Leading as a Parent

Now that I am almost 50 days into this journey called parenthood, I have had a lot of time in the NICU to think about what it means for me as an educator.  The saying is true, there is no love like the one a parent has for their child.  

As educator’s we are faced with the challenge of playing multiple roles with our students.  Now I know I still don’t quite know what it means to be a parent, but being in the NICU has made think more about the way some educators go about their business. Here are some new (and old) found thoughts on what it means to lead as a parent in education:

  1. We need to not be so hypocritical with the standards we hold people (especially kids) to. Don’t expect it, but then do the opposite.
  2. We need to not be so trivial with students. 9 out of 10 times you aren’t really teaching them a lesson.
  3. We need to teach for the future, not for yesterday. Please pay attention to how learning and life are shifting around us and what lies ahead.
  4. We need to do a better job of checking our biases, misconceptions, and false realities at the door.
  5. We need to stop feeling like “the system” is holding us down. I have met more newborns in the last 50 days that are facing far worse crises than we have to deal with when it comes to implementing initiatives or having 27 kids instead of 26. Smile and stop bitching.
  6. We need to remember that school might be the least threatening environment that a student faces that day.
  7. We need to remember that feeding their siblings might be more pressing than finishing your assignment.
  8. We need to stop making grades a definition of students. Not one doctor has called Cael a “C” student in here.
  9. We need to remember not every kid will take the same journey or path.  That’s ok, help them be prepared for whatever that path is.
  10. We need to be careful about stealing play from kids. Play in the real world and play in schools shouldn’t be as different as they are.
  11. We need to remind ourselves how powerful one word can be – it can either make or break a kid.
  12. We need to focus less on the weeds and more on the human. So many times we get stuck in the weeds of something that we forget to stay centered on the human aspect of what we do.


Collaboration vs. Group Work

It’s happened to us all.  We have all been in groups that have been challenged to do something without a defined process.  The trick is, I bet you or a group member had developed a toolkit to turn your group work into a collaborative relationship.  Flipping the script, many times students do not have the tools or developed the ability to activate prior supports to truly live in a collaborative ecosystem.  Just putting students at the same table is not enough.  I know I’m being a bit dramatic here, but further more, we must continue to examine how as educators we can swing the pendulum away from group work and more towards a collaborative nirvana.  Here are a couple thoughts around building a collaborative ecosystem in a project-based learning environment.

Getting Philosophical

I recently read an amazing blog post from New Tech Network literacy coach Alix Horton titled, “How to Get From a Rubric to Scaffolding“.  She outlines a very simple process to take a rubric indicator and transform it into an actionable activity.  I believe this is a great starting point for growing your philosophy on building collaboration.  Many times we forget the true value and role that skills play in promoting deeper learning.  By developing a “spectrum of scaffolding” you will be able to help facilitate students in moving from just working in groups to a collaborative team.

Spectrum of Scaffolding Cycle
Let’s take a deeper look at how a spectrum of scaffolding can work to promote collaboration.  We will focus on the collaborative skill and rubric indicator (Step 1 in cycle):

  • Acknowledges and helps clarify the ideas of others by asking probing questions.

There are a plethora of scaffolding activities that could promote building this skill in teams.  For example, at the beginning of a project, I could introduce teams to accountable talk stems.  Throughout the project, I could do informal data collection on how many groups are utilizing the stems to promote civil discourse (Step 2 in cycle).  As an extention of developing this skill, I might hold a Socratic Seminar or have 1-on-1 confrencing with each group to assess how the stems are leading to deeper questions (Step 3 in cycle).  Lastly, in planning the next project, I will want to reflect on the effectiveness of using accountable talk to promote probing questions in group collaboration.  I will examine how to extend this skill by potentially scaffolding the stems by having teams use the question formulation technique (QFTs) with accountable talk to develop questions (Step 4 in cycle).

Now of course, I know the above scenario isn’t perfect, but I hope you get the point.  When examining how to move from group work to collaboration, it is vital that you explore what specific collaborative skill you are looking to develop.  Then, in relation to the spectrum of scaffolding, how might you help students create a collaborative environment to move from indicator to action to reflection to refinement to integration.

Integrated Contracts

I have witnessed first hand in my own projects how easy it is for group contracts to slide into the dark abyss of meaninglessness. Heck, when was the last time you looked at your own contract? The creation of group contracts in PBL has long stood as a value collaboration tool.  It can set the team’s tone, layout productive processes, and create unity.  However, there are many elements that can and have stifled the value of this. Seriousness, time allotted, revisiting, and staleness are just of the few barriers.  It can be a very daunting task for educators and students alike to be inventive and impassioned with the same contract process over and over.

Standard Group Contract Template

What is the true purpose behind developing a group contract anyways? Is it to build a set of group norms? Is it to develop a culture of collaboration? Can it be both?

I recently saw a strategy from Belleville New Tech about utilizing agency logs for students to track progress in growth mindset and ownership throughout the course of a project.  This sparked my curiosity.  Why don’t we flip the script with what we call “contracts” with this same mindset.  Student teams can still set goals and norms in this process, but it is extended past the fill out this contract, maybe revisit it, maybe fire someone or get fired process you see so often contracts fall into.  The agency log concept makes me wonder, does the contract need to look like a contract at all?  Integrating the goals of a group contact into a process that is continuous and embedded might shift the value it can play in being a true living document for collaboration efforts.

Beyond the Google Doc

Google Apps for Education might be one of the most profound tools to support collaboration, so please don’t take this as an indictment.  My question is though, what percentage of the collaboration we wants students to do lives on Google Docs? It is by far one of the most powerful tools available, but in the connected world we live in, there exists a plethora of tools to support teams moving from merely existing together to taking their projects to a whole new level. To name a few:

  • Trello/Asana/Favro: these 3 are all project management tools that help teams navigate simple of complex projects.  Trello and Asana have strong reputations, while Favro is a relatively new player.
  • Slack: this is the online collaboration tool looking to bring all of your communication to one place.  We rolled it out in our admin team last year and are using it as a school staff this year.  I am already excited about what has come of it and potential for student use in collaboration.
  • Wunderlist: this is a simple task manager that integrates amazingly with multiple platforms.  It features both personal and shared to-do lists.

As well, strategies and resources such as scrum meetings, the Project Management Institute, human-centered design, and the innovator’s compass to can also be used in non-digital ways to shift from group work to true collaboration.  The point is, choose the right tools that will allow students to experience collaboration at industry standard levels.  You don’t have to memic “real-world” collaboration, you can create it.

The struggle is that some educators don’t ever move past basic Google tools implementation with teams because we are basic users ourselves.  Just as challenging is should you have students use one collaboration tool or multiple? I don’t know if there is a right answer, but finding the optimal balance and combination that meets students need is key to actually building a collaborative environment.

Avoid the Divide and Conquer

It is really easy to say “you do this” and “you do that” and “see you in 2 weeks” when working together. But many times, this strategy becomes group work and not collaboration.  Low and behold, someone will probably show up without their part done.

Now I am not saying divide and conquer cannot be effective when building collaborative skills.  But it is really important that there is a framework in place to support fostering that collaboration so it doesn’t become a destructive force.  Utilizing resources such as the following can be a starting point:

These resources are great starting points with students to help shift collaboration from something you do to something you live.  By developing a framework for what it means to be a team and how to interact with various personalities and roles, students can better understand how to develop internal strategies to avoid separation and promote inclusion in their work.


Collaboration can be a fickle peach.  It is evident though that taking the time to truly create a system that develops collaboration and doesn’t just hope it happens is vital to promoting the other skills we hope to grow in students.  Conflict will always exist when humans are working together, but by having a clear strategic approach, you can move from assigning group work to building a room full of collaborators with a toolkit for the future.


Start. Stop. Continue.

Well it is safe to say that this post was meant to go out in June.  I had officially finished my first year as a principal and this was fresh on my mind.  However, this little guy surprised us 10 weeks early.  I have been blessed to see Cael grow and fight as my Summer.

With that being said, I have really been able to reflect on the year and think about what I want to start, stop, and continue moving forward.


I really want to start being more strategic about how I spend my time on campus.  I have gotten really good at not spending much time in my office, but I feel like I learned a lot this past year about the “why” when being out and about.  As any one that knows me, I LOVE spending my time with students.  I not only get to know each and every one of them better, but it allows me to have a good pulse on the culture of the school.  However, moving forward, I really want to start not being so random with when and why I go into certain classes.  I have always had the goal to stop into every classroom at least once a day.  My goal for next year is to start to be more strategic about planning my time in classrooms.


I can easily say I gained even more respect for school leaders than I already had.  As a teacher (and even assistant principal), I never realized the 99% of things that I didn’t have to worry about because the principal protected us from them.  I learned a lot in year one about how to do this and even get more effective and efficient at allowing our staff room to iterate with a bias to action.

With that being said, I have always struggled with being an over-involved person.  I wouldn’t say it is as much a management thing, as it is truly my joy of contributing and collaborating.  However, I learned in year one that I need to stop spending time on things that I shouldn’t be.  As Todd Whitaker says, “when the principal sneezes, the whole school gets a cold.” I need to be considerate of how I spend my time, energy, and resources and continue to maximize the amazing wealth of talent we have in our school.

Sometimes I need to remind myself of three things:

  1. Some people will always take the principals involvement in something in a negative way or want you to have the answer if you’re at the table.
  2. Capacity-building will be vital to our success as a school and my growth as a leader.  I need to build the tools and foundation for people to do their jobs and keep students at the center.
  3. Administrative tasks can feel cumbersome, but are a necessary part of the job.  When and how much time we spend on them is what makes the difference.

In order to prevent that cold from happening, I need to start being more mindful of how these three things impact what I can do. The 80/20 principle can help me focus in on what 20% of my work actually produces that 80%.  Really digging deep into what I need to stop spending my time on will help me grow personally and help grow our school as well.


There is nothing that scares me more than someone doing crappy project-based learning and thinking it’s effective or someone misidentifying what they are doing as being truly project-based learning. One thing that I will continue being is a zealot for transformative PBL experiences.

Paying attention to shifts that occur in the world around us (whether it be in education or societal), will continue to be a driver for shaping my stance on the future of school and how to move to the next iteration of PBL. I want to make sure I continue rooting my beliefs in historically founded best practices (good teaching is good teaching), the current educational landscape and trends emerging, and foreshadowing the possibilities for the future direction and sustainability of “school”.

Check out Getting Smart’s “It’s A Project-based World Campaign”.

I will continue to be rooted in solid practices that inform teacher effectiveness, project quality, and measure student outcomes. But I also want to continue to push the envelope even further.  It is true that we live in an ever shifting project-based world and I want to continue advocating for deepening the way in which we prepare students for a project-based life.