Breakfast of Champions and the Power of Yet

As I end my long weekend in the same place that it started, an airplane, I have a million thoughts swimming through my head about NASSP’s annual conference. I’ve been to many conferences in my 10 years in education, but I can honestly say that I have never had the experience at a conference that I did this weekend in Dallas. From the opening thought leader session with Dr. Laurie Barron (@LaurieBarron) interviewing Dr. Carol Dweck and Daniel Wong about changing our mindsets, to the numerous breakout sessions, smaller learning labs, ongoing Twitter chats, and the closing thought leader session where Simon T. Bailey asked us to consider what we would do if we couldn’t fail, this was a weekend filled with ideas meant to challenge and inspire. Everywhere I turned I was overwhelmed with the amazing things going on in schools across the country, and I am most certainly excited about returning to my building refreshed and ready to engage the school in continuing to build and develop our community.

An interesting thing happened on my first morning, however, and I’ve been considering it as I moved from session to session, listening to the presenters discuss overcoming challenges in order to achieve their goals. Having come to the conference on my own, I was placed at a table with another singleton attendee at breakfast on Friday morning. There had to be over 1000 people at this conference, and table space was a bit tight in the hotel’s restaurant. Since I was alone, I figured meeting someone new could only enhance my conference experience. I definitely got more than I bargained for. As our conversation moved from introductions and general pleasantries to the business of the weekend, I was confronted with the idea that my background as a school counselor would not serve me well as an educational leader at the building level. You see, in New York State counselors do not have to be teachers first in order to be certified to work in schools. Instead, I earned a 60 credit masters degree in school counseling and did a year long, 900 hour internship in a public high school before beginning my career. My breakfast partner, a long-time principal from the West Coast, felt it necessary to tell me that I am at a pretty hefty disadvantage because I haven’t spent time building lesson plans, writing curriculum, and instructing in a subject area, and unfortunately teachers would never really take my attempts to improve instruction and learning seriously because of this. In her words, they would always look at me through a lens of doubt. It was that plain of a statement. I had no idea what a long hard road I was in for, and I’d better start doing everything I can to address my educational shortcomings.

This was certainly not an “aha moment” for me. Of course I’ve thought about this very topic many times over the last few years, first as I jumped into my educational leadership certification program, then as I started to consider applying for jobs, and finally as I took on my role as assistant principal in the summer of 2012. I consider myself lucky to work in a school district that has trusted my skills enough to promote me to this role and has confidence in me to regularly take on active challenges within my high school. However, the voice in my head is often a little bit louder than reason, and this individual had done her best to sow the seeds of doubt. They sprouted one by one in the fertile environment of my mind. Am I really qualified to be a leader of teachers? How important is real-world classroom experience when it comes to identifying whether or not students are engaged? Am I doing everything I can to develop the skills that I need to be a better assistant principal? And most important, do my colleagues on the frontlines, the teachers that I’ve worked with for 10 years, trust me to continuously move things forward? On their own, these thoughts are certainly worthy of consideration. All at once and they have the potential to ignite a firestorm of self-doubt. I thought I was sitting down for some oatmeal and egg whites, and the truth is I got a whole lot more than I bargained for.

I don’t begrudge my breakfast partner her opinions. She doesn’t know me, what I bring to the table as an educator, how I build relationships, or even what the educational landscape looks like where I’m from. I definitely don’t believe that she was saying these things to be malicious. I imagine she saw a young administrator by himself, looking to be a better leader by attending a large national conference, and she felt it was her duty to impart some personal wisdom. At least that’s how I’m choosing to look at it. Regardless of her motives, this has been a perfect opportunity for me to embrace a growth mindset. Afterall, I had just heard Dr. Dweck speak the previous afternoon. I could choose to fix my mindset and allow this one person’s characterization of the struggle before me to define my steps forward down a path that would surely be wrought with frustration, anxiety, and potentially regret, or I could give myself permission to consider the word “yet.” She was right. As a second year assistant principal I can’t even remotely begin to know everything I need to in order to be the instructional leader that I want to be…yet. I am not ready to take on the role of the principalship…yet. Fortunately, I have the opportunity to engage in activities that allow me to explore my strengths and weaknesses. I will continue to connect with an entire world of school leaders that know more than I could ever hope to via my ever-growing PLN on Twitter. I will continue to learn all there is to know about education in the 21st Century, and when someone confronts me with the idea that a task is going to be very difficult to achieve, I will make a choice to move forward, not backward.

Matthew Willis, NASSP’s National Asst. Principal of the Year for 2013, challenged a room full of APs yesterday to “make a commitment to being intentional” about everything we choose to pursue. He talked about embracing those people who are our biggest opponents because they make us better versions of ourselves, and he showed us that if you are committed to something that makes things betters for students, you can’t go wrong. This post is my commitment. I will be intentional about confronting the challenges that face me every day. I will confront those challenges that confound all educators with drive and determination, and although I may fail more than once, I know that through the “Power of Yet” I can reach the summit of every mountain worth climbing. Afterall, I’m posting a blog from 30,000 feet in the air. Anything is possible.

What would I do if I knew I couldn’t fail? Exactly what I do each day, and that’s a pretty amazing feeling.

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Ready to Ignite!

It’s well-known throughout the world of social media that since WiFi has been made available on airplanes, one of the first things many people do once they’ve been cleared to access it is to tell everyone that they are “Tweeting from and airplane” or “Facebook-chatting from an airplane” or “Taking pictures of the beautiful sunset/sunrise from 30,000 feet and sharing it with you all from an airplane” before they do anything else. Well guess what, I’m writing a blog post from an airplane, and I’m very excited! No, it’s not because I can connect with my PLN from the air, although that is pretty cool, and it’s not because I have an exit row seat (at 6’5″ tall this is as close to first class as I’ll ever get). It’s because I’m on my way, after making a flight switch thanks to winter weather in the Northeast, to the National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP) national conference, Ignite ’14 , in Dallas, Texas.

I decided back in October that I had to attend this conference. Afterall, it’s really a gathering of some of the best minds in educational leadership, and the geek fanboy in me was intrigued (read: more excited than I should be) at the idea of possibly meeting individuals that I have come to respect for their professionalism, innovation, and general prolific presence and stamina after following them on Twitter. People like Eric Sheninger (@NMHS_Principal), Jimmy Casas (casas_jimmy), Daisy Dyer-Duer (@daisydyerduerr), Todd Whitaker (@toddwhitaker), and Brad Currie (@bcurrie5), among others, are people that I am regularly inspired by online, and having an opportunity to learn along side them was just too good to pass up.

Something I am equally excited about is having the opportunity to participate in the opening thought leader session this evening featuring the insightful Dr. Carol Dweck, author of one of the hot non-fiction books in educational circles right now,
Mindset
. This book is extraordinarily applicable to my life both personally and professionally. It’s rare that I find myself so engrossed with a work of nonfiction, often stopping suddenly to say things out loud like “Yes!” and “This is me. I need to adjust my thinking!” I regularly refer back to Dr. Dweck’s research when talking with teachers and students in my building. It’s easy to connect with her work, and her approach to creating a growth rather than a fixed mindset is something that everyone can begin to implement immediately upon engaging with the book. Stay tuned for a longer post about how I’m shifting my own thought process toward growth, an approach that has really helped me to readjust my outlook and focus on moving forward in my second year of being an assistant principal.

Most importantly, though, I am looking forward to walking in to my school on Monday morning with a renewed energy to lead alongside our dedicated faculty and staff. I am lucky to work in a forward-thinking school district, one that embraces technology, teacher leadership, student-directed learning, and supporting all members of the community. I am excited to be able to come home to this environment ready to contribute new ideas, programs, and approaches to student learning. I’ve got a busy schedule over the next several days, and I think I might find it difficult to fit everything in. But that’s not going to stop me from trying. Attending Ignite ’14 is in line with the idea that I am not a boss or a manager. I am one of the lead learners in my building, and I am ready to jump in with all the other lead learners in Dallas who are looking for ways to better serve our students and families.

My tweets this weekend will be (mostly) dedicated to sharing the sessions I attend with my PLN. Hopefully some of you reading this post are in Dallas. If so, I’d love to connect. Find me @Tim_Dawks. Also, don’t forget to connect with NASSP (@NASSP), and follow along with the conversation at #nassp14.

As my principal would say, let’s light this candle!