The One Word Leaders Rarely Use

The great privilege I have is working with leaders and districts all over Canada and the US and seeing what it takes to create cultures of joy. Joy is the word I use and have begun to see more and more educators use this to describe their classrooms, schools, and districts.

I was humbled to help kick of Royse City Independent School District‘s year. They’ve adopted the theme of joy for this school year. The students opened the morning’s festivities, and then they shared this video.


The inclusion of the school board, mayor and other community members spoke volumes of the importance of public education in this region.

Six teachers were asked to share what joy meant to them. Each told a compelling story of what it’s like to teach in Royse City ISD. I wasn’t sure anyone needed to hear my message to add to what was already an uplifting, joyful celebration of learning. After I shared, Superindent Kevin Worthy ended the morning by giving every employee a $1000 that was funded by a surplus of funds. Kevin is someone whom I’ve had the pleasure to get to know over the past year or so and would rank him about the very best leaders I’ve seen.

While joy was the theme, the one word I kept thinking about was love. Love is not a word we use a lot. Occasionally teachers will say they love their students. It seems to be a more acceptable term when we’re talking about the relationship between teacher and student. It’s not so common when used with employers and employees. But I’d dare say Kevin loves the teachers and support staff of his district. Kevin is genuinely proud of those that work in his district and uses Twitter as one way to tell that story.

The many other great leaders I’ve seen also show a deep love and affection for those they serve. You can tell when they speak about them. There are managers and CEO’s whose gifts and strengths lie in administrating and strategy. These are necessary skills. But I’m not sure you can be a great leader in education without love. If we’re in agreement that relationships are at the core of what makes great classrooms, schools, and districts, love seems to be an essential. Caring for people both as professionals but also as human beings make for joyful work places.

Sadly I know of other districts and leaders who are devoid of any semblance of such care and affection. I’ve heard of a couple of school openings this year where it was basically a meeting to review the rules, goals, and challenges of the upcoming year. Not that this isn’t important, but it seems a bit premature when people have not seen each other for months. No time was given to celebrate, share and dream. It’s why a few years back I wrote what I’d like to here at the start of a school year. Contrast that with the end of the Royse City opening.


Please don’t focus on the gift. It was a chance for a district to say thank you to their employees. Whether you were a crossing guard or a high school physic teacher, you left that day feeling loved and valued. While Texas does not have teacher unions and has this freedom, I know district leaders in Canada I work with that share the same affection for their teacher and show their love in different ways.

I recall a post from Bud Hunt 6 years ago that resonated with me.  Love in education is important but not used very often. I guess because it’s not a typical part of the employee, employer relationship. Maybe, much like teacher and student, there’s an underlying assumption that tension and antagonism are dormant feelings waiting to emerge. I can tell you this certainly is true in many jurisdictions.  It’s an “us vs. them” culture where trust is gone. What’s sad is that often leaders do not see this and make no attempt to resolve this. Love is the last word I’d use to describe these places.

To leaders, is love a word you’re comfortable using? If so, what does it look like?

How did it go today?

Today I presented a brand new workshop called “Surprisingly Awesome”. I described it this way:

 Shakespeare, The War of 1812, the Pythagorean theory are just a sample of things we teach in schools that
for many aren’t very interesting. Yet there is something incredibly satisfying and ful lling when you can help students see the awesome and interesting things they originally dismiss. This session will explore some tools and strategies that can turn those kinds of topics into learning that is surprisingly awesome. If you have a great strategy or approach that’s been effective in making something mundane become surprisingly awesome, bring that idea to share.

I blogged about that title and its origins a while back. For those of you who are classroom teachers, you get to try out new things every day. I don’t have that luxury so I’m super excited to be able to test out new ideas and concepts from time to time.

Today was one such day.

[bctt tweet=”I was careful to alert folks that this session had a high probability of failure.” username=”shareski”] I also warned them that they would be working together and that their feedback about the session would be critical. I also let them know they were free to leave at any time and my feelings wouldn’t be hurt.

As a first try, it was likely acceptable. I shared several great S.O.S. strategies as well as tried to build the case that many things worth learning are based on uncovering the hidden beauty behind the seemingly mundane.

Participants were tasked with creating 1-2 minute presentations choosing from a list of topics. We had 5 presentations on nylon, plastic bags, turkeys, chronic mastication, and tires.

We then judged each presentation based on 3 criteria:

  • Was it new information?
  • Was it awesome? Would you share it with others?
  • Is it useful? Will you act differently as a result of knowing?

Reflecting on the session I’m not sure the concept really landed. What I really wanted was for participants to consider their curriculum and think about what makes that content surprisingly awesome and what would it take to get their students to see it too. I also wanted them to find compelling content and unique facts that might make the content come alive. In short, this makes up much of what we’re always trying to do: make learning come alive. This is just a unique framing mechanism that I find useful. I’m not sure if I was able to share something of value to teachers beyond the strategies. The challenge of a conference workshop is I don’t have the relationship with partnerships and time to tweak and improve. I want to keep working on this to make it better.

  • Maybe I need clearer goals?
  • Maybe I should be more specific with my structure?
  • Maybe this session isn’t worth doing again?

I’m open to all these questions. I’m trusting smart and caring educators will help me.

Insight and Inspiration 

There are some people that inspire me and some people that make me think. Sometimes they are the same person. Sometimes they aren’t. I see the act of inspiring people different from being insightful.

People that inspire me are those who display extraordinary determination or will to overcome challenges. Sometimes they are people who have shown a consistent character over time.

My Dad inspires me. He’s been an example to me for my whole life. His legacy speaks for itself. His faith and approach to life are honorable, to say the least.





My wife inspires me. She’s not only a fantastic mother and wife and educator but knowing some of her recent health challenges, makes what does even more impressive.




Lance Rougeux inspires me. I’ve worked for Lance for 5 years. He’s the best leader I’ve ever seen.  He constantly filters out the things that don’t concern his team. He’s never too busy for anyone and is the first to share gratitude. His goal is to make everyone’s job easier. He’s had to deal a lot but never complains.

People I find insightful are those that are typically well read and also are able to communicate ideas in a way that provokes my thinking. Usually, they are great storytellers as well.

Malcolm Gladwell comes to mind. I know some question his methods but he has a way of explaining phenomena in unique ways. He also uncovers obscure stories and finds the hidden truths. Danah boyd is another. Her research around teens and social media has provided a much needed nuanced look at a very complicated subject. Not only does she know her stuff but is able to add an empathetic voice that doesn’t cast judgment but captures the human aspect of this topic. Will Richardson remains someone I’ve read for a long time and continues to provide thoughtful insight and sees through much of the rhetoric, tradition, and paradigms that plague education.

A could continue this list but these give you a sense of my own beliefs and perspectives around the ideas of inspiration and insight.

Inspiration is more about the heart. Typically, it’s a demonstration of character that tells a story over time. Insight is about the mind. Insightfulness can sometimes appear to happen quickly but the truth is, most people who are insightful, read and think a lot before they share their insights.

Both of these qualities are highly sought and both require time and effort. I’ve noticed lately that some folks are taking short-cuts to be considered inspirational or insightful. The short-cuts for both of these attributes are often disguised with pithy quotes that are either empty, overly obvious or do nothing to provoke. Insight should make a person think. It requires more than a head nod or an Amen. It often creates cognitive dissonance, not to dismiss but to consider. People who say things that are simply agreeable, in my mind are not insightful. Inspiration, in this context, is often manifested in a touching video or story that either exaggerates a struggle or wrapped with a touching soundtrack and soundbites from children. There’s a feeling of being manipulated.  In and of themselves these aren’t necessarily bad. But using either tactic without substance or meaningful context comes across as phony.

One of the reasons I’m writing this is because, on occasion, people have used these words to describe my work. I’m flattered but unsure whether it’s well deserved and whether or not they know enough about me to really warrant their compliment.

I don’t think of my work as particularly inspirational. I hope it’s encouraging. I hope it’s affirming. I don’t feel comfortable having it labeled inspirational. When I hear someone like Natalie Panek tell her story of how she became a rocket scientist, that’s inspiring. When Kevin Honeycutt talks about his upbringing, that’s inspiring. I don’t have those personal stories. When I speak I often share videos or stories that tug at people’s heart and may even evoke tears. I  hesitate using them because I don’t want to be seen as going for a cheap cry. The truth is anyone can show a video that’s inspirational, but that doesn’t make them inspirational. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t use them but I also worry about crossing a line of manipulating people. If it helps solidify a point I’m trying to make, that’s fine. But if it is just inserted superfluously, I get annoyed.

I do think of my work as insightful. I read a lot, I listen a lot, I get to spend time in many schools and districts and am able to glean a great deal. I’m also able to extract truths and principles and hopefully share them in a way that’s accessible and meaningful to others. I’ve worked on my ability to tell stories and provide perspectives that not everyone sees.

Is any of this making sense? Let me leave you with a few ideas that I’d love to know more about.

Who inspires you?
Who do you find insightful?
Do my definitions of insight and inspiration resonate? What would you add or subtract?
Are you noticing false insight or inspiration? What does it look like? How does it make you feel?

Would love your thoughts. (Shout out to John Spencer for listening to me natter on about these things and providing great insight as well. PS. He’s very insightful)


When Beauty Leads to Empathy

I’ve been blessed to speak to a variety of audiences and events around the world. But in September it was my great privilege to speak alongside my youngest daughter to a TEDx audiences in West Vancouver.

Having spoken in West Vancouver a few years ago, I was asked to return. A few weeks before my invitation, Martha, who was in grade 12 mentioned that one day she would love to give a TED talk. So I asked Craig Cantlie if he might be willing to take a chance and have Martha and I speak together. Craig listened to our proposal for a talk which was really a thread of an idea and decided to take a chance.

This talk is based on Martha’s passion around feminism. She has taught me a great deal and I tried to take her learning and mine and put it in a broader context. Our process of collaboration began with her writing what she wanted to say. I then tried to compliment her story as best I could.

Given the events of the past few weeks, I think the talk offers much to ponder. My personal passion for civil discourse and a focus on beauty are ideas that I still am working through. I don’t think we’re offering any simple answers here but just a story and some ideas to consider.

Yesterday, I Wasn’t My Best

First of all, I’m fully aware I have one of, if not the, best job in the world.  Most days I acknowledge this fact and work passionately to fulfill our goal to build and foster community. But occasionally, like all of us, I have a day or moment when I don’t give my best.

As part of Discovery Education’s Summer Institute, we host a unique event for principals. What a great group of enthusiastic leaders who are give up 3 days of their summer to further their learning. Yesterday I gave a presentation I had done once before called “No More Boring Presentations”. While I don’t think it was boring, I also don’t think it was very good. It certainly wasn’t my best. The first time I gave it, it was for a different audience. Instead of taking the time to rework the content for a different audience, I tried to adapt on the fly. I ended up with a disjointed session with hopefully a few takeaways but a largely unsatisfying experience. In short, I sucked.

People are too kind. This image was created during my session and I’m guessing many walked away with an idea or two that was useful. Still, this wasn’t my best.

As someone who presents a lot, I’m most often happy and pleased with my presentations. I always reflect and make tweaks but in this particular case, it required more than a few tweaks. As soon as the presentation was over, I asked a colleague who was sitting in on the session, to provide me with honest feedback. Generally, we’re not very good at finding and using critical friends to help us improve our craft. I asked him to share a few ideas of how to improve my session. He told me a number of things that could be better. He asked questions about what I was trying to accomplish, about how the ideas flowed and what my goals were. After our discussion, it was clear I needed to make some big changes. Without going into specifics here are a few things I need to change:

  • Make it more applicable to the specific audience.  Sometimes this is difficult in my job because I don’t always know the audience and in many cases, it is a very general group. In this case, they were all principals. I should have taken time to gear things to that specific group
  • Provide clear expectations. Duh. This is basic teaching. When I’m presenting on something I’ve done a few times, this becomes obvious and intuitive and isn’t always necessary to be made explicit.  If I do a good job, participants will be able to determine the outcomes. In this case, I needed to be explicit as much for me as the participants.

I’m not going to use the word failure here because it’s getting cliche. But I will say yesterday was a good reminder that acknowledging your missteps and reflecting on them is healthy. In addition, while individual reflection is essential, finding those who can provide feedback and new perspectives is invaluable.