Don’t Blame the Lettuce


“When you plant lettuce, if it does not grow well, you don’t blame the lettuce.”
~Thich Nhat Hanh, Buddhist Monk and author of Peace is Every Step: The Path of Mindfulness in Everyday Life

I’ve written, tweeted, and talked A LOT about spring in schools and the incredible stress that it brings educators. When stressed, especially in late spring as we close out the school year, blaming others is a common default.

Teachers might say “of course my fractions lesson went south. Johnny wouldn’t sit still and wouldn’t stop disrupting the class with irrelevant questions and noises.”

Principals might say “of course the Instagram initiative to brand our school didn’t launch. The teachers are so set in their ways and resistant to technology.”

Both might say “of course Family Literacy Night was poorly attended. These parents never come to anything. They don’t support us and don’t care.”

One school might say about another school/teacher “of course they got new classroom furniture. They get anything they want. They are the favorite school in the eyes of the principal/superintendent/Board.”

We blame others when results and reality don’t match our desires, goals, and needs. Blaming others is inherently human. Emotions like disappointment, frustration, and envy happen. We can’t control that. However, we CAN control our response and we CAN choose analytical thought and self-reflection over blame.

Thich Nhat Monk eloquently explains that we don’t blame the lettuce when it doesn’t grow, “rather we look into the reasons it is not doing well. It may need fertilizer, or more water, or less sun.” (1991, 78)

Instead of blaming Johnny for ruining our fractions lesson, perhaps we should look more closely at WHY he is disrupting the class. Maybe there is a mismatch between the curriculum and Johnny’s developmental readiness to learn said curriculum? Maybe Johnny disengages in math because our relationship with Johnny is poor? Kids don’t learn from people they don’t like or relate to. Quality of instruction and sense of belonging are not Johnny’s responsibility; they are our responsibility. We are part problem and part solution. We can be the reason Johnny misbehaves during our fractions lesson or we can, through quality of instruction and strong, loving relationships, be the reason he succeeds behaviorally and academically.

Instead of blaming teachers for “resisting technology,” we should take a mirror check and examine what has led to said resistance. Has time, energy, and effort been put it into developing teachers’ social media savvy as it relates to branding themselves and their school? Do teachers see HOW branding benefits them, their students, and the district as a whole or has it just been thrown at them as something trendy and something they need to do NOW? Teachers don’t resist technogy simply because they are set in their ways. We are part problem and part solution. We can be the reason teachers resist technology or the reason they enthusiastically embrace it.

Instead of blaming parents for poorly attending a Family Literacy Night, we should examine how this event was promoted. Did we send home notes that are still crumpled up in the darkest recesses of our students’ book bags or did we use multiple and divergent communication tools like Facebook and mass email? Did we build students’ enthusiasm for this event the days and weeks prior to it or did we just slap it on the calendar and expect everyone to remember and come? Last time I checked, kids enthusiastically begging their parents has a causal relationship with parents attending events. We can be the reason parents don’t attend events like Family Literacy Night or we can be the reason they come in droves.

Instead of getting jealous over what other schools or teachers have and assuming they are the principal/superintendent/BOE’s pet, analyze the effort and strategy used in getting more, different, and better resources. Did they simply ask for it when we never did? Did they present a compelling case for more, different, and better resources through presentations to the principal, superintendent and/or the Board of Education? Were, by chance, the other schools/classes just in greater need of the resources than we? Have we taken the time and made the effort to consider what unique resources we have that others do not? We can be the reason others have it “better” than we do or we can be the change-agents that make our schools and ourselves worth investing in.

Never blame the lettuce, even in the stress of spring. For we are the fertilizer, the sun, the water. We are the reason for growth and the lack thereof it. To me, that’s a good thing, I wouldn’t have it any other way. We are the most influential to the success of our students and our schools. I believe that with every ounce of my teaching heart and soul, and I hope you do, too. However, if you don’t, I wouldn’t blame you for it. I never blame the lettuce 🙂


Hanh, Thich Nhat. 1991. Peace Is Every Step: The Path of Mindfulness to Everyday Life. New York: Bantam Books.


Lead with Heart

Although branding one’s space relies heavily on matters of the mind, without a direct connection to the heart and soul of the organization, there is no real story to tell.” Excerpt from Power of Branding by Tony Sinanis and Joseph Sanfelippo

As a leadership team in Buhler Schools, we’re making “branding” a focus for 2016. Branding may conjure up images of Coca-Cola cursive font, slogans like “Just Do It,” and Cam Newton dabbing it up after a touchdown in the Super Bowl. While those icons are certainly symbolic of branding, branding your school or district is much, much simpler. It’s as simple as telling your school’s story….frequently, publicly, and most importantly, with heart.

To brand your school or district with heart, you must lead with heart. Leading with heart is a concept I became familiar with while reading The Power of Branding by Tony Sinanis and Joseph Sanfelippo. ***Sidenote: This book is soooo good that I’ve read it twice in the last six months.*** To lead with heart, one has to develop a deep understanding of what is at the core of his/her school or district. One must know exactly what breathes life into his/her own work and the work of those he/she serves. For us in Buhler Schools, culture, collaboration, and innovation are at the core of who we are as leaders and are what breathe life into our work. We know this, routinely talk about it, and capture examples of each when telling our story. Whether it’s a casual conversation with a prospective family, a tweet during a classroom observation, or polishing off a staff meeting with bucket-fillers, these are the rocks in the story we are writing.

Leading with heart is certainly a perspective but its power lies in daily actions. Here’s an example from me as a building principal.

Celebrate! At the heart of our school’s culture is our commitment to celebrating our students. We celebrate students’ daily awesomeness via Twitter at #UVlearn. Below is a “Hard Work Selfie” tweet where a young man was “sent to the office” to showcase his exceptional performance in class. The second Hard Work Selfie spontaneously happened with a student displaying leadership in the lunchroom.

We also recognize students’ behavioral growth, leadership, and social-emotional awesomeness through the distinction, Captain/Captina of Character. Staff members, from teachers to paras to custodians, nominate students that go above and beyond the Character Ed call of duty. They do this by emailing me and I then recognize the student the next day at our school-wide morning assembly. We have recognized almost 30 different Captains/Captinas of Character this school year. These are two ways we tell our school’s story and extend our belief that kids and their progress are worthy of celebration. These actions clearly demonstrate that kids are the main characters in our story and their awesomeness is our ongoing theme!

Leading with heart is a concept worth living and definitely one worth sharing. Several times throughout the month, I will update this blog to include additional examples of leading with heart. However, we’d be falling short as tribe if we didn’t extend this concept further. Therefore, I declare February “Lead with Heart Month.” We will all greatly benefit as leaders to know how you lead with heart. Please use #leadwithheart this month to share YOUR examples on Twitter. Your story is worth telling. Now start telling it with heart!

***Motivation and inspiration for this blog post came from Tony Sinanis and Joe Sanfelippo. In their book, Power of Branding, they present the compelling concept of leading with heart. I highly recommend it to any teacher, principal, or district leader.***


Fit Leadership

Tis the season to resolve toward leading a fitter lifestyle. Investing in a gym membership, ordering a fresh new pair of workout shoes, and flipping through a Muscle and Fitness at the grocery store are efforts many of us are making as we seek a physically fitter 2016. These are worthwhile efforts, as physical well-being is important. According to Tom Rath, author of Well Being, “good physical health” is the most desirable status for people when asked the question, “what do you want the future to hold for you?” We each have one body; we better take care of it. Our leadership well-being is also something to take of. We have one shot to lead, so we better know what to do with it. The following principles will help us become fit leaders, ready to take on the challenges of the new year and maximize our school’s potential.

Principles of Fit Leadership

Goal-Setting–Professional athletes, to those of us just looking to lose a few pounds, do best when they set clear, specific, tangible goals.  Arnold Schwarzenegger always thought he could be the most dominant bodybuilder on the face of the earth, but it didn’t just happen by chance. At 19, Arnold already had the most massive chest and arms in the game of bodybuilding, but he took runner-up in major, international competitions to competitors who had tree trunk legs to match their thick and chiseled upper bodies. With clear, specific goals to improve his lower body, Arnold turned his peg legs into pillars of strength and size, which allowed him to become Mr. Universe and Mr. Olympia and stay there for six straight competitions.

The Terminator teaches us a valuable lesson here. Sure, we may have the talent necessary to be outstanding school leaders, putting our schools on our backs and carrying them to the Super Bowl of 100% parent-satisfaction and record-setting test scores. I’m being facetious here, folks. However,  seriously, we will never be the best leaders we can potentially be without clear, specific, and tangible goals. Where do we need to improve? Providing teachers with personalized professional learning opportunities? Engaging, involving, and empowering parents as partners in their children’s education? Using formative assessment data to guide instruction so that students’ unique learning needs are met? Clear, specific, and tangible goals (ones that we can and actually will pursue!) will help us become fitter leaders.

Collaborate–Find a workout partner! Collaborating in the gym leads us to train harder, achieve better results, and, believe it or not, actually enjoy the experience! Professional Learning Networks do the same for school leaders! George Couros shares that “isolation is the enemy of innovation.” Without a tribe pumping us up, we’re relegating ourselves to the same ideas that have gotten us minimal results. Find a tribe and unlock your leadership potential!
Habitual–Physical activity has to become routine to have an impact. So do many effective leadership practices. We can’t do one walk-through and proclaim ourselves Instructional Leaders. We also can’t tweet once a week and proclaim ourselves Connected Educators. Working out cannot be a singular act if it’s going to impact or SAVE our lives. Leadership is also NOT a singular act. It’s a passion that is developed over time through the habitual exercise of effective practice.

Mirror-Check–There is a reason mirrors adorn the walls of health clubs. We need to see ourselves morphing into the fit body we’re working so hard to develop. We also need to see the lack of progress if we’ve been skipping out on workouts. The mirror sometimes affirms and sometimes it disappoints, but it never lies. In the mirror, the truth comes out. How beneficial would a mirror-check be for us as leaders? Regularly stepping up and looking in the mirror provides us with an authentic picture of reality. To be fit leaders, we mustn’t hide from reality; we must embrace it, reflect on what we see, and then create a vision of what’s to come.

Adapt–Been doing the eliptical for three weeks and still out of breath when you climb the stairs to your second floor office? Then stop! Been emailing staff links like “50 Free Google Apps!” and you see no difference in frequency of tech integration among teachers? Then stop! To achieve optimal results, we must adapt our workout regimens to fit our bodies’ current needs. To achieve optimal results as a school leader, we must adapt our leadership regimens to fit our staff’s current needs.
Overtraining–There is such a thing. Overtraining happens when an athlete performs more training than his or her body can recover from, to the point where performance declines. When athletes jump too quickly with the frequency, intensity or duration of their workouts, they may actually lose strength and speed. Overtraining is a serious monkey wrench to those who work arduously toward fulfilling their physical fitness potential. Overtrained athletes keep working harder, but don’t see results and eventually burn themselves out. Can a similar phenomenon occur among leaders? Can leaders actually “overlead?” YES! When staying late at the office results in zero change in our staff or student body, then we need to go home earlier. When working on the 2016 master schedule now results in a 2016 that is no different than 2003, then we need to chill. We are all guilty of “overleading.” We need to take a break and harness the power of white space as we seek a fitter year of leadership in 2016.

My #leadupchat tribesman, Dr. Ryan Jackson, and I have had fun connecting over the past year. He’s a gym rat like myself, and we’ve been chewing on the idea of  Fit Leadership for a while now.  Please post thoughts anad pictures to #FitLeaders.  Thank you for reading and seeing the connections between fitness and leadership. Whether it’s at school or the gym or BOTH, may 2016 be the fittest year ever for you!  

Hope is not a Wish


Christmas and New Year’s are seasons of joy, love, and hope. We share the joy of gift-giving and receiving. We love the time we have with family and friends. We hope for a better 2016 when we create New Year’s resolutions. In the spirit of the season, I’d like to dig a little further unwrapping one of these feelings through this blog post. Only a Grinch would analyze joy or love, so we’re not touching either of those. We’re going to dig into, unwrap, and redefine hope.  

We do a lot of “hoping” in education. We “hope” school finances will improve so we can afford the resources we need to teach and lead. We “hope” students’ home lives will stabilize so they can focus at school. We “hope” students become more motivated and thus work harder. We “hope” that a grumpy, burned-out colleague retires at the end of the year.   

We sound desperate when we use hope this way. We sound unconvinced that anything willactually improve as a result of our hope. Because hope is tossed around so desperately and unconvincingly, it gets a bad rap. Hope is used interchangeably with wish, diminishing its value. The aforementioned statements are not ones of hope, they are wishes. Go back and substitute “wish” for “hope” and you will detect zero change to the meaning and feel of each comment. They are wishes, and wishes, my fellow educators, are for genies and folks gazing at shooting stars. Wishes are not for change-agents, striving to make a lasting impact on their students they serve.

I’d like to help us create a new definition for “hope.” A definition that will guide us to better outcomes for our students. Hope is not a wish, folks. Hope is a confident expectation of what will be. In other words, it is a promise. See how different that is than a mere wish. When we truly hope, we confidently expect a given something to happen, and through our volition, we promise a given outcome will be reached.  

We hope a student will read fluently by the end of the year because we are going to present him with ability-appropriate texts, confer with him daily, and maintain a laser-like focus on his reading strengths while simultaneously supporting his skill deficits. Do you see how different that is than wishing he will reach grade level by the end of the year?

We hope a student will show self-control in whole group settings because we are going to create an environment that engages his interests and passions, conveys mutual respect, and is rich with unconditional love. See how different that is than wishing he will mature?

We hope a veteran colleague channels her passion for her craft in a way that cements herself as a teaching legend in the last years of her tenure. We hope a veteran colleague will do this by collaborating with her daily, empathetically relating to who she is in and out of the classroom, and giving her the benefit of the doubt if she’s less than perfect on a given day. See how different that is than wishing she will realize she’s burned-out and stay home next summer, permanently?

Do you see… better yet… feel how hope transcends our normal use when we frame it as a promise backed by action?  

Unwrap hope this Christmas. Don’t wish things will get better for you, your students, or colleagues. Confidently expect success.

I’d like to thank Andy Addis, Pastor at Crosspoint Church (Hutchinson, Kansas), as the inspiration for the idea of unwrapping hope.  I enjoyed “schoolifying” his conceptualization of hope.  Lead up and preach on, sir!