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.
The Last Three Years
It's my fault. I know. I'm not sure the whole family was ready to move. They took the gamble. For that, I will always be grateful to them. The transition wasn't easy. I went over a month and a half without them while the house was selling in Kansas. Leaving after having built our family there for 20 years, you lose so much in relationships. Our extended families live in Missouri, so now any free time would mean making decisions of seeing old friends or extended family. But this blog is titled, "Why I Love Omaha", it wasn't without some pain and sacrifice. Here was our house in Andover, located a couple of blocks from the girls' schools and my work.
Now....On To Omaha
#LoveOmaha Part 1 - Always Something To Do
Omaha is amazing. It has so many things that attract loads of people from outside of Nebraska as well as brings entertainment to its citizens. From the Henry Doorly Zoo, to the College World Series, NCAA Basketball Tournament, and many many others. The talent of events that is brought to this mid-western city is incredible.
#LoveOmaha Part 2 - Great Neighborhood & Relationships
My girls love volleyball. They will play out in the road in our neighborhood for hours. The kids across the street and down the road totally look up to them. It's a part of what makes a great neighborhood, well, great. Sitting outside with the neighbors, sometimes by the fire, or yearly when we plan to shoot fireworks off; these are all ways we all interact.
#LoveOmaha Part 3 - The Community Gives Back & Supports Public Education
I briefly outlined my thoughts on this, and really didn't do it justice. From the Sherwood Foundation, Lozier Foundation, Heritage Foundation and our very own Omaha Schools Foundation, there are so many great stories from these organizations giving back to the community. One that wasn't highlighted in the video is the 75 North Project. Check out this video that outlines this incredible revitalization effort.
75 North isn't the only community engagement project happening in Omaha. Another great example of engaging the community is through innovative spaces. The Dospace is a great high technology experience. I say experience because it isn't just about access, they also provide classes that can empower the youngest learner or introduce technologies to the older citizens in the community as well.
I am proud of our district and its accomplishments over the past couple of years. We have incredible leadership that creates vision that staff, students, and the community can engage in. In my area of expertise, our team from instructional trainers down to our building techs have helped infuse purpose and proper implementation of technology. The district is willing to go in areas it hasn't been exposed to. In a couple of weeks, we will introduce a mobile learning unit that will teach the North Omaha area students and parents digital literacy and citizenship. This mobile learning unit is not what you would expect. It's a flexible space, collaborative in every wall you turn to, and access to high technology that will bring digital access to many of our impoverished areas. Starting the first virtual school in Nebraska history is another example of paving the way. All good things. It's about what's best for the students.
Another organization I want to identify is Nebraska Loves Public Schools. You might have seen the t-shirt when I spoke at Microsoft's Hack the Classroom event this summer, they are a great billboard for public education. I have done blog posts about how important it is we in education tell our story, NELovesPS does this in an inspiring way with video. Check out their site:
So many great things to be proud of in Omaha. It hasn't been easy, but I know that my family is grateful for what Omaha brings to us. So thank you Omaha, thank you to my friends both at work and around me, and thank you to those who provide our students opportunities that otherwise they wouldn't ever experience.
At work, I sit at a desk for most of the day. Meetings, meetings, and more meetings. There is an importance to how we function day to day. As humankind, we haven't always been this way. The latest book I am reading is called Brain Rules. It does a marvelous job in simplifying the best ways to get the most out of our brains. The book is split into twelve sections seen below in this sketch note I made in OneNote:
I stated it does a marvelous job in simplifying how we can best get the most of our brains, but not through tips. It is through principles, and these principles, allow you to apply these strategies flexibly to your situations. For example, I love all kinds of music. I listen to music throughout the day. But I am not a musician. John Medina outlines what capabilities musicians have that help them identify emotions below:
The first section that resounds to me is attention. I hadn’t made the connection to multi-tasking, and the ability to only pay attention to one thing at a time. Makes me plan differently knowing that. Add to this the layer of multi-charged events within a 10 minute timeframe, a dash of emotion, and you have a great recipe for something to remember.
This section intrigues me. I love stress – the challenge of it. I feel like I am at the height of what stress can do for me to perform. There are times when I might spill over, but for the most part, I can deal with it. Some of it I think comes from a joy of problem solving.
Much of my stress comes from getting things done. By the way, getting things done is not really about getting things done. It’s about appropriate engagement. Many times I say to myself in moments of stress “I need more time.” Well guess what Einstein and Steve Jobs didn’t have more time. It’s not about time. It’s about space. Psychic bandwidth. Room to think. Room to get it simple. How much time does it take to have a good idea, make a good decision? ZERO.
If you have room in your mind, you can take three minutes for a powerful conversation. But if you don’t have the bandwidth in your mind, you can spend two hours playing games on your smart phone or engaging in social media. And if you don’t have the bandwidth, you take time fixing stuff. And that drains your creativity and you become stressed out.
The third section that grabbed my attention was exercise. I love to exercise. I confess - I am addicted to it. John Medina states that physical activity is cognitive candy. The impact of exercise is system wide. For me personally, it is about procedures and routines. I get up at the same time and I work out - focusing on different routines every day.
This particular section makes me wonder how do we incorporate more activity for our students during the day? Is it looking at learning spaces differently like in #LT8Keys? Is it incorporating more transitions into the instructional hour? I am not sure. I just know for students to have the best chance at learning, they need to move more.
I really enjoyed this book. There are several items I plan on incorporating daily to get the most out of my ability to remember, control stress, and perform at my best ability. Here are some of the image creations that Eileen Heller and I created during this read:
These posts are personal. They are not reflective of the Omaha Public Schools District.