Stories: About a boy

It’s been said, if you don’t tell your own stories,  somebody will tell them for you.

This is a story that must be told.

Sometimes things happen in your school that are so awesome, but no one knows about them.  

And if everyone knew, the world would be a better place.

This is about Bess and Lauren, two teachers at our school.  


1kevin 2

Kevin on a chromebook

There’s a sixth grader who is sort of in their class.    His name is Kevin.  Kevin went to one of the elementary schools many of our kids came from.  They know him. He’s registered, he has a student ID number. His particulars, even his photo, are in the student management system.  He’s been assigned to a sixth-grade middle school team of two teachers, Lauren and Bess. But this student has an illness that prevents him from coming to school for the present time.   Kevin’s going to get better, but he has yet to step foot in our school building. Consider how difficult that must be for this boy. Here’s where his middle school teachers, Lauren and Bess come in.

I know that there are robot-like devices that can be used for kids to attend school under these circumstances.  There was an IBM commercial that showed a kid attending school from home while remotely operating a robot that traveled the hallways and even joined his friends in the cafeterias at lunchtime, “Oh my, I can’t wait ‘til the future, it looks so



Kevin’s working with this group

cool.”  There was a story on the news in 2014 about a high school freshman on Long Island who attended school using a robot because he was recovering from appendicitis surgery.  But his mom works for the company that makes these robots.  She loaned one to the school for her son  That was three years ago, I haven’t taken a sick day in five years, still no robots.  


Bess and Lauren didn’t wait for the robots.  They are cutting edge users of technology. That’s not to say that they are always incorporating bells and whistles into their lessons.  Quite the contrary. But they realize that if there’s a way to leverage technology in order for kids to connect with people they otherwise could not,  or obtain information in a way they could not access without technology; then they are eager to incorporate digital tools. They use Flipgrid to give students another means to demonstrate learning in ways that don’t involve pen and paper.  They use Google Hangouts and Facetime to do Mystery Skypes with kids in other parts of the country or across the globe.  These teachers jumped in and got Kevin into the class using simple, free technology available to anyone with a laptop or any device.  Using an app called that is designed for video conversations and meetings, Kevin joins the class every day via his computer at home.  Lauren and Bess have leveraged technology to bring Kevin into their classrooms every day. It’s incredible and inspiring.

I had a chance to see this in action recently when the 6th grade at our school organized a student-led EdCamp (read more about #KidCamp here).   The teachers, and sometimes students,  carried “Kevin” around to different sessions as he video conferenced in on a Chromebook. He chose what sessions he wanted to join because the session board was posted online for everyone to view.  He joined a session I facilitated called “Music: What are you listening to? Let’s talk” It was so cool to learn about the music my middle school kids are listening to.  We used a Padlet to post a link to songs we like and the discussion went on from there. We simply talked about the nature of music and why we love it. Kevin had the link to the Padlet and he was able to post his own links and share songs he liked. He is an incredible kid.

Amazing educators, when you ask them, “What do you teach?”, they reply, “I teach kids!”  Great teachers love kids. They love the students in front of them and they understand the sacred nature of their professional responsibility to nurture the academic and personal development of kids.  Great teachers know that relationships are the most important thing; not homework, not tests, not awesome lesson plans, but relationships.  Great teachers love kids more than they love content. They might be historians, they might be scientists, but they are teachers of kids first.  They put kids before the curriculum. Inspiring teachers love students they haven’t even met yet. This is what Lauren and Bess have done.

I think that Bess and Lauren are going to be a little embarrassed that I’m writing about this because they’re not looking for any credit but, think about it, this is so awesome. The agile use of technology, the willingness to think outside the box, their incredible empathy and love for their students, the love of the other kids in sixth grade for their friend, the innovation of Kid EdCamp and including Kevin in it.  How many “Kevin”‘s are there around the world? It’s pretty simple to bring them into our schools and classrooms. It’s great for Kevin, it’s transformative for all of us. Not because people want recognition for something, in fact, the opposite seems to be true. Sometimes teachers are just absolutely crushing it every single day in their classrooms and no one really knows about it. They don’t want you to advertise it.  But, if I don’t tell you about it, you won’t realize how easy this is to do.

Like I said, sometimes there are stories that need to be told…


Amazing teachers put kids FIRST: Lauren, Beth, Bess and Suzanne

Posted in adolescence, Best Practice, edcamp, Educational Focus, Inside the Middle School, Personal Best, Teaching/Learning

About kids and devices: Trying to find the answers

I’m trying to figure something out…

At the risk of admitting my age, I will disclose that when I was in middle school, the following were popular “first run” television shows: the Brady Bunch, the Partridge Family, the 6 Million Dollar Man, Charlie’s Angels, Happy Days, and Laverne and Shirley.  That was some great TV right there.  The thing is, I watched an appalling amount of television when I was a kid.  

At that time, there were articles in newspapers and magazines about the har


Brady Bunch

m being done to children through too much TV watching.  My parents and teachers talked a great deal about it also: all these kids to do is watch television, they don’t play outside anymore; they don’t interact with each other.  My teachers lamented that they couldn’t compete with the nature of the material as it was presented on the television screen.  I distinctly remember my 10th grade English teacher, Rich Settani, ranting to my class about TV and how hard it made his job, “Big Bird, Sesame Street… I can’t compete with that!  I don’t even wear colorful ties!” (We loved Mr. Settani).

To anyone following the present-day debate about children and device use,  these conversations will sound more than a little familiar? Are devices harming our children? As a principal in middle school, I am particularly interested in this discussion.

There’s an informative study from Common Sense Media and a series of 

TED Talks on this subject.  At both sites, you’ll find evidence both for and against device use by young people and adults. Their arguments sound vaguely similar to the disputes about TV watching that proliferated when I was in middle school.

As a principal, I am often called upon to weigh in on this debate and to be honest, I’m trying to figure it out.

I have a small scar above my left eye.  When I was 4 years old, while I lay on the floor watching a TV on a metal stand, I kicked over the stand and the TV fell on my face.  


As far as I can determine, this is the greatest harm that has ever come to me from watching television. 


TV’s hurt when they fall on your face.

Our teachers and students can accomplish incredible things through the use of technology that I couldn’t even dream of when I was in middle school.  Using technology, teachers can gather real-time, personalized data from students about their learning and connect them with each other and with the world in amazing ways. BUT… If I posted a photo of my cafeteria on a Tuesday or a Thursday (not Wednesday, that’s “device-free day”) you’d see too many students with their heads buried in their phones.  This can’t be a good thing, can it? Personally, I rely on my phone to stay organized, to track data, and to connect with my personalized network of other learners who share ideas and give me valuable support.  But the urge to frequently check my phone has become a physical “tic” that I know interferes with my relationships and attention span. So you can see how I’m ambivalent when it comes to the blessings and curses of devices.

Principals often share expertise and conclusions, but what do they do when they don’t have either of these?  Is it okay for a principal to say, “I don’t know the answer to this?” I hope so because that’s what I’m saying…  I choose to believe that there’s power in learning alongside the stakeholders in our school community. I will engage kids and adults in focused conversations, share experiences, help them reflect, and gather data and opinions about our technology use.  I’m trying to find the answers to questions about children and devices, but in the meantime, I hope I’m modelling what it means to be a learner.

How about you?  Are there areas of your practice as a leader or teacher that you haven’t figured out?   How are you modelling your learning? How can we be transparent about the process as we learn new things and try to find answers to life’s essential questions?


I put my device in “phone jail” for a day along with a group of 6th graders.  Try it!

Posted in adolescence, Best Practice, Educational Focus, Leadership, Parenting, Personal Best, Reflections, Teaching/Learning | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

About school: We can make it special

nets sweats

Juliet in her Nets Hoodie

On Halloween I took my daughter Juliet who is 8 years old to a Brooklyn Nets game. That’s right, my daughter just started playing basketball and she was so excited to go to her first professional game that she gave up trick-or-treating to do it.  That’s dedication!

We arrived about 45 minutes before the game.  Juliet wore a Brooklyn Nets hoodie that we bought specifically for the occasion.  Standing just inside the entrance, marveling at all the sights and sounds of the arena,  we were approached by a member of the Nets staff who asked Juliet, “Would you like to be part of the “High Five Line” and stand on the court with the players during the national anthem?“  You don’t you have to guess what her response was. Juliet dashed off with the nice Nets lady so fast I thought I would never see my daughter again.

Juliet and 11 other fans had the opportunity to be on the court and high five the players when they came out for warm-ups. Then, she stood in front of one of the players during the singing of the Star Spangled Banner. The player, Ed Davis, even tapped her on the shoulder and gave her a high-five at the conclusion of the anthem.

It would be impossible to overstate Juliet’s excitement about the Nets, basketball, and her awesome night out with her dad.  She is a lifelong Nets fan now for sure! So grateful to the Brooklyn Nets for going to 


Juliet on the “High Five Line”

all the trouble to make it special for Juliet.   

But was it really a lot of trouble?  

When you think about it, this was actually quite easy for the Nets to do.  Every game, the players run onto the court for warm ups and stand for the national anthem.  It’s a fairly straightforward process to grab 12 fans and invite them to join them when this happens.  They gave all the fans a T-shirt but they were created by a sponsor and every shirt was XXX Large so they didn’t have to worry if they fit each participant, Juliet was able to put it on over her hoodie.

It’s wasn’t complicated, but the Nets were able to create this special moment for a group of fans because they are in charge, it’s their building, their court, their team.  They have the power to make the event momentous for the fans.

JMS staff and proud PB Award Recipient

Our school does something similar to this called Personal Best Awards.

One of the guiding principles of our school culture is “always do your personal best”.   We tell kids, you don’t need to be better than somebody else, strive to be better today than you were yesterday. To focus attention on social emotional literacy and on personal development we have monthly themes and we use the CASEL SEL Competencies to guide our work in building students’ personal capacity.   As part of an initiative to promote this, we have something called  “Personal Best Awards”. Four times a year teachers select students to be recognized for doing their personal best.   There’s a small ceremony after school, students are given a tee shirt and a certificate with the reason they were nominated.  Families are invited to attend. There’s cake ( BJ’s will make a cake with the school logo on it for you) and the middle school jazz ensemble performs as families enter and at “intermission”.  As it takes place on a Friday immediately after the school day, many parents can leave work early and most of the staff attends as well.

Parents are so proud when kids are recognized

Superintendent and Board Trustees join us to present PB Awards

Certificates, tee shirts, music, cake… nothing particularly fancy.   Personal Best Award Ceremonies are special occasions for the kids and for their families but they’re not difficult or expensive for us to plan.  This small, simple event sends a powerful message about what we value as a school and it is a special memory for the students who are honored. Principals and teachers can create singular moments for kids everyday.  Like the Brooklyn Nets, these are our schools, classrooms, hallways, gyms, and cafeterias. We are in charge of these settings.  We can do extraordinary things to create lifelong fans of learning and of our schools.

What are some ways that you make it special for kids in your setting?  How do you generate memorable moments that create lifelong fans for your school and classroom.  


Juliet’s Halloween costume: Rosie the Riveter

Posted in adolescence, Best Practice, Inside the Middle School, Leadership, Personal Best, Teaching/Learning, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment

About Work / Life Balance: So much to learn

Dp-xqXxW4AAMWU2The 5th Annual EdCamp Long Island took place last Saturday at Mineola High School. About 400 educators attended an amazing day of learning. There so much to say about the planning and preparation that went into this event. It’s my sincere hope that many people who attended EdCampLI will blog about it to spread the good word about this dynamic, personalized version of professional development.

An awesome session I facilitated with the amazing Danielle Gately (@dmgately) was representative of what makes the EdCamp model of learning so extraordinary.   Dp-MOoGWoAAcirQ

It had been a dynamic, energetic day that begin for most people around 8 AM with breakfast and fervent conversation with other passionate educators. Danielle and I booked a session in the 2 PM slot on the topic: Work / Life Balance.  There were only five other sessions in this slot so we figured this was a good time to post a conversation. We expected a sparse crowd because lunch was awesome, there was a lot of food, it was a gorgeous autumn day, and it was Saturday after all, life beaconed outside the halls of the venue.

Dp90pHXWkAMZiKDWe walked into a room that was packed with people. Seriously, standing room only. We have led this session before and we normally get a pretty good crowd, this time the room was bulging at the seams. Danielle and I looked at each other and looked at the people in the room and started by saying,” We hope you didn’t come looking for answers from us, because we came looking for answers from you!”

For the next hour a powerful conversation on this important topic transpired that likely had a transformative effect on every participant.

Some takeaways:

Nobody has all the answers

Dp9L2GjVAAAnYFiIt’s been said that at Ed Camp, the smartest person in the room, is the room. This was never more true than in this session. We learned about Amazon Alexa, Peapod, Checklists, Google calendar, Calm, Headspace, Voxer, apple watches, and many other tools and hacks to manage life and work. People shared strategies, tips, and struggles.  Everyone who left the session came away with ideas to meet the tremendous challenges of balancing their professional and personal lives.

Honesty is the currency of learning

Dp-Aoa0VAAACCpuParticipants felt comfortable sharing their personal stories about work / life balance in a way that was remarkable. One teacher talked about how, on her commute home from work, she often passes by a beautiful bench by a lake.  She invariably thinks to herself, “I wish I had time to stop and go down there and sit for awhile.” So on one occasion she stopped her car and did just that, visited the bench by the water. When she returned to her car, she looked in her watch and noted that she had been gone for exactly 7 minutes. Seven minutes that made huge difference in her thinking and emotions that day. This story made a profound impression on me as I’m sure it did on the others who attended our session.  There is something uniquely invitational about the passion and energy of EdCamp that promotes this kind of candor and openness.

We need each other

Dp94rVeU8AAhV5BSo many people at the session exchanged Twitter handles, email addresses and phone numbers. The conversation continued at the fifth session at a nearby restaurant where many participants stopped by for a drink and to continue talking about this topic as well as all the learning that took place throughout the day.  I am certain that these connections will fortify these busy educators as they navigate the challenges of the hectic year ahead.

It can be difficult to describe the magic of the Ed camp model.  It’s liberating to cast off the formalities, restrictions, and passivity of conventional educational contexts (read: SCHOOL) and embrace a mode of learning that elevates choice, participation and sharing.  When I’m asked to give an example of the power of EdCamp, I will describe the amazing session that took place this past Saturday on the topic of Work / Life balance. We wish you were there!

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About reading: You’re not alone

Here’s the thing about adolescence, it can be lonely.  Kids arrive at an interesting stage in their development when they reach the age of 10 or 11.   This fraught stage of life is characterized by remarkable physical, intellectual, and emotional changes in the life of an adolescent.   The typical pre-teen wonders, “Is it me, am I the only one feeling this way? It must be just me.” It’s a sublime irony that all of these kids find themselves together in middle school, surrounded by others who are undergoing the same singular experience, and yet they feel like they are the only ones.  

They feel alone.


Stephen King Caricature | CC by AZRainman at

I recently read an interview with the phenomenal author of horror, supernatural fiction, suspense, science fiction and fantasy, Stephen King, one of my long-time favorites. He recounts that when he was younger, he was afraid to go into a certain room in his house because he was convinced that there was a bogeyman in there who wanted to get him.  Naturally, King had a vivid idea of what this creature looked like and the horrible things it would do if it captured him.  He avoided this room at all costs.

I enjoyed this story because when I was a kid, there was a certain closet in my house that terrified me.  I was convinced there was a witch in there. In my imagination it was the Wicked Witch of the West,  from the movie the Wizard of Oz.  She’d jump out of the closet as I walked past and pull me into a dark void of terror from which I’d never return.  I won’t compare my imagination to Stephen King’s but I had a vivid mental image of what it’d feel like. I had to pass that closet to get to my bedroom and I would do anything to avoid walking past it alone.  Three of my brothers shared that bedroom with me and I would wait until one of them was already in bed before I’d go past that closet. If it was during the day, I’d trick one of my siblings to accompany me by telling him I had a new toy or baseball cards in the bedroom to show them (it worked every time).


CC stock image at

But there was something that was even worse than my fear of the witch in the closet, it was my conviction that I was the only one who felt this way. I thought I was the only kid who was afraid of witches in closets. It made me feel somehow like I wasn’t normal, that I was different in a way that wasn’t OK.  Little did I know that EVERY kid in America who’d ever seen the Wizard of Oz was afraid of that witch popping out of a closet in their house.  If only I had shared my fear with somebody (did I mention that I have many siblings?), I’d have recognized that I wasn’t the ONLY one who felt this way, that I wasn’t alone. So here I am, so many years later, and it made me feel validated to read Stephen King describe his memorable dread of a particular room in his house.  I wasn’t alone!

This got me thinking about the power of reading.  This is exactly why it is important for young people to read, to read in large volume, to read many different kinds of books.  There is a singular power in discovering our own experiences mirrored in another person’s on the printed page. For every adolescent who encounters fear or conflict or love, there is a person, real or imagined, whose life is described in words and whose experiences can help them realize they aren’t the only one.  When kids read books, they come to recognize that the world contains innumerable thoughts, feelings, and experiences.

They realize, they are not alone.




CC Stock Image –


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About cooking: You can eat your mistakes

@DMGately at Nathan’s Famous 4th of July.

It was the Fourth of July.   I was doing what I love doing in the summertime, using my barbeque smoker to make pulled pork sliders for dinner. I woke up at 4:15am to get it started so that we could have dinner in early afternoon.

You’ve gotta get up early in the morning if you’re going to make great food (I went back to sleep for a couple of hours once I got it going).

At some point in the afternoon, my stepson, who was in the pool with his girlfriend, asked me, “Don, how’d you learn how to cook?” I thought about it and I replied it’s really something I’ve been teaching myself for the past 10 years. I just decided I wanted to learn to cook. My journey as a cook has not been a straight line.  Whenever I have time, I cook.   And it brings me great joy.

“But how’d you do it?” he asked.

[/caption]I’d never really thought to explain it but I guess I read many cookbooks, watch food television, read articles in magazines and newspapers, talk about food with anybody who will discuss it with me, and then I just jump in there and try to cook things. Often I cook by myself but I also love to prepare a meal together with my wife.

The best part of cooking is, when you make mistakes, you get to eat your failures.

When you’re learning to cook, at the end of the process,  no matter what, you are eating.

Eating!  What’s better than that!

That got me thinking about education and school.

Like school, cooking is about something that is elemental to the human condition.  

We cook so we can eat.

We go to school so that we can learn.

That’s it, learning.  School is about learning.  

When I cook…

Nobody gives me a grade

If I make a mistake I can either eat it or throw it away and start over again

When I make a meal, I can always make it again, better than the last time

I’m  never forced to cook in the kitchen with my head down by myself not talking to anyone. Usually when I cook I’m doing it with my wife, we are talking, catching up, listening to music, maybe even enjoying a glass of wine.

I love the feedback I get about my cooking, good or bad,  “Don, I like your coleslaw with vinegar more than mayonnaise. Don, this is too spicy, this needs more salt.  This is so good, where do I get the recipe?”

Learning to cook is all about learning from mistakes but enjoying the process and eating the results. The thing I love most about cooking is the infinite nature of food. I will never stop learning because the universe of food and cooking is seemingly endless. There is so much food to enjoy and

We made this spaghetti with clam sauce.

 so many ways to prepare it. Enjoying food connects you to other people and other cultures in a way that is singularly rewarding.

I do not wish to mislead… I am NOT an awesome cook.  Far from it.  Forced to give myself a percentage grade (emphasis on forced, I am strenuously opposed to grading practices that use “averages”), I would grade myself an 83% (whatever that means).  But I always experience success when I cook, I never give up, I always learn something new, and I always love it!

Somewhere along the way, instead of being about learning, school often becomes a matter of success or failure. Kids are led through a highly prescribed path.  They often engage with content in isolation, not collaborating with others. The system cultivates an avoidance of failure because:  failure equals bad grades  – equals angry parents –  equals negative life prospects; or at least that’s what kids are led to believe.

I don’t have the solution to this dilemma but the similarities and differences between cooking and school has me thinking:

 In schools, how can we create conditions in which kids are NOT afraid to fail.  How can we make everything we do in school as joyful, as exploratory, and as fulfilling as cooking and eating.    It’s our responsibility as educators to make it that way!

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About hope: We can’t give in, can’t give up

When I first became aware of what happened at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, I forced it to the periphery of my attention.   A guidance counselor at my school sent me a text.  She knew that, as a school principal, I should be aware.  I was driving home from school when I got the text.  I’d met my wife near her school with flowers for Valentine’s Day.  At home I didn’t watch the news or follow the events on social media.  

The fact is, since the school shooting in 2012 at Sandy Hook Elementary School, when a 20-year-old shot and killed 20 children between six and seven years old, as well as six adult staff members with a semi-automatic rifle , I have greeted news of mass shootings with frustration and cynicism.  

When Sandy Hook happened, I was certain that something would change.  Six and seven year olds!  If as a nation we were not willing to do something to address gun violence in our schools following the deaths of six and seven year-olds, I told myself, nothing would ever change.  How could we not act!?

But we didn’t.  

And  more mass shootings occurred… many more school shootings.

Frustration and cynicism.  

Then, as often happens, I was inspired by one of my middle school colleagues, Dennis Schug, who is an amazing middle principal and a good friend.

In a group of middle level principals with whom I am connected via Voxer Dennis related how he responded to the news out of Parkland.   That evening, he reached out to his staff and asked them to be present in the hallways and at the classroom doors and even the doors to the building to greet students as they came to school, to welcome them and make them feel safe and loved.  That’s leadership and that’s caring right there.

I thought to myself, “Shame on me.”  I didn’t do anything like Dennis did.  I let my frustration and cynicism get in the way of my responsibilities as a leader, my responsibilities to my students to help them deal with the harsh realities of our world.

I read this quote  from Dr. Martin Luther King on Twitter:

“We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope.”

We all make mistakes.  Mine was allowing myself to lose hope.  I’d allowed my frustration with our government, with our nation,  to push hope out of my mind and out of my heart.   We can be frustrated but we cannot  allow ourselves to succumb to despair.  I’m not going to let this happen again.  I’m going to stand for and with my kids against gun violence.

I’m going to always stand with my students.  

I won’t lose hope.  

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About Feedback: Good enough is not good enough

I recently prepared introductory remarks for our winter concert.  I used the same Microsoft Word document named “concert introductions” that I’ve used since I became a principal.  There are elements of these introductions that need to be repeated every year:  turn off your cell phone, don’t yell out your kids name, stay until the end of the concert, thanks to our dignitaries for attending.  So I cut and paste the previous year’s speech and then make revisions.  

Despite the “canned reminders” noted above, I always make different remarks as part of my introductions for a concert.  At this event I referenced a study done by the renowned neurologist Dr. Oliver Sacks about the effects on the brain that learning to play a musical instrument has.  Did you know that Duke Ellington’s brain looked completely different than Albert Einstein’s, but that Einstein’s brain probably looked mostly like yours and mine?  People who play a musical instrument have brains that are physically different than those who do not play.   My mentor taught me that any time you address a large gathering of people in your role as principal it is an opportunity to reinforce the vision and mission of the school.  This reference to Sacks’s research allowed me to remind the audience that everything we do at our school is about LEARNING. 

Because there’s no podium in front of the stage, and it’s often dark, I                                         makIMG_2435e sure my remarks do not exceed a single page with large font.   When I pressed the button to print the speech, I made the mistake of not selecting the particular page that had my remarks for “Winter Concert 2017”.   Over 60 pages began streaming out of my printer.  That’s how many concert introductions I’ve done since I became principal.  I am in my 12th year as principal at my present school.  Add to that the five years I was principal at another school, that’s a lot of concerts.  

If you’re going to have a single job for a long time, the two jobs you would do well to consider are classroom teacher and middle school school principal.  Both of these are dynamic roles that are constantly challenging, you can never be bored.  The jobs of the principal or the teacher are wildly unpredictable.  It’s important to have a plan but don’t expect that you’ll be able to follow it. Because of the chaotic dynamism of these roles, there’s a tendency for some people to cling to consistency.   If it went okay last year, let’s just do it the same way again this year,  “Here comes Parent Teacher Conferences, Meet the Teacher Night, Graduation, or a Concert again, let’s trot out the same plan from last year.”   I call this attitude, “Good enough is good enough”.  I wrote about this in a previous post, and it’s not okay.

Good enough is simply not good enough.  Despite how long we may have been doing our jobs, complacency will not help us to improve.   With the new year approaching, like many people, I have sought the one word that will represent my intention to grow.  I am committed to looking at every single thing I do with the purpose of improving and getting better.  To do this, I am going to focus on an important factor.   My one word resolution for the 2018 year is Feedback.  We cannot grow unless we hold up the mirror to our personal and professional practice.  

Ways to do this:

Crucial conversations

It’s easy for people to tell you when you’ve done a good job; I love giving people good news, being a ‘bucket filler”.  To have a growth mindset is to invite constructive feedback that will help us improve.  I’m going to push those conversations to make sure that I invite the kind of advice that will help make me better and make the school better

#ObserveMe Flyer have a flyer on my door inspired by the #ObserveMe movement.  There is a QR code that you can scan that will bring you to a Google form to give me feedback.  Many of the teachers have their own versions of this flyer on their classroom doors.    Here’s the
link.  Through the use of this instrument, I invite everyone with whom I interact to give me feedback. 


BTSN survey QRStudent, staff, and parents should have opportunities to offer feedback after essential meetings, workshops, and school events.  Google forms make this easier than ever.  Survey hack:  Place flyers with a QR code link to the survey on the exit doors of the school, if it’s a workshop in the auditorium place the flyers on the doors in the back.  Participants will scan the QR code with their phones and complete the survey on their way to their cars.  

I hope you’ll give me feedback, on this and on everything else I do or that goes on at my school.  I really want you to help me get better!

What’s your one word for 2018?  How are you trying to get BETTER?


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About school climate: You might control the weather

Here’s a recent conversation between my wife and me:

Danielle: “Don, it’s freezing outside, wear a coat.’

Me: It’s not that cold.images

Danielle: It’s windy? Do you know how strong the wind is? Don, the wind is blowing 50 miles an hour.

Me: Is that a lot?

Danielle: Don, think about driving a car, 50 miles an hour, that’s a lot.  

Me: Oh.

I am agnostic when it comes to weather.  I acknowledge that it exists. But I don’t subscribe to any one season. Some people like winter, some like summer.  I’m not sure.  Each season offers unique rewards.  I know weather happens, it happens whether I like it or not.  I experience weather but I have no great affinity for one weather over another.  

Recently we had that first day of really chilly weather of the year… that day when summer turns to fall.  My mother always loved this day.  She would hug me and tell me how excited she was that it wasn’t warm anymore, it wasn’t summer. She disliked summer,  because it’s hot. Perhaps because she grew up without air conditioning.  My mother didn’t like to sweat.   Me, I barely notice the weather. I enjoyed the fact that my mom bundled me up in a cozy sweatshirt to go out and play, but if she hadn’t done so,  I probably would’ve gone outside in shorts and a tee shirt and played with my friends until it got dark.


Thing is, if my mother didn’t tell me, I would’ve never known she preferred fall to summer.   Because my mother never complained about anything.  I guess, like most little kids, I actually thought my mother made the weather. If she dressed me in shorts, then it’d be warm.  If she made me wear a coat, then she must’ve decided it’ll be cold outside.  Of course, this wasn’t true.  We cannot control the weather, we can only control how we respond to it.  


What’s the point? Two things:

  1. We must teach our kids to approach life the way my mom did.  We cannot determine what will happen to us in life, but we get to decide how we will respond. It can be sunny, it can be rainy, it can be snowy, but we decide how we will respond. Are you going to complain, or are you going to put on your coat and get out there and play? 

2. I was wrong about my mom, she did not actually cause the weather.  But do you know when adults DO create the weather…when they are teachers, in a classroom.   As educators we make the weather in our schools and IMG_4396our classrooms. We need to build resilient kids who are strong enough to handle adversity and success in equal measure.   But we also need to realize that we create conditions in which the kids in our school live every day.  If we’re sarcastic, cold  or grumpy, then our classroom climate will be threatening.  If we’re inviting, warm, and smiley, then kids will know our classrooms are safe places to try new things and fail.

We cannot control the weather, but there are so many things that educators do control.  It’s about intentionality.   Everything we do as educators should be done with intention, not because that’s the way we were were taught, not because it’s what “feels” right, or what’s easy for us;  we must always act in ways that create safe conditions for learning to take place and to build the resilience of our kids.

How do you do this in your classroom or school? How are you intentional?


Posted in Best Practice, Educational Focus, Leadership, Personal Best, Reflections, Teaching/Learning, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

About middle level teaching: Nobody wants to be the Junior Varsity*

If you ever want to upset middle school principals,  call their schools “Junior Highs ”.  No self respecting middle school educator wants to think they are cultivating “junior high” conditions.  It’s like being the Junior Varsity *…. we don’t want to think we’re  just a way-station between elementary school and high school.classroom-510228_960_720

The New York State  Education Department has adopted a set of core principles called The Essential Elements of Middle Level Education.  The first of these states that effective middle schools embrace a “philosophy and mission that reflect the intellectual and developmental needs and characteristics of young adolescents.”  I’ve always seen this as the most important variable in a successful middle school.  Actions follow our beliefs.  If there is one piece of advice that all middle school teachers must follow it is this,  “Middle school kids are different,  don’t expect to succeed with the same strategies that might work with elementary or high school kids.”  Middle level students present unique challenges due the  intrinsic nature of adolescence.  But excellent middle school teachers have found ways to turn these challenges into opportunities.   

I am proud that I work at a school that embraces this challenge and employs research based middle level best practice to help adolescent learners learn and grow.  

I’ve thought about some classroom approaches that are decidedly NOT best practice for middle level learners **… if you’re still relying on these,  you might be a “junior high school” teacher” … 

If your kids are sitting in rows, facing the front of the classroom (most of the time), you might be a junior high school teacher…

Excellent middle level teachers realize that adolescent learners need to move around.  They need frequent transitions during a typical lesson.  They rely heavily on social constructs to learn.

The great educational theorist, Lev S. Vygotsky, stated, “What children can do with the assistance of others might be in some sense even more indicative of their mental development than what they can do alone.”  Adolescents  are social learners,  we all are. If your students are sitting in rows facing the front of the room, how will they talk to each other?  How will they have an opportunity to express their views, explain how they came to an answer or opinion, how will they learn to listen to somebody who’s not a teacher at the front of the room? 

I’ve heard this argument: “What about Ted Talks, aren’t those lectures?”  My  response: You know who gives Ted Talks… people like Malcolm Gladwell, Steve Jobs, Daniel Pink, and Rita Pierson.  Are you as good as those guys?  And their talks are generally about 20 minutes in length, 20 minute talks which they likely prepared months to deliver.  If you can be that riveting for kids, 5 periods a day,  every day,  for 40 weeks, then, okay, maybe your kids should sit in rows to listen to you.  But I know I can’t  pull that off and I have yet to see the teacher who can do it either.

There’s a formula for the human attention span.  Take a child’s age and add 3 minutes, that is their average attention span.  Hence, a typical 12-year-old can pay attention to one thing for about 15 minutes.  To expect students to sit still in a chair for a 40 minute class period is simply not going to work.  Excellent middle school teachers design lessons that have at least two transitions during the lesson.  Kids have an opportunity to get up and move around or at least to do this, then to do that, then to do this other thing.  Ideally, one of the things involves them interacting with each other.  

When students are arranged in rows before us, we are communicating to them that we have all the information that is important, that we have all the answers.  If all we do is stand in front of the classroom and lecture, even if we ask students the occasional question, then we can be replaced by YouTube videos.

We need to adapt our teaching to the unique needs of our students, at every level, not just middle school.  High school and college teachers – listen up!  If your students are sitting before you in rows most of the time, you are probably not getting it done as a teacher!


  • * Apologies in advance to actual Junior Varsity  players and coaches for the metaphor, no slight intended.
  • **This is the first in a series of posts on this topic.
Posted in adolescence, Best Practice, Educational Focus, Inside the Middle School, Teaching/Learning | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment