.


My take on the six practices we will discuss in this series is that they are more dependent on the tenants of a responsive systems than the practice of Holocracy. And regarding either responsiveness or Holocracy, it’s as important to reflect on the ideas proposed by those ways of thinking as it is to actually change your org chart and job titles.

The key takeaway is that everything is always changing. Our systems and structures will either allow our people to benefit from and see beauty in that fluidity, or our systems and structures will hamper their growth. Either way, impermanence is a given.

So I’m excited to jump into the first rule: Planning – Plan for Change, Not Perfection. And there are three key points I will leave you with before we dissect chapter 1 next week:

From page 24, “There are several key lessons on iterative planning we can cull from their success:

  • Build roadmaps, not manuals.
  • Use cadences and pivot points, not just schedules and deadlines.
  • Encourage testing, experiments, and responsiveness

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Diving Into The New School Rules

The culture of our schools, organizational structures, and methods of communication and decision making – not educational approaches – are the actual drivers for success and failure.

– Anthony Kim

You ever notice when a book takes the thoughts from you mind you’ve been struggling to communicate and puts them out on the page in front of you?

As a senior in high school I stumbled upon a book in our campus library by George Sheehan called Running and Being. It took the way I felt about long distance running and helped me make sense of my own hormone-laden mind.

It’s only happened a handful of times since. The most recent was last month when I picked up The New School Rules: 6 Vital Practices for Thriving and Responsive Schools by Anthony Kim and Alexis Gonzales-Black.

I’ve read hundreds of books about leadership ideas, curriculum strategies, data analysis, motivation, and the like focusing on public K-12 education. Many have been exceptional and more than a few sparked immediate desire to action.

The New School Rules stands out though because the authors choose to focus on six practices related to organizational decisions that have little to do with teaching and learning. They don’t discuss assessments, curriculum, or feedback. There are no ideas shared around intervention or how to motivate teachers and students. Instead Kim and Gonzales-Black choose to focus on organizational practices they posit are either currently getting in the way of success or need to be implemented in order for schools and school systems to meet the needs of our students and team members.


Over the next seven weeks, I’m going to pull apart each of the 6 identified vital practices:

  1. Planning – how to find the right purpose and plan to achieve it
  2. Teaming – what makes teams function as powerful, effective groups that lead projects and change
  3. Managing Roles – new ways of thinking about who should do the work to unleash expertise, interest, and desire to learn
  4. Decision Making – the truth about who gets to decide and how a new model of decision making can speed up experimentation, change, and engagement
  5. Sharing Information – the nuance of putting out information and actual communication that leads to a powerful shared purpose
  6. The Learning Organization – coming full circle, the importance of school organizations that have a learning culture to model and test the learning culture we want and need for our students

In each post we will look at that particular domain and how we could incorporate the ideas into our daily work as leaders in creating the space for teaching and learning. And I think that very idea is why this book speaks to me. As Marc Lesser taught us in an earlier post, our job as leaders is to think, listen, and provide space. The New School Rules provides us ways of creating that space in a responsive way.

So each Monday morning starting Feb. 17th I’ll post an in-depth look at each chapter starting on the 17th with the introduction. I would love for you to pick up a copy and share thoughts in the comments each week or just share ideas based on what I write.

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Two-Word Challenge Accepted

I want to start by thanking my colleague and Elementary Math Curriculum Coordinator for Round Rock ISD, Brian Bushart for publishing a post challenging our teams to think about two words we should remove from vocabularies and ethoses going into 2020. Check it out here and then come back.


Several words or ideas come to mind looking back over my career as a special education teacher, assistant principal, and central office leader. For these purposes though we are going to focus on…”Late/Missing Work.” I may be bending the rules using a hyphenated/slashed first word so I appreciate your grace.

It’s been almost seven years since I was an assistant principal and roughly 12 years since I was in the classroom. Looking back at my students though – especially one whose self-portrait I’ve kept framed on my wall since the early 2000s – I believe they would agree that a never-ending cycle of late/missing work clouded everything.

Da’Vonte Lyon, 8th Grade DPMS 2006. Self-Portrait. Sold to Mr. Smith for an undisclosed price.

It usually went something like this:

The group of students I was responsible for – I’m hoping someone else chooses “Caseload” as one of their words to remove – would usually have one or two days at the beginning of a grading period where we were on a level playing field with everyone else. Birds were chirping, everyone was smiling, we all stood a little taller without the weight of “owing” something to a teacher.

I could see a physical difference in my students during these sweet times free of burden. I felt it too. My interactions with the other teachers on my team were progressive and optimistic during this narrow window. We talked about learning, and ways to better meet the overall needs of our students.

Inevitably though, my students would soon miss a deadline for an assignment. This would usually happen by the end of the first week of a grading period. Then, for five weeks we were caught in a growing maelstrom of missing assignments from 4-5 different classes. Our focus quickly shifted to managing time, negotiating with teachers, and valuing the completion of tasks above all else. My students would miss Tier 1 instruction from their classroom teacher, electives, and opportunities to learn from their peers as I guided them through their piles of missing work. Being behind became our culture.

And we would stumble our way to the end of a grading period not really sure what anyone learned, yet usually with passing grades.

My students were learning what it feels like to “owe” someone though. That feeling you get when you’re struggling financially and move debt from one credit card to another, or when you move apartments when the rent comes due must feel similar to how our students feel when they get stuck drowning in the cycle of being perpetually behind. You can’t escape that feeling. That weight. It may lessen until someone reminds you that you are in debt, but it doesn’t go away. It’s a low-level constant stream of anxiety.

I remember using the word “owe” often when I and everyone else reminded my students daily that they had missing/late work. I’m pretty sure I even wrote it up on the board.

But they didn’t really “owe” me or their classroom teacher anything. It’s not like I loaned them a sum of money with the agreement they would repay. If anything, I “owed” them for showing up every day. I “owed” their families for giving me their trust and the taxpayers who support public education. I’m adding the use of the word “owe” to my long list of things I’ll do differently if ever find myself in the classroom again.

That word has such power and assumptions behind it. To tell someone they “owe” you is heavy. If I tell someone I care for that they “owe” me something, and then repeatedly remind them about it, that fundamentally changes our relationship.

Maybe our students “owe” themselves or their families, but they don’t “owe” us anything.

I’m not recommending you stop assigning homework – that’s up to you. I am recommending that you take this spring semester and become more aware and mindful of the language you use and decision you make regarding your students who struggle to keep up with your assignment due dates. How does their daily experience change once they get behind? At the end of the grading period, what did they learn from you? What did they learn about you? What did they learn about themselves?

Take the answers to those questions and decide if you want to do anything differently. Maybe you will, maybe you won’t. Either way, you will be much more aware of your practice and the impact of your decisions. You will be more intentional about your use of terms such as “Late/Missing Work” and “owe.” If you continue to use them at all.


Thanks again Brian for pushing us in this direction and I hope others will share their thoughts and take the Two-Word Challenge in the comments here or on the RRISD Elementary Math blog.

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