One of the Scariest Things I’ve Ever Done

Trust.  Without it any organization fails to reach its full efficiency potential.  Employees avoid risk taking for fear of ridicule.  Managers fail to delegate tasks because they fear others will not rise to the occasion.  Supervisors micromanage because they fear employees are not being productive.  Change moves slowly or not at all because all decisions are passed through an information bottleneck.  Through these examples we can clearly see the antithesis of trust:  fear.  And as we all know fear paralyzes.  It destroys motivation to try new things.  It fogs the mind, hindering creative thought.  It halts all movement for growth.

Like many schools, we have talked the game of growth mindset and constantly have reminded our teachers that we as administrators are here to help, to support, to coach, and to guide, but such good intentioned speeches often fall on uncultivated soil, and for good reasons.  Many teachers have had experiences with administrators that have done nothing but break trust, creating in them walls that defend their heart from ridicule and embarrassment.  Simply put, teaching is a personal experience into which the heart and soul is poured quite liberally, exposing a vulnerable display of self, leaving one’s identity in range of criticism.  Without trust these walls can never be penetrated, no matter how well intentioned the feedback, transforming constructive comments into painful jabs.  

As of the 2016-17 school year the implementation of the new Texas Teacher Evaluation and Support System (TTESS) throughout our state has created more stringent evaluations with the potential of further revealing teacher weaknesses in and out of the classroom.  On top of the new TTESS expectations, we also began to use the Swivl robot to record our teachers to allow more in depth reflective opportunities.  In fact, every teacher would be expected to record themselves at least once throughout the year.  Needless to say, such an expectation resulted in quite the anxiety in our teachers.  Nearly each teacher suddenly experienced a fear of failure, of being exposed, of being less than expected.  I can say this with confidence because I too experienced the same fear.  Why?  Because Todd Nesloney, Melissa Boenker, and I developed an insane plan to also record ourselves teaching a class.  And not only that, but to show those recordings to our teachers at our next staff meeting.  But wait, we also asked our teachers to rate us using the same TTESS rubric that we would also be using with them on their evaluations and share their ratings with us anonymously through a google spreadsheet.  

Needless to say, the thought filled me with dread of losing credibility with my teachers, of being labeled an incompetent assistant principal, of being exposed as a fraud.  Each of us experienced similar fears, but nonetheless persevered and carried through with our plan, knowing that such a demonstration of transparency and vulnerability would develop in our teachers a sense of trust and a strong message that we are serious about having a growth mindset.  Our teachers completed the following recordings and subsequent reflection meetings without complaint and with complete fidelity.  I am very proud of our teachers and the courage they too demonstrated in the name of growth and doing what is best for kids.

Each day my principal, Todd Nesloney, begins our morning with the same exhortation:  “Be brave.”  As the leaders on our campus, we not only have to speak these all important words, but also live them out.  I’m reminded of the quote, “Life begins at the end of our comfort zones.”  I now exhort you to be brave, to do what it takes to build trust within those that follow you, even if it means demonstrating wild trust in them.


A Tribute to the Refugees Around the World

Today, June 20, 2017, is #RefugeeDay.  By the end of 2015 the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimated a total of 65,000,000 refugees around the world for various reasons from natural disasters such as tsunamis, floods and famine, to political turmoil, to civil wars and guerrilla warfare, to genocide.  But right now, I would not have you focus on the global problems causing such exoduses around the world.  I would rather draw your attention to the 65,000,000 detailed and horrific stories that could be told, the homes of the 65,000,000 that now lay abandoned or unjustly occupied, the 65,000,000 reasons why they simply had to flee to save themselves, their wives, their children, their brothers and sisters.  Although I wish each story could be dutifully told, I will pick just one that I recently read on (you can read the complete story HERE).  

Hannah, a citizen of the Democratic Republic of Congo, was abducted by the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), a terrorist organization in central Africa, when she was but eleven years old.  During the next 8 years she spent her time foraging in the bush for the LRA and gave birth to two children, fathered by the commander to whom she was given upon her capture.  Over the next 8 years, after three escape attempts, after giving one child away for a chance at freedom, and after years of abuse she escaped while pregnant with her third child.  

Atrocities such as these are not uncommon, and they are not easily reconciled.  Reconciliation:  “to return to faith or harmony after a conflict”.  Such a journey requires an obstacle course of wrongs to be forgiven, scars to which one must acclimate, an internal exploration of human goodness, and finally a rediscovery of self.  To say the least, I never wish to negotiate such feelings and scars in my own life, but what I find most important is that refugees long for nothing but this opportunity, the opportunity to heal, the opportunity for a chance at life once again, the opportunity to find peace.  Once given this opportunity, however, their is a piece to the puzzle any broken heart needs, and that is the faithful presence of another human being that cares, to accompany.  To accompany someone in their struggles and in their suffering is the closest one can get to pure empathy.  

As this is a blog for educators I will make this more real for my audience.  There are refugees in all of our schools, whether a foreign refugee or a refugee fleeing an abusive environment.  Whether we agree that refugees should be allowed into our country or not, I believe we can all agree on the responsibility we have to heal the broken hearted, to be the Samaritan that takes in his ethnic enemy, to accompany others in their sufferings so the burden might not be so heavy, and finally as a result give them the chance to rise to their feet once more.

I wrote the following article for an internship while I was a student at the University of Central Arkansas.  Eight years later, as I reread the article, the message still rings true, and unfortunately the need to defend those temporarily debilitated still exists.  As you read the article pay particular attention to the quote in the second to last paragraph from one of the Invisible Children members and how this maxim may still apply to you and to me:  “We all share the same earth…We need to take care of each other.”  I hope to see you soon on our own battleground, that I may accompany you in our fight for a better Earth.

Lastly, to bring the life of a refugee a little closer to home I’ve included a video created by the Save the Children Foundation.  I’ll let the video speak for itself.




Marching for the Invisible

Written by Aaron Marvel

February 1, 2009

Guns and knives have often been the weapon of choice for many soldiers through time, but recently Harding and Hendrix university students have decided to raise their voices above the booms and clanks of the battle field to be seen amidst the still hazy gun powder of the Uganda and Congo landscape.  These two groups of college students work under a larger organization called Invisible Children, which fights against the use of child soldiers in the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) in Uganda.

The Ugandan civil war has been terrorizing the country since the early 1980’s.  Peace talks have continuously failed because of the refusal to surrender by Joseph Kony, leader of the LRA.  Hundreds of thousands have been removed from their homes and separated from their families, yet little has been done to aid the Ugandan government to end this restless war.

Invisible Children rose from nothing when three young California filmmakers traveled to Africa in search of a story.  They returned with a documentary showing the effects of a 20 year old ongoing war.  The documentary has been seen by millions and the response is colossal.  Small groups have sprung up around the world to raise awareness of the situation in Uganda.  The Harding and Hendrix groups are among the combatants here in the U.S. fighting to free innocent children being forced to fight in the LRA regime.  Their weapon of choice is a strong voice and their battle cry, “Spread the word!”

On April 25th at 3:00 p.m. fellow fighters throughout Arkansas will gather in Little Rock to raise awareness of the Ugandan war and to appeal for political action.  Each person will bring three photographs of themselves with their family, friends, or guardians.  A red circle will be placed around the owner of the photograph which will then be given to a volunteer at the designated “abduction site”.  Then as a group all “abducted” people will march to the “LRA camp” where they will stay until at least one media outlet arrives to cover the event, and one cultural or political figure is present.   While waiting at the camp each individual will create one art/photo project, write letters to political representatives, and seek out media attention.  Invisible Children asks for all participants to stay as long as possible and even gives a list of supplies to bring for an overnight campout.  Kayla Ross, a member of the Harding Invisible Children group hopes to have at least 1,000 students just from Harding.  “If the event is a success in Little Rock, we will have a follow-up lobbying on June 22nd and June 23rd.”

On these dates Invisible Children plans to have Time Square reserved to host a conference that will report the results of each of The Rescues from around the world including the United States, Canada, Mexico, Australia, New Zealand, England, South Africa, and Ireland.  Ross and other Invisible Children members hope to awaken the world before it’s too late.  “The massacre in Rwanda, the Holocaust in Germany, Cambodia, etc. went unnoticed until hundreds had already been slaughtered… If we can bring this to the attention of the media and our political figures and show them what this means to us, we hope that it will bring about a change.”

Ross already expects Beth Moore, Christian book author and founder of Living Proof Ministries, to attend The Rescue and hopes for some political representatives from around Arkansas.  

The Rescue is open to anyone with a passion to help others and to make a change in the world.   For Ross and the other Invisible children members, this is hopefully a start to ending a 23 year old war.  “We all share the same earth…We need to take care of each other.”

For more information about Invisible Children or The Rescue visit their website at or at  

Leadership Hacks

Lights, Camera, Teach, Reflect

Any good teacher understands the value of learning and personal growth.  Why else would teachers pursue new and creative ways to engage their students, to lead them to new depths of thought, and to open up their world to new possibilities. Teachers desperately want to be effective, because they care about their students.  However, the process of learning and perfecting new approaches has one key ingredient that is sometimes skirted over a little to hastily:  reflection.  We all reflect to a certain degree; otherwise we would never see any need to improve our practice at all.  But do we reflect on our lessons to the level of depth that leads us to the specific deficits or weaknesses in our daily behaviors of which changes will lead to highly impactful improvements on our practice?  Such reflection requires an individual to give immediate attention to the behavior at hand, otherwise our memory fades and we lose the details of the event.  Luckily we live in a century that has a tool that will not fade like our memory and will capture the truth (whether we like it or not) and that is video.  

On our campus we have seen video be a powerful tool for self-reflection and a driver of growth and change.  Doing so was simple but effective.  Below you will find three ways to use video on your campus, two of which I have personally used and a third that I have recently read about and I plan to use soon.

  1. Video Learning Teams (VLTs):  I first learned of VLTs from a book called Focus on Teaching: Using Video for High-Impact Instruction written by Jim Knight, pioneer and advocate for the instructional coach approach.  Simply VLTs are groups of teachers that agree to review one another’s recorded lessons and subsequently provide feedback.  I first presented this idea on our campus as an option for growth.  As a rule for myself and those I supervise I have one most important rule:  I don’t care how you do it, but you always must be learning and growing in some way.  VLTs was one option that I provided our campus to learn and grow.  I was pleased to have ten of our forty teachers sign up to participate of which I created three groups.  The process was simple:  (1) record the first teacher’s lesson using the Swivl Robot (more information on the Swivl Robot HERE), (2) share the video with the recorded teacher, (3) the recorded teacher watches his/her video and provides two or three big “Look For’s” to give the group an area on which to focus their feedback, (4) share the video with the other group members who then take notes and prepare for feedback, and (5) the group meets to watch any important parts of the lesson to help shed light on practice and feedback is shared.  The process is then repeated with the remaining teachers within the group.
  2. Campus Wide Video Reflections:  Because we believe in the power of video reflection so much on our campus we actually made it a requirement for each teacher to be recorded at least once during the school year.  Establishing this requirement set off several alarms in our staff, so to show teachers how serious we were about having a growth mindset during this experience all three administrators also were recorded while teaching a lesson (more about this powerful experience in the post One of the Scariest Things I’ve Ever Done).  Also to calm teachers’ fears we set a rule that only the person being recorded would ever see the video unless they explicitly asked someone else to watch it.  In fact only two people ever had access to the video at any given time:  myself who recorded the video using the Swivl and the recorded teacher.  Setting this rule set minds at ease even further.  Simply recording teachers, however, would not lead to a direct realization of areas of needed growth or to subsequent action.  To encourage the growth process further each teacher was required to then write a short reflection on their strengths and weaknesses within the lesson, rate themselves in their area of refinement from our teacher appraisal system, and create specific actions that would be taken to address the areas of needed growth.  Lastly, each teacher shared the reflection with their appraiser, and followed up with a one on one meeting to further reflect and create an action plan.
  3. Video Stimulated Reflective Dialogues (VSRDs):  VSRDs are very similar to Video Learning Teams from above, but with one important distinguishing element.  Once a teacher has been recorded all those involved, whether that be an administrator and teacher, or just two teachers, watch the recorded lesson.  After the lesson has been watched once the two meet to watch the video a second time but this time with additional reflective questions.  In other words, the video serves as a “stimulant” for discussion.  For example, if in the video a teacher responds to a student’s answer with a correction rather than a probing question, the teacher may be asked, “Why did you choose to respond this way?  What other responses may have further prompted the student to think through the problem?”  Such a dialogue requires great trust between the two participating parties, so make sure strong relationships have been formed before attempting VSRDs.

Using strategies such as these can sometimes be uncomfortable, but I leave you with this quote:  “Life begins at the end of your comfort zone.”  True growth and change require a little bit of discomfort, but the lives you will impact will be worth all the effort.



Together We Shall Reach the Prize

In a world of so many injustices and individuals with such deficits, whether economical, cognitive, or physical, is it worth our time and efforts to help the neediest?  Such a question may seem harsh to ask, but it is in fact a question health care professionals have asked for decades.  Is it cost-effective to treat diseases such as tuberculosis, malaria, and AIDS in the poorest of individuals, the individuals who will never be able to repay the tens of thousands or even hundreds of thousands of dollars invested in their health?  For Dr. Paul Farmer and his colleagues at Partners in Health (PIH) such a question is easily answered with their core values:  providing a preferential option for the poor, solidarity, long term accompaniment, and building capacity in their health systems.  For PIH the answer to the two above questions is a resounding, “Yes!”.  PIH has helped countless individuals in Haiti, Russia, Rwanda, Liberia, Peru, and others beat ruthless and unforgiving illnesses, maintaining hope until the end, one patient at a time.  (See some of the faces of those impacted by PIH in THIS TED Talk by Jim Yong Kim, former PIH partner with Farmer)

As I consider the values PIH has established for itself to guide their organization, I can’t help but relate the same values to education.  We too face similar questions that we must answer.  Do we have the time necessary to help those most in need?  Should we put forth the effort to become experts in best practices?  Obviously, we have answered this question in our hearts.  I believe I can say with confidence that I’ve never met an educator that didn’t desire to reach every child that steps foot in their room, but as a profession have we embraced similar approaches to reaching the poor.  

Preferential Option for the Poor:  Those students most in need deserve the same opportunity for a happy and successful future as the student sitting in the adjacent desk that was lucky to be born into an educated and wealthy family.  Children from poverty often require more support systems that will require more attention, more interventions, more money, and more time.  Is this cost-effective?  Whether we measure by the money or time spent, I don’t believe we can put a price on diverting drug addictions, early pregnancy, generational poverty, malnutrition, increased stress levels, and an oppressed life.  

Solidarity:  Charity implies transferring needed supplies, information or skills from the wealthy to the poor.  The wealthy typically decide what is given to the poor, making an assumption as to what those in poverty need in order to be successful and happy.  Such an assumption, whether right or wrong, fails to include the poor in their own efforts to improve their condition.  I know of schools that have provided well intentioned parenting classes, literacy enrichment, and financial trainings for parents in poverty, but often with little effect.  Imagine a school that asks its parents in poverty what they need, and then delivers on those requests.  Asking such a question allows individuals to maintain their dignity and provides the motivation needed to follow through on the requested initiative.  Working together, schools and parents in poverty can accomplish much.

Long Term Accompaniment:  Change takes time.  A school that provides a few trainings and then abandons support for its parents will likely experience little improvement in their economic condition.  Accompaniment is walking along side someone, experiencing their struggles, knowing their sadnesses, learning their way of life.  Accompaniment is more than providing a few parenting classes, or giving food and supplies to students.  Accompaniment is attending sporting events, crying with a child when her pet dies, providing a hug (or sometimes even a home) for the child who has lost a mother to incarceration, celebrating with six-year-olds who have lost another tooth, doing the dishes or laundry for an overworked mother, and even showing up at a student’s house for a home visit and reminding him to clean his room.  You may first step back at the intrusiveness of some of these behaviors, but I have experienced or known first hand educators who have done each of these, resulting in a child that arrives to school feeling a little happier, a little safer, a little more loved.  

Building Capacity:  As administrators we strive to create teacher leaders, but what is our responsibility to building capacity in our students and in our community.  After all, the school exists for the students and the community, not for its employees.  A school that empowers its students hands them the keys to enacting real change for themselves, their peers, and their community.  Consider a campus culture that has cultivated empathy and an attentiveness to others’ needs in its students.  Such a student body will be compelled to support itself from within, in effect abolishing bullying, fighting, gossiping, drama, and drug and alcohol use.  In what ways can you empower your students?  Can you give them responsibility for running the school social media page?  Could older students mentor younger students?  Could students form anti-bullying groups?  Could students start doing today what they have always dreamed to do “one day when I’m an adult”?

PIH has over the last three decades saved countless lives, not only from death but from destitution, hopelessness, depression, and an overall loss of the quality of life.  I commend the educators that do the same for their students.  Keep providing equitable support for all your students and their families.  Continue providing a voice to your community.  Allow yourself to enter into the lives of your students, and lastly, keep providing for them the opportunities and encouragement to be the men and women they have always dreamed to be.

For more information about Paul Farmer and his journey to heal the world check out Mountains Beyond Mountains by Tracy Kidder.