Ghost Light in the School House

Ghost Light

I wanted to be part of the theatre.  I was in several productions in college. I have half the credits for a Masters in Arts, Entertainment, and Media Management.  I was in a Chicago, store-front theatre company called Point of Contention.  I love the energy, the people, the creativity, and the history of theatre.

By way of a string of Facebook shares, I came across a post from a friend that reminded me of one of my favorite bits of theatre culture: the ghost light.  The post puts it well:

In theatre, we have a tradition–whenever the theatre is empty, we are always sure to leave one light on.  Typically on a stand in the center of the stage, this light is known as the ghost light.  There are many stories about its origin, but its meaning is unmistakable.  It means, though the theatre is empty, WE WILL RETURN.

Theatre, like education, is a field that survives & thrives by people coming together.  The ghost light is a symbol that the show will go on.

Screen light

The ghost lights in education are now the blue light of the screens of teachers, administrators, students, and parents who have–to quote another social media post–“Appolo-13ed” how we teach kids in the matter of a few weeks.  We have taken an unimaginable, unprecedented situation and done our best to continue to serve our communities of learners.

We’ll continue to face this complex challenge while refining the remote learning experience so that all learners benefit.

We’ll carry on and eventually be back together in the school building.  Our passion for education and our drive to build a resilient community will have been sustained by a little hope and a little light.



Working on “Hitting the Spot”

I love pizza.  I have a magnet on my fridge that proclaims, “Life without pizza is no life at all.”  Magnetic hyperbole or not, the fact remains, I would eat pizza a couple times a day and the cold leftovers for breakfast.  Pepperoni & mushroom is the ol’ stand-by, but I once had a pizza with clams & jalapenos that I still dream about.  This preoccupation might have something to do with both my waistline and this doodle I did when learning about interviewing and what interviewers are interested in learning from candidates:

Job Search Doodle Pic

My thought process, influence, and relationship ability show how I will get the job done, and they help determine fit.  “What kind of pizza am I? Am I tasty?”  Those are the things that make me unique.  I just have to “hit the spot.”  Any candidate for the assistant principal and principal jobs I am seeking will have similar crust (drive, values, & work style), but they won’t all answer this question:

“Please provide an overview of your professional experiences, describing the experiences that you feel have prepared you for success in this role and have helped to craft your vision for school leadership.”

This way:

My professional experiences have led me, more and more, to refine this vision for school leadership: As a leader, I create the conditions and circumstances in my school that allow teachers to serve students.  We serve the whole student by educating and doing what is best for them.

Having started in education as a school counselor in Chicago at a Catholic school for at-risk, urban youth, I pride myself on continuing to use that school’s mission to “serve the hearts and minds of students” as a guiding principle to this day.  I am whole-student-centered, and that has helped me in my work as an administrator wherever I have been.

My first assistant principal position was in rural North Carolina.  I successfully navigated the change in type of student and in my role by relying on my strengths in relationship building, student-centered principles, and desire to grow as an educator.  I was part of a great administrative team that collaborated well. We also all had different strengths that made our “unit” work. I learned the importance of poise, I got organized, and I fell in love with working with students in the middle grades.

In my current position, I have been lucky enough to work with a principal who sees me as an equal–as a co-principal.  We have worked together to ensure we make intentional decisions using data, that we communicate consistently, that we are transparent and accessible, and that teachers get what they need in order to best serve students.  I have learned to think of my background as a school counselor as a strength in how I teach teachers–especially in these days of increased student anxiety and depression.

In any field I have worked in, I have always been driven to and achieved positions of influence and leadership.  I think being a principal is the most rewarding position, and I hope that my legacy as a school leader is that I was in it for the students and that I did right by the staff.

All that is my “topping.”  I’m not sure if it’s pepperoni & mushrooms or clams & jalapenos, but I hope it will satisfy someone’s craving soon.

Spring Awakening: Perspective Tweaks Plant Seeds for Growth

This week I had two interactions that have changed my thinking about leadership and the role of educators. Both conversations are reminders that small shifts in perspective can make a big difference. Though the ideas came from different people, they are related. Both ideas will have a big impact on how I frame my strengths and interact with stakeholders.

Seed of Service

tulip white

While catching up with a former colleague, she mentioned she recently heard a superintendent say something that stuck with her. The superintendent, Dr. Stephen Fisher, from Cleveland County Schools in Shelby, NC said:

“…my job is not to educate students but to serve students by educating them.”

The idea of serving students is a powerful one for educators at any level. This little change in perspective changes everything. Teachers go from thinking, “what do I have to teach today?,” to, “who do I have to teach today?”; from, “how do I get through the curriculum?,” to, “what do my students need to successfully learn and master the curriculum?.” Administrators’ thinking evolves similarly from, “how do we best educate students?,” to, “how do we best serve and resource students to get the best educational outcomes?.”

To me, serving students implies providing them what they need to be successful in school–“Maslow before Bloom.” Service can involve providing space and grace for students to have basic needs fulfilled, to form connections, and to feel safe. Service means providing students with ways they can communicate their ideas, suggestions, and needs. With all of these things, distinguished educators serve students by providing high-quality, high-impact, inspiring instruction.

This seed planted some ideas that will grow, including this: depending on the role of the educator, service to students can take different forms, which brings me to the second interaction from this week, and the idea of scope.

Seed of Scope

tulip red

Recently, I have been seeking a principal position. In that process I have sought counsel and professional development trying to find the best way to highlight my skills and gain experience. Thankfully, I have had great help from some great educators who have provided guidance. In a conversation this week, I got another piece of advice that will shape how I work and how I talk about my work in interviews. The gist of the advice was this:

“…the role of the principal is to create the environment and circumstances in which teachers can best serve students.”

The idea is a change in scope. My current role as an assistant principal involves more work directly with students. It’s from that lens that I have been answering interview questions, but that is not broad enough. The scope of the role of the principal is a step higher than that and was illustrated through a simple example: The principal does not go into the cafeteria to be with students, he goes in to help create an environment in which students can get what they need from teachers/supervisors.

This tweak of perspective can make all the difference. Working with the idea of scope in mind, I’ll be more intentionally “doing the job before I do the job” of principal. Reflecting now, though, I know I often do things to develop teachers, to support them, and teach them. Growing by intentionally working to teach teachers, provide resources and a good environment is my goal with this advice about scope & perspective in mind.

An administrator–a principal–serves students by providing the environment and conditions that allow teachers to do their best. From that framework, we all grow.

tulip pink

What Jimmy Buffet Can Teach School Leaders: A Spring Break Post

While driving away from Illinois for spring break this weekend, a Jimmy Buffet song came on, and while singing along to “Son of a Son of a Sailor,” I realized, you always know what you’re going to get from Jimmy Buffett: sun, surf, sand, and sea. Tropical print shirts, a margarita, and a cheeseburger come to mind, and I’m not even a Parrothead. I did see Jimmy in concert once at an outdoor venue during a storm. Despite a tornado watch, the show went on, “Pencil Thin Mustache” was not ruffled, and we all got what we came for.

School Leader in Paradise


Leading with clear systems & expectations and a few well communicated guiding principles, we can be more like Jimmy Buffett. After all we all KNOW he likes his cheeseburger with lettuce and tomato, Heinz 57 and french fried potatoes.

In an extreme example, we had a student cell phone overheat and catch a fire recently. Everyone was fine and the only damage to the school was a charred bit of carpet. It wasn’t a “Volcano,” but no one said, “I don’t know where I’m a gonna go when the cell phone-a blows.” They followed the system they knew; evacuating the room, calling for help, and pulling the fire alarm. Everyone else knew the system and evacuated the building following the procedures we have practiced in fire drills. Everyone was safe and accounted for.

With student discipline or classroom management, when there are “Fins” to the left and fins to the right, we get through the feeding frenzy because of our systems and expectations. We rely on procedures and collaboration and do what is best for students.

When setting improvement goals or working on school culture, a good school leader follows guiding principles and is able to communicate clearly the “why.” The leader is consistent in message and expectations. And, just like in “Margaritaville,” when things go wrong, the leader might say, “…and I know, it’s my own damn fault.”

tiki mask

Relying on systems and communication while striving to keep things simple, a school leader can lessen anxiety and stress for all stakeholders. If for some reason it doesn’t, “Changes in Latitudes” are known to cause changes in attitudes.

Consistency, communication, working with guiding principles in mind, and relying on good systems are not always as appealing as sun, surf, sand, and sea, but they do help school leaders weather storms (be they tornadoes or hurricanes) and become just a little more like Jimmy Buffett.

How A Divine Big Toe Relates to Cultural Consciousness & Being Student Centered

I was an outsider this weekend. I was immersed in traditions and a culture that I have seen and been close to but have never participated in to the extent I did this weekend. I was a little nervous and uncomfortable. I followed the motions. I said the words I knew and mouthed along with the rest. I listened, I was open, I was respectful, and (I hope) I was appropriate.

The whole weekend I was reminded of a time in 8th or 9th grade, when I attended Catholic Mass with a friend of mine in our small, central Illinois town where everyone knew I was definitely not Catholic. I went to the Lutheran church and had recently been confirmed, a process that educated me about the Sacraments and after which I could participate in Holy Communion.

On one Sunday, I found myself at Mass with my friend and his family whom I had known since the womb. When the time in the service for Communion came, I was confident in my knowledge of the Sacraments, happy at my ability to participate in them as a mature 13-year-old, and pretty sure Jesus would be OK with a little reciprocity between Catholics & Lutherans, so I joined the line approaching the priest for the wafer. The Body of Christ.

I was also a rule follower. Questions in my head started fueling doubt and guilt. I knew my Catholic friends had been doing this longer than me. Was it for different reasons? Why did my friend’s sister give me a weird look when I got up to join in? Everyone here knows I’m not Catholic. What are they thinking? If I do this here will it be a lie in some way? Will I be doing something wrong?

I came face-to-face with the priest, “The Body of Christ.” I held out my hand for the wafer (rather than opening my mouth for it), turned with all these questions in my head and what I thought must have been the whole congregation looking at me, and I buckled under the embarrassment and pressure. I shoved the wafer in my pocket. I skipped past the person with the Blood of Christ, and kept my eyes on my feet as I made my way back to the pew. A few years later, I told this story as part of an ice breaker exercise for an undergrad class. The professor commented, “So, you’re saying you had Christ’s big toe in your pocket?” The answer was, “yes,” and that day it was heavy.

This weekend, I attended a family weekend at the camp where my son will be going this summer–the kind of Jewish overnight camp my wife grew up attending. Our weekend there was fun for our whole family. And, for me and the kids since we are an inter-faith family who have not “practiced” much, it was an opportunity to experience Shabbat and participate in prayers and services for the first time. I felt like a fish out of water, but I listened and learned and was welcomed. I probably seemed quiet, and questions and doubts came to my mind like they did when I was 13, but I left this weekend with a blessing in my pocket.


Ask. Listen. Be Open. Make No Assumptions. Be Conscious of Your Biases. Empathize. Be Optimistic.

These experiences reminded me of a couple of students. One who started as “the new kid” this week in my school who I helped find his way on his first day and another who has been trying hard to find a way to tell us she needs something different. Both feel like fish out of water. I often ask students what they need or how I can help.

I also am reminded of the need to be open to new ideas and cultures in order to be an effective collaborator and educator. I welcome experiences, like the one I had this past weekend where I was in the midst of new things, because they help me easily empathize with students who are confronting the unfamiliar or who need a change.

I’ve said before, “To learn about others who do not share the same background as you: Ask. Listen. Be open. Make no assumptions. Be conscious of your biases. Empathize.” To that, after this weekend, I would add, “Be optimistic.” A tension between optimism and discomfort results in perseverance and growth.

Friday night, I started off open minded but uneasy about participating in Shabbat service. I experienced it and participated in it with my family, and we grew. The highlight of the service for me was thinking of my own children (and now, reflecting as an educator with hundreds of students) when the camp director, who was leading the service, told a story. She talked about how, even in the midst of the holocaust, Jews would find ways to carry on with traditions and customs associated with their faith and holidays. For example, they would use thread form their clothing and light it, however briefly, to have candles. They devised other covert accommodations and substitutions, but they didn’t have a way to recreate a Torah. At this point in her story, the camp director had a young girl recite a blessing. Her youthful voice in the context of the story brought a tear to my eye. The director went on, saying that in the grim midst of their struggling through those times they did, in fact, have a Torah: the children.

If I am among people who see children (students) and are optimistic, if we see them and know we can learn from them, if we base our decisions on doing what is best for them, then I know I am among friends.

Apple Fritters & the War of 1812: My Week in Empathy, Perspective & Hope

I got a giant apple fritter this week. The huge, gooey, delicious, and definitely NOT Keto-approved (though, I’ve been off the wagon for a while) treat was left in my school mailbox as a thank you. Apple fritters are my favorite. This one included a note from a teacher who has had to take some time to address a family crisis over the past couple of weeks. A carb-laden token of appreciation for empathizing and helping was unexpected. My empathy and help was, hopefully, totally expected.

The teacher from this story was not the only one–even this week–to need the help and understanding my principal and I strive to show all the time. The importance of rapport and trust cannot be overstated in our relationship with staff. Shelley Burgess and Beth Houf, in Lead Like a PIRATE say, “PIRATE leaders make it a priority to build rapport and relationships. They do this with staff, with parents, with students, with community members, with their colleagues, and with their supervisors,” because, “nothing leaders do matters much without the trust of their teams and communities.” An important soft skill for all leaders is the ability to have empathy. Without it, the path to the trust, rapport, and connections that Burgess & Houf describe is difficult, maybe even impossible.

On March 6th, 2019, the monthly Twitter chat hosted by Mike Lubelfeld & Nick Polyak, #suptchat, covered the topic of Empathy in Leadership. I loved this chat! It was just what I needed after a moth of stress at school because it allowed me to connect with others, see other perspectives, and talk about something that is “in my wheelhouse.” The contributions of all the participants were terrific, I learned from them, and I felt good about my Tweets as well.

In the chat we were asked, “how do you ensure you are being empathetic as opposed to sympathetic?” I responded:

Empathy leads to great collaboration & problem solving. Sympathizing is just “problem admiring.” I operate using empathy because of my training, my natural inclination, and my desire for progress, and it makes me a better leader.

Another question in the chat asked, “What does it mean to you to ‘Encourage the Heart‘ of those around you?” I replied:

Encourage the heart

“Encouraging the Heart is culture building. It’s finding the hope or silver lining and magnifying it and communicating it loudly to sustain people through the tough times.”

All that being said, collaborating emapthetically and culture-building led my principal and I to Post-War of 1812 America this week.

The Era of Good Feelings

After the War of 1812 and its conclusion’s ensuing enthusiasm (starting around 1815), American politics entered a nationalist phase. The history teacher at my school also described it as a time when not a lot of great things were happening but people were finding hope in order to make it through. The teacher mentioned The Era of Good Feelings as we were preparing for a faculty meeting that we had been stressing about planning.

We would be covering student discipline and the feelings that student behaviors were bringing up among the faculty in the midst of the long slog between winter break and spring break. We knew we would not get far by getting defensive about our discipline process or by showing data about consistency and consequences. We had to address feelings with feelings and the Era of Good Feelings was perfect! We asked the teacher to introduce the topic at the top of the meeting.

The inspiration to open with this idea, and the fact that it worked, are testaments to leading with empathy. We recognized the mood, we identified with it, and we–the administrators–were feeling the stress too. We felt a need to change our collective feeling so we collaborated, leaned on the trust/social capital we have with staff, and had a great meeting.

In the meeting we identified students who have needed the most intervention, and we took time to think about and identify with them. We talked a great deal about perspectives. We joked that we would enter an Era of Good Feelings if only we could find a little hope. We showed that 2% of our entire student body were the ones we were upset about, but over 80% of our students had zero conduct referrals. Then, we flipped things by presenting Positive Referral forms and challenged the staff to look for good things–to find the hope. We had half a dozen positive referrals for students turned in right after the meeting, and we intend to call them and their parents with the good news. We also got positive, approving feedback from staff and one or two apologies about recent attitudes.

A week that started with stress and worry was turned around by a great Twitter chat about empathy, an unexpected opportunity to collaborate with staff, lots of chances to take new perspectives, a little hope, and an apple fritter.

Pluripotentiality & Rekindling Creative Thought

The developing brain has pluripotential–it could learn anything. As infants, our “blank-slate” brains soak up stimuli, neural pathways form, and patterns repeat. We learn. As educators, fundamentally, we are reinforcing and/or building neural pathways in our students all the time. Learning in school, in society, and in our cultures decreases the super power of pluripotentiality. Sir Ken Robinson calls our potential “creativity” and says, “…we don’t grow into creativity, we grow out of it. Or rather, we get educated out of it.” I agree, and I think we can combat the loss of creativity with the right mindset, and we should strive for the kind of creativity and potential that allows us to make informed, bold choices as educators for our students.


Rekindle Creativity in Three Steps

The first step in recovering creativity is to be mindful of its loss in the first place. This kind of metacognitive exercise can help you come up with new solutions or innovative ideas. It could open your eyes to new ways of doing things that you might not have considered because of being stuck in the “this is how I always do it” routine. A couple of books helped me with this idea:

Bunch of Ameteurs: A Search for the American Character by Jack Hitt tells several stories of folks who didn’t know the rules or didn’t care. They followed their bliss (or their hunches) into innovations that upset the status quo. I like to think of “amateurism, ” as defined in the book, as a way of unlearning or seeing old things in a new way.

In Malcolm Gladwell’s David & Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits and the Art of Battling Giants , one of my favorite parts is the story of the guy who never played basketball who suddenly found himself coaching a team and winning because he did not follow conventions of the game (which obviously ticked people off).

In both examples, seeing something creatively and with potential helped the amateurs innovate. Try to see your responsibilities or challenges with the eyes of an amateur.

My training as a School Counselor and at the Second City Training Center for improv taught me the next step to remembering your creativity. Psychologist Albert Ellis’ Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy(REBT), in part says, “people tend to overuse ‘shoulds,’ ‘musts,’ and ‘oughts.’ Many of these self-defeating beliefs are indoctrinated in early life and grow stronger as a person continually revisits them.” The “shoulds” represent the way things have always been or the way we have been taught to think or behave. They help reinforce neural pathways. REBT suggests we identify them and work to change them.

In improv, the cardinal rule is to play the scene saying, “yes, and.” You agree with and add to the situation and things that are suggested by your scene partner. No idea is a bad one (almost). The “yes, and” rule is a sentence stem for potential. With regular use it leads to new, exciting places. In a scene, the phrase is not said aloud, but the actors know it and instinctively raise the stakes. It’s how a scene goes from “couple-in-a-car” to “couple-in-a-car-and-the-woman-is-in-labor-and-they-have-to-stop-for-tacos-before-they-go-to-the-hospital-because-they-want-the-first-sound-the-baby-hears-to-be-the-crunch-of-the-shell.” It’s not as sophisticated as REBT. It is an effective way to consciously open yourself to new possibilities.

The third and probably most important way to help reinvigorate creativity is to collaborate. In his TED Talk, designer Tom Wujec describes a design challenge in which he gave raw spaghetti and a marshmallows to different groups (business school students, CEOs and kindergartners). Because of how they collaborated, how they worked through the challenge and due to their innovative (amateurish, preconception-free) thinking, the kindergartners outperformed the other groups, making the tallest, most-stable structures in their initial attempts.

With the right mindset (and in most other cases) two or more heads are better than one.

Application to Education

As a school leader, I try to communicate these ideas to my staff and colleagues. I have been inspired by these ideas and those of Dr. Michael Lubelfeld & Dr. Nick Polyak who wrote The Unlearning Leader: Leading for Tomorrow’s Schools Today. The authors promote “unlearning” as a way to break free of tradition and ideas in education that, as an REBT practitioner might say, are irrational “shoulds.”

Think of what big, bold choices can be made to innovate and have the courage to do them. I have a few projects I intend to apply this thinking to before the school year is up. Another source of inspiration this week has been this article about a whole-school approach to behavior in which the principal, Michael Essien, innovated a way to address behavior in the classroom while maintaining relationships between teachers and students.

I’ll keep finding ways to innovate and collaborate. My district director of professional development told me the other day that I always find the coolest stuff. I replied that, “Yes, and I’m always looking.”

Time Horizon & Management vs. Leadership

In psychology, the idea of Time Horizon refers to the distance into the future for which a person can plan.  Since first learning about this idea, I keep seeing how it affects my role as a school leader and how it affects the people around me.  If you are a person with a short time horizon, you’re likely to be experiencing trauma or stress.  You could also be an adolescent.  Or, you could be a school administrator in February.

Ryan Dowd, Executive Director of Hesed House, a homeless shelter in Aurora, IL, presented a professional development called “Run Your Classroom Like a Homeless Shelter” to teachers in my school district.  The themes were what educators would recognize as SEL-aware: they touched on poverty & trauma, being empathetic vs. punitive, building relationships, and having the right “people skills” to minimize or reduce conflict.  For me, the thing I think about most from that training continues to be the concept of Time Horizon.


The PD was in September, still close enough to summer and to what I know now was a time with a longer Time Horizon.  Planning for and beginning the school year were full of big ideas of mission, vision, and goals for the year.  Time was available for talks of embracing change and bold plans.

As the year has gone on, my Time Horizon has shrunk.  A lot.  I have found myself only being able to deal with the issue right in front of me.  I manage from one thing to the next hoping that my instinct, rooted in my guiding principles, is in line with the ideas and goals we set out with in August.  Great effort is needed to come up for air to see the longer Time Horizon and recall the bigger ideas and goals.  Even greater effort is needed in the doldrums of February in a school.  And it seemed impossible this past week–one of the most stressful I have endured.

This weekend, I have spent time reflecting, trolling Twitter for new ideas, starting a blog, and reading.  The Time Horizon idea came up again as I was reading The Principled Principal: 10 Principles for Leading Exceptioal Schools by Jeffery Zoul & Anthony McConnell. In Chapter 8, “The Management Principle,” they talk about “dreamers” and “doers,” saying, “schools need principals who possess qualities of both.”  Schools need the leader to both have the big ideas and the ability to get them done.  Zoul & McConnell talk about “leaders/dreamers” vs. “managers/doers.”  A bad connotation about management is somewhat debunked in the chapter, and it’s argued that an effective school leader needs to be both an effective manager and a visionary leader. As it applies to my dilemma with Time Horizon, I have to work on both the long/dreamer/leader horizon and the close/doer/manager horizon in order to be effective.

2 Horizons

In order to be (and feel) more effective and to find a way to manage two ways of functioning on the horizon like Luke Skywalker on Tatooine, here’s my plan:

  • Shore up structures that can help create more room for effective operation
  • Communicate clear expectations to anyone who can help
  • Know when & when not to delegate & collaborate
  • Create Creators who can help with innovative ideas who can share the leadership load

Now, if I could just find time for all of that….