We all tell stories. Some are far fetched. Stories bring different feelings, at times sadness and other times laughter; these are the things that create memories. Stories bring clarity when they engage our feelings. My Grandpa Bradley and Uncle Randy tell me amazing stories about my family every holiday. Some far fetched, adding laughter and other feelings that stick in my mind even today. Some of those stories I have heard before, but I make it a point not to disclose that I have heard them many times. Rehearing a story brings more clarity. Why are these stories so important? They contain relevance. It is a part of me and the history of those before me in my family and community.
After reading the Brain Rules book, I reflected on what things I personally retain as a memory. It made me wonder, what things did I retain from school? I remember a career class where I got the opportunity to fly a plane because I was interested in being a pilot. I also remember as a Freshman in high school being shoved up onto a wall by a senior when I accidentally shoulder checked him in the hallway. Both are very clear memories, engaged different feelings, and share a bit of relevancy. But why do I not remember lectures? I do have some recollection of moments but they aren't too clear. I have to be honest though; I wasn't that engaged in the classroom, with the exception of taking art classes.
In the book, rule 6 is "We don’t pay attention to boring things." As indicated by this rule in terms of learning, there are implications if we don't engage students:
Bringing relevance into the classroom is an effective way to increase engagement and making learning meaningful. How do you do this systemically across a school or district though? Next I want to address leadership both in schools and at the district level.
If you know Mark Evans, you know what Markisms are. I can name most of them. "What am I, chopped liver?" "I could be better but I would have to be you." I have been privileged to work with Mark for 13 years. There is not an example for me in leadership that exudes the meaning of clarity more than he does. He enjoys telling stories and they stick in your mind over time as you hear them. Mark is consistent and authentic. I participated in podcasts he did over the years; this was his retirement video from his previous district in Andover, KS.
Mark does an incredible job of taking complexities of running a district and driving it to a single purpose. It is "what's best for students". If you are around him, you hear it. For those of us in leadership, somewhere back in there, somewhere in the midst of all the complexity, is a compelling reason as to why we're doing what we're doing. To cut through the clutter and complexity that haunts every single district, is the answer to the question, "Why?" What harnesses the hearts of the people who are leaning in and who have committed to your leadership and district? Why are you doing what are you doing? It's what is best for students.
In your school or district, the answer to that question is the same for everybody. If you are a good leader, everybody who answers to you should be able to answer that question quickly, and if you're a great leader they will all answer it the same way. This is exactly how I have mimicked many of the qualities that Mr. Evans shows in his daily leadership style.
What are we doing? Everybody knows. Why are we doing it? Everybody knows. But when it comes to this third question of "Where do I fit in?" -- this is where things get interesting. I had to ask myself this question when I came into my role in Omaha Public Schools. Fortunately, I was able to be a part of a technology audit that gave me a blueprint to figure out where I fit in the district with my role.
I want to encourage you to do something that is very, very time consuming but it may be one of the most helpful exercises you ever work through as a leader, especially as it relates to understanding your critical role in light of what you doing and why you are doing it. I challenge you to create for you, and to create for your people, a one-sentence job description. What does this mean?
As you think about the people in your department, school or district, even if they don't answer to you, create one-sentence job descriptions that instantly lets everyone know exactly why each person is there, doing what they do. Here's why it's important: because it is simple. In the midst of the complexity, crisis and deadlines, your team needs to understand what you think their critical roles are, as well as what your personal critical role is. If you do not clarify this for people who look up to you, they will generally do whatever comes next and what they feel you think is most important in the moment. Once you have developed your one-sentence job descriptions, start telling your story.
There are leaders who believe in thinking big and have the charisma to inspire the district along with them, to get to district goals. There are others who have big goals but their communication is not effective; people are not brought into the idea of "Where are we going?" These people haven't mastered telling their story. That's typically when you run into a problem in any district, when leadership says "This is where we want to go" but it doesn't necessarily get transmitted down to the people within the district. I have seen this first hand in many of the tech audits I have participated in throughout the country. People are not sure as to which direction their district is going, or why that direction was chosen over another one. That clarity is absolutely important.
Really good leaders make sure their message is communicated, that they are in the trenches with the rest of the district, telling the story. This motivates people. Mark does a great job of visiting every building each year. He is one of the most approachable people you will ever meet. He motivates. A motivated team can achieve anything they want. We set our own limitations, we set our own objectives. A clear message from leadership that we are in this together, we will arrive together, we will win together, we will fail together is a powerful message that every district would love to hear. Bringing others along with you, and shoulder-to-shoulder viewing of that vision versus nose-to-nose trying to convince people, makes a magical, literally magical environment to achieve goals. Through that magic, you can see the highest student achievement in district history, pass the largest bond issue in Nebraska history, and see the first virtual school in Nebraska history. All things that come through clarity in your message and vision.