Friday, August 5, 2016

Change Through the Lens of Being New

The countdown is on to our first day with staff (T-minus 10 days 8/15) and students (T-minus 17 days 8/22) and the feeling of excitement for the new school year is very palpable.  Teacher traffic in the building is increasing daily and students are beginning to trickle in for the required forms and schedule changes.  This time of year brings both anticipation and anxiety for many.  In my own preparation for this coming school I had the opportunity to have a great conversation with former colleagues and friends Dave Evertson (@daveevertson) and Patty Wolfe (@wolfep) that created a lightbulb moment for me -- Change is good, but even better when we can build upon what we already have.

For both students and staff, this time of year is exciting because of the prospect of 'what is possible'.  But it is also riddled with anxiety because of the 'UKNOWN'.  To curb that anxiety it is important to start with the foundation of 'what won't change' or more accurately 'what we already know'.  This coming school year will be filled with many changes for me personally.  These changes in my life will also affect many others, given the fact that I will be serving as a new 7-12 principal.

Change is more difficult for some people.  However, a recent article written by George Couros focused on the idea of the 'Beautiful Discomfort of 'New'.  George's Innovator's Mindset was came through loud and clear.  He challenges us to be willing to experience our current reality from the perspective of 'being new'.  It is through the lens of 'being new' that we are able to evaluate, reflect, and adapt.  The challenge then becomes to build a culture where we as teachers and educational leaders are willing to take on the role of learner and 'be new' to every day.

The 16-17 school year will see our district focus on two themes: 1. Building Relationships & 2. Teamwork.  These are not just my goals, but our district wide goals supported by activities at both the secondary and elementary levels.  It is going to be an exciting to travel down the road of 'new together'.  It is my hope that this year is characterized with all teachers, students and community members looking upon this year as an opportunity to both change and build upon what already have.  It will take time and energy to do this, but by sharing in a common goal and walking the road together we will all find it easier.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Discovering the Obvious - Communication as a foundation for strong relationships

The last two weeks have been a whirlwind for me as I am beginning to settle into the role of principal.  One of best experiences so far has been this past week as I have hosted three "New Principal Meet & Greet" sessions with staff.  During these sessions, the teachers have been the leaders, they determined the direction of our conversation, they found their voice, and were empowered to share with me the critical information I need to effectively lead.  They shared their excitement, their past frustrations, and their concerns going forward.  I believe that one of the outcomes from these meetings will an understanding I truly do want our teachers to have a voice.

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The idea of giving students a voice in education is a great idea that is gaining traction in our schools today.  So, why isn't that we hear just as much clamor about 'Teacher Voice'?  Teachers are where the rubber meets the road and it is imperative to make sure there is a place at the table for the teacher voice as we navigate the changing landscape of education.  One of my core values, and one of my biggest goals this year, is to build strong relationships with students, teachers, and stakeholders founded on honest & authentic communication.  Nothing is revolutionary about student voice, nothing is revolutionary about stakeholder voice, but far too often we don't consider the teacher voice.  

I am realizing the older I get, the less I know (my wife would probably agree @AlisaFavinger).  The longer I work in education, the more I realize that I don't have the answers to our challenges or our innovations.  This week, the teacher conversations that I have been part of proved that point time and again.  I was amazed to witness the  evolution of our teachers voice in our meet & greet sessions.  What started as nervous apprehension quickly grew into open expression of concern and then morphed into expression of their ideas.  Time & again I was impressed with the thought they have given to the challenges they spoke of and to the questions they posed to me.  Our teachers are one of our greatest resources in finding solutions in our schools.  If we want to build a culture in our schools where everyone feels valued, then we must begin with a foundation of communication and value all the perspectives offered. 

Last night, I came across a video on Facebook by deception artist Rick Lax who produces magic & optical illusion videos.  The video was a take on our current political dichotomy encouraging us to listen to both sides. It is a great video regardless of your political affiliation and can be viewed here:  The challenge at the end of video urges us to look beyond ourselves for the information we need to move forward.  It was a great reminder of a quote I have seen credited to George Patton, 'If everyone is thinking alike, then someone isn't thinking'.  As a leader I have responsibility to ensure our teachers are empowered to share their thoughts, and especially if those thoughts are different than mine.  

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Celebrate the Journey Not Just the End Result

This past week I have been sitting in the stands at Hayward Field in Eugene, Oregon watching the Olympic trials for track & field.  Those of you who know me personally, you surely have visions in your head of me being starstruck as you think of my love for track and field.  I love track and field not for the sport itself, but for the way it exemplifies some of the beliefs and values I hold in highest regard, ie. delayed gratification, growth, and the pursuit of excellence.

On the final night of the first session, I watched a star studded field in the women's 800.  (Click here for video).  To spare you the step by step commentary, the last 150 meters of that race have not left my mind since I witnessed the dramatic finish.  It ended in remarkable fashion and had the ingredients of tenacity, adversity, heartbreak (for most), and elation (for only a few).  Brenda Martinez and Alyssa Montano, the favorites, were caught up in a fall and did not make the US Olympic team causing internet message boards to light up.  As I read and reflected on the race and all the posts fans made, I brought it back to my other passion - Education.

These athletes have spent the last 4 years at least, training 8 hours a day or more, for this one race that lasts less than 2 minutes.  The hard work they put in and smaller races/performance along the way has inspired thousands of track fans.  However, I couldn't help but find myself wondering if those track athletes, who rarely get much press, know the respect and admiration that thousands of us have for them after the clapping and cheering has ended at the race.  This is where I started thinking about schools.

**Do our students know how we really feel about our their hard work and growth?  Do we celebrate this as much as we should?  Is our focus on smaller achievements and daily work, or do we only 'cheer', at the time of that one high stakes test?

We have limited opportunities to teach our youth the skills, mindset, and habits they will need to be competitive and successful in a global market.  One of the mindsets we must instill in our youth is to  'Embrace the Journey'.  Not everyday will be that Olympic trials performance, 99% of the time you must put in the work without celebration.  Our job as educators is to find ways to 'coach' our students and motivate them.  Our job as teachers is to be the fans in crowd cheering as our students grow and learn to reinforce to them that life and learning both are processes...long processes.  They both require much more hidden work than anyone will ever see.  
This year, I going to challenge myself to finding ways to celebrate the daily achievements of our students. I believe that this is an action that is necessary to encourage our youth to embrace the grind and delay gratification.  I also believe it is one of the foundations of the students developing a healthy self-esteem by learning to recognize their achievements in life will not always be 'Olympic Medal' caliber.  

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

School Funding & Property Tax Relief - Is ranking 49th out of 50 good enough?

This past month in the state legislature has been of particular interest to Nebraska Educators.  Two bills, LB 958 and LB 959, both attempt to solve the problem of property tax burdens to landowners.  LB 959, introduced by Senator Sullivan on behalf of Governor Ricketts, attempts to control the spending by public schools.  LB 958, introduced by Senator Gloor, attempts to address the issue of fast growing agricultural land valuations and the subsequent tax levy against those lands.

I had the pleasure of listening to the debate on LB 959 in the Education Committee.  I was amazed to hear stories each 'side' of the conversation presented.  When the dust had settled and the smoke had cleared, the testimony of York superintendent Dr. Mike Lucas (@YorkDukePower) resonated the most.  He stated that we don't have a spending problem in schools, we have a school funding problem. Dr. Lucas later produced a blog outlining the fiscal reality of their district demonstrating how through fiscal responsibility, the current school funding formula, commonly known as TEEOSA penalizes schools.  You can read Mr. Lucas's blog post here:

Over the past few days, I have been taking time to explore the historical financial reality of our district much the way Mr. Lucas did.  Here is what I discovered.  Nebraska ranks 49th out of 50 states in school funding.  The percentage of our state's budget dedicated to education has dropped from 32% in 1999 to 27% in 2015.  Below is a table showing the Cozad specific numbers since 2007.

School YearAmount of State Aid Received by CozadIncrease or decrease from previous yearGeneral Fund BudgetCost Per PupilStatewide Average cost per pupilTotal ValuationProperty Tax Levy per $100 of valuationIncrease or decrease of tax levy from previous year
07-08$3,347,213.66$9,421, 263$8,550.00$380,384,944$0.950138-4.69%
Total Decrease since 2007 = 71%Percent Increase since 2007 = 3%

So what can we draw from these numbers?  State aid to Cozad schools has decreased by 71%, yet our local tax levy has only gone up by 3% from 2007 to 2016.  Property valuations have increased by 87% over this same time period.  The drop in state aid has forced local school district to rely more heavily on the local tax base for funding.  In 2007 just 46% of our budget came from property taxes, but with the loss of 71% of our state aid to schools, that has forced local property taxes to make up 54% of our budget today.  Undoubtedly, there is a burden upon large land owners and it is imperative that as communities across the state, we come together and find a solution to the problem of how our schools are funded.

To bring this back to the legislative bills LB958 and LB959, they are not only bad for education, they do not address the central problem of school funding from the state.  I encourage all of you to continue this conversation for the sake of our students.  The next time you hear a politician say they are going to cut taxes, just remember, those cuts have to be made up elsewhere.  Our current Governor, Senator Gloor, and Senator Sullivan are simply passing the buck.  Instead of tackling the issue of how we fund schools, they are shifting our focus away from the real issue.

Are you still not convinced that the way education is funded in Nebraska is broken?  Then ponder this: If the Nebraska Cornhusker football team ranked 49th out of 50 teams, would you not wonder if that system is in need of change?

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Big Changes Coming to Cozad High School for 2016-2017

Big changes mean new opportunities are on the horizon for Cozad students in the 2016-2017 school year.  After nearly a year of planning, our current homeroom will be undergoing a major makeover to focus on three initiatives.  These three focuses are:

  1.  Offering a more purposeful approach to helping our freshman grow the skills they need to be successful.  This will include character education, career education, study skills, digital citizenship, and academic planning.
  2. Providing a framework for academic interventions for students who are struggling academically.  This will include opportunities for remediating missed content skills and for the recovery of credit for those who have fallen behind in their progress to graduate.
  3. Increasing enrichment course offerings and real world learning opportunities.  These will range from increased college preparatory opportunities to exploratory classes that cover a wide variety of academic content areas.
In order to allow for these areas to be addressed through the this new "8th Period", the current homeroom, which is twenty four minutes long, will be expanded to forty eight minutes.  To accomplish this, our regular classes will be shortened from fifty one minutes to forty eight minutes each.  After discussions with teachers and administrators, all felt comfortable with the forty eight minute length of classes to still allow for an appropriate amount of instruction time.  

To ensure that the programming focuses are relevant to Cozad and our students needs, teachers have taken the lead in developing the direction and logistics of each of the focus.  Each of these focus areas has approximately six teachers who have chosen to help with that specific initiative.  This will allow teachers to have ownership of the programs they develop and students to benefit from the decisions of those who know them best.
Stay tuned this spring for more information.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

An Educational Take on 40 Chances for Finding Hope in a Hungry World...Part 2

As a proud alum of Cozad High School, I now work as guidance counselor in a system that affords me more professional freedom and autonomy than I could have ever imagined. This freedom is a blessing and a curse.  When things go well, it is satisfying, but due to my nature of being a perfectionist, it is too obvious to me the areas we need to focus more time and energy into keeping our small town vibrant.

Driving through our downtown, there are some stark contrasts that stand out to even the casual observer.  There are many vacant store fronts that stand as a relic of the lost opportunity of succession planning.  Then just a few blocks away there is new construction taking place where businesses are growing and thriving.

So what can we do to address the reality that our rural community is failing to retain our best and brightest after graduation or college and return home?

One idea, is to commit ourselves to doing a better job of connecting our students with our stakeholders and business people.  At some point, all of our students will be looking for a professional opportunity.  For some of those students, it may come to the point where they have the desire to work at level higher than 'just an employee'.  That is where our opportunity presents itself.  By connecting students with our stakeholders in the area/areas they have an interest, we can build long term relationships that someday may provide an open door for our students to return to our community.  The collateral benefit: these business have a pool of interested individuals to one day come back and sustain the existence of our business community.

A start to the large task of connecting our youth with our business community is our upcoming senior seminar on Friday November 20th.  This day has two focuses: 1. Help seniors identify their options after high school. 2. Connect our seniors with our local professionals to build their network and begin opening the door for them to one day return to our community.

During our event, we have a networking luncheon planned where students will have lunch in small groups with local business professionals.  These groups were formed through a survey where kids identified the career areas they are most interested in.  While there are many great sessions planned, this session, in my mind has the potential to be the best session of all.  It is our hope that this session is the catalyst for building some great relationships that years from now will bring some of our students back home.  This session would not be possible without the partnership of several key members of our community.  Larry Paulsen of Paulsen Inc. and Robyn Geiser from Cozad Development Corporation have been phenomenal partners.  Both of these individuals are invaluable to our school system and community.

These partnerships with local stakeholders are the essence of what is allowing us to move forward in improving the educational experience for our kids.  Bringing local control back to our schools will be a focus of our efforts and programs over the forseeable future.  Our experiences over the last few years have proven to us how valuable these partnerships can be.  I would encourage and challenge schools to focus more on developing these local partnerships since we collectively benefit from improving our students experiences.

Stay tuned for the third part of this series that will discuss the economic opportunities for our students that exist in small rural communities and how we can capitilize on these to bring more of graduates back home.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

An Educational Take on 40 Chance for Finding Hope in a Hungry World...Part 1

Last year about this time, I read a great book by Howard Buffett, son of the famous Warren Buffett.  The book was entitled 40 Chances for Finding Hope in a Hungry World.  The gist of the book was in our working lives, we have about 40 chances (40 years) to make a lasting impact.  I highly recommend the book and will go as far as saying that if you read it with an open heart, it will change the way you approach your everyday work.

This fall, I have had the opportunity to travel with several groups of students to events such as the Rural Futures Conference, a career day in agriculture sponsored by First Bank & Trust, and the UNMC career opportunities day.  After each one of these days and the follow up conversations with students, it has reinforced how small our window of opportunity is make a lasting and meaningful impact in the lives of our students.  The obvious conclusion, is that with the high school students we have today, we don't have forty chances, we only have four.  Those four chances pass with the blink of an eye and as educators and leaders we should experience a sense of extreme urgency to 'get it right' with our students.

The reality of life in small town rural America, is that sometimes, we are our worst enemies when it comes to the long term viability of our communities.  We do a great job of teaching our students.  We do a great job of instilling the ethic of work.  We do a great job of laying the foundation for future success in a global society.  Where we fall short, is building lasting relationships between our students and our community stakeholders.  We fail to build opportunites for our students to return to our communities to carry the torch of rural America and the economic viability of our communities.

Recently, our school has made the decision to revitalize an agriculture education program.  For those of you who have a sterotypical view of agriculture jobs flashing through your minds, keep in mind that depending upon the source or region of Nebraska, anywhere from one out of four (25%) to three out of four (75%) jobs in our state are directly related to agriculture.  These jobs go far beyond production into the finance, logistics, and manufacturing industries as well.  Through our agriculture education program, we hope to provide greater educational opportunities for our students where they can find meaningful and productive work after formal education ends.  We also hope to help our all of our students (high ability and vocationally bound) the opportunity to gain knowledge and skills that are relevant to all of us.

During this process, we have gathered together a committee of local stakeholders to help us formulate the vision for our program, build partnerships, and recruit the highest quality instructor possible.  This week, we held our first stakeholder meeting to gather their invaluable input on the direction our program should take, as well as, ideas to bring greater value to our agriculture education program.  This is one of the greatest benefits of living in small town rural America.  The opportunity to personally know and work with these core members of our community to provide a better educational system.  The opportunity to work with our community members can't have a price tag placed on it.

I am born and raised in Cozad and ten years ago, made the choice to come back home.  Perhaps that was by happenstace, perhaps there was some primary experience which called me back home.  Either way, what matters most is that I returned.  Every day, I try not to take for granted all the hidden opportunities that exist in the challenges of living in small town America.  It is not often that people have the chance to impact an entire community and region in their work, but that is an everyday reality of living in a rural community.   My experiences have been so positive that I hope that all of our students one day have the chance to come back home too!

With our high school students, one year represents 25% of the 'chances' we have to prepare them for the real world.  It represents 25% of the chances we have to help them discover their passion.  It represents 25% of our chances to help them discover opportunities and connect with our community so that they can help sustain the work done by those living in our community today.  Four chances go by quickly.  I challenge all who read this to comment with a memory of someone who helped you identify your passion and inspired you to 'find hope in a hungry world'.  I also challenge all eductors reading this to never take a day for granted.  Our chances are limited, so make the most of every one of them.