Teacher Leader In You

Everything Is Cool When You’re Part Of A Team

I am an educator by trade, though I have been a learner and a leader all of my life. Years ago, I wrote a blog post called Learning to Lead Learning Since 1979 that goes into this topic in more depth, though I think the sentiment comes through just fine in my personal mission statement. My purpose, as I see it: to cultivate communities of learners and learning by connecting with people, bringing shape to ideas, and seeking to understand.

Thankfully at this point in time, I have found myself professionally tied to a merry band of travelers who each seem to share at least a modicum of that mission in his or her own heart and mind. Together, we canvas the country seeking to be the learning partners that educators and school districts deserve as they venture into the unexplored reaches of their professional identities. In this team, I feel that I have found my tribe. We embody the feeling of a family- a feeling that I experienced to some extent in my previous career points, though has been amplified with this group in recent months to levels unexperienced to date.

That said, within the construct of this job I get the opportunity to visit cities all across these United States, and usually do so all by my lonesome. While I am traveling independently, I do interact with countless numbers of people while on the journey. In those travels, I have noticed that I tend to operate in slightly strange ways. At least strange relative to your average person.

A Vinyl Sticker With Big Black Letters

Mr Glasses Visitor

I am always a visitor, everywhere I go. I find myself walking through downtown streets and across suburban highways, meandering, seemingly aimlessly, because I can. I am a visitor here- I am not permanent. I end up in conversations with strangers, listening for the soul of the city while also attempting to help that person know that they have a friend for today- someone who will listen and help them find that they can in fact take that next step (terrifying as it may be). I do all of this because if I start the trip as a visitor everywhere I go, I need to end with that new place feeling like home. if I have to be away from my home in order to serve as this learning partner, then I figure I might as well try to help home feel like it came with me.

Several days ago while waiting for a haircut, I had another realization that has come to hit me like a ton of bricks. I had been talking with one of my teammates about my way of being and the various people I have met along the way, and as I shared she sat in silence on the other end of the phone. When she finally did speak, her first words were, “Wow. THAT is why we need you on our team, because we do not have anyone else like you on it.” (Not surprisingly to anyone who knows me, my response: “That’s the beauty of it- we do not have anybody like anybody on our team. That’s what makes us a good team.”)

Her response got me thinking. Not even my teammates- those who “get it” more than any other due to our shared experiences out in the field- not even they necessarily understand my way of being. I felt as if I needed a way of communicating the why of my approach to life such that it could be understood- not only by them, but also a little bit better by me.

The More We Work Together, The Happier We’ll Be

Teacher Leader In You

Several days ago while waiting for a haircut, I found these words:

Imagine for a moment that one day, you decided to live as if every person you have ever met or will ever meet is on your team. You are here for them, they are here for you, and we are all moving forward together in the same direction for a common purpose. How might that mindset change the way in which you live your life from that day forward?

What I realized is, this is how I live. This is what I do. It resonated so closely with my own experiences, and like a lens brought everything into focus.

Imagine for a moment that it was true, that everyone was on your team. That would include Stephanie, a waitress in North Carolina who is 5 months pregnant with her first child, and her boyfriend, whose name I can’t remember though is no less central to the next steps within their family unit. If they were on my team, I would want to help them process their excitements and their fears about this huge step in their life. If they were on my team, I would want them to embrace the size and scope of this step. If they were on my team, I would want them to recognize how much their lives are going to change, and take steps from here on out that would help them prepare a world for that new little boy in which he will be successful. I have never been brave enough to consider taking a similar leap, so I applaud anyone who is willing and able to do so, so long as they take the responsibility of that leap as seriously as it is. While I will never meet them again, I hope that one evening’s conversation proves to be a helpful one for that new life entering the world and the parents that will help to grow it.

If everyone was on your team, that would include a team of researchers on a business retreat that I just happened to walk by one evening. They were sitting in a 25-person circle out on a restaurant’s patio, enjoying each other’s company as one whole after a hard day’s work. If they were on my team, I would want them to recognize how special it is that they elected to circle up as one whole versus sitting separately in several small groups, as such a way of being promotes team unity in ways unimaginable without it. It’s a rarity I do not often see, and if they’re able to name it, then they can replicate it. While I will never meet them again, I hope they keep on making circles of conversation from here on out.

If everyone was on your team, that would include Linda, a customer service representative for the airline of my flight for my very first event as a full-time employee, which was cancelled due to a mechanical malfunction. In talking with my boss about how to go about rescheduling the flight, he referenced the concept of “my fault, their fault, and God’s fault,” meaning that a mechanical failure is “their fault” and as such they need to do everything in their power to make it right. His direction to me: “Give them the business.” (And rereading it, I do not think he meant that I should buy more tickets.)

But if everyone is on your team, how do you “give them the business” in a way that is not destructive while also getting the outcomes you seek? Thankfully, Linda picked up the phone and asked how she could help me. I told Linda what I needed in no uncertain terms, “Linda, I am looking for a teammate and a partner. I had a flight cancelled tonight due to mechanical failure, and I desperately need to have my wheels down in Chicago by tomorrow morning for this professional learning session. Will you be that teammate?”

She jumped onto the team with open arms.

What she found was that the earliest trip out of Richmond left by 10:30am the next day, landing eventually in Chicago by 2pm CDT. My response to Linda: “I think you misunderstood me. I never said I needed to leave Richmond. I said that I needed wheels down in Chicago. I’m talking planes, trains, and automobiles here- if you can get me a flight, I can get to that flight.”

Her response: “Oh! That changes everything- let me see what I can do.”

We found a flight out of Reagan International in Washington DC that was scheduled to leave by 5am the next morning. With it being only a 2-hour drive, and current local time of 10:30pm, I had plenty of time to make it there before the flight. (Unfortunately, a 12am traffic jam on 95 North delayed me pretty significantly, and after gassing up the rental I only just barely made it in time. I will say that DC at 3:30am is beautiful- the memorial for Iwo Jima has never looked so breathtaking.)

Linda was a fantastic teammate. And if she were on my team, I would want those who work with her to know the lengths she went through to help me such that we could reinforce that behavior. So I made sure to fill out the survey at the end. It’s a small gesture, I know- but it’s the thought that counts.

The number of customer service representatives I have since been able to help in that way (because of their dedication to helping me) is moderately staggering. One night, I had been struggling to get access to my bank login and password in order to print out some statements, and finally decided to call customer service. The teammate on the other end of the line (ironically also named Linda- what is it with people named Linda and their willingness to help?) stayed on the line with me at 1:30am CDT for over an hour trying to figure out the issue. Once we finally got it figured out, I asked if there was any way I could be as helpful to her as she had been to me, to which she responded that I could share my thoughts with her supervisor. I did so happily and with fervor, even with it being almost 3am by that time.

These people are all on my team. We are here to help each other move forward, and as I come to embrace that role, I realize that it will take a constant level of personal vigilance to ensure that I continue to make decisions in my life such that I can continue to serve in this way.

What’s amazing to me- none of the stories above about the people I’ve met and joined on my team include any of the incredible educators I have had the privilege to serve. I could tell stories about them for days- I am blessed to have played a small part in their professional journeys, as they have played a large part in mine. They are by default part of my extended family, which grows exponentially by the week. Of course, that level of commitment to service isn’t really all that strange, and frankly I have plenty of real estate to tell those stories in the context that they deserve in order to help others learn from those practices.

This way of thinking was highly influenced by one of my former and forever teammates- a lead coach who has since taken a role as a site-based leader. When I elected to take on this role full-time starting last year, she asked me, “Where will you find your team?” Knowing that being part of a team was important to me, she worried that being out all on my lonesome would end up causing some level of angst. Little did she know the mindset that would emerge as a result.

My Mission, Should I Choose To Accept It

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Spider-Man is one of my many personal influences. My dad used to end each day with me by reading a few pages of a comic as a bedtime story, so I always tell kids that Spider-Man taught me how to read. And if they’re kindergartners, they say, “Mr Glasses…you know Spider-Man?” #kidssaythedarnedestthings

That said, Spider-Man also taught me and everyone else something important- that with great power comes great responsibility.

I do think (as my teammate mentioned) that I have a gift. A gift for connecting with people. A gift for bringing shape to ideas. A gift for seeking to understand. And I think I also have the responsibility to use that gift in service of others in order to cultivate communities of learning. That responsibility brings with it the importance of ensuring that every choice I make in my personal and professional life is also in service of that mission. To do otherwise could potentially cause irreparable harm that would derail that mission, and that mission is far too important to run off track.

#ProTips From A Year On The Road

It has been a long, long time since I’ve posted to this blog. Far too long.

In taking on a new role as a team member with Advanced Learning Partnerships over this past year, I have been doing a lot of partnering, a lot of advancing, and, of course, a lot of learning. So much learning in fact that most of my reflection has been of the total internal variety– lots of light coming in, and much of it has been absorbed so as to advance my own understanding instead of reflected in order to advance us all.

That internal reflection stops today. It’s time to  get it out.

As the year comes to a close, it seemed fitting to share some stories through a list of #ProTips, an inside joke we have in our profession for the comment made just before a small but extremely useful piece of information is shared (usually one that has been right in front of you all along).

The audience I had in mind is my former and forever teammates, the Lead Coach crew in Albemarle County to whom I wrote my last post last year. I have a slide deck that I’ll finish and share with them (and you) someday, but for now these #ProTips seemed ready to get out of my head and into ours.

#ProTips from a Year on the Road

Drive carefully. You’ve never seen humidity until you’ve seen it near the gulf in Houston. Seriously- sometimes it’s like swimming where you walk. One night during a fog advisory I couldn’t see the traffic lights until they were right in front of me.

Get there early. If you want to get barbecue in Austin before they run out of the supply for the day, you’d better get there early. And surprisingly enough, they don’t really do coleslaw.

It’s a long way to Childersburg. Talladega Superspeedway isn’t the only mega-sized road in the county of the same name. In a district with 17 schools and 7500 students, the 760-square-mile span makes a drive to Yancey feel like a hop, skip, and a jump away. And if your plane happens to get grounded in Birmingham, a 10-hour drive home can feel both endless and freeing at the same time.

There are perks of being a traveler. If you’re going to be on the road a lot, find your brands of choice and stick to them. The points add up, and the perks are generally worth it. And if a hotel has morning breakfast and evening socials built into the cost of the room, go back there the next time you visit.

It’s either my fault, their fault, or God’s fault. It turns out there are three reasons for travel delays when it comes to missed airline connections. Until the writing of this post, I’d had several instances of two of the three. Well, now I’ve had all three. Turns out you probably shouldn’t try to rest your eyes outside the gate of your flight if it’s a redeye leaving at 11pm Pacific time, as it just may well leave without you. Man, sleeping overnight in airports sucks.

Kids are kids, no matter where you go. Kindergartners in South Texas talk with no filter, hug your leg without thinking about it, and give you funny nicknames like Mr. Glasses. Even in Phoenix’s 100-degree “dry” heat, 6th graders come to class smiling and drenched in sweat from running around way too much during PE. And like so many, high schoolers in Chicago are way too cool for school- unless of course you tell them you remembered meeting them in one of their classes and noticed the incredible work they were doing, and then they brim with pride. Kids are kids, and they’re why we do what we do in service of their learning and their future.

Teachers are teachers, no matter where you go. While they may use different words, teachers everywhere have the same stressors, the same sources of excitement, the same motivations for growth. There are incredible educators all over this country dedicated to pushing themselves in order to affect the lives of young people- they remind me of the dedicated teachers I strived to serve alongside with you in Albemarle each day.

Leaders are leaders, no matter where you go. They have way too much on their plates, often because they don’t want to burden others with it. They have the same competing concerns for people and for production, the degree of each of which drives their approach to leading. And above all, they desperately want to do a good job on behalf of the communities they serve. I feel blessed to be able to try to do a small part to help them keep the main thing the main thing.

Teams makes all the difference. I had forgotten about the Forming and Storming we did all those years ago as a seminal Lead Coach team before we started our Norming and Performing together. The successes we experienced lulled me into believing that things had always run so smoothly. My new team has undergone various moments of growing pains over the year, each of which takes me back to those early days when we as a Lead Coach team didn’t yet know how each other worked, let alone how we worked as one entity. On the flip side, my new team members and I have hit more than our fair share of strides that remind me to time spent running with each of you. Hope things are progressing in your new team endeavors as well- definitely miss the times around the table and in the circle together, though also loving my new team very much.

There really is no place like home. This one needs no story- it pretty much says it all. I try to make every new city I visit feel a little bit more like home by the time I leave, though it is never a substitute for the real thing.

Here’s to a ton more #ProTips in the weeks and months to come. Thanks for learning with me.

 

Thank You For Learning With Me

Below is a combination of emails and letters sent to Albemarle County teammates over the past month around a new and exciting professional change over the horizon this year for me. While directed at ACPS staff members, the message really applies to all of those with whom I’ve had the privilege to connect while serving various roles in the division over these past 13 years. The overall message reminds me of a post that marked the most recent previous change from classroom teacher to district administrator, and it felt important to commemorate here on the Learning to Lead Learning Blog (if nothing else than for posterity’s sake).

Teammates-

I wanted you to let you know that starting July 1st, I am taking a year’s leave from ACPS for the 2015-16 school year. It will certainly be strange not to be a direct member of the community that’s served as home over the past 13 years, but I have come across an opportunity to explore a position with another organization that feels professionally like a good fit.

There’s obviously way more to say in this kind of circumstance than any asynchronous mass media tool would allow for, so I will simply say: Thank you for learning with me. I notice that we as professionals are at our best when we engage our curious nature and allow it to drive us forward to develop new understanding about our practice, our students, and ourselves. Thank you for the time you have spent alongside me engaged in that learning process. In so many different contexts, I have learned so much from so many, and I only hope that I have been able to share at least a fraction of that energy back into our community in the work we have done together.

As far as the new opportunity goes, I will be working with Advanced Learning Partnerships, an educational consulting firm partnering with school districts engaging in a variety of different instructional initiatives. While based out of Chapel Hill, NC, the work itself will be in a variety of different districts around the country, working with leadership teams to lay out strategic roll-out plans and then implementing the job-embedded professional learning opportunities that help to bring the initiative to life. It should be pretty exciting work- certainly a change of pace, and lots of learning on all sides- though it’ll be very different from being “home” with ACPS.

All in all, the fit feels very closely aligned to my own personal mission statement as an educator on a mission to create communities of learning by connecting people, bringing shape to ideas, and seeking to understand. That’s a mission that this community of learners has helped to shape, for which I will be forever grateful.

I will still be living in the greater Charlottesville area so those locally will still have ways of touching base, though I know it  won’t necessarily be in the context of the work we might normally get into. Thank you again for the opportunity to serve you and your teammates in this capacity, and for being my teammate within the larger Albemarle community.

See you soon-

–Tony

Do You Know That Song? Remembering My Time At Plan 9 Music

Tonight, I had the rare opportunity to reconnect with what felt like a former life: my days as a record store nerd. From 1999-2004, I worked part-time as a team member at Plan 9 Music, a local independent music store founded in Richmond, Virginia’s Carytown that grew satellite stores in Charlottesville, Harrisonburg, Williamsburg, and Lynchburg. During my time as an employee at the store in Albemarle Square, I also took on the role of music journalist, reviewing albums, covering concerts, and crafting interview-based features for 9x, the store’s monthly music magazine.

Hardywood Plan 9 33-1/3 Black Vinyl StoutTonight, the locally-based chain celebrated its 33-1/3 year anniversary with a block party of sorts at Hardywood Park Craft Brewery, an evening filled with four bands, DJs, and the unveiling of Hardywood’s Plan 9 33-1/3 Black Vinyl Stout to commemorate the occasion. Like many of the other jobs I have held, this one made its mark in my mind as a true family- a group of individuals brought together through space and time by a common love of music. (True to form, founder Jim Bland ensured that all of the current and former Plan 9 team members in attendance at the event came together for a “team picture” and a toast, blaring Velvet Underground’s “All Tomorrow’s Parties” as we parted ways. I will definitely add that photo to this post once it becomes available.)

I unfortunately arrived too late to enjoy one of the event’s activities I was most excited about. To start the day, Plan 9 invited attendees to bring in a special record they got at the store- their “desert island” disc, rarest, most weird, most embarrassing, whatever- and to share their story of their favorite Plan 9 experience. Given that the drive to Richmond gave me an opportunity to reflect, I had a song and a story all ready to share- which I will now share via this post.

Ironically, the song central to this story is a song that I have never actually heard. At least, not to my knowledge. To double the irony (as far as record store geekdom is concerned), the song itself does not give me much street cred. In fact, if I shared it without context with any of my former co-workers, I’d probably be the recipient of a pretty big groan, or at least an eye roll.

The song that sticks with me is a song by James Taylor.

Yes, you read that right. Not some under-the-radar band, or some little-known nugget of a song. James Taylor.

And here’s the story:

Aside from running the cash register, stocking merchandise, and keeping the place clean, one of our responsibilities at the store was to man the help desk and listening stations, a row of 5-disk CD players on which customers were welcomed to listen to any music before buying it. Those moments were largely filled with people walking to the desk with a CD of interest, where I would open it up (using that fancy method that left the factory seal across the top of the CD unbroken), place the album in the player, and press play. Would-be consumers would don their headphones and immerse themselves in their listening experience, and I would stand behind the counter knowing that they would probably walk away without purchasing the album in question.

One weekday evening, a middle-aged woman walked slowly to the help desk with a puzzled look on her face. She sought assistance in tracking down a particular song, not unlike many other people that wandered back to that section at the rear of the store. She told me that there was a song that her father used to play all the time when she was younger, a song by James Taylor that had something to do with a bird, or an eagle, or something about flying. She couldn’t remember the title or the words, but it was really important to her that she find the song. Since this was before the days of smartphones and wide access to the all-knowing Internet, we at Plan 9 were her only hope.

(Side note to those never having been in this situation before: this incomplete snippet of information was still significantly more than most tend to bring to such a song search. There’s a funny if not a little off-color post in which one record store clerk shares his chronicle of these kinds of requests, which I’d highly recommend if you’re looking for a laugh. But I digress.)

Armed with our tidbit of a clue, this customer and I walked together into the Pop/Rock section labeled “T”, and scanned through all of the song titles listed across the back of the multitude of James Taylor discs in stock. After looking over as many as a dozen different CDs, we found 3 or 4 contenders, and walked back to the listening station to see if any of those songs were that one song she was looking for. After 20 minutes of searching and skimming through the potential songs, we had not yet found it. Ready to give up, we nonetheless put the last of our contenders into the player and advanced to the song we thought might be the one. She put on the headphones, and pressed play.

The almost immediate progression in her facial expression- from exasperation, to hope, to happiness, to tears- told me everything I needed to know: we had found that one song.

As it turns out, this woman had just lost her father to a battle with a long-term illness, and she was looking for this song as one that she hoped would bring their family together during his memorial service. She had resigned herself to never finding the song, but thought that if she could find it anywhere, it would be at Plan 9. Sure enough, she found it. She gave me a tearful hug for helping her to find the song, bought the CD, and left the store with the memory of those moments with her father fresh in her mind.

These are the experiences I’ll remember most from my days at Plan 9.

Sure, I’ll remember the great album debates, the incredible yet little-known bands I found out about, and the musical horizons that were broadened as a result of my time there. And yes, I’ll remember the great people I had the chance to work with, the likes of which movies like Empire Records and High Fidelity almost capture (but not quite). No doubt that I will carry with me forever the excitement of interviewing international acts like Radiohead, Coldplay, and Wyclef Jean as a journalist for 9x, as well as the time during an in-store appearance that Bruce Hornsby recommended a hilariously inappropriate moniker for my as-yet-unnamed band. And there’s no way I could possibly forget the four distinct opportunities when I was able to do my best Rob Gordon impression and sell our store’s copy of The Beta Band’s The Three E.P.’s, which every time went just like this:

Me to a co-worker: I will now sell our copy of “The Three E.P.’s” by The Beta Band.

[Tony plays the record, starting with track 1, Dry The Rain.]

Customer: Who is this?

Me: The Beta Band.

Customer: It’s good.

Me: I know.

[Customer buys the record right out of the player. It’s seriously that good.]

Through all of those experiences, what I will remember most from my time at Plan 9 are those moments where I played a small part in connecting with people via the universal medium of music. As record store employees, we played a role that few others could at the time. We were the regional experts in exactly what people wanted to hear, in a day and age where there were no other outlets to track it down. The ubiquity of the smartphone may have since put that capability in everyone’s pocket, but what’s missing is the human connection that springs as a result. Call me old-fashioned, but while the combination of Google and Shazam might allow me to find almost anything I want to hear, neither holds a candle to the power of a connection to a person committed to helping me find that record I didn’t even know I was looking for.

I have no idea what happened with that woman. I like to think that she and her family were able to find some peace in her father’s passing via a shared moment with that song, and that the CD she bought that day has a place on her shelf that reminds her of the catharsis that she experienced that evening at Plan 9. Who knows: I may go on a hunt for that song now. While I’ll never know if I find it, I like to think that when I do, I’ll connect back to that moment when a woman I’ll never meet again asked me if I could help her find that one song, and the look on her face when we did just that.Photo Mar 07, 5 07 57 PM

Thanks for the memories, Plan 9. Here’s to hoping that we get the chance to celebrate years 45 and 78 together, too.

Update (March 8th, 2015): I did decide to go looking for that one song after writing this post, as it seemed appropriate to do so. As I scoured the internet armed with as much information as my former customer had given me that evening all that time ago, I came to a surprising conclusion:

It wasn’t James Taylor we were looking for at all. It was John Denver.

Scanning the song titles in James Taylor’s catalog, none of the names I saw reminded me of that night in the aisle. Looking through John Denver’s catalog instead, I was transported back to the search that night. The Eagle and the Hawk, Eagle and Horses (I’m Flying Again), Flight (The Higher We Fly), On the Wings of a Dream- these titles sounded much more familiar. These were the possible contenders that we hunted for together.

I had juxtaposed the two artists partially because I remember the aisle we stood in while scanning CDs- what I had forgotten was the direction we were facing. Pointed one way, we’d be in the Pop/Rock “T’s.” Facing the opposite direction, we’d have been in the Folk section, where John Denver’s music would have been found. While I don’t think I’ll ever know exactly which song it was that this customer was seeking (and ultimately found), at least I tracked down the ones we thought it might be.

I have waffled back and forth this morning on updating the post to “get the story right,” but realized that like so many other things in life, the story was more about the journey of looking for the song than the destination of finding it. Knowing that it was John Denver and not James Taylor does not change the story from that perspective.

Really, it’s almost too perfectly coincidental that in a post about finding that one song to connect with a fleeting memory of the past, I would misremember the artist that was central to the story. All that said, it feels important to leave it as originally written, so that one day I might run back across this post and remember that it’s not just customers who make mistakes about the key details defining that which they seek.

Connect, Commit, Contribute: Lessons on Leadership, Basketball Edition

Upon the passing of basketball icon Dean Smith Sunday morning, I have been reflecting on the impact that athletic coaches (specifically basketball coaches) have had on my own practice. While what I do for a living is “a totally different ballgame” than theirs, I noticed that I have pulled something from each of these leaders that I aspire to apply to my own work in leading learning.

Below are those 5 coaches, ordered chronologically by the time I noticed their effect on my own philosophy:

Mike Hardiman, Varina Rams and Varina Bulls

Coach Hardiman was the first coach I ever played for. As a 12-year old first trying out organized basketball, I lucked out into being drafted on his team. We were the Rams that year, and we won the championship of the league. Being that it was literally my first time playing “real” basketball, I spent most of the time watching (though I did get to play a fair amount).

In watching that year, I noticed that our team was uniquely different than that of our competitors. While our team was talented, no one player on our “starting five” was necessarily the best player on the court. Each, however, had the perfect skills to fit their role in what I later found out was a modified version of the Triangle Offense (which I have since learned a lot about from #2 on my list). All five of those players were on the league’s All-Star team that year, predominantly because of the WE BEFORE ME approach that Coach Hardiman instilled in us.

My role was relatively specific on that team. I could hit a pretty consistent jump shot from the corner, so Coach put me at our baseline forward position on offense. His suggestion? “If you get the ball here, and you’re open, square up and shoot it. You’ll knock it down, and it’ll be the best shot for us to score. Otherwise, keep moving the ball to swing the defense.” His confidence in me made me feel comfortable in playing the role that our team needed me to play.

Defensively, I played a forward in our 2-3 zone, charged first and foremost with the job of getting myself between the basket and my opponents every time a shot went up. Rebounding position was really important to Coach Hardiman- there was nothing less defensible than letting someone else beat you to the spot on the floor most likely to hold the other team to one shot.

Over the years, I played on three other teams under Coach Hardiman’s lead, eventually moving from that baseline forward position to a more versatile offside wing position. He saw me as a creative asset that could make the big baskets when our team needed it, so that’s what I became. While we made it deep in the playoffs every year and I made several All-Star teams of my own, it wasn’t necessarily that success that drove me and my teammates to come back every year: it was the way we felt when we were playing together. Coach Hardiman made us feel like anything was possible so long as we went after it together as a team.

Phil Jackson, Chicago Bulls and L.A. Lakers

Like most young men my age, I was a huge fan of the Chicago Bulls. HUGE. To illustrate that fact, I’ll make a confession: for upwards of 5 years, I made it a personal mission to wear some piece of clothing that declared to the world my dedication to the team.

Every day. For five years. By a kid living in Richmond, Virginia, 804 miles away from Midtown.

At the time, I attributed my affiliation to the team to an appreciation of Michael Jordan, and for good reason: he was my first favorite basketball player. I had followed him since the moment when I first opened a pack of Fleer basketball cards, flipped through the deck, and said, “Michael Jordan…I’ve heard of him. Isn’t he good?” I then watched the next Bulls game on TV and decided, “Yes. He’s good. He’s REALLY good.” My dad tells me that my fandom began when I saw his first big moment: the open jumper from the left wing when he hit “The Shot” against Georgetown in the 1982 NCAA Championships, but I really don’t remember all of that.

Of course, I was a huge fan of Jordan. What I learned years later was that I was actually a fan of Phil Jackson.

I loved watching the Bulls play. Every nationally televised game was a holiday in my house, one where everyone knew what I would be doing. (I still remember when our cable provider offered WGN- I’m shocked that I ever made it out of the house after that time.) But it wasn’t just Jordan: it was the team. Like my own Rams teams, I used to love all of the different roles that each of the Bulls played on the team. As incredible as Jordan was on the court, it was guys like Cliff Levingston that I appreciated most. “Good News” would provide a spark to the team with his hustle and energy, always keeping the team in good spirits. Every player on those teams had that kind of voice, that kind of story. Every player had a role.

Coach Jackson caused that WE BEFORE ME mentality with his approach to the game. He instilled a much more nuanced version of the Triangle Offense than Coach Hardiman had used, the similarities of which I did not notice until years later. Jordan used to call it an “equal opportunity” offense, one that kept every player in the flow of the game. While Jordan would often take over the reins as necessary (as one would expect the arguably greatest competitor in the history of the game might), some of the best moments in those historic runs took place when everyone on the team was involved (including this championship-winning three-pointer against the Suns in 1993, when all five players on the court touched the ball).

Those Bulls went on to win 6 championships in 8 years, after which time the team went its separate ways. Phil Jackson made his way to Hollywood, leading the LA Lakers to 5 more championships and 7 NBA Finals in his 11 seasons with the team. I’ve since read several of Jackson’s books (my favorites being Sacred Hoops and Eleven Rings), and what I’ve learned about the Zen Master is how much he values knowing his players, knowing their strengths, and knowing how he can support them not just as basketball players, but as human beings.

Julie Strong, Albemarle Patriots

During my early years as a teacher, I joined the coaching staff of the JV girls basketball team in the school I worked under the tutelage of a neighboring Government teacher seeking a partner in her efforts. She knew I liked basketball, and she knew that I liked teaching, and so I guess she thought I’d fit right in.

Over our three years together as a coaching staff, I no doubt learned a lot about the nuts and bolts of coaching a team from Coach Strong. She taught me a lot about situational offenses and full-court presses, about running practices and organizing plays in the huddle. But what I’ll carry with me the most was the time that we spent building individuals into a team.

Our first year together, we were in a unique position where several students who would generally play JV had been called up to varsity. That meant that several of our players were having their own first opportunity with organized basketball as a part of our team. We won one game all year that season, and few times in life have I been as proud. The same went for Coach Strong- it was the only losing season in her career as a coach, and you would have never known it from the pride she exuded in each player’s growth. That team rallied together and pushed each other to improve, and each grew tremendously over the year as a result. They could have given up at any time, but Coach Strong never gave up on them, and they never gave up on each other.

(That one win was by 20 points, which is significant given that many of the games that year never made it far past 20 points total. With each basket that fell, the team erupted in excitement. Coach Strong has the conscientious nature to talk with the opposing coach to ensure they knew this was their first win of the season, which helped smooth things over.)

What I remember most about those years: we built deep relationships with these athletes, not just as players but as people. Coach Strong helped me to see the importance of getting to know the whole child, not just the student in the classroom of the one subject you happen to teach. These connections outside of the classroom led to significant connections inside the classroom, generating some of the most personally meaningful and inspirational stories of my educational career.

Tony Bennett, University of Virginia

I have been collecting articles about Tony Bennett and UVA Basketball for the past 18 months or so, waiting for the right time to “unveil” them in a post about leadership and teamwork. Instead of doing a lot of writing, I’ll just drop those articles here, along with a few relevant quotes from the articles that reflect why I am so drawn to Coach Bennett’s approach. (Side note: I cannot wait to add many, many more.)

After winning the ACC Championship in 2014 (quoting Justin Anderson, who was quoting John Wooden):

Following UVA’s 2014’s exit from the NCAA Tournament (quoting Matt Norlander):

  • Some coaches are able to discover threads that tie men together through different motivations, and for whatever reason, they simply work in the macro. Honesty and earnestness is a part of it with some people, and Bennett is one of those guys.
  • He doesn’t do swift and pretty. His program projects reflect the way his teams play: slow, methodical, with purpose — and without arrogance or presumption.
  • Cavaliers basketball is now based on five pillars: unity, thankfulness, praise, humility and servanthood.

Describing UVA’s as-yet-unbeaten streak during the 2014-15 season (quoting Jeff White):

  • By the time the `Hoos took the court for practice…the latest polls were out, but there was no mention of the No. 2 ranking, and Bennett offered his players no extra praise.
  • On the ACC coaches’ teleconference early Monday afternoon, Bennett was asked about the national spotlight that’s now shining so brightly on his program: “It’s really irrelevant to how we play, what we do,” he said. “It just comes when you’ve won some games, and it’s there. I think the biggest thing is, whether the talk’s there or not…it’s how you process it, your young men, and what you do with it. But our job is to certainly be vigilant and say, `Hey, are we going to work?’ We always say, `Don’t believe the hype and all those things.’ “

Following this past week’s loss to Duke and the following wins against UNC and Louisville (quoting Tony Bennett):

  • After Saturday night’s 52-47 win over Louisville: “When you whip a donkey, it kicks… but when you whip a thoroughbred, it responds.”
  • “We learned some valuable lessons against Duke. After winning at Carolina, I didn’t want our guys to assume, ‘Oh, OK, we’re back on track.’ No, you’re going to have to scrap for everything. We played for each other and that’s our way. [I told them that] when we do that, I’ll take [this team] against most anybody.”

Update: Commenters’ response to Myron Medcalf’s argument that UVA’s style is bad for the game:

  • A sarcastic response from Christopher John Payne: “Myron’s right. Virginia’s bad for basketball. Also, carrots, apples and bananas are bad for food. We need more donuts, more Cap’n Crunch, more cheese puffs. Too bad Virginia just doesn’t get it, what with their outdated notions of teamwork, selflessness, and hard work.”
  • A rational response from Eugene Belitsky: “If you watch UVA play you’ll notice that UVA often tries to score at the end of the shot clock by choice, while their opponents throw up shots at the end of the shot clock by necessity. A shorter shot clock would mean more possessions but not necessarily more running. UVA, a team with a great per possession scoring differential, would be just fine.”
  • A hypothetical response from Matt Schiffler: “[This article’s] title if the situation were the same, but Duke and UVA were switched: ‘Duke’s unselfish, disciplined play: a new standard for college basketball?'”
  • A response to end all responses from Phillip Sabri:
    • “Virginia plays beautiful basketball. Team-oriented. Unselfish. They don’t sit on the ball on offense. They work for a good shot, the best shot. If they can get a fast break opportunity, they take it. A 90 to 70 game can be far uglier than anything you’ll see from UVA.”
    • “The pace of play is equally or more often than not dictated by how long it takes their opponents to get a shot off. Not infrequently the opposition throws up some last second desperation shot. It is a fantastically disciplined team that plays together.”
    • “Would you rather see a so-called Hall of Fame coach’s team run and gun, throw up lousy off-balance shots, and give up wide open looks or layups…or watch a team that truly loves to play together, [plays] for each other, maximizes their talents, and bests team after team that on paper has them beat?”
    • “There is an awful lot of Hoosier’s (as in Norman Dale and Jimmy Chitwood) in this UVA team–underdogs that come together and can defeat the so-called Goliaths of the sport using their 5 pillars of humility, passion, unity, servanthood, and thankfulness. It is not ugly basketball. It is a beautiful thing.

Update: Chris Chase responding to critics who describe UVA’s play as bad for NCAAB, even with a 28-1 record:

  • What makes UVA Basketball so impressive? Slow, then quick, improvement. Tony Bennett has been there for six years. His record has improved every year – 15-16, 16-15, 22-10, 23-12, 30-7 and 28-1 (assuming they get to 30+ wins this year, which is a good bet).
  • What makes UVA Basketball so impressive? Defense, defense, defense. Virginia plays a ferocious pack-line defense…at times, it looks like UVA is playing six to five. They smother. (Here’s a great breakdown.) Why is that a bad thing? It’s more exciting than what 99% of NCAA teams do offensively. Watching good defense is watching good basketball.
  • What makes UVA Basketball so impressive? They’re blue collar, not blue chip. In the world of one-and-dones and John Calipari, UVA harkens back to the good ol’ days of college basketball. There are no one-and-dones. There are no McDonald’s All-Americans and no top NBA prospects. They’re as blue collar as a team playing in a state-of-the-art $131 million arena can be. UVA is what’s right with college basketball.

Dean Smith, University of North Carolina

Finally, I get to the man that inspired this post in the first place. Coach Smith’s place on this list shouldn’t be mistaken for not knowing who he was. I may have graduated a Wahoo, but I grew up a Tarheel. Some of it was my dad’s influence, some of it was Michael Jordan’s – as after watching Come Fly With Me surely close to a hundred times, it’d be hard not to have Coach Smith as a favorite coach.

No, Coach Smith is this far down the list because until now I have not spent a lot of time learning about him. He is this far down the list as a reminder that I still have much to learn from him, even if he has since passed.

What I know of him up to this point? He originated the Four Corners, which led to the adoption of the shot clock. He coached (almost) all of my favorite Tarheels, including Michael Jordan. He is famously credited with being the only person that could hold Jordan under 20 points per game. (Not even Father Time could do that, as Jordan did not have a single season in the NBA where he averaged less than 20 ppg, even with the Wizards.) He won a championship with that 1982 team, as well as another against Michigan and the Fab Five in the famed “Webber Called Time-Out!” game in 1993. He retired in 1997 with 879 wins, which at the time was the most in NCAA history. (He’s since been past by at least two others.) And he had an arena named after him: The Dean Dome, where I remember seeing a preseason game between the Bulls and Nets (which has its own story), as well as a regular season UNC game when I was visiting the university with a childhood friend.

That’s pretty much it. My knowledge of Dean Smith in a nutshell.

Even just after a cursory glance at his Wikipedia page and around Google, I’m learning (and remembering) more:

  • He is credited with the popularization of encouraging players who scored a basket to point to the teammate who passed them the ball, in honor of the passer’s selflessness. That’s so cool!
  • Also attributed to him: the practice of getting players to huddle at the free throw line before a foul shot. Never missing an opportunity to help the team get on the same page.
  • He instituted the practice of starting all his team’s seniors on the last home game of the season (“Senior Day”) as a way of honoring the contributions of the subs as well as the stars.
  • That last factoid reminded me of “Big Blue,” a practice where Coach Smith would bring in five new players off the bench (often walk-ons as opposed to the scholarship players) whenever he felt like the team needed some energy. It wasn’t a punitive measure for the “regulars,” but a sign that he trusted all of his players to do what was needed.
  • Someone posted Coach Smith’s recruitment letter of Michael Jordan, scanned into this story on FanSided. Such a small gesture, and yet such a huge one.
  • What’s even bigger: this article from the Huffington Post laying out 15 inspiring stories that prove he was more than just Michael Jordan’s coach. Chief among them: Smith’s push for racial integration throughout his career, his support of civil rights in general, and his “one firm rule” that he would drop anything if any of his players ever needed to talk to him, no matter how important it seemed.

I cannot wait to spend more time learning about the life and legacy of this man.

What I have learned so far

What I noticed in reflecting on these coaches is that their impact on me ultimately has very little to do with basketball. It’s a given that I’m a big basketball fan, that each was a coach of one of my favorite teams, and each was an incredible basketball coach at his or her core. All that being said, while each has a firm grasp on the X’s and O’s of the game, that’s not why they come to mind. I’m not that kind of coach anymore.

They resonate the most with me because they all placed an equally high value on their concern for people as they did on their concern for production.Photo Feb 09, 11 27 45 PM (1)

I first ran across this concept as a Managerial Grid model developed by Blake and Mouton back in the 1960s. While it’s gone through several phases in its life cycle, the essence remains true: the approach that gets people connected, committed, and contributing to a mission involves both a high concern for people as well as a high concern for production.

It’s not enough to push for production and expect greatness to happen, just as it’s not enough to care about people and expect anything more than sunshine and rainbows. Effective leaders must do both. And not both in an alternating fashion (which is described as a Paternalistic Style)- they must show high concern for both production and for people at the same time.

What are my own personal next steps to push myself toward embracing the Team style? Here are a few:

  • Help those I serve find where they fit, and vocalize the trust I have in them to succeed, just as Coach Hardiman did for me when I was just learning how to play.
  • Remember that “The road to freedom is a beautiful system,” as Coach Jackson once said in his Mindful Leadership practices. Help people identify clear structures within which they can work together seamlessly, which will allow their individual greatness to blossom to more than the sum of its parts.
  • Get to know people not as students, teachers, and administrators, but as people, as Coach Strong inspired me to do. Listen for those passions that make people’s eyes light up, and connect with them in order to learn from them.
  • Embody into everyday practice the five pillars that Coach Bennett has instilled: unity, thankfulness, praise, humility, and servanthood. Last week, my teammate used similar language: “The tension between unconscious competence and conscious competence? That’s humility.” Definitely something to reflect on.
  • Point to thank those who “pass the ball” such that it leads to success, as Coach Smith encouraged his players to do. Celebrate the selflessness of the team, and contribute to it by looking to pass to those who have the best shot available.
  • Commit to the mission, commit to the team, and contribute every day.

“For the strength in the Pack is the Wolf, and the strength in the Wolf is the Pack.”

PS Closing with that Rudyard Kipling quote felt just about right, until I realized that it indirectly sings the praises of crosstown rival NC State. No matter, it’s just a little too good to pass up.

RIP Coach Smith. Thanks for the memories, both old, new, and yet to be.

#Oneword at #sunchat: Top Tweet for January 2015

Reflection is a powerful tool- one that goes unwielded so often in the flurry of planning and doing that generally fills our busy days. I noticed that if I wanted to spend time harnessing that power, I would need to develop purposeful structures that would help to cause it to happen. To that end, I’m experimenting with this “Top Tweets” series.

Following the reflection gained by looking back at a year’s worth of tweets in 2014, I thought it might be interesting and helpful to increase the frequency of those reflections, to go back on a monthly basis and expanding on the ideas of the “top tweets” of each month. While the depth of “A Year In Review” can resurrect powerful ideas, I think I’d much prefer keeping these ideas at the forefront of my mind much more frequently.

Here is January’s top tweet:

#oneword Tagxedo for #sunchat – 1/4/15

Most every Sunday morning at 9AM ET, a group of passionate educators come together for #sunchat, a free-form educational chat moderated by New York educator Starr Sackstein. Ultimately inspired by the book One Word To Change Your Life (though more likely by the twitter zeitgeist, which was #oneword-ing all over the place at the time), Starr challenged each of us to choose and commit to one word that we hoped would embody the year to come, and to share it during the first #sunchat on 1/4/15 along with the hashtag #oneword:

I find these types of chats to be extremely energizing- especially those focused on springing forward into a new year. In the hour that followed, educators from around the world inspired me with their drive and enthusiasm around the practice of teaching and learning. By the end, I didn’t want it to stop, though I knew that it would have to if we were ever going to make our #oneword become reality.

Seeing the collection of tweets, I remembered a couple of different approaches to using word cloud generators as an artifact of learning, which I thought might be interesting to capture our #oneword posts. Thankfully, #sunchat is always full of motivational energy:

And so, the Tagxedo image of our #oneword discussion on #sunchat was born. PS If you’ve not used Tagxedo before, I’d recommend it- a word cloud generator similar in nature to Wordle, but with the added functionality of allowing you to customize more of the features (including the shape).

Side note: The #oneword strategy itself has been a rejuvenating one, both for me and for those with whom I work. My #oneword during this #sunchat was “reawaken,” which helps me remind myself that each day is a gift I need to embrace, and that there is a larger world outside of the short-term goals that govern my day-to-day life that I need to see. When I shared it, one chatter asked, “Have you been asleep?” My response: “In a metaphorical sense, I think maybe I have been.” Here’s to waking up in 2015!

Year In Review: My Most Popular Storifys of 2014

Inspired by Patrick Larkin‘s reminder from the “Blogger’s Rulebook” about the annual requirement to highlight the most-viewed posts of the year, it seemed appropriate to do the same here on Learning to Lead Learning. Sometimes there’s nothing better than looking back and reminding yourself of where you’ve been in order to figure out exactly where it is you might be going.

Earlier this month, I shared my 14 most retweeted and faved tweets of 2014 (as well as a post that shares how you can make your own list), and I’ll likely do a Year In Review post of the most-read posts of 2014 sometime later this week. For now though, I’ll focus on Storify.

2014’s Most Viewed Storifys

2014 might as well be known as “The Year of the Storify” for me, as it quickly became my go-to digital curation tool. If you haven’t used it, it’s a pretty powerful resource for collecting content from diverse media – twitter, Facebook, Google+, YouTube, Getty images, Flickr, and Instagram, among others. I tend to use the site whenever I’m collecting a variety of content sources, as I find its searchable drag-and-drop interface to be pretty easy to use.

Without further ado, here are the 10 most-viewed Storifys I created in 2014:

1) #EdLeader21 4th Annual Event – Atlanta 2014 (October) – This year’s EdLeader21 event focused on student voice, empathy in design thinking, learning spaces, and performance assessment as levers toward promoting the 4Cs. I’ll remember it fondly as a great reconnection with colleagues from across the USA, a valued “bi-coastal” collaborative presentation with teammates, and the time I almost won $5 from Steve Saunders for taking a selfie with 5 Seconds Of Summer.

2) More Important: Questions or Answers? (January) – A collection of contexts (predominantly from January 19th’s #sunchat) in which I asked educators to agree or disagree with the following statement: As teachers, having the right questions is more important than having the right answers. Seeing this post reminds me of the need to ask this question in more contexts, as well as the need to ask more questions.

An image from #ACPSCAI14 displaying the importance of focusing on both what students know and what they can do.

3) #PowerofPLN: The Power of a Personal Learning Network (published in July, most recently updated in November) – A collection of “Why Connect?” responses based on a serendipitously-timed trio of PD sessions. On July 9, 2014, Chad Smith in Gastonia NC, Kerri Williams at #EVSCREV14 in Evansville, IN, and I were all leading PD sessions around the power of professional learning networks, and engaging our PLNs in the session. This PD session was a reinvigorating one in many ways, and I still have many “next steps” to tend to based on what I learned from facilitating these sessions.

4) #ACPSCAI14: Changing Our Perspective When Assessing Student Work (June) – A collection of tweets, links, and posts shared during Albemarle County’s Curriculum, Assessment, and Instruction (CAI) Institute, in which interdisciplinary teams across multiple grade levels collaboratively assessed student work as evidence of relative mastery of lifelong learning competencies. I promise: it was a LOT more fun than it may sound!

5) #PubPriBridge: The Inaugural Chat (January) – The archive of the inaugural #PubPriBridge chat, a connection of public & private school educators connecting to make a difference for the benefit of learners everywhere. Moderated by Peter Gow, it was a connection with Chris Thinnes from 2013’s EdLeader21 event that brought me to the discussion.

#ACPS selfie: MESA representatives cheesing with Del. David Toscano

6) AHS’s MESA at VMSC’s Programs That Work reception (January) – Director Jeff Prillaman and recent alum Eric Hahn represented Albemarle High School’s Math, Engineering, and Science Academy (MESA) as recipients of Virginia Math & Science Coalition’s Programs That Work award in Richmond, VA. So many of my favorite pictures are in here, including this selfie of all of us with Delegate David Toscano, and this painstakingly staged “physicsy” pic of the award.

7) #AVIDchat: Summer WICOR HW (June) – The archive of the June 25th #AVIDchat where educators came together to focus on ways of incorporating WICOR into their summer professional learning. The conversation was inspired by this post by Craig McKinney on AVID’s Adventures in College and Career Readiness blog.

8) 14 for ’14: My Top Tweets from 2014 (December) – The aforementioned reflection on “the year that’s been” by looking back through my most favorited & retweeted tweets of 2014. This post is a great collection of people & ideas focused on leadership, teaching, and learning.

9) #AVIDchat: Valuing WICOR process skills (February) – An archive of the February 5th #AVIDchat, inspired by @alyssa_ruther’s question: How do we help students value the WICOR process skills that they develop in the AVID elective?

10) My First Graphic Recording (August) – Tweets around the creation of a graphic recording of ACPS Superintendent Pam Moran‘s welcome message to Albemarle County Public School’s new teachers at New Teacher Academy 2014. This Storify includes tips on #graphicrecording from members of the #sketchnotes community like verbaltovisual’s Doug Neill, Sketchnotes Handbook author Mike Rohde, and noted graphic facilitator Rachel Smith.

That’s the year in a nutshell – thanks for everyone who has been a part of it!