ASCD #Empower 18-Reflections on Culture, Serving, Our Normal, Salt, and Learning



#CultureEd-Culture First, Culture Always!

This past weekend I had the opportunity to attend and present at the ASCD Empower 18 Conference in Boston. It was an awesome three days of learning and connecting with educators from all around the world. The three keynote speakers were Dr. Joe Biden, Mandy Scott, and General Colin Powell. I want to share with everyone a few of the themes and ideas that stood out to me throughout this conference.

I had the opportunity to present with Mike Kelly (@PrincipalMKelly ), Charles Gardner (@charleswgardner ), Todd Whitaker (@ToddWhitaker ), and Steve Grunert (@stevegruenert).  Our presentation highlighted the weekly Twitter chat that Mike, Chuck, and I moderate, #CultureEd.  All of these educators are individuals that continue to learn from. On a personal note, it was a great opportunity to present alongside Todd Whitaker as he is someone that I have learned so many lessons from as an educator.  Our topic focused on school culture and the weekly Twitter Chat that we host titled #CultureEd. We had a great audience as our session focused on Culture vs. Climate and three key strands that surround school culture. The strands were Teacher Empowerment, Student Voice, and Community Engagement.  Each member of the panel was about to share specific examples of what they do in their own setting to build culture. My topic surrounded Student Voice. I shared with the participant’s specific strategies of how we include student voice. I plan to write up a follow-up Blog that specifically addresses how we do this through Opportunities, Authenticity, and Agency.  We also had a Q/A session at the end in which those that attended were able to share their experiences and ask us questions.

Our Normal  & Salt

The Keynote that really stood out to me was Manny Scott’s (@ManuelScott) message on the second day of the conference.  Manny Scott was a student that was depicted in the motion picture, Freedom Writers. It was one of the best keynotes I have ever seen. He simply told his story, which resonated with a packed house full of educators. One of the key messages that I took away was that our normal is not everyone else’s normal. Having worked in a variety of school districts both urban and suburban I can 100% say that my normal is not the normal of my students in all settings. This is such a key piece of information that we often forget. As educators, we are constantly thinking about what is going to happen next. Our next lesson, our next assignment, or our next assessment. What we need to continue to think about is the normal of the student sitting in front of us each day. They all different stories that contribute to their normal.  They may have a completely different normal than what we have and what our own children may have. As we design learning experiences for students we need to keep in mind that relationships are number one in the classroom. We need to understand the stories of all the student sitting in front of us. We need to understand what their normal is. This does not happen without relationships. It is our job to find out what the normal is for each student so that we can design learning experiences for them.

The second message that I took away from this was that on our worst day we can be the best part of someone else’s day. As a leader in the classroom or in a building, it is our responsibility to bring our best every day. That is a huge challenge and a huge responsibility for any person to take on. The best part of our day should be to say hello to everyone and ask them how they are doing. A simple smile goes a long way with students and staff. When students walk into our building we ask that they give us our best every single day. We need to make sure that we are also doing the same.  We need to make sure that we are being the best part of others days as that may be the only part that they remember.

My final takeaway from Manny Scott’s message went back to an old saying, “You can take a horse to water but you can’t make him drink it”.  This is often a phrase used in education. This a phrase that bothers me as it comes across that we are sometimes giving up on people. However, when Manny used it he added something new to the phrase that I have never heard before. He added that it is our job that if the horse won’t drink the water we need to throw some salt in its mouth. I think that such a great way of thinking about motivating our students.  It can also pertain to motivating our teachers to grow and learn. It is the job of any leader, regardless of your position, to motivate those they serve to learn. We have reluctant learners in all of our schools. I was one of those reluctant learners. I had someone that knew what salt to throw at me to make me want to learn. It is our job to find the salt that will make our students want to learn. Adding the salt component to an old quote made it so much more applicable to what we do with students every day.

Serving as a Leader

Another theme that emerged from the conference was serving. I had the opportunity to hear two speakers talk directly to this. General Colin Powell was the last Keynote speaker at the conference. It was such an honour to hear his story about growing up, about serving in the military, about serving in our country’s leadership team, and what he is doing to serve students today. I was looking forward to this session all weekend. He did not disappoint. He talked about serving as a leader and what that truly means. He shared a story of how you would often walk around the state department building and wander into the parking garage. He would have a discussion with the parking attendant about the order in which people were parked in the building. He learned that to get priority with parking all the individuals had to do was roll down the window and say good morning to the attendants who came from many different areas around the world. He made it very clear to the audience that it didn’t matter what title or position you held, what mattered was being kind. It mattered that someone took the time to roll down their window and simply say good morning. This was a great message for everyone in the audience to hear. If we all simply took the time to roll down our windows and say good morning and great each other with a smile our world could be a much happier place.

The second individual that I heard talk about serving as a leader was Todd Nesloney (@TechNinjaTodd). Todd is an elementary principal in Texas serving in a K-5 building. I have connected with Todd via Twitter but I’ve never had the opportunity to hear him speak. He is a very inspiring leader that brought relevant examples of what he does surrounding culture and serving others. He shared many great ideas of how he ties fun activities to learning. That is something that I continue to push with my own staff. We want to make learning fun for students but we also want to make it about the learning.  Learning experiences should be fun, they are experiences students remember. The key piece that often gets left out is the learning. Students can tell you the activity that they did but sometimes forget the learning. Todd was able to share many strategies on how he builds the culture around events that are tied to learning, that are fun for both the students and the staff. It was great to see different ideas of how we can continue building the culture in our school. That is something that I continue to work on as I feel it is one of the most important things that pertains to school leadership.
We attend conferences to learn, grow, and connect.  We do these things so that we can return to our districts, share our learning with those we work with and those we serve.  My story about this conference will focus on culture building, making sure we understand what is normal for our students, realizing that we need to find the salt to increase our students thirst for learning, and simply serving the people that you work with.  No matter what leadership title you hold, you have the opportunity to do all of the things I just listed. My hope is that if you did attend this conference or can take anything away from what I have written that it will make your story even better for your students and those you work with.

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