Last week I wrote about entropy, nature’s trend towards disorder and chaos. As a leader, it’s impossible to ignore the high probability of uncertainty, randomness, and chaos impacting your organization or systems at any given moment. It’s coming. It’s inevitable. Be prepared. We painstakingly build policies, procedures, and systems to help safeguard against entropy, but ultimately, it’s how we respond and lean into chaos that sets the stage for our success…or demise. Building on the topic of entropy and how we respond to failure and system breakdowns, this week’s attention shifts towards CRISIS. Read the rest of this blog to learn how you can embrace and maximize the hidden opportunities in crisis.
No matter how you slice it, crisis bears the significance of having both negative connotations and denotation. There is seemingly nothing optimistic about the word or its definitions. In fact, you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone over the age of 12 who doesn’t have a satirical idea of what a midlife crisis is or looks like. One thing most of us can agree on, however, is that crisis is tethered to time, typically in the form of an event or critical-decision that must be made while the clock is mercilessly ticking. For our purposes here, let’s keep the conversation centered around this space: how moments, decisions, or major events—that formalize as crisis—can become significant turning points in our lives.
Now when we use our better understanding of entropy and crisis, we can start to respond more strategically and effectively to the plethora of critical-moments and events that leaders continuously face. And, we can begin to perceive these failures and seemingly threatening situations as potential gateways to something greater, something originally unthought of or misunderstood. In fact, it’s the paradoxical lever of failure and/or crisis that must be pulled for us to even open or recognize this gateway. Thankfully, albeit painstakingly at times, life is filled with uncertainty, chaos, and constant crisis. Our true test then becomes our ability, as leaders, to embrace or lean into the fear. This embrace positions us in the eye of the storm, where stillness and clarity take hold and opportunities, once hidden by clouded vision caused by panic, stress, and anxiety, become crystallized.
Once we can master this kind of thinking and response to crisis, we edge closer to what famed author and psychiatrist Viktor Frankl called, “…man’s greatest superpower: his ability to choose.” How we choose to respond, how we choose to think, how we choose to embrace ultimately sets the course for our success or lack thereof. Mastering and maximizing this superpower turns crisis into one of our most unlikeliest allies.
STOP beating yourself up. Seriously, starting today stop this longstanding, toxic practice of tearing yourself down when something does not go right, especially when you have built incredible systems matched only by your intense discipline, and things still-fall-apart. Read the rest of this blog to learn why I want you to stop being so hard on yourself and instead remain in a constant state of reflection (not rejection).
Older I get the more fascinated—obsessed, possibly—I get with entropy. At a base-level, entropy’s simplicity is admiring: Things Change. However, this Thermodynamic Law, when analyzed and applied to all aspects of life, is anything but simple. While I am certainly no expert in physics or calculus nor I am here to give a lesson in Quantum Mechanics, entropy and its impact on our lives and organizations cannot be overlooked or foot noted as “that’s life.”
Our lives, and by extension, our organizations are filled with uncertainty, randomness, and chaos. Those of us who resist the Anarchist or Laisse-faire spirit build systems in our lives and organizations to safeguard against entropy—life’s eventual, inevitable trend toward disorder. A simple example would be the Fit-Leaders’ “pound-a-pint” challenge. To condition our brain and bodies to consume more water, we instilled an ongoing challenge, starting each day with a pint of water. This simple system serves as a catalyst for our water in-take optimization, as well as waking up the brain up, combating dehydration, etc. However, as simple as this pound-a-pint system is, far too many of us know how easy it is to wake up one morning and not drink that pint of water, and before you know it, one day has become two months and then a year and before long your kidneys are suffering from all the coffee, energy drinks and sweet teas you have been pounding.
That is entropy. Life’s natural trend towards disorder.
Entropy and time have a strong correlation. No matter how secure, well-managed, or good-intentioned your systems are, as time goes on these systems inevitably breakdown. Like heat escapes a scalding cup of coffee or a desk once clean becomes unrecognizably cluttered, entropy does not discriminate, and life’s chaos mechanism is entirely natural. That last bit is what I really want to drive home. Entropy, life’s imminent trend towards disorder and death, is completely natural. Your system breaking down is natural. Your organization’s well-oiled machine breaking down is, you guessed it, completely natural. Whether it is skipping your water in the morning, binging on ice cream over the weekend or falling completely off your exercise regiment, a simple fact remains: chaos and disorder are natural.
This is why the willpower/discipline narrative is both misleading and untrue. Entropy, and its countless applicable examples across all areas of life, will eventually and naturally take its course and wreak havoc on your iron-clad discipline. Our ability to “gut-things-out” works great in the short term, but like the steaming hot coffee you use to warm your hands on a freezing winter morning, our own discipline—an energy fueled by dopamine raging in us—eventually transfers to the world and chaos around us. Our fire, our discipline, like the intense heat from the coffee, dissipates as it spreads out across an ever-demanding universe. Therefore, it is safe and honest to say, our discipline can and will fail us—eventually. It is because of this natural law and our inability to escape its trending clutches that we must not be so hard on ourselves all the time. We will fail. Systems will fail. High-functioning, top-performing people, teams, and organizations all fail. Because life, in the form of entropy, finds a way.
This better understanding of entropy and its impact on our lives and organizations is not an excuse clause or a welcome mat for the jaded. Instead, as we better understand entropy and nature’s penchant for chaos, we can begin forgiving ourselves for inevitable failures and system breakdowns. We can also let entropy’s reality and outcomes serve as our perpetual reminder that no matter how high we are flying, how fast we are going, how successful we have become, chaos lies waiting. Thus, we accelerate during seasons of success and optimization, yet we do it with a humble, cautious approach because we also know that things can and will change…
Can I change your life in 600 words? Wait. Too grandiose. Instead, can I get you to stop, momentarily pause the machine, in order to inspire you just enough to kindle an ember of clairvoyant optimism?
That’s my objective. My mission.
I, too, have been bitten by the #OneWord bug – the creativity of encapsulating entire movements or ideologies into a single word. Some of you know I founded the #FitLeaders movement. However, sometimes I think the #FitLeaders movement founded me – the new me. Always fancied myself as a change-agent: forward-thinking, results-driven, fightin’ for the Underdog. However, what separates Dr. Ryan B. Jackson of 2018 from previous years is my newfound commitment and passion for perpetual improvement. I am perpetually improving myself: physically, professionally, spiritually. Not a day goes by that I don’t practice some form of life-tuning. The idea started a few years back (been sober five years, so we’ll say five years ago) but as I’ve crept closer to 40 years old, my commitment to the long-game – the marathon of life – has intensified.
The often misquoted Charles Darwin declared neither the strongest nor the smartest survive, but instead only those most adaptable to change. Change is perpetual – in a world of uncertainty, change is our only absolute. I am an educator. Specifically, I am executive lead principal of The Mount, America’s first pre-kindergarten through twelfth grade STEAM campus. I have secured partnerships with industry heavyweights such as Parker-Hannifin and NASA – I know the Artificial Intelligence revolution is much closer than most think and that Earth’s moon may very well be the catalyst for the next world war. I also know that Baby Boomers are retiring at approximately 10,000 people a day and at this rate we don’t have enough qualified young people to fill the skilled-trade void let alone be well-prepared for the AI revolution that’ll produce jobs only Elon Musk can describe.
Somehow, however, in the midst of unfathomable change, I have grounded myself in a perpetual homeostasis that allows my physical stability to support my divergent thinking. This approach to life is the core, the epicenter, of the #FitLeaders movement. Our penchant for betterment, based on the timeless assumption that change itself is perpetual, culminates in an almost ironic peace of mind that allows for uninterrupted forward-thinking supported by a healthier, more durable physiological state – one capable of withstanding the harsh effects of gravity coupled with time. That’s heavy, I know. But as an educator it rings so true: We’re in a constant battle against time; The weight of our students’ challenges and our limited resources can feel crushing. Finally, the culmination of intense pressure and ever-increasing demands exacerbates hypertension (aka stress or high blood pressure or the silent killer or a leader’s quiet nightmare. You get the point.) Still we fight. We have to – we must – the war to educate children is both imperative and perpetual.
So maybe I am a bit grandiose. Maybe it’s pure hubris to think the #FitLeaders movement can be the catalyst for systemic leadership change, where the age-old “health is wealth” adage gets a Bitcoin, crypto-currency makeover as forward-thinking leaders at various levels of ubiquitous industries find the resolve and discipline to perpetually fine-tune and recalibrate ourselves in order to weather each and every one of life’s storms. And since the moon is being jockeyed as a launch pad for deep space exploration, specifically a Mars colonial mission, it’s worth noting that Mars’ volatile climate can change from hour-to-hour, making a #FitLeaders physical stability, anchored by an acceptance of perpetual change, a future-ready Tour de Force.
This past year I transitioned from an assistant principal at a large metropolitan high school to the executive principal of a small, rural high school. Like any leader, I packed up my bag of tricks, curated over a decade and sharpened in one of the more intense public schools in the state of Tennessee, and set my sights on changing the future of education. I had already fallen in love with STEAM education several years before I set foot in my new school, witnessing its transformational powers. However, it’d be my new school where I’d truly test the impact and paradigm-shift qualities of STEAM as a holistic learning model, where students are taught to think as creators not merely consumers. Not a month into the 2016-2017 school year magic began to happen. See, STEAM is as much a mindset as it is a curriculum – and that’s where we started. Our #Courage2Create vision hinged upon healing a fractured culture, paralyzed by stigma and wrought with a covert inferiority complex. But, things were changing – fast. Students responded first, gravitating towards optimism and the possibility of learning through different modes and pedagogies. Next came the parents, then the community – then we went even bigger…
But let’s back-up, briefly:
Two years ago, I wrote a piece titled Rise of the Visionary Leader (Read it here). At that time I was vision-casting a new era of school leaders needed to usurp a century-long, archaic education paradigm, using fearless innovation, radical ideas and, above all, an unbridled passion to lead change. I had served in public education for almost a decade and watched first-hand how the effects of our industrial-age school model was stomping out any remnants of joy in what we were currently calling school. Teaching within this innovation-less model is what drove me to be a school principal, where I could both champion and implement change. There was no greater factor.
Flash-forward two years: I have just completed my first year as the Executive Lead Principal of the Mount Pleasant Arts Innovation Zone, America’s first Pre-k through 12 STEAM campus. When I said we went BIG earlier, that was no hyperbole. After a month of implementing a STEAM mindset and vision into the high school, the ripple effect took hold. Given the go-ahead by a visionary superintendent, we quite literally took our STEAM model and expanded it – stretching it across ALL grade-levels, with the vision and understanding that this experiential-based learning juggernaut was imperative for all students, especially our youngest ones.
Like any good reflective practitioner, I couldn’t help but wonder if my own leadership efforts lived up to the musings and expectations of a younger me?
So, as I sit here and reflect on the past school year and our outcomes, I wrestle with the only question that seems to matter: Were we bold enough? For the sake of clarity, I’m not just talking about being different. We’ve seen different. Paideia, STEM, Academies, Charters, Parochial, they were all different. I wanted 2nd order change – a complete break from the past. This kind of change hinges on a catalyst, a legitimate change-agent that’s willing to embrace the Stockdale Paradox while broadcasting his or her risk-taking efforts for the entire world to see.
Bold. Not just different.
For instance, our students researched, designed and constructed thematic Escape Rooms. The transdisciplinary PBL, aptly titled #EscapeTheMount, included over seven content areas with nearly 100 students contributing. See for yourself here. We were forgoing theory and actually applying the Arts into almost everything. The impact was irrefutable: Discipline dropped (drastically), ACT scores rose (dramatically), and our enrollment, in conjunction with the revitalization efforts of the city itself we serve is spiking!
Now I know what you’re thinking: “Our school is different, Dr. J. We’ve got intense poverty; Nearly unmanageable discipline; Almost zero parental involvement; Our central office doesn’t support us!” Of course, if this were an action-research dissertation, there’d have to be a limitations section, right? What were our constraints? What innate barriers stood seemingly insurmountable? So, let’s address the biggest elephant, a limitation that stands both connotatively and practically: Being a visionary leader in a public school.
A legitimate concern with public schools is how do you truly innovate within an overtly bureaucratic system, while earning enough early wins to not find yourself on the leadership chopping block come May? Furthermore, as author Diana Laufenberg famously noted, “you can’t have innovation with standardization.” Even beloved education advocate Sir Kenneth Robinson stated, “We have to personalize education, not standardize it.” Herein lies yet another innate public school quagmire. Just like the business sector, where start-up companies strive to take their small businesses public, going to scale while trying to maintain a culture of creative innovation is practically an oxymoron. Thus, our public education system, mirroring the high-volume factory output of the industrial age, is designed to standardize both curriculum and procedures in order to service the sheer volume of students while maintaining some semblance of quality control. Admittedly, there are many more elephants concerning public education, so at the risk of fully opening Pandora’s Box, let’s suffice to say that our public education system is, at the very least, curious to navigate. This realization and acceptance makes the next-step ever so critical:
Cutting through the noise
When we reference cutting through the noise, we begin our lap back to visionary leadership. The visionary leader operates amongst the static – surrounded by noise – yet somehow, almost supernaturally, can both see and get messages through. Let’s also be careful of confusing visionary leaders with mythical superheroes. We’re not letting school leaders off the hook that easy! It’s my firm belief that visionary leaders are more principle-centered than superhuman. Furthermore, it’s also my firm belief that visionary leaders are simply more in-tune with their WHY, which serves as something analogous to Tony Starks’ Arc Reactor, with a clear WHY perpetually generating passion into its leader. When we know our WHY, cultivated through countless hours of reflection, a growth mindset develops, serving as a scaffold amidst unchartered terrain.
Added up, our WHY and a growth mindset form a sharp synergy. This synergy operates like a surgeon’s scalpel cutting through the aforementioned noise. It’s here, in this space, the visionary leader truly manifests, for now a new horizon begins to crystalize far beyond the distractions and disturbances of the public education paradigm. With a principle-centered compass coupled with an unrelenting, WHY-inspired passion, the visionary leader now begins to take on attributes and abilities lost to him or her before – call it third-eye-vision, gut-instinct, magic – no matter what name we give it, the visionary leader transcends the boundaries hindering the majority. This ascension towards something greater, outside the lines of mediocrity, complacency and normalcy, is where boldness happens – and fortune favors the bold. Fortune in this case is literally changing the lives of students and the community we serve, repositioning public education as debt-free catalyst towards future success.
Lastly, the correlation between visionary leaders and situational leadership should be noted. Visionary leaders must always ask the question, “What about the sand?” This question stems from concerns surrounding Dwight D. Eisenhower’s visionary leadership leading up to the Normandy invasion and whether or not the general had given sincere thought to the weight of the US’s massive tanks on soft beach sand. History lessons aside, the example is spot-on as visionary leaders must be able to toggle at-will between the micro and macro of leadership…faster than a speeding bullet!
See for yourself if we were bold enough by following me on Twitter @RyanBJackson1 and search our hashtag #TheMount.
Fear inhibits creativity. It’s a psychological fact. Whether it’s fear of failure, fear of change, or fear of making a mistake, the simple yet gripping effects of fear keep us in a perpetual state of self-control. Authors Chip & Dan Heath detail the effects of intense, unwavering self-control on our brains and, specifically, our creative processes in their book SWITCH: How to change when change is hard. Essentially, fear is exhausting, and anything above a remedial task or recall response, in turn, falls victim to fear’s fatigue. Our education system is no stranger to fear or fear-tactics. We’re all guilty of it in some form or fashion: Study hard or suffer in summer school! Go to college or accept a life of retail! What if there was another way? What if we took the Terminator 2 approach? You know, like how the Terminator became a good guy, showcasing the power of man and machine working together!
Bad movie nerd analogies aside, what if we overcame our fears by deliberately dropping our neurotic focus on them and instead opened our minds to a world of creativity and synergy that surrounds us? Sound far-fetched? Well, that’s the vision for the Mount Pleasant Arts Innovation Zone, America’s first PK-12 STEAM campus. We’re striving to be the Daredevil of education, a public school with absolutely no fear – dedicated to connecting students with their passions by empowering teachers to think, teach and live outside the box. Sure, this may not be the most academic approach to explaining just exactly what a STEAM school is but it’s certainly the most honest. We’re building a culture where teachers are encouraged to take risks, students are inspired to create, and learning happens as a result of the amalgamation of subject-areas.
So what does this STEAM school really look like? I like to use the Music of Mechatronics example. Picture a high school student that loves playing in the band. This kid carries his horn around like a badge of honor and proclaims the brass section to be the funkiest troupe of horn blowers any stadiums ever laid ears on. Now this student loves music but when he sees Mechatronics on his schedule, initially his heart sinks. Not hard to understand, as most musicians would shy away from the program’s Wikipedia description “a multidisciplinary field of science combining a varied array of engineering fields…” However, the Mechatronics instructor, operating under our vision of connecting students to their passions, sees an incredible opportunity to teach this freshman about a different kind of melody. The sweet humming of a 3D printer. Before long, the student is 3D printing functioning, multicolored mouthpieces that leave his band mates both curious and impressed. This freshmen now loves band AND mechatronics.
There are countless examples like this but the results are the same. We’re taking a page out of the Nanodegree generation’s playbook, combined with a bit of practical psychology, and helping students embrace their passions while simultaneously opening their minds to the reality of real world synergy. It’s education a la carte. We’ve recognized that under the one-size-fits-all, factory-line education model we’ve done more damage than good, so we’re leveraging the power of relationship-building and personal interests to foster both a new way of thinking and learning. It’s metacognition for the mobile-generation! And what’s cooler than 3D printed French horns is that we’re starting this process as early as three years old. See, basically we’re a public school acting like the coolest start-up company since Snapchat. Only this isn’t Silicon Valley, we’re re-directing the course of education from the cozy confines of Mount Pleasant, TN, a cool little pocket-city an hour outside of Nashville. I use the start-up comparison because our teachers vertically plan – like 2nd graders working with 11th graders on the same Tiny House PBL – and our emphasis on hands-on, experiential learning transcends both grade-level and content-area. This allows for an overarching vision free from the compartmentalization of students by arbitrary birthdates.
We’ve championed the moniker #TheMount and for good reason. Our students are on a journey of self-discovery, a journey that will take them up the mountain of personal excellence. In order to climb this mountain, they’ll need to synthesize their learning, apply its knowledge and reflect on their progress. That’s what STEAM, both conceptually and practically, is all about. We’re committed to thwarting old paradigms, opting instead to create new ones. We see ourselves as creators – not merely prescription fillers – who inspire students to think and do like creators not consumers. We’re bonded by an oath to prepare our students for an ever-changing global economy by eradicating learning silos, marginalizing standardized tests and, above all, dispelling fear. Are we perfect? Of course not, but we’re also not afraid to be imperfect. Do we fail? Sometimes. But when we do, we always make sure we fail forward, learning and growing from our calculated risks.
People ask me all the time, What is STEAM? Here’s my thoughts: STEAM is loving Art and Science. It’s applying both to something like agriculture and realizing your harvest just got way cooler. STEAM is as much an educational state of mind than a set curriculum. Swing by The Mount sometime, I’ll show you what I mean…
I’ve talked before about my decision to stop drinking alcohol. This New Year’s Eve marked four years sober. My biological father died well over a year ago, end result of a hard-living life. He and I had been estranged five years before he finally met his grandson (relationships first to go with substance abusers) and at that point in my life I was over two years sober. I had never outright called myself an alcoholic but his premature death coupled with my own struggles with excess left me forced to face facts. Thankfully, by the time my father died and grief left me temporarily toiling over the inescapable idea that I was more than likely genetically hardwired to follow suit, I had already read Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning. I eventually detached from grief-stricken logical fallacies because I understood and accepted Frankl’s concentration camp-tested claim that man’s greatest innate ability is undoubtedly his power to choose.
So I chose sobriety and with it the blank canvas of re-starting my physical, mental and emotional health journey. My very next move was seemingly trivial and by all accounts superficial but the effects and catalyst-like impact on my life have been game-changing. I was in the early stages of my doctoral program so I had “free” access to the university’s gym. I set an immediate goal of losing beer-belly fat so began the extremely humbling process of hitting the gym three times a week.
What I found out soon after those embarrassingly painful first gym visits, however, was an almost instant improvement in my entire physiology. Ever the skeptic, I just couldn’t deny I was feeling, looking, sleeping, even thinking better!
It was upon this realization that the Fit Leaders ideology was born.
Never a big fan of self-help or motivational gurus but Tony Robbins’ mantra “Progress equals happiness” rang true after every session spent bettering myself in the gym. If life is our constant physical battle against gravity – literally keeping ourselves off the ground – then each session in the gym for me equated to grabbing the very next rung on the ladder of life. Now at this point in my professional career I’m transitioning from teacher to administrator in one of Nashville, TN’s toughest high schools. Maplewood High School, where I started my education career, is the stuff of legend: high discipline, high poverty, gang violence, low student achievement, etc. It was Dangerous Minds but real life. In the 80s a teacher was shot, mid 00s a murder at our graduation ceremony, pick a heartbreaking, gut-wrenching scenario we had it.
Now I was being asked and, ultimately, asking myself to lead others in this pressure-cooker of a high school. So my choice to abandon alcohol, consume more water, and force myself into the gym couldn’t have come at a better time. My job performance blossomed because I had more energy. My ability to influence increased because I could think better. It became crystal clear the correlation between personal and professional health, as I got physically stronger so did my job performance. As I looked and felt better, my interpersonal skills and relationship-building skyrocketed. This health-job correlation helped me turnaround a struggling inner-city high school, helping raise both ACT scores and graduation rate in the process.
I felt and thought better which meant I was able to pour into my passions even stronger.
I love art and believe it breathes life into the soul of a school, which led to me infusing art into our STEM curriculum – which attracted the attention of a nearby school system looking for an innovative school leader willing to embed Art across curriculums and create the nation’s first PK-14 STEAM campus. [Side Note: I’m now the Executive Lead Principal of the Mount Pleasant Arts Innovation Zone, the United State’s first PK-14 STEAM campus]
As my career and energy-level steamrolled, I took to twitter and Instagram to share and connect with other thought and fitness leaders. I was bitten by the Abraham Maslow bug, eager to belong to a tribe of NewAge leaders who were ready to change the world by leading the millennial generation towards a healthier, purposeful life. Through this process a hashtag was born: #FitLeaders serves as a beacon, a categorical calling card that attracts, connects and bonds all those wanting, willing and striving for a better life. The Fit Leaders movement now reaches coast-to-coast, from Marilyn McAlister in Southern California to Sean Thom near the shores of New Jersey. With a growing presence stretching across the United States, the Fit Leaders vision has crystalized, formed by a collective of passionate leaders.
Fit Leaders is a lifestyle brand striving to sustain high-quality, innovative leadership across all industries in an ever-changing world. Our mission is to empower all those wanting a better, healthier life for the sake of both ourselves and the industries we serve. We understand that progress equals happiness and that even small, daily advances of momentum can result in life-changing good. Lastly, we commit to leading ourselves so that we can be rock stars at leading others.
The Chinese have a great philosophy on crisis. The eastern vantage point sees crisis as Danger meets opportunity. For many educators, reformers and parents, the United State’s education system has been on the precipice of disaster for some time – considered by many to be a full-blown crisis. Since my visit to China several years ago, as part of a leadership exchange program between trepid nations, my personal approach to crisis has been drastically altered. Serving as an educator now for more than a decade, I’ve spent the past five years seeking out the opportunities clouded amidst the shadows of seemingly unyielding danger.
A quick reference through my blog catalog confirms where I’ve spent my time unearthing these hidden opportunities: Restorative Justice, PBL, Art Antidote, to name a few. Furthermore, I’ve pressed the need for education transformation rather than the archaic, profit-laden reform approach. This past summer I rolled the dice and wagered my professional career and family’s future on the lofty goals of a forward-thinking district led by an atypical superintendent, who positioned this school system more like an inspired start-up company than a stagnant corporate giant. Only a month into the 2016-2017 school year and we’ve already erected a symbolic statue of the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) paradigm that has devastated curriculums across this great country of ours for the past two decades. This pyre of misaligned standards, hurtful protocols, over-testing and empathy-less remediation stands reminiscent to the towering Wooden Man effigy burned annually to represent radical self-expression.
Now it’s time to throw the match…
Breaking out of the industrial-age education model
How awesome is it to live in such an inspired technologically advanced time? Our devices update every six months (if not sooner), our children learn to swipe before they learn to crawl, and our ability to connect with one another has created a boundless classroom, where pen pals are now virtual classroom companions. Yet with so much #EdTech advancement, the most puzzling, if not scariest, irony is our unfathomable commitment to an industrial-age education model that has stood now for more than 100 years. Impossible to proclaim true change when our education model harkens class-based ideologies trumpeted as high as the Presidency:
“We want one class of persons to have a liberal education, and we want another class of persons, a very much larger class of necessity in every society, to forgo the privilege of a liberal education and fit themselves to perform specific difficult manual tasks.” – Woodrow Wilson
I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out the parallels between this month’s Labor Day celebration, a national holiday commending the efforts of those who sacrificed in order to improve working conditions during the height of the – industrial revolution – in order to secure better working conditions, specifically for children, immigrants and the poor, and the educational uprising that seeks to eradicate a class-based education paradigm through progressive means. Of course these parallels and proclamations aren’t anything new, author Jonathan Kozol exposed the system and its origins almost 30 years ago in his riveting expose Savage Inequalities. Yet, here we are in 2016, embracing the advancements of augmented reality while operating within a paradigm designed for children who would once spend 12 hours a day working in ankle-deep waste.
Not on our watch…
Pulling the NCLB plug
NCLB and its emphasis on Big Brother-style accountability seemed to serve as a life-support system for the industrial-age education model, herding students based on achievement levels with an unwavering, merciless blind eye to socioeconomic status. Beyond the morality issues, NCLB forced an entire generation of students to continually confront their weaknesses, hammering on them daily, while outright ignoring their innate talents and passions. The result has been a joyless education experience that has left the idea of School Spirit on its proverbial deathbed, a purgatory of sorts where children dread school with physical manifestations such as increased violence, panic attacks and an alarming increase in truancy.
So, if breaking out of the industrial-age education model and deconstructing NCLB are WHAT we’re doing and we’ve discussed at length WHY we’re doing it, the next logical question is HOW? And the how, fellow educators, is what has me so inspired to serve in the Maury County Public School system!
Inspired PBL with project-enabled resources
At this point project-based learning (PBL) should be new to no one. This experiential learning model begins with a driving question and places students right where they belong — at the center of their own learning, while charging them with identifying, investigating and proposing theoretical or practical solutions to community and/or global problems. The issue up until now has been throwing teachers and building leaders directly onto the griddle, watching them squirm and side-step around this cutting-edge learning model due to inadequate training and limited resources. The result, naturally, was teachers and principals feeling like PBL was one more flavor-of-the-month or Edu Band-Aid, never giving it the proper attention or necessary implementation.
Enter Discovery Education: Maury County Public Schools has partnered with the global brand Discovery Education, leveraging their infinite PBL resources and tech-friendly web portals to give teachers a one-stop-shop when looking for inspiration, training, and 21st century resources. Unlike highly-publicized and contested partnerships (Pearson, anyone?), Discovery Education helps teachers pour into students’ strengths, while fostering a creator-mindset that looks to usurp the current consumer, rote knowledge landscape plaguing our young people.
The US’s first k-12 public school STEAM campus
Where PBL is an awesome experiential learning model, STEAM education is the universe it lives within. Think of it like Hulk romping around the Marvel universe. One of the biggest catastrophes of NCLB was the degradation of our Nation’s arts curriculum, relegating it to the doldrums of education’s hierarchy while eviscerating imperative human needs and traits like self-expression and empathy. The STEAM movement combats this education evil by embedding the arts across a much needed STEM curriculum, infusing visual and performing arts so that students can embrace their talents and passions while sharpening creativity and ingenuity.
I’ve been a STEAM advocate for the past two years and this passion has put me in a position where, coupled with a progressive school district and the forward-thinking non-profit Kids on Stage, we are creating the Nation’s very first k-12 public school STEAM campus. Imagine a world where students as young as three-years-old begin a life-long journey towards personal excellence through artistic expression with advanced STEM curriculum. Think Mechatronics meets AP Environmental Science and Concert Band, where amphibious drones collect Zika virus samples set to the tune of Jaws played by a live, student orchestra, or Construction students partnering with a songwriting class, researching, designing and constructing a tiny house while writing then recording an ode to country love songs titled I’m gonna build you a tiny house. Quickly you realize the infinite possibilities and equally infinite life-changing educational experiences – with students living and learning like this from three to 18-years-old. That, my fellow educators, is truly the future of education and the pure Phoenix rising out of the ashes of the industrial-age model.
An anchor statement is your brand’s bottom-line, the boiled-down essence of everything your organization represents. I’ve been on a mission lately, evangelizing to educators the power of embracing their brand, both personal and professional, and I’m prepared now to put my money where my mouth is.
I was recently hired to administer my own school; I’m now the proud principal of Mt. Pleasant High School in Mt. Pleasant, TN. Naturally, I’m bringing my personal brand with me. In fact, I’m quite certain the #UnderdogsAdvocate brand played a large part in why I obtained the position. The past several years have been dedicated to showcasing my life’s work, tirelessly serving underprivileged students, in order to better connect with fellow educators, community members and various stakeholders. The impact of creating and sharpening my personal brand has had a multiplier effect on not only my work but also serves as a conduit for others to learn from my work, the driving factor of a professional learning network (PLN), as well as a 21st century form of professional development.
Immediately after taking the helm of Mt. Pleasant ideas began to swirl. Mt. Pleasant is a school in the midst of a rebirth-like transformation, surrounded by a city bubbling with innovation and business development. The school’s identity was starting to develop organically as its middle-school feeder (a visual and performing arts 5-8) was promoting incredibly talented freshmen year-after-year. This overwhelming surge highlighted the obvious: What’s the next step?
And so the #Courage2Create movement was born.
The idea is simple, and it most definitely applies directly to Mt. Pleasant; however, its impact and reach stretches far beyond any one particular classroom, school or school district. Actually, I’d argue the ethos of Courage to Create expands through school systems, organizations, families, even governments. It’s a divergent way of thinking, where status quos are burned in favor of rebuilding new paradigms from the ashes of archaic, controlling old ones. All of this scholarly rhetoric sounds great nestled in a blog post but it has to have a starting point, a tangible beginning: the beginning is courage.
Courage implies we make a leap of faith, trusting our instincts, relying on our skillsets. Courage rejects judgment, ignoring the mundane majority in favor of a more exclusive, eccentric club. You can begin to see how my two brands intersect, as the Underdog’s Advocate platform is built around proving the majority wrong while writing your own success story. The Courage to Create movement is merely an extension of that ethos; it’s where the rubber-meets-the-road. Initially, I thought this movement exclusively applied to young people – I’m an educator thus my brain constantly focuses on improving student outcomes – but a trip to Boston, speaking at the Americans for the Arts convention expanded the idea.
After speaking with artists, educators and community stakeholders from across the country, the unyielding message was an extreme need for change. Reduce education’s standardization and increase community arts influence to improve quality of life were just a few of the common threads echoed during the convention. The majority of the dialogue that followed centered on HOW? How do we change things? How do we inspire others? How do we sustain it? My response overwhelmingly was simple: Courage. Yes, the courage to begin, as so often the decision to change and its first-step require the most faith, yet also the courage to persevere, that unwavering fortitude to weather life’s (and our system’s) inevitable storms.
At Mt. Pleasant it will mean inspiring a student body to find the courage to create their future, a symbolic rally-cry that emphasizes your destiny is indeed in your hands not cemented by bloodline or previous expectations. Practically speaking, we’ll ask students to embrace their inner-artist, whether that’s as an engineer whose art serves a necessary utilitarian purpose through the beautiful bridges and infrastructure designs they’ll create or the dancers, musicians and painters whose artistic-creations equate to food for the wearied soul. Even student-athletes will see the artistry behind disciplined training and courageous commitment. Furthermore, it’ll mean challenging a faculty and staff to step outside of their comfort zones. Embrace the courageous act of relinquishing the safety and self-control of our previous norms in order to create something new – something different.
The Courage to Create is most definitely our Mt. Pleasant High School anchor statement but it’s so much more than that. It runs parallel with my philosophy on leadership:
“Leadership is a lifestyle.”
And, in essence, so is the Courage to Create. It’s an amalgamation of growth mindset, logotherapy and a burgeoning STEAM movement. All of this coupled with a personal touch, that unique flair that distinguishes us from every other living thing making our creations truly one-of-a-kind.
Our Courage to Create mission is uniquely embedded within the rising tide of Mt. Pleasant High School but its universal message – the theme that transcends geographical borders and passionate purple cow leaders – lies within the hearts of all organizations redefining themselves. It’s a synergy that has a Tesla-ability to illuminate our shared connections while celebrating peacock-inspired differences. Please join us on this journey towards self-discovery and realizing then maximizing human potential.
Maury County Public Schools is in the midst of massive change. A once stagnant district now has a new innovative Director of Schools, a global partner in Discovery Education and a quickly crystallizing plan to become middle Tennessee’s first 1:1 school system. MCPS’ 1:1 push serves a plethora of functions, the most noble of which seeks to help eliminate the digital divide perpetuating student achievement gaps across racial and socio-demographics. The second function addresses not only how students learn but WHERE they’re doing it. As a veteran educator with more than a decade’s worth of experience in both urban and rural settings, I’ve listened as more and more students share with me their passions, purposes and pursuits of learning. A growing number of our students have turned to the internet as their classroom of choice, picking and choosing their learning times while leveraging the infinite resources at their fingertips to become micro-credentialed in just about anything.
Introducing Nanodegree Nation.
Self-help gets a digital makeover
Anyone unfamiliar with the live-streaming video platform Twitch let me school you on what 100 million people already know: Globally people of all ages – with Centennials serving as the bedrock – connect via Twitch to, well, learn how to play video games. If I rock at playing video games (call me a “Gamer”), I broadcast my skills through Twitch while other would-be Gamers tune-in and learn from an expert. Simple, right? There’s no video game school. No video game principal. No video game 7:05AM start time! Just various learners of different skill-levels seeking differentiated instruction from countless experts. I know, I know, we’re talking about video games, how silly – except there’s nothing silly about 2020’s $115Billion gaming software revenue projection but that’s another blog post.
The point is, like YouTube and Twitch the web’s digital classroom is eviscerating all notions of what contemporary school looks and feels like. Any educator willing to face reality will tell you students are rejecting education’s current paradigm and they have good reason to. The tip of the spear is and always will be teachers, as their effect-size carries the greatest impact. Some of us educators have adopted the digital settlers mindset, bravely, boldly trekking the #edtech frontier in search of a way to strike gold with our wayward students. Yet, we’re still too few and far between and the reality is we’re still serving within systems that are afraid of this type of thinking. The greater atrocity is the teacher-next-door who thinks smartphones are the Devil and insists on continuing the Vulcan mind meld method of torturous pontification and recall. To help quell these fears and practices, MCPS superintendent Dr. Chris Marczak repeats the mantra, “Technology isn’t replacing teaching; it’s enhancing it!” The looming fear, however, is that without a paradigm shift from educators at-large technology will replace teaching, whether we like it or not.
Unless you’ve been living under a Gateway 2000, it’s no surprise today’s students are indelibly tethered to the digital world. From Snapchat to Kik, Twitch to YouTube, students socialize, entertain themselves and…gasp…learn while serving as flesh-and-bone Ethernet cords. This blog post doesn’t mark the beginning of students’ perpetual penchant (addiction?) for screen-time or signify its phenomena status but instead shall stand as a conversation starter as to the power of student perception on our current education framework and how this perception will undoubtedly impact both high school and college degrees.
So old it’s new
Ages ago humans passed down knowledge orally. We’d sit around a campfire, literally chew the fat, and learn from more experienced members of our tribe. Over time this method of teaching and learning graduated to an apprentice model, where hands-on experience coupled with expert tutelage forged us into young professionals. Scene-select to the last hundred years or so as more complex societies took education to scale and we find teaching and learning now confined to age-cohorts, processed through a grade-level format with a blanket of knowledge and skills already prescribed for us. Aside from some tweaks and variances here and there, teaching and learning – school, as we’ve come to know it – hasn’t changed in over a century. That idea alone is terrifying but it’s become Stephen King-level when you consider our smartphones advance approximately every six months with students serving as the beta-testers.
Speaking of education’s one hundred years of stagnation, let’s shift our focus to today’s students and the oil and water relationship between their physical and digital education. What makes students more and more unique, unlike their student-body predecessors, is not only are they true digital natives but for the first time in history a generation has access to boundless information sources at nanosecond speed. Yes, the Internet’s been around since ’95, I’m well aware; it was my generation that staked our digi-flag in AOL’s early chat rooms. However, how we actually learned through the Internet was analogous to AOL’s dial-up speed. Nowadays, students seem to merely exist in the physical world, whereas they simultaneously live and learn in the digital one.
For educators, parents, researchers, and social scientists, it’s the learning part of that last sentence that should pique your interest the most. Why? Because it’s as fascinatingly brilliant as it is scary. Students are literally taking matters into their own hands, refusing to be confined to education’s bureaucracy and archaic system. Instead, students are adopting an entrepreneurial mindset, creating their own curriculums, choosing their own instructors and gaining their own micro-certifications.
The future is no longer ahead of us – it’s upon us.
I say this with fervor and familiarity because I am now the Executive Lead Principal of the Mt. Pleasant Arts Innovation Zone, the United States’ first PK-12 STEAM campus also selected as the pilot campus for MCPS’ 1:1 vision.
What is college?
To be fair, post-secondary academia will probably be the first true casualty of the nanodegree revolution. I’ll speak solely from experience here, as my learning has increased exponentially now that I’m a PLC junkie. My professional learning community (PLC) has without a shadow of a doubt far surpassed any learning I received during my years in grad school – and I had a solid grad school experience, standing proudly behind my action-research dissertation. (Read about the Competitive Teaching Model here.) With student loan debt sending college grads to financial purgatory and Bernie Sanders’ pleas for FREE college fading, young adults’ version of anarchy is now to find their path and expertise through free, well-informed channels.
These days when I’m hiring a new teacher or interviewing a prospective administrator I’m more interested in your digital profile than your college portfolio, as far-out as it sounds I’m more interested in your Twitter handle than any letters you have following your government name. Who do you actively learn from? What Voxer groups are you in? Have you ever moderated a Twitter Edu Chat? These are today’s version of what school did you attend and what was your GPA?
If all of this sounds far-fetched, ask anyone under the age of 30 when was the last time they read an instruction manual. And, don’t ask students who their favorite teacher is because that word has specific connotations, instead ask them who they learn the most from – and where does this learning occur.
The answers are shaping our future: the physical and the digital one.
Educators everywhere are celebrating because it’s finally March – which means a couple of different things: spring’s promise of better weather and new beginnings, as well as the fanatical fervor of college basketball’s March Madness. Since March’s weather matches the temper of your building’s copier, let’s instead focus on the latter and the excitement those blank NCAA brackets bring.
It’s a safe assumption everyone reading this has at one point in their life partaken in the watercooler-fueled competitive March Madness bracket buster pool. Maybe you’re a pro, a legitimate college sports couch analyst submitting countless variations of your nuanced brackets to ESPN.com. Or, maybe you simply succumbed to the allure of joining your friends and co-workers in your school’s $5 shenanigans pool and were hooked once your Cinderella underdog clawed its way to the Sweet sixteen. Either way, the impact of your involvement affects the brain similarly:
Your dopamine spikes as you highlight each of your wins
Your sense of status skyrockets as you edge-out competitors
Your sense of belonging surges as the pool becomes the talk of your building
Your need to satisfy our innate desire to survive is quenched
Your focus sharpens as your engagement grows with each round
What at face-value seems to amount to little more than just random picks and a bit of harmless fun is in fact a melting pot of brain-based, needs-satisfying psychology. Thus, the idea of March Madness fervor parallels perfectly to the impact of non-threatening competition in schools, where the five effects listed above combine to create a culture of passion and goal-setting – resulting at the very least in student engagement and at its pinnacle student empowerment.
Paging Mr. Pink
I’m a big Daniel Pink fan. His ideas on motivation and our insatiable appetite for autonomy, purpose and mastery have helped shape my leadership style while also vetting my Competitive Teaching Model (Discover its power here). Creating a culture of healthy competition aligns with Pink’s BIG three, ultimately motivating students to be their best while inspiring the group as a whole to collectively reach for new heights.
Autonomy through the lens of a competitive teaching model empowers students to set goals, devise a plan, analyze progress and fine-tune after feedback. Ownership and control now rest squarely in the hands of the student. With more and more teachers beginning to “hold students able” instead of merely accountable, shifting our perception as we presume positive intent, genuine autonomy now transfers to measured success. As students meet and exceed goals, set and conquer challenges, the brain rewiring weaves electromagnetic magic as dopamine traverses neurons – sending positive message after positive message. It’s one thing to instill passion in students – the Competitive Teaching Model literally hardwires it!
Purpose can confound the most focused student. The key is creating a transparent culture where students can clearly see the impact of their role on both personal and team success. This is where Pink and Maslow high-five each other, as crystalizing a student’s purpose solidifies his or her perceived sense of belonging, which is a major personal and professional hurdle for those on the road to self-actualization (mastery). How big is that for a student, though? Helping students not only realize their true potential but correlating their unique role to the team’s outcome, while simultaneously embedding empathy practices that help students identify and relate with the roles of their teammates. The Competitive Teaching Model is now hardwiring success skills!
Mastery can’t be rushed and for the majority of us it certainly doesn’t come over night. Thankfully our intrinsic curiosity and innate desire to win (evolved from our primordial instinct to survive) motivates us to chase mastery – driving harder, headlong into tumultuous surf, grasping for what’s just beyond our fingertips. Often times we’re competing against ourselves, and anyone who’s ever attempted a strict diet or workout regimen knows that daily personal goals are simple: be better than yesterday. This intrapersonal goal-setting sharpens our skillsets and talents, which allows for greater success when we compete against others, whereupon we now include status, belonging and engagement – synthesized respectively into a hardworking, goal-setting, driven individual.
Brain Rules of Engagement
If you’re anything like me, you fell out of love with math in middle school. Before that I quite enjoyed the subject, especially days we’d compete at the front of the class feverishly working through multi-step subtraction problems while my friends cheered me on in the background. If the new buzz in education is to inspire passion in students, I’d love to have a snapshot of just one of those board races – my face inches from the board, left hand covered in chalk, sneaking peaks to my right to see how my competition was doing. Meanwhile, students behind me couldn’t contain their excitement as they rooted-on their favorite mathematicians with fist-pumps and cheers. This was passion personified.
A year later I “hated” math.
So how do we inject the spirit of something as simple as elementary math races into a 21st century curriculum? The answer could be as simple yet profound as Reading. Yes, you read that right, and, yes, I realize that passion and reading aren’t the first two words that come to mind when you think of igniting a culture of engaged students. However, that was the case this past fall when Maplewood High School hosted its first-ever Read-A-Thon, where close to 50 students holed-up in our library after school – on a Friday – and competed to see who had greater reading stamina. Our English Department knew they had a heavy chore on their hands when they decided last summer to commit to creating a culture of reading in one of the poorest high schools in Nashville, TN.
Teachers laid the groundwork by promoting student-choice reading, allowing all students to self-select novels they’d be reading during class time and for homework. Once the foundation was set, the teachers positioned the Read-A-Thon as a no-holds-barred, survival of the fittest Reading Rumble. Each hour prizes were distributed for students who continued to turn pages. By 9:30PM it was clear the more than 20 students that still remained were in this competition for the long haul, refusing to be outlasted, out read by any would-be bibliophiles; By 10:30PM we declared approximately 20 students WINNERS of the Read-A-Thon. These 20 students only represent a fraction of our student body yet their participation and commitment to something as atypical as competitive reading has helped propel our reading culture to its next phase: Reading Rebels.
Our Reading Rebel attitude manifests itself this spring as we are now challenging other schools across Metro Nashville Public Schools in a first-ever district Read-A-Thon hosted by Maplewood High School. This coming April schools across the city will connect via Google Hangout and compete to see which school has the most committed readers. Participation is all-inclusive with students from every grade and ability-level encouraged to carry their school’s flag with each page they turn, each chapter they close, each book they finish.
For Maplewood High School, every school day is now framed as a chance to train as we prepare for the upcoming Reading Rumble, with students committed to a shared goal: Increase our reading stamina so we can claim victory against our Reading Rumble rivals! Whether you’re filling out a NCAA bracket or selecting books for a Read-A-Thon, the brain’s willingness to compete serves as an intrinsic motivator. The Competitive Teaching Model plays to this brain-based advantage, amplifying a sense of belonging in students and faculty while clarifying our purpose and preparing us for mastery.