[The following is an excerpt from a book I’m currently writing for self-publication later this year (2018). All feedback is welcome!]

When I tell people I’m not very passionate, it’s often met with derision. “Passion,” they say, “is the most important trait you can possess when working with kids.” I have to respectfully disagree, and I think Eleanor Roosevelt can back me up:

“Early on in her ascendant political career, a visitor once spoke of Eleanor Roosevelt’s ‘passionate interest’ in a piece of social legislation. The person had meant it as a compliment. But Eleanor’s response is illustrative. ‘Yes,’ she did support the cause, she said. ‘But I hardly think the word passionate applies to me.’ As a genteel, accomplished, and patient woman born while the embers of the quiet Victorian virtues were still warm, Roosevelt was above passion. She had purpose. She had direction. She wasn’t driven by passion, but by reason.”–Ryan Holiday, Ego Is the Enemy

As Ryan Holiday writes, Roosevelt was above passion–she had purpose. Purpose is what sustained the Britons through the Blitz. It’s what propels all people through trials and tribulations that besiege us.

Passion doesn’t cut it when everything is on the line. Passion usually doesn’t even suffice when it’s 5:30 A.M., and you have to get up for work. What gets you out of bed? It may be a sense of responsibility, but I’m certain for most people within the field of education, there’s a large sense of purpose (not passion) willing your body from under the warm covers.

Purpose is also what gets a teacher through a minimum day before a holiday. Purpose is what strengthens a teacher’s resolve when the test scores come back low even though he or she has worked extremely hard. Purpose is what keeps a PLC team together when egos are clashing. Purpose is what motivates a principal who feels alone and isolated.

“Great passions are maladies without hope.”–Goethe

Oftentimes we speak of passion and purpose synonymously, but they’re not the same. Passion is fleeting. Passion can get the job done, but it can’t get all the jobs done. Purpose is the trait that pushes through the frustrating, impossible, or plain mundane and follows through with initiatives. It’s easy to implement a program, but you’ll need more than passion in order to make sure the program functions properly for years to come. Everyone wants to start new cool things at schools and within districts because the beginning of all implementations are fun. A leader has to have sustainable purpose in order to support effective initiatives that get the job done.

So what are some ways to help strengthen a culture centered on purpose?

  • Avoid using the word “passion.”
  • Continually reflect upon the most important things that must be accomplished for students to learn.
  • Have staff members and students post their purposes on the walls of every classroom.
  • Systems over goals. (More on this later.)
  • Read books.
  • Avoid “shiny objects.” (More in just a bit.)

So what should your purpose be? That’s the million dollar question, and everyone is going to have a different answer. Some people say, “Well, it’s surely not to test kids to death,” while others will say, “Assessing students and knowing what they know is the most important part of my job as an educator.”

In my opinion, most people aren’t born with an articulated vision of their life’s purpose. It requires experience, relationships, reading, and possibly even the beginning of one’s career in order to figure out why we do what we do. I wasn’t able to articulate my purpose until I had already worked approximately eight years as a teacher. I remember sitting in the waiting room of a car dealership as my Honda Accord was being serviced. While I waited for my sensible and economical car to be ready, I read Viktor Frankl’s book Man’s Search for Meaning in which he writes, “The meaning of your life is to help others find the meaning of theirs.”

I won’t say at that moment a light shone down from heaven and angels started singing, but I do remember feeling a sense of relief as I thought to myself, “OK, so that’s what I need to do.” There was nothing passionate about this realization–passion wasn’t necessary. All I needed was my personal and professional experiences up to that point, coupled with the wise words of Frankl. Soon after I was able to articulate my sustaining purpose:

Even though every situation supplies non-stop conflict, I will strive to help others find meaning in their lives.

This purpose dovetailed nicely with my professional life, and it’s what drives me to do my best–even when I feel zero passion.

I’ve also come to realize that clearly defining both your own personal purpose and the organization’s purpose is an excellent way to narrow your focus. Too often teachers and administrators make grandiose and passionate goals, only to fail miserably as the school year slogs on. Honestly, failure could be attributed to too much passion and not enough purpose, but it also could be a result of doing too much in general. An interesting corollary to finding purpose is the importance of striving for simplicity.

(The next section in the book is entitled “Simplicity.”)


I recently saw this video clip on Twitter of a young Steve Jobs talking to a room full of people.

Here’s an excerpt from the video:

How many of you are from manufacturing companies? Oh, excellent… Where are the rest of you from?

How many from consulting? Oh, that’s bad. You should do something.

No seriously, I don’t think there’s anything inherently evil in consulting. I think that… I think that without owning something over an extended period of time, like a few years, where one has a chance to take responsibility for one’s recommendations… where one has to see one’s recommendations through all action stages and accumulate scar tissue for the mistakes and pick oneself up off the ground and dust oneself off… one learns a fraction of what one can… coming in and making recommendations and not owning the results, not owning the implementation, I think is… is a fraction of the value and a fraction of the opportunity to learn and get better.

I love what Jobs says about taking responsibility for one’s recommendations and seeing a process through all the way to the end. It’s definitely apropos within the field of education. Consultants are helpful when they enter a school or district, share their point-of-view, explain how to make their recommendation work within the organization, and then stay until their implementation succeeds. Effective consultants sweat and bleed with administrators and teachers. They own what they preach.

Consultants who arrive, share a bit of what they know, and then leave aren’t inherently evil (as Jobs says), but they have no skin in the game when it comes to your organization. A consultant who becomes your partner and suffers the same scars as you is a sister or brother in the quest for improving student learning. And both of you learn an incredible amount of information together.

As always, it’s all about skin in the game.


[Below is the introduction to a book I’m currently writing for self-publication later this year (2018). Any feedback is welcome!]

I’ve been a teacher, technology specialist, curriculum specialist, and district-level coordinator for a combined total of fifteen years. Along the way I’ve seen leaders retire, 1:1 devices deployed, curriculum adoptions both discarded and implemented, a large number of initiatives come and go, and state standards vanish while Common Core reigns supreme. Within this ever churning sea of opinions and attempts to positively impact student learning, I offer this book. My attempt is to navigate through the cacophony of traditions, policies, and protocols within the field of education and provide a guiding signal through the noise. As you’ll probably agree, this is easier said than done. I’ve gone through a number of manuscripts and discarded thousands of words in order to present a simple mental operating system that I believe can help all educational leaders become better at what they do.

I will not inundate you with website links and QR codes. I believe a book should be a self-contained collection of thoughts, and I don’t want to overwhelm you with a large number of online resources. If something was important to mention, I put it in this book. I’m not going to send you on a mad goose chase looking for videos or blog posts throughout the internet. It’s the job of the writer to curate the best information he or she has and provide it in the book. That’s what I’ve attempted to do here for you.

It’s probably also important to note that I’ve purposefully written this book in a casual, non-academic voice. If you’re an educational leader (i.e. lead learner) who reads many academic books and journals, you may be bristling at my lack of formality and academic prose. If that’s the case, I understand if you discard this book or give it back to the person who lent it to you. In my defense, there are three main reasons why I wanted to write an easily accessible book about how we can make the field of education better. First, because I’m a teacher at heart, I strongly believe in the value of taking complex ideas and breaking them down into their most simple components. Second, and closely related to my first point, the books I enjoy reading provide “handles” for the reader to grasp. In other words, the author gives the reader ways to access and remember the book’s ideas. Third, when you’re an educational leader at a school site, you’re constantly consumed by your work. When there’s finally a spare minute to read, your emotional labor may already be greatly depleted. I want to provide educators with the best information possible in the most easily digestible format so they’ll want to actually finish reading what I’ve written.

The title of this book is Rise and Converge, which was inspired by a story written by Flannery O’Connor entitled “Everything that Rises Must Converge.” From what I’ve read, O’Connor’s title refers to the work of French philosopher Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, who stated: “Remain true to yourself, but move ever upward toward greater consciousness and greater love! At the summit you will find yourselves united with all those who, from every direction, have made the same ascent. For everything that rises must converge.”

It’s important to take these words into account within the context of a school district. As educators we must never cease rising toward greater heights of skill and wisdom, while at the same time converging upon not just best practices, but also the best ways to conduct ourselves in a complex world. So how can we, both as individuals and organizations, rise and converge so all students grow up in schools where learning occurs and their emotional and physical needs are sufficiently met?


A good place to begin exploring is the organization. Whether you’re an educational leader in a huge district or working in a one-school district, it’s important to construct a mental framework of how organizations thrive–and how they fail. Too often we are so focused on implementations and ad hoc policies, we become unaware of what is making us fragile.

Author Nassim Nicholas Taleb greatly influenced my understanding of how organizations not only can survive but also flourish. In his book Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder, he explains the difference between three different states: fragility, robustness, and “antifragility” (a word coined by Taleb). His book is a must read, but I’ll provide a simple explanation of this important concept.

Let’s start with fragility. Imagine you’re cooking a Denver omelette and accidentally drop an egg on the floor of your kitchen. What happens to the egg? Of course, it cracks open and makes a mess. That’s an example of fragility–introduce a little instability or chaos, and destruction follows. Fragility should be avoided at all costs: fragile systems, fragile investments, fragile jobs… the list goes on.

Now picture you’re once again standing in your kitchen. A friend is visiting, and you decide to show off your brand new bowling ball. As you’re retrieving the heavy ball out of its bag, it slips out and strikes the tile floor. What happens to the bowling ball upon impact? Probably not much, but unfortunately it cracked a tile or two. This is an example of robustness. Introduce instability or chaos, and the object, person, or organization isn’t affected. Obviously this is more ideal than fragility, and therefore we should strive for robust systems, investments, jobs, etc.

But we aren’t going to stop there! Now think of the ancient mythical creature Hydra. When Hercules cut off the beast’s head, two more grew back in its place. As the demigod continued slashing necks, the heads continue multiplying and Hydra became stronger. That’s antifragility–introduce instability or chaos, and the object, person, or organization becomes stronger.

When you begin to explore what’s fragile in education, you’ll notice that complexity strips an organization of robustness. As we’ll discuss in a bit, schools and school districts can avoid fragility and seek out robustness by striving for simplicity. Of course, antifragility–the ability to gain strength from disorder–is the ideal. In the previous example, the bowling ball wasn’t damaged by striking the tile kitchen floor, but it also didn’t gain any strength from the contact. Imagine if it did! Anything that gains from disorder and chaos is positioned extremely well in today’s world. Because of this, school and district leaders must make decisions that result in robustness with the potential of antifragile gain.

Think of your role within the field of education. Would your organization be able to withstand a large amount of chaos without breaking? Would you be robust in the face of budget cuts, no wifi, conflict arising from a newly deployed initiative, or any other event outside your team’s control? More interestingly, is there a way you can become stronger in the face of chaos?

These are questions this book attempts to answer. Fragility, robustness, and antifragility will be touchstones throughout our exploration of how schools and districts can rise and converge to enhance student learning.

In addition to Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s invaluable insight, Michael Fullan and Joanne Quinn are two authors who have greatly influenced my understanding of an organization’s efficacy. Their excellent book Coherence: The Right Drivers in Action for Schools, Districts, and Systems not only turned the word “coherence” into an overused buzzword on the conference circuit for a while, but the book itself truly is a masterwork of finding a signal within the noisy world of education. Within this helpful text, Fullan and Quinn introduce four “right drivers” that school leaders should focus upon in order to strengthen their organizations. Those correct drivers are:

  • Focusing direction
  • Cultivating collaborative cultures
  • Deepening learning
  • Securing accountability

If you run a school or district, the first thing you should do is foster the four right drivers. You can begin by focusing direction, which means becoming good at a small number of things and aligning your initiatives and resources toward that end. Second, you must cultivate collaborative cultures; this is when professional learning communities (PLCs) are supported, as well as the components that create effective PLC time (i.e. an emphasis on common formative assessments, using a simple protocol to analyze data, and [most importantly] building trust). Third, deep learning occurs when a team strives for and develops shared skills and a common vocabulary. Fourth, you must apply external accountability while at the same time fostering internal accountability–which is accomplished via skin in the game (more on this toward the end of the book).

An organization can be made robust, and possibly even antifragile, by incorporating the four right drivers. Conversely, an organization can be made fragile when the four “wrong” drivers are deployed. According to Fullan and Quinn, these are punitive accountability, individualist strategies, technology, and ad hoc policies. I recommend reading Coherence for a greater understanding regarding how these four wrong drivers can harm an organization, but what jumps out at me when thinking about the wrong drivers is the word “individualist.” Usually, punitive accountability is done to an individual. Of course, individualist strategies are not conducted by the whole team. Technology is oftentimes devoid of any connection to standards, curriculum, or even instruction. And ad hoc policies are individual implementations with no concern for the symbiotic relationship that’s inherent within a school and district.

In short, organizations are robbed of robustness and made fragile when leaders don’t understand the connective tissue binding every program they implement. On the other hand, the right drivers can make districts robust–and possibly antifragile. If an organization has focused direction, it doesn’t matter which shiny objects are offered; the organization isn’t going to bite. If collaborative cultures are strong, people will be unified, which helps focus direction. If educators delve deeper into their learning, they’ll be more likely to share, which cultivates collaborative cultures and focuses direction. And if internal and external accountability are secured, then learning will be deepened, people will collaborate, and the focus will truly be on what’s important. Thus, robust coherence.

A robust organization practicing coherence will be strong. New curriculum adoption? No matter, we’ll learn it and incorporate it within our already established operation. New digital grade book? Who cares–we’ll learn it and use it in a simple way to provide feedback to students and parents. New principal? Fine. He or she will step into a well oiled machine that operates independently of charismatic (or uncharismatic) leaders.

That’s robust culture. But what about Taleb’s idea of antifragility? Remember, antifragility is like Hydra–this means the organization doesn’t just absorb the blow, it becomes stronger because of it. The antifragile district thrives within chaos. And, let’s be honest, chaos is going to be ever-present within schools and districts. The system is too large, and there are too many variables (i.e. staff, students, parents, budget, policy, etc.) in order for chaos not to feed off the day-to-day activities. Because of this, we need a common mental framework that has the antifragile philosophy and four right drivers woven into its fabric. Just like breathing, members of the team must know when and how to avoid decisions that will introduce fragility. People need to be able to focus, collaborate effectively with others, learn deeply, and act responsibly with skin in the game.

Because of this, the rest of this book will be broken into the following sections:

  • Focus
  • Collaborate
  • Learn
  • Responsibility

The fifth section is entitled “Future,” and it will provide a context for how we need to think as educators in this complex world. (Also, I changed “accountability” to “responsibility” for the fourth section. I believe the words are synonymous.)


Successful educational organizations have many forces constantly introducing complexity into their systems. What happens all too often is we allow these forces to dictate what needs to be done. We add one thing, then we add another, then we add another. Soon, we have a monstrosity of our own making that’s so big and so complex, it’s nearly impossible to effect change or do things well.

In addition to complexity, we work within a field where people tend to be lone rangers. The culture of public education fosters individuals who “do their own thing” because they believe it’s “best for the students.” If everyone is doing his or her own thing, and everyone’s “thing” is different, then there’s either thousands of different best ways to reach kids, or we’re failing at working collaboratively to increase student learning.

The main goal of this book is to help raise our skill level as educational leaders while bringing together an understanding of what our most important best practices should be. Hence, rise and converge.

Let’s get started.


[The following is an excerpt from a book I’m currently writing for self-publication later this year (2018). Any feedback is welcome!]

Oftentimes in education, for both student learning and professional development, our primary concern is to comprehensively learn (i.e. memorize) all steps or pieces within a domain. While there’s certainly nothing wrong with this, learning everything possible about a subject is extremely time consuming and difficult.

In Tim Ferriss’s book Tools of Titans, he explains a principle used by chess prodigy Josh Waitzkin called “learning the macro from the micro.” This approach avoids the common way of learning by focusing on a single component (the micro) in order to learn and understand the whole (macro). Ferriss explains how Waitzkin once taught him chess:

“For instance, when Josh gave me a beginner’s tutorial on chess, he didn’t start with opening moves. Memorizing openings is natural, and nearly everyone does it, but Josh likens it to stealing the test answers from a teacher. You’re not learning principles or strategies, — you’re merely learning a few tricks that will help you beat your novice friends. Instead, Josh took me in reverse… The board was empty, except for three pieces in an endgame scenario: king and pawn against king. Through the micro, position of reduced complexity, he was able to focus me on the macro: principles like the power of empty space, opposition, and setting an opponent up for zugzwang (a situation where any move he makes will destroy his position.”

This is a much more elegant way of learning a new domain. If, as a lead learner, you can break a new teaching strategy into its most basic components, determine the portion that’s the fulcrum, and then learn and practice that specific skill, you’re on your way to learning the whole. Let’s look at some examples:

  • There are different types of direct instruction. One is called Direct Interactive Instruction (DII), which my district adheres to. There are various components to creating a lesson plan, one of which is structured practice. If the teacher can just focus on this portion of the lesson and become a master at providing structured practice, then she’ll eventually learn how to provide better input (instruction) and guided practice, which both respectively precede and follow structured practice.
  • Learning how to formatively assess while teaching helps an educator in many other domains. For example, if a teacher begins using in-the-moment data to guide instruction, then the teacher is learning a new way to lesson plan. (Detailed planning can’t be done ahead of time anymore because planning is simply guessing.) The teacher is forced to learn how to teach the same topic multiple ways during the same lesson–which means differentiation is learned and incorporated on the fly as well.
  • Focusing on one app within Google Suite will teach the user how to use all the G Suite apps. If a teacher tells herself, “I’m going to just focus on learning Google Docs this month–nothing more,” then that person will become not just proficient at using Docs in the classroom, but she’ll also learn transferable skills such as sharing a file within the Google ecosystem, saving files within Google Drive, effective collaboration via cloud-based products with students and adults, and a better understanding of how technology–in general–can be blended with instruction. In order to use technology successfully, one must begin with the micro; this is what has the power to accelerate pedagogy.
  • Breaking up one’s own learning helps break up learning for students. The practice of getting really good at the micro in our own personal and professional learning will help us as we not only chunk lessons for students, but also choose what we’ll teach students. Developing a comprehensive lesson on the American Revolution is great. Do you know what might be better? Focusing on a founding father or mother’s life as that person experiences 1776. Becoming an expert on Alexander Hamilton or Abigail Adams gives students something they can master while at the same time providing handles to better understand the macro in which that historical figure lived.

What’s the “fulcrum” in each of the above examples? Learning structured practice (fulcrum) makes one better at direct instruction. Formatively assessing students “on the fly” (fulcrum) revolutionizes lesson planning because you may never be able to create a detailed lesson plan far in advance ever again. Mastering Google Docs (fulcrum) will help you understand how 1:1 devices can be effectively blended within instruction. Breaking up your own learning by focusing on the micro (fulcrum) will help you identify opportunities to introduce the micro to students.


[The following is an excerpt from a book I’m currently writing for self-publication later this year (2018). Any feedback is welcome!]

As a lead learner, how do you hold other people accountable to high standards of performance every day for student learning to flourish? More importantly, how do you hold yourself to a high standard?

Experts have stated over the years that motivating one’s staff, and oneself, can be done in a myriad of ways. Buzzwords are generously thrown around in administrator courses and within leadership books: autonomy, candor, culture… all good words with wonderful intentions. The problem is these terms are effects of something else. In other words, you can’t have a campus where autonomy, candor, and a positive culture flourish without a main cause.

Speakers and writers who make their livings discussing how to build accountability within schools and districts are missing this cause, and I must admit I was blind to it as well. It took the words of Nassim Nicholas Taleb to help me locate this blindspot and give it a name. As often happens, thoughts and beliefs are constructed by the vocabulary one possesses. Just as Taleb provided us with the word “antifragile,” he’s also provided insight regarding a term that shines a light on every place of learning and exposes the level of accountability members hold themselves to.

Skin in the game.

Let’s back up a bit. I was listening to Michael Fullan speak about two years ago, and he discussed how one of the correct drivers of student learning is “securing accountability.” Having read his book Coherence before attending his talk, I was familiar with this driver and didn’t expect to learn much more when it came to this idea. I was wrong. Not long into his explanation of securing accountability, he provided a synonym for the word accountable: responsible.

In an instant I saw this driver in a different light. Accountability and responsibility are of course similar, but responsibility speaks much more powerfully to me. We all have a responsibility to help students learn and mature into flourishing citizens who can in turn help others. We are all responsible for the state of the world in which we find ourselves, and it’s the great women and men who have taken a stand (when it’s difficult to do so) that creates positive change. These people saw it as their responsibility to live in a way where they would suffer consequences for their actions–mostly for the unfortunate reason that oftentimes doing what’s right is not popular.

In the field of education, administrators are taught they must create “buy-in” within their organization. Fullan divides the “securing accountability” driver into two sub-categories: external and internal accountability. (From here on out I’ll refer to “accountability” as “responsibility”). External responsibility is the process by which an administrator influences others to do what he or she wants, and it’s accomplished by means of directives, evaluations, and systems constructed to provide a specific result. This form of leadership can definitely be effective, but it’s extremely fragile because it depends on one person making sure everyone else is doing something. Once that administrator leaves, whatever is being managed will disappear because the staff didn’t hold it dear to their hearts.

Internal responsibility is more robust because, as the name suggests, people internalize the change and make it part of their practice. In some instances, external responsibility may come first, but the hope is that it morphs into an internal responsibility system for each members of the organization. This is when culture becomes positive, and a school site or district pulls in one direction toward its purpose.

This all sounds well and good, but the important question is: how do you create a sense of internal responsibility within a person? Earlier I wrote that great women and men in the past have changed the status quo by taking a stand for or against something by making themselves vulnerable because of it. A nice way of putting it is they take risks for their opinions rather than protecting themselves from the consequences of their actions.

External responsibility is easy: mandate, evaluate, implement, threaten (just kidding); you can always try to make someone do something. The goal, however, is to foster internal responsibility, and the most effective way–in fact, possibly the only way–to promote internal responsibility is by having skin in the game.

It’s common knowledge students will behave well in the classroom of a teacher they respect. They’ll even work harder for teachers whom they know care about them. The same goes for adults; teachers will work extremely hard for a principal they like. The million dollar question, however, is how does a principal garner the respect of his or her staff? It’s not by giving them whatever they ask for. It’s not by sending them to fun conferences. It’s not by being nice or strict or firm.

It’s by having skin in the game.

I go back to the words of Nassim Nicholas Taleb, as I often do, because he speaks and writes truth. In his new book Skin in the Game, he cogently explains the importance of taking risks for one’s actions and opinions. For example, he writes, “If you give an opinion, and someone follows it, you are morally obligated to be, yourself, exposed to its consequences.” Someone with skin in the game is more than willing to pay a price for having exposure to the real world. When they tell others to do something, they don’t hide behind another strong leader or the mantra “that’s just the way it is.” They don’t hide behind anything, which is unfortunately rare–especially within large organizations. As Taleb writes, “Bureaucracy is a construction by which a person is conveniently separated from the consequences of his or her actions.” Skin in the game as a leader is basically a broader way of referring to extreme ownership.

Ineffective leaders hide amidst fuzzy bureaucratic obstacles. They do what they have to do, and then insulate themselves from the effects of their nebulous decisions. When these people apply external accountability measures, staff balks. The leaders find no one listens to them, no matter how many administrative books containing buy-in strategies they’ve read and implemented. And if external measures don’t work, it’s crystal clear internal responsibility isn’t fostered.

People want leaders with skin in the game. Whenever I’ve visited a school where kids are learning, teachers are working in harmony, and (a chosen few) effective strategies are being implemented well, you’ll find a principal walking around the campus who doesn’t protect herself from her actions. Even if they don’t know it, most people crave for a lead learner such as this to take command of their campus. This is the type of leader who gets results from external responsibility. More importantly, this is a leader who has developed internal responsibility within herself and her staff. She’s taken risks for her opinion, and she’s received both accolades and grief because she was tied to her decisions and actions.

Let’s examine what a lead learner with skin in the game does not look like.

(My book will hopefully be published this year!)


[The following is an excerpt from a book I’m currently writing for self-publication later this year (2018). Any feedback is welcome!]

“No leader sets out to be a leader. People set out to live their lives, expressing themselves fully. When that expression is of value, they become leaders. So the point is not to become a leader. The point is to become yourself.”–Warren Bennis, On Becoming a Leader

True lead learners are people who live authentic lives so they can fully express themselves. They have a purpose, which not only helps them become who they truly are, but also aids them in nurturing authenticity within their organization.

Learning and expressing oneself go hand-in-hand. If you’re compelled to express yourself, you’ll continue to learn the multiple ways you can do so. This constant learning means you’ll be an authentic leader, or as Michael Fullan writes, an “indelible leader.” In his book, Indelible Leadership, Fullan writes of the importance of “deep learning,” which can only happen if leaders help their staffs find meaning. As stated before, this isn’t done by attempting to tap into people’s passion. Leaders accomplish this by promoting deep work. Fullan quotes Cal Newport from Newport’s book Deep Work:

“To learn hard things quickly, you must focus intensely without distraction. To learn . . . is an act of deep work. If you are comfortable going deep, you’ll be comfortable mastering the increasingly complex systems and skills needed to thrive in our economy. If you instead remain one of the many for whom depth is uncomfortable and distraction ubiquitous, you shouldn’t expect these systems and skills to come easily to you.”

There are some leaders who cruise at 30,000 feet and only want to think about the big picture. They can’t be bothered with the details–perhaps it’s just too much for them to process. Other leaders get stuck in the weeds. Their intentions are good, but they waste valuable time and resources working through problems that can most likely be ignored.

A lead learner isn’t coasting at 30,000 feet nor chopping through the weeds. Instead, I like to think of a lead learner as a helicopter pilot who can deftly fly to different elevations very quickly. These people soar at 30,000 feet in order to bring coherence when needed; then they can drop and hover over the weeds (without getting stuck!) when a specific issue requires their expertise. I truly believe teachers are longing for leaders like this. They want someone who sees the big picture and also can dive in and get messy when it comes to curriculum, instructional strategies, collaboration protocols, and more.

As stated by Cal Newport, depth is important because deep learning means you can take complex systems and make them simple. A lead learner brings a lot of value to his or her organization by being comfortable with complexity and always looking for ways to make ideas more easily accessible to all adults at a school site.

In one of Cal Newport’s other books, So Good They Can’t Ignore You, he explains how a person can become valuable to an organization. As I re-read Newport’s book, I was struck by how similar his thoughts are to other great thinkers I’ve already shared in this book. First, he writes about the importance of a craftsman mindset over a passion mindset.

“Whereas the craftsman mindset focuses on what you can offer the world, the passion mindset focuses instead on what the world can offer you.”

To be valuable within a school or district, it’s best to begin each day with the motivation of finding how you can help others rather than how they can help you. At first this sounds easy, but to maintain a mindset of everyday generosity takes constant effort. If you have to feel passionate about what you’re doing, in the long run not much will be accomplished. We’ve touched upon this already, but it’s worth noting that a worker running off passion will not be able to sustain the mundane responsibilities found within the field of education. As Newport writes:

“When you enter the working world with the passion mindset, the annoying tasks you’re assigned or the frustrations of corporate bureaucracy can become too much to handle.”

As a teacher or administrator, the bureaucratic tasks that are constantly thrown at you can wear you down and make you bitter if you don’t approach the day with purpose. It’s the integral first step in becoming valuable.

Newport further discusses the “craftsman mindset.”

“It asks you to leave behind self-centered concerns about whether your job is ‘just right,’ and instead put your head down and plug away at getting really damn good. No one owes you a great career, it argues; you need to earn it—and the process won’t be easy.”

Once you decide on working with a purpose (i.e. craftsman mindset) you can begin learning the craft. The teachers and administrators I’ve seen who have a craftsman mindset are constantly reading, practicing the strategies they’re learning, and performing acts of generosity not just toward students, but also adults. You earn your career through hard work and constant learning. Afterall, we don’t call it being a “lead learner” for nothing.

Second, to bring value you must recognize student achievement will come when the adults on a campus get really good at what they do. This is accomplished by understanding what being “good” means. You can quickly learn which activities are worth your time by tracking your day by hourly increments on a spreadsheet–perhaps even quarter-hour increments. Then, you need to seek out immediate feedback concerning your actions, which could come in the form of student test scores, the thoughts of colleagues, or the observation of your boss. Imagine if students sought out feedback concerning their work on a daily basis! The same benefits can be derived from teachers and administrators who are honing their crafts by asking for feedback.

Third, Newport describes the importance of incorporating difficult strategies into one’s practice in order to improve. He writes:

“But this stretching, as any mathematician will also admit, is the precondition to getting better. This is what you should experience in your own pursuit of ‘good.’ If you’re not uncomfortable, then you’re probably stuck at an “acceptable level.”

This reminds me of Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s belief that a person should be lost physically or mentally every day. The only way to grow is to stretch oneself and feel the uncomfortable nature of uncertainty. Traditionally, educators have believed they can arrive to a point where they know everything and can just be left alone to do what’s “best for the students.” In reality, the work of “becoming” an educator is never finished. Just as the ever-changing nature of fashion is never finished and platforms such as Facebook never stop morphing into new entities–lead learners never stop evolving.

Fourth, it’s imperative we develop “rare and valuable skills.” This is hard, but as Newport writes:

“Hardness scares off the daydreamers and the timid, leaving more opportunity for those like us who are willing to take the time to carefully work out the best path forward and then confidently take action.”

The bottom line of being valuable within a school or district means you’re positively affecting student learning in the biggest way possible. This is difficult, and it takes amazing work to make it a reality; therefore, you need a clear path toward understanding how it’s accomplished.

To review, here’s an outline of what it takes to be valuable:

  • Purpose (craftsman) mindset over passion
  • Get really good by tracking your time and seeking feedback
  • Stretch yourself by trying new things (the process is never over)
  • Develop rare and valuable skills

If these four steps are accomplished at school sites and district offices, then true value will be attained and our students will improve by leaps and bounds. If the adults are constantly improving, the students will improve, too.


[The following is an excerpt from a book I’m currently writing for self-publication later this year (2018). Any feedback is welcome!]

What are some personal things you’d like to accomplish? Learn another language? Master an instrument? Go to the gym? Eat healthier? Save more money? Whatever it is, you may think the best way to attain what you want is by setting goals, and you might frame it like this:

  • I’ll conjugate X number of verbs by Friday.
  • I’ll learn X number of chords on the guitar by Friday.
  • I’ll go to the gym every weekday.
  • I’ll eat X number of vegetables a day.
  • I’ll not spend X amount of money each month so I can save it instead.

You probably read the above statements and found them to be reasonable–perhaps even noble. There are some people who can set goals and then power through until they’re accomplished. If that’s you, and you’re successful, then that’s great. Unfortunately, for many of us, goals set us up for failure. That foreign language never gets learned. The guitar remains on the stand that was purchased from the local instrument store. The gym never becomes more welcoming than a warm bed on a cold morning. Vegetables never become tastier than pizza, and saving money in one’s Roth IRA isn’t as fun as attending a Bruno Mars concert.

Setting a goal doesn’t mean a thing. Unfortunately, the simple act of creating a goal makes people feel they’ve accomplished something when they haven’t–at least not yet. This occurs on an individual level, and it happens within schools and districts as well. Administrators and teachers set professional development goals all the time.

  • We’ll learn to deploy blended learning strategies by the end of the year.
  • We’ll send everyone to a direct instruction training.
  • All teachers will use the adopted curriculum by the end of the quarter.
  • Program X will be implemented by the second semester.

We’re quick to make checklists, and then we’ll go to town checking items off in the mad rush to 100 percent implementation. While checklists are extremely powerful on many occasions, learning within an organization is not one of them.

Goals can lead us astray. Instead, what we need are systems. For example, when I set out to write this book, I didn’t say, “I’m going to have the first ten pages done by Friday… I’ll have the rough draft finished in nine months… I’ll proofread it by the end of the summer.” Instead, I set aside a period of time each day where I did nothing but work on this book. Oftentimes, I woke up at 4:45 A.M. and wrote until 6:00 A.M. This wasn’t a goal–I simply set my alarm for 4:45 A.M., woke up, walked to my laptop, and began typing. During each morning session, the words poured out. Some days I was lucky if I could muster 300 words that made sense. On other days, 1,000 or more words leapt onto the screen effortlessly.

If I would have set goals for myself, I don’t think you would be reading what’s in front of your eyes right now. The creation of this book was the product of setting up a system within my day when the work would get done, and that made all the difference. Scott Adams, the creator of the comic strip Dilbert, wrote a book entitled How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big. In it, he states, “Success isn’t magic; it’s generally the product of picking a good system and following it until luck finds you.” Adams is a huge proponent of the systems-over-goals mentality. Harkening back to the first section of this book regarding purpose and passion, Adams writes, “How much passion does this fellow have for his chosen field? Answer: zero. What he has is a spectacular system, and that beats passion every time.” Even without passion, there’s always a purpose, and systems assist the purpose-driven person in attaining heights that goals and passion can’t reach.

Likewise, I believe schools would benefit from creating systems where adults can’t help but learn how to become better teachers and administrators. Goals aren’t cutting it when it comes to professional development–what we need are systems set up throughout every week, possibly each day, where administrators and teachers can learn (whether they feel like it or not). Whenever this time takes place (staff meetings, PLC meetings, prep periods, lunch), the learning opportunity isn’t about checking off that learning has occurred. Rather, it’s about deep learning. This means what’s being learned is part of a coherent framework that’s more concerned with mastery over compliance. In this scenario, ad hoc strategies are banished so everything being learned is connected. This allows administrators and teachers to make clear connections among district-wide implementations, adopted curriculum, technology, ELD strategies, formative assessments, data protocols, and so on.

To be honest, it all comes down to a campus full of lead learners.