Recognize a Colleague and Tell the Story

When we met as a full staff in September, I emphasized the importance of being intentional about sharing our stories about the great work we see going on all around us every day–work being done by our colleagues both at Heartland AEA and in the local districts we serve. It’s been over six weeks since the All-Staff meeting and with the days getting shorter, it seems an appropriate time to not only remind us all to tell our stories, but to remember why these stories are so important as well.

The first reason that sharing good things about colleagues is so important is because our colleagues deserve our recognition. Simply put, we take each other for granted far too often. After calling on almost every one of our school districts (I will call on the last four this week) and sitting in on the majority of planning councils and work teams throughout our agency, I can tell you without reservation that our Heartland AEA team is engaging in powerful work every day. Our work isn’t always exciting, but it is vitally important to children and families and it isn’t being done by anyone else. Over time, we all become desensitized to these facts because we are distracted by our own little whirlwinds of the day-to-day, but we need to step back on occasion and reflect on what it is we appreciate about our co-workers and their special contributions, not only to our own work, but to our society as a whole. Our colleagues are making a difference and they are doing powerful and great things all around us every day. Let’s give them the appreciation and celebration they deserve.

Another reason we need to share our stories is that it is the right thing to do for children and public education in general. In 35 years in public education, I have never seen such vitriolic criticism leveled at public education, much of it waged by people who stand to benefit from a public lack of confidence in our education system. You may not see it in your daily work, but I can assure you that there are people across our state and nation who are vey intentional in sharing negative stories about our education system, most of them frankly untrue.

Such intentional negativity is not going away. There is too much at stake. This campaign of negativity is intentional and organized, and the only way to effectively challenge it is through the consistent sharing of good things that are happening in our schools every day. It would be nice if we could leave this part of the work to our lobbyists and public relations specialists, but we simply can’t. All of us have to share in the responsibility of creating a positive perception about public education. George Couros, the well known educational writer and speaker, says it best when he says, “We need to make the positive so loud that the negative becomes almost impossible to hear.” The negative isn’t going away, and all of us have an opportunity to raise the volume on the positive because we witness it every day. We just have to remember to take notice and have the courage to share our good news. No amount of formal legislative advocacy can compensate for positive, unsolicited stories from people who really understand the work of education.  We can impact the public’s confidence in our schools and AEAs one conversation, one testimonial, one story at a time.

Finally, and most importantly, sharing our appreciation and positive stories with others is the right thing to do because it is good for us. When we are intentional about recognizing and celebrating goodness in others, it keeps our focus outward and people who live with an external focus more than an internal one are simply happier. I know it’s not easy when we are each engaged in our own set of difficult daily challenges, but the secret to empowerment and happiness in the workplace isn’t found by focusing on those challenges. It’s found by focusing outward and looking for opportunities to build up others. Multiple studies show that gratitude really is the secret to happiness. If each of us would make the commitment to share just one positive piece of recognition a week with a colleague and then tell someone outside the Agency about it, we could begin a groundswell of positivity. It will be good for a colleague who deserves your appreciation, it will be good for education as a whole and it will be good for us.


Let’s Fix DACA for Iowa’s Sake

kidsEarly last week, our President rescinded a previous executive order establishing the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program or DACA. As the chief administrator of Heartland AEA, I am particularly concerned about the potential impact of this decision and will be advocating for Iowa’s congressional delegation to work rapidly for a legislative solution to the matter, one that will secure the rights of so called “dreamers.”

Dreamers is the common term for those U.S. residents who have registered under the DACA program and who entered the country as children brought by undocumented parents. Over 700,000 U.S. residents have registered under DACA, and many are students in the classrooms we serve. All are on record as being committed to the idea of becoming American citizens and meeting the responsibilities associated with that citizenship.

At Heartland AEA, our mission statement begins, “To improve the learning outcomes and well-being of all children….,” and we believe all means all. That moral imperative is the foundation on which we build and deliver every service we provide. The entire Iowa AEA system was developed to provide an equity of service to all Iowa’s children, regardless of zip code, socio-economic status, ethnicity or resident status. Equity of service means equity of opportunity, and we strive to provide the best possible opportunities to every student in Iowa. Rescinding DACA jeopardizes our ability to maximize that opportunity.

We know that children don’t learn when their physical or emotional needs aren’t being met, and the current level of uncertainty revolving around DACA is threatening the emotional security of those students who are either registered under DACA or who have parents who are registered. For that reason, the Heartland AEA Board of Directors and I are encouraging educators and supporters of public education to advocate for a quick, legislative solution to this issue. I will be contacting my elected representatives and am encouraging every educator and school advocate to do the same. Failing to resolve this issue puts us at risk of not only dividing families at a terrible emotional cost, but of wasting a valuable resource vital to the future of Iowa.

The Simplest, Hardest Lessons Make the Biggest Difference

This is my last blog for The Cornerstone, as I will be leaving for a new job July 1.  I’ve learned a great deal during the last six years, some of it from more experienced colleagues in the AEA system, some of it from GPAEA team members who have so graciously shared with me the intricacies of their day-to-day work, and a lot of it from the many educators throughout SE Iowa whom we continue to serve.  I’ve seen some resounding successes and some disappointing failures and I want to take a moment to reflect on the lessons I’ve learned.  While I have learned a lot of lessons (many the hard way), these three are the most important ones I want to share upon my departure.  They are simple lessons to remember, but often hard to follow and I have found they often make the difference between success and failure.

The most important thing I’ve learned about service agency work (and educational work in general) during my tenure here is that everything we do has to be driven first by the building of a relationship.  In the absence of a quality relationship, successful collaboration is an uphill battle, if not impossible.  Our successes and our failures are the direct result of the quality of the relationship that exists between the parties involved.  I have encountered some very smart people in recent years who believe that their knowledge or technical expertise is the most important thing they have to offer, but it isn’t.  Solutions must be adaptive to each unique situation and I’ll take a team united more by caring, commitment, and empathy over one heavy on expertise every time.

The second thing I’ve discovered in recent years relates to culture and it is that some people are positive and some are negative, but the vast majority are neutral and simply in the middle of responding to their most recent interpersonal experience, be it positive or negative.  This is why habitually positive people are worth their weight in gold.  If you think about it, most of us are pretty prone to treating people the way they deserve to be treated and yet who among us really doesn’t want to be treated better than we deserve at the end of the day?  Reciprocation is a natural behavior pattern for most people, but in a high-stress environment, it can lead to bad culture in a hurry.  When we work in the change business, we have to remember that people get frustrated and we need to give them permission to do so.  We can’t afford to meet frustration with judgment and negativity or things degenerate rapidly and we don’t meet our goals.  It’s easy to treat people the way you perceive them to be treating you.  When more people respond to negativity with grace and empathy and fewer respond out of ego and competition, we not only get more done, we build a contagious and virtuous culture.  It’s really hard, but I’m going to work on that and I encourage you to do the same.

Finally, I’ve learned that good communication takes effort and has to be intentionally practiced in all walks and at all levels of the organization.  We’ve all heard the old saying, “No news is good news”.  I’ve learned the hard way over the years that this is absolutely incorrect.  To assume that things are going well because one hasn’t heard otherwise is one of the most common and damaging practices in which any of us can engage.  This is true when it comes to both formal organizational communication and informal interpersonal communication as well.  “How’s it going?” should never be a rhetorical question.   Ask people how they are doing and listen to the answer whether your conversation is a professional one or a personal one.  It’s called caring, it’s the opposite of gossip, and it’s good for both building relationships and increasing productivity.

So there you have it…..Three pretty simple lessons, far from profound, easy to learn but easier to forget, and having nothing to do with reading, writing or arithmetic.  I believe that we already know most of what we need to know to do our work.  We have more expertise in education today than at any time in history. Too often we look for the next big fix or the next great program when programs are never the answer.  People are the answer and the greatest thing about organizations (and also their biggest liability) is that they are made up of people like you and me.  So, as you go about your very important work, remember to treat one another well.  Build caring relationships.  Be positive and treat people better than they deserve to be treated.  (Grace and forgiveness aren’t just markers of professional and personal maturity, they are vital building blocks for a nurturing and productive culture.)  Finally, remember to communicate frequently and intentionally, not just for accountability purposes but out of caring as well.  Let’s just remember to recommit ourselves to the simpler, harder lessons, the ones that really make the difference.  Enjoy the rest of your year and have a great Summer!  I hope to see you all again soon.



It’s Still About the Relationship

Love My Job

I want to comment on all the activity around the changes in Iowa’s collective bargaining laws, better known as Chapter 20.  I had the opportunity to speak with many of our staff last Friday at our focus group meetings and I know that there is a lot of concern amongst the educational community regarding what these changes will mean.  I want to provide a few words of encouragement to our great staff as we enter into this new chapter.

First of all, I want to assure you that our board and administration understand that we are in a relationship business and that the success of the teachers and students in our area depends in no small measure on the quality of the culture that we are able to create together.  That is the reason that we engage in practices like interest-based bargaining labor/management meetings and focus groups.  Our success as an agency depends on our being able to build and sustain quality relationships.  I recently sent out a tweet that said something to the effect of, “our successes are a direct result of the relationships of those involved and so are our failures.”  We will continue to meet regularly with representatives of our staff in an effort to identify and solve problems together.  Healthy organizations are built on trust, communication, clarity, and empathy.  High expectations are critical, but meeting high expectations takes collective commitment and that takes quality relationships.

The other thing I want to emphasize is that we are in a profession that requires us to attract, develop, and retain talent.  How some circles are currently demeaning our profession and the quality of our schools and educators is unfortunate.  However, there is one silver lining for those already in or about to enter the profession and that is we are increasingly experiencing shortages in most, if not all, areas of professional education.  The reasons for this are largely self-evident and a topic for another time, but please keep in mind that in this age of unprecedented accountability no educational organization wants to win the race to the bottom on salary and benefits.  Everyone wants to attract and retain the best people they can find and that doesn’t happen without competitive compensation (which is why state supplemental aid needs to always be our first rallying cry).

Finally, I want to emphasize that at no time in our history of education in Iowa has it been more critical that every educator support one another and say good things about one another.  Heaven knows that we have enough adversaries outside our tent and this is the time for everyone to get under the same tent.  It is too easy for us to allow ourselves to become divided.  We are always going to be invited to be critical of someone else in our profession.  Our adversaries love it and they win when management criticizes labor or labor criticizes management or when rural interests criticize urban ones or vice versa.  Never has it been more important to not only share good news about the fine people you work with, but more importantly, we need to be saying good things about the people in education we don’t work with, like the ones who work down the road.  We are all educators and all committed to a quality education for all kids.  We only have a chance to meet those commitments when we stand as one community.

So, please know that even though the changes to Iowa’s collective bargaining laws are going to become law (and very soon, likely this week), those changes do not need to result in the diminishing of our desire to work together for the betterment of all kids and families.  Also, please know that you are valued as not just employees but as critical members of our team.  Being an employee just means you have a place to go to work.  Our calling is much higher and much more critical to the future of our society.  Have a good week and be proud of your profession.

Hang Together to Promote the General Welfare

United States founding documents on a vintage American flag

Perhaps no one in our great national history is more quotable than Benjamin Franklin, who stated prior to signing the Declaration of Independence in 1776, “We must, indeed, all hang together, or most assuredly we shall all hang separately”.  This statement was made during the most uncertain time in our nation’s history. I don’t pretend to compare the uncertainty of 2017 to that of 1776, but I think we can all agree that we are at a political and philosophical crossroads, both in Iowa and nationally, and nowhere is that more evident than in our country’s efforts to chart a new course for its public education system.  Never before have we been more divided about the role and importance of public education and never before have so many new ideas been put forward.  What should schools look like?  How should we pay for them?  Who should attend them?

Views on this issue are impacted by the deep beliefs we all hold relating to the appropriate roles for government, free markets and choice.  There is one place, though, where I hope reasonable people on both sides of this argument can, in the words of Mr. Franklin, “all hang together” and that is in the embracing of our country’s need for a strong public schooling system, one available as a quality option to every family.  And if we are to have a quality public option open to every family, we need to have that option appropriately resourced and not take away from that funding in order to subsidize other options.  This has never been an inexpensive proposition, but it is one that Americans have historically supported because it fits within one of our government’s primary purposes, defined in the preamble of the Constitution as “promoting the general welfare”.  I liken the support of pubic education to that of streets, parks, or any other public service.  I don’t use all of the streets in my town, but I also understand that we have people who need them all.  I don’t just pay taxes to keep up the streets I drive on.  I pay taxes that support all the parks in my city and state even though I only use a few, because I know they promote the general welfare of our society.  In the case of education, this concept is even more critical because we rely on our education system to build our nation’s economic capacity and citizenship.  My kids aren’t in school anymore and I will likely never know 99% of the nearly half a million kids who attend Iowa public schools.  I understand, though, that society depends on an educated and productive citizenry and that my tax dollars need to help support the maintaining of a strong public system for every child.

My intention is not to disparage or limit education options outside the public school-house.  Many accredited non-public school options available in Iowa are of outstanding quality.  They graduate well educated, compassionate people.  Many families make appropriate use of the option to school at home as well.  I support any person’s right to exercise a choice that does no harm to a fellow citizen.  Where I fear for the fabric and future of our society, though, is when someone decides that they are no longer responsible for supporting their share of the public good.

Let’s not put ourselves in a corner that requires us to make false choices.  We can have adequately funded public schools and still have quality alternative options available to families, but if we subsidize those alternatives at the expense of the system that continues to educate and will continue to educate over 90% of our population, we run the risk of further jeopardizing our nation’s economy and very democracy.  Let’s promote the general welfare for all by first making sure that a quality public school is an option for every family.  Let’s adequately pay for the education of all kids not only as a matter of basic fairness, but for the sake of our future as a nation.  If we don’t hang together as a society now, we may well hang separately in the future.

CUBS WIN! Lessons Learned From the 2016 World Champions

First of all to Cardinal fans in the area, I apologize for the title of this blog, but after 108 years of futility and a personal investment of nearly a half century in the team formerly known as the lovable losers, I just feel entitled to take advantage of this rare opportunity to extoll my team by pointing out some lessons I’ve learned about education and leadership from baseball’s world champions. I also need to apologize to Jennifer Woodley, our public relations coordinator, for causing her to get The Cornerstone out later than she would have liked this month, but I knew I needed to write something about the World Series win or lose. (Sorry Jen). I’ve had a couple days to reflect on some lessons learned now, so here goes! These are things that I think we can all learn from (say it with me….) THE WORLD CHAMPION CHICAGO CUBS and apply to our professional lives as educators.

The first thing I learned this season is that positive outcomes come from positive culture. If you have followed this year’s Cubs or any successful organization for that matter, you will see that the people in the organization are loyal to one another first. Teammates never speak negatively about one another and they don’t talk outside of school. They trust and support one another. I’m sure no organization is ever conflict free, but successful organizations know how to resolve conflict and maintain trust at the same time.

The second thing I learned this year is there is a big difference between simply having a vision and having a belief in that vision. Joe Maddon said in his post game interview that “you have to believe to see.” That statement resonated with me right away. He was talking about getting everyone to see the same thing, but more importantly, getting everyone to believe in the same thing. Every organization has a vision statement, but the best organizations have visions that people believe will come true and they constantly remind one another of the successes that are building toward future positive outcomes. Problem solving is ongoing, but the culture is fueled by positive belief and recognition of success, not by problem identification or even problem solving.

This brings me to another lesson learned and that is positive leadership matters. Championship teams have leadership that constantly points out how people are succeeding in making their vision a reality. Anyone who has followed Joe Maddon’s press conferences this year will see that even after his team has performed poorly, he always points out everything that was done well during every game. He makes it part of his job to say good things about his team and his team follows suit by saying good things about one another. Good teachers at every level recognize the importance of building constructively on the success of every student. Success builds confidence and confidence builds success. It is a responsibility of the teacher and the leader to emphasize and recognize the good things that happen every day and to make sure that they stay intentional in doing so. I’m not sure anything is more important.

The last take away from this year’s champions is that data is important, but the most important things in life can’t be measured. I bet you never knew that Anthony Rizzo has a .327 batting average against left handed pitchers under six feet tall or that Javier Baez only makes contact with 27% of pitches with a spin rate over 2100 after the 3rd inning. If you don’t know what those things mean don’t worry. I just made them up anyway. I did so though to point out the limitless supply of data that we now have at our fingertips, both in baseball and education. Some of it’s critically important, some of it less so and there appears to be no limits to our desire to collect more. We need data to be strategic and to identify best practices. We just have to remember that there is no metric for confidence, or joy, or trust, or respect, or love. At the end of the day, those are the things that really move the needle on all things we are able to measure.

I could go on and on about the importance of preparation and hard work, or the importance of making the workplace a safe place to fail, or twenty other things we can learn from championship organizations, but I wanted to focus first on what I think are the most important lessons learned here and that’s people believing in each other, supporting one another, and celebrating one another. That’s what really matters. And besides, I have data that shows that only 11% of cardinal fans will read an essay longer than five paragraphs when the word “Cubs” appears in the title. Go Cubs Go!

Lessons Learned from TLC

A group of elementary school kids sitting on school steps

The beginning of a new school year seems a good time to take stock of past accomplishments in Iowa education and to look at what might be looming on the horizon as well. Too often we allow ourselves to be sucked up into the whirlwind of the day-to-day that keeps us from not only celebrating our accomplishments, but from identifying how those accomplishments might be applied to new opportunities that lie ahead. When we take the time to dissect what has worked for us in the past, we can often apply those important lessons to new challenges.

Let me point to an initiative that I believe has been a significant success in both its implementation and impact and that is the Teacher Leadership and Compensation program, more commonly known as TLC. I know that local districts certainly had to move quickly to implement this ambitious program and that the process required a lot of hard work, but when one steps back and looks at the scope of this undertaking and reflects on what has been accomplished in three short years, I would consider it an unprecedented success. Why has it been a success in my opinion? Here are some reasons.

First, the initiative was funded. Yes, I realize that state supplemental aid has fallen during the last three year period (and that’s a topic for another time), but the fact remains that the 150 million dollars that our legislature invested in this program was sufficient to bring all of Iowa’s school districts on board. That’s an important lesson and clearly illustrates the power of a funded program versus an unfunded one.

The second reason for the success of TLC is that a critical mass of stakeholders were able to see it as the right work. TLC not only brought new resources to the table but it did so for the purposes of increasing teacher voices in professional learning and building teacher self-efficacy and ownership. The quality of the collaboration and coaching going on in Iowa school districts today is unprecedented and is only going to get better. Communities of practice are growing. Teachers and administrators are working together and learning from one another. Practices are improving, educators are growing, and students are benefiting as a result.

Another factor in the successful implementation of TLC is that it has been supported by a broad coalition of stakeholders, who immediately put a strong focus on what local schools and communities were going to need. The DE was tasked with operationalizing a program unprecedented in its ambition and scope and, to its credit, the department immediately engaged school and AEA leaders to answer one very important question. That question was, “What are schools going to need to be successful in this endeavor?” The question wasn’t, “What do we have the capacity to provide?” The customer’s needs were made paramount from the beginning.

Finally, the most important lesson I think we have learned from TLC implementation is that we can achieve greater equity of services to all of Iowa’s students and educators through increased cooperation and regionalization. By placing a focus on what all districts would need first and only then creating the state networks necessary to meet those needs, Iowa’s education system was able to create and facilitate collaborative entities that were united more by common need than by district size or geographic location. The importance of this development, in my opinion, cannot be overstated. The differences in district and AEA capacity that have resulted from Iowa’s continued demographic shift towards urbanization have never been more equitably addressed than have they been through through the development of TLC’s support system. Every district in Iowa regardless of size or zip code had access to quality technical assistance in developing its TLC plan. Every district in Iowa now has access to quality training and support in the coaching model or models of its choice. Through increased collaboration within and across regions, every district now stands on equal footing when it comes to access to quality support. It’s not perfect, just like TLC isn’t perfect. Nothing ever is. However, it is clearly the most efficient and equitable support system that has been developed for a new education initiative in Iowa to date. That’s a big deal.