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Pass the ball.

Empowerment is defined as authority or power given to someone to do something; the process of becoming stronger and more confident.  Delegation is defined as distributing work or tasks to another person.  

Lately as I have reflected on vulnerability in leadership, I keep coming back to youth sports.  Perhaps because this is the season of life I am in at the moment.  

Pass the ball…

Passing the ball is a tough one for young athletes. There can be several reasons I won’t pass the ball.  I may not trust the skills or knowledge of my teammates,  maybe I think I can do it better, or I want the credit for the win or the points. Passing the ball means giving away full power over the next play and its results, which is the true definition of EMPOWERMENT.  Tough stuff for young athletes.  Even tougher stuff for us grown up leaders. 

Imagine the feelings of the teammate who was trusted with the pass.  Engagement, confidence, trust, and purpose.  I hope you have had the benefit of receiving a pass on the court, on the field, or in the office. We are more likely to retain team members who feel trusted, valued, and purposeful. 

Being a humble, vulnerable leader requires us to be skilled in effective passing.  Not the passing of work or tasks, the passing of power.  Where does vulnerability lie in passing the power, or empowerment? It lies in messages of trust and competence.  It lies in sharing the spotlight. It lies in the loud message of “It’s not about me.” 

When we entrust those we serve with power and authority, we are also saying we believe in cultures that value growth and risk taking.   When we pass the ball, we risk the one we passed it to missing the shot.  Vulnerable leaders seize these missed shots as opportunities to invest and reflect.  To invest in the player who missed, the dynamics of their team, and ultimately reflect on their pass. Was it a good pass?  Are my players set up successfully to take the pass?  

Vulnerable leaders recognize there are shots members of their team are just better at taking.  They pass with intent, confidence, and eagerness.  They stand ready to celebrate and support. 

Who knew?  Our leadership lessons started in 5 year old basketball practice. Thanks Coach. 

Leadership is Listening With Your Eyes.

Have you ever worked for someone who advocated for your success above their own and who relentlessly pushed you towards your best self?  They pushed you not because they would benefit or even the company but because they cared… deeply for you.  They believed deeply in you and your impact.  They felt so strongly the world needed your influence and recognized their role in making this happen.  

I have.  I feel blessed that I have and even more blessed that this person was my first principal, Mr. David Ogden.  He set the bar high.  His example of a leader’s role in the building capacity and leadership in those he served is one I strive to emulate daily.  

I won’t forget walking past his table at my first job fair out of college in Bryan, Texas.  His warm and sincere smile at each passerby let me know he recognized and had not forgotten what it was like to be on the other side of the table.  I also won’t forget the warmth of those who accompanied him at his table.  Warmth and kindness was clearly valued, modeled, and expected.  I also cannot forget the first question he asked me as I spoke with him.  The questions leaders ask of potential hires often tell a whole lot about what they believe about those they serve.  He asked me, “As a first year teacher, tell me what you will offer us and how will you make us better?” Whoa.  His belief in the offerings of all and the expectation that all members of the team contribute and add value came through this one question.  In addition to the impact of the first question he asked, was the way he listened to my answer.  He was the first person who taught me what it means to listen with your eyes.  He listened so intently with his eyes, truly seeking to understand my intentions, my goals, and my heart.  He didn’t just do this at our job fair interview, he did it over the course of multiple years.  

In the summer after being hired before my first school year started, my mom and I came up to school to work in my new classroom.  He saw cars in the parking lot and wandered the halls to see who was there in the summer working with no air conditioning.  He walked into my new classroom where mom and I are standing on a cabinet hanging bulletin board paper.  He immediately jumps up on the cabinet and proceeds to help us hang paper for the next hour.  He shows us around the school and introduces me to a few staff members.  The principal helped a first year teacher and her mom hang bulletin board paper in her classroom because he wanted to, because he cared, because he believed in me and what would be created in the four walls of that room.  He didn’t do it to be seen, to be recognized, or to talk about it later.  He did it for me. 

I grew more in my first two years of teaching alongside the leadership of Mr. Ogden than I have in my career.  He didn’t make the path easier for first year teachers because they were new.  He spoke messages of competence in me by scheduling challenging students in my classes who to this day have taught me some of the greatest lessons of my career, appointing me leadership roles and allowing me to succeed and fail at leading my peers, and putting concerned phone calls through of stakeholders who needed to hear more from me.  He had an innate ability to strike the perfect balance between creating challenges and knowing when to step into support.  I now know this was not just his magic, but also because he made it his business to grow every person in his care.  

In 2022, I wish for all of you to be led by a Mr. Ogden.  I wish you to feel what it means when someone listens with their eyes, to be challenged and supported, and to be inspired by the expectations of those who lead you because you know they are deeply invested in making YOU better.  

Thank you Mr. Ogden.  I’m still choosing public education because of how you made me feel each and every day.

Interested in talking leadership or workplace culture? I’d love to talk with you- laurenambeau@gmail.com

The “Basic Needs” of Workplace Culture

I have made a tremendous amount of mistakes as a leader.

 I made a really big mistake my first year as an intermediate school principal.  I dared to open up a conversation around the purpose of grades at my second staff meeting of the year.  Not good.  I knew it was not a good move the minute the words left my mouth. Arms crossed, words flew, faces reddened, voices got louder, policy was quoted, history was fiercely protected.  Defenses around self-preservation were high and emotional “armor” thickened by the minute.  

I did my best to make it out of that meeting without too much cultural damage.  I am not sad it happened.  It has grown me immensely.  It was a defining moment for me in my understanding of workplace culture.  

Here’s what I learned:

There are basic needs of “workplace culture” that are imperative to innovation, transformation, and growth as an organization.  

We are all familiar with Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.  I’d like to use his research to share some of my “ah-has”!  In essence Maslow uses a pyramid of human needs to describe a motivational theory in psychology. The pyramid illustrates the hierarchy of human needs starting from the bottom of the pyramid moving up, arguing the needs at the bottom of the pyramid must be met before humans can attend to needs higher up.  

https://www.thoughtco.com/maslows-hierarchy-of-needs-458257

Maslow has something to teach us leaders about workplace culture.

 Let’s start at the bottom with physiological needs as they relate to workplace culture. Leaders who value culture recognize their employees lead complex lives with personal celebrations and struggles which can affect how they “show up” to work.  In education, we are all familiar with the phrase “Kids don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”  The same is true for adults.  Consider this lowest layer of the “culture pyramid” to be all about deeply knowing your employees, but don’t stop there.  Culture at this layer is also about the effectiveness of a leader to create conditions for all in the organization to “know” each other deeply.  How do you as a leader create opportunities for staff to connect personally and to empathize with the lives of their coworkers outside of work? 

Maslow describes the next level up from the bottom as safety needs.  When we connect Maslow’s thoughts to that of workplace culture, to me this layer is imperative to organizational innovation and transformation.  When employees feel safe and protected to take risks aligned to goals of the organization, innovation occurs.  Leaders create this “safety” by encouraging, celebrating, and spotlighting all those stepping out to innovate and transform, even when some of those risks result in failure.  Leaders also listen for resource needs required to take these risks.  They recognize these “resources” can be physical or material in nature but can also be the resource of influence to take the risk.  Leaders who meet the “safety need” recognize the need to give power away to allow for innovation to occur.  How do you as a leader spotlight all organizational risk takers? 

The need for love and belonging sits third from the top on Maslow’s pyramid.  I would argue a sense of belonging and acceptance is critical to employee retention, fulfillment, and innovation.  Leaders who value a sense of belonging for their employees pay close attention to feedback and presence.  We as humans long to be noticed, loved, nurtured, and known.  How are your employees “known” in your organization by you and by others?  How do your employees know the greater reach of their contributions and innovations? 

The need for esteem might be one of the important when we consider the power of a positive workplace culture that exists long after the leader is gone and withstands high levels of change.  A favorite quote of mine is “A system that is dependent upon one person is not sustainable and will crumble.”  Weak leaders have a desire to feel needed and tend to create systems that revolve around their strengths and their influence alone.  They see others on their team as “assistants to their glory.”  Leaders who value the esteem of each one other employees recognize the need for challenge and inspiration.  In fact they are so in-tune with the idea that self-esteem increases when challenges are overcome, they are constantly seeking ways to move those they serve out of their comfort zones, ready to support them with insight and encouragement.  Confident employees who are unafraid of failure create cultures of great transformation.  Confident leaders are willing to nudge, support, and get out of the way.  How do you increase the self-esteem of those you serve? 

At the top of Maslow’s pyramid is self-actualization.  Imagine a workplace culture where every employee is expected, inspired, and determined to become the best they can be for the shared goals of the organization. Leaders who lead self-actualized employees are self-less, visionary, and confident.  They are strong advocates for the success of others,  take great pride in lifting others up around them, and are not easily threatened by the achievement of others.  They recognize a successful leader is defined by the success of those around them.  Complacency and protection of the status quo are not tolerated by leaders focused on helping those they serve.  How self-actualized are the employees you lead?  How do you make it your business to know? 

It’s easy for me to see now that talking about repurposing the value of grades, a system rich in personal beliefs and history, without attending to the “basic needs” of cultures that embrace innovation and transformation was destined for disaster. 

May we be the kind of leaders that make it our business to meet the “basic needs” of all of those we are blessed to serve. 

Interested in talking leadership and culture? I would love to hear from you at laurenambeau@gmail.com

Sometimes the greatest gift we give others is the use of theirs…

“We have breakfast tacos and clean, bolied water. Coffee. Charging. Heat. Wifi! Come and get it- and spread the word.”- Heritage Park Baptist Church in Friendswood, Texas.

As I read these words from a local church on day 3 of the Winter Storm reaking havoc on our community, it caused me to pause. It made me reflect on a recent conversation I had regarding the changing roles of churches and schools in our communities, most specifically the roles of school and church leaders. Daniel Pink in his book, Drive, makes the case that motivation is highest when people are given the autonomy to inovate and create, feel a sense of purpose, and can strive towards mastery or improvement.

When reading Heritage Park’s message to their community, I immediately thought of how motivated to serve each member of this movement are as they unite in purpose, regardless of titles and roles, and share the work of service. I thought of how the church leaders tapped into the unique gifts and talents of each and allowed them to create a space to serve others, never seeking recognition but focusing on fulfilling those around them.

The message of Heritage Park also gave me hope– hope that we as educators will take the struggles that have seemed to surround us as of late and establish partnerships of service with our churches, as well as take time to sit down as leaders to co-construct the collaborative roles schools and churces can play in serving our communities and children based on all we have learned as a result of our recent crises, better known as opportunities.

Leaders empower. Leaders promote. Leaders serve. Leaders are not seen. Leaders unite.

Sometimes the greatest gift we give others is the use of theirs.

Reimagining Education In the Heart of a Pandemic

My last blog post titled Striking a Balance Between Rhythm and Revolution was on September 21, 2020. The words in the post were fueled by a struggle to answer the internal calls I was feeling to not waste this crisis and use this rare opportunity to reimagine learning for students in public education, while also longing for a taste of predictable rhythm and routine.

Most recently, I shared this edutopia article in a district newsletter titled Has the Pandemic Ushered New Norms in Education? A first grade teacher at Westwood Elementary in Friendswood ISD, Landry Angel, shared her resonation with this quote from the article – “During hardships, we often want nothing more than to wrap ourselves in a blanket of what’s familiar. But crisis creates opportunity, and if we don’t move beyond this chapter without having evolved in our practice, it will have been an opportunity wasted. This opportunity is about growth. It’s about reflection on what needs to stay and what needs to go.”  It was then that I knew we needed to hear from Mrs. Angel who daily takes the call to courage to use this unprecedented school year to reimagine education.

Reimagining Education

by Guest Writer Landry Angel, 1st grade teacher at Westwood Elementary in Friendswood ISD

As educators, we have always heard (and seen) how powerful teaching can truly be when you take the time to first build a relationship. We know Friendswood ISD backs this wholeheartedly because it’s in our strategic plan, more than once. For me, in the school year of the pandemic, this has never been more true. I feel like this year has really put a spotlight on that particular truth. 

Throughout my years of teaching, I’ve found it is so easy to get wrapped up in pushing each student to meet an “end goal”, whether it’s a certain reading level or mastering “x” amount of math skills. We work hard throughout the school year, striving to meet those goals. In many instances, that “end goal” looks the same for each student. The question I have been wrestling with is why? Each student is different and has different needs, so shouldn’t their goals reflect that thinking? 

Our profession has gradually gotten better about thinking of students as individuals, but we must take this to the next level in the midst of the pandemic. Thinking about uniqueness is no longer just a nice idea; it’s an absolute necessity if our students are going to grow to their full potential. To meet kids where they are educationally, we must first build relationships. It’s Maslow before Bloom, as we often hear. For me, as a first grade teacher- investing in this, while it does take time, it is worth it. Every ounce of time and energy is worth it, because when the foundation is there, learning seems to come so much more naturally.

Throughout my career in education, I’m realizing more and more how much student support and relationship building truly go hand in hand, and this has me thinking about what else needs to change. What else can be shifted? How can I be better? The world is already upside down, so if we are going to take risks with our teaching to connect with our students, what better time is there than now? It’s the perfect opportunity- and how blessed am I (are we) to work for a district that not only supports this type of thinking, but encourages it!

Striking a Balance Between Rhythm and Revolution- Don’t Waste this Crisis.

It’s been a year and eight months since I have written. It’s interesting that the desire and burn to write again comes in the heart of the pandemic. But maybe it’s not so interesting. It’s in times of crisis that we are given the opportunity to re-evaluate, re-purpose, and re-imagine. I am learning that it’s in times of crisis that we have two choices- to rush back into predictable rhythm and routines or to acknowledge the ache and discomfort and seek out the revolution.

Where does ache come from? For me, it shows up when my beliefs are not matching my practices. Core beliefs I hold close are the value of promoting innovation over compliance, to not become disillusioned by details, empowering people over programs, and in meeting all learners where they are at, not where I think they should be. Through this time of crisis, the ache comes from the tug and pull of staying true to beliefs and finding the courage to challenge misaligned practices. Choices arise from this reflection. The choice to rush back to a safe rhythm that brings a known sense of comfort or step out on the cliff to see the possibilties.

As educators we have been charged with serving students in-person and virtually and with this charge have come some powerful conversations that magnify where our current practices might be analyzed to ensure alignment with our beliefs. What was the original intent of these practices, do they draw us closer to our mission, is our collective commitment to our beliefs compelling enough for us to engage in these crucial conversations?

As leaders when we show up daily, do we inspire innovation and a new future? Do we put our dreamers and visionaries in positions of influence and voice? How do we recognize the need for rhythm while still embracing the revolution?

Be the Keeper of Your Spirit

Here we go…  into the spring semester!  I find the day before the return to school after two weeks to rejuvenate and refresh is a great time for reflection.  I’ve been doing a little research on how tragedies affect communities over time.  What brought me to this research was the “out of breath feeling” I have not been able to get ahold of this school year.  This feeling of not being enough personally, but also of not being able to lead a school that is ENOUGH for our community and students’ needs at this time.

It is now officially 16 months after Hurricane Harvey ravaged the lives, homes, and school of our students and their families.  Research shows when a crisis affects the every day operations of families and threatens the security of basic needs, food, water, and shelter recovery and healing takes a significant amount of time and happens in stages.  “Normal” was ripped from our children and the realization that things are and will be different is hard and makes life incredibly unpredictable.  Their parents are grieving the loss of the lives they worked tirelessly to build.  The psychological stress of our children has led to need for more mental health training for our staff.  Readying the minds of disillusioned students for learning when they begin to realize they life they once knew will not return again requires a whole different skill set than teachers receive in their pre-service training.  Many of our families live in a state of worry and panic over how to provide and support their children when rebuilding seems to be a never-ending process.  They are tired.  Very tired.  And when people are tired, hope is hard to find, relationships suffer, reactive becomes the operating norm, and emotions run on high all the time.  How do we become the “ENOUGH” they need?  How do we provide hope in the continued sorrow?  How do we create a schoolhouse that brings back the light they lost? How do we protect our spirit so we have the energy and desire to keep trying? 

It’s no secret that what students and communities need from schools has changed dramatically and it has long been my goal to lead a school that is the “hub” of its community.  To be the “hub” to me means ALL feel welcome and desire to be a part of the team.  Campus leaders are responsible for the “spirit” of their organizations, the feeling people get when they walk in, the feeling that makes them want to come back to learn, grow, work, or volunteer.   With the new and diverse needs of our students and community, demands of campus staff increase, the pace and urgency quickens amidst the exhaustion, gratitude is not readily expressed, progress is not celebrated as often as needed, and you simply feel not enough.  This is the perfect formula for a broken spirit.

Here comes one of my greatest leadership lessons thus far- Be the Keeper of Your Spirit. If we believe the human spirit is what can keep us going beyond our time, doesn’t it make sense to recognize that we have an obligation to protect and guard our spirit with all our might?  When we allow the “not enough” feeling to seep in day after day, we fall farther and farther from our purpose.  We lose sight of our WHY, our moral imperative, our reason for being.

My challenge, in the face of heart breaking stories, children in crisis, and  families in despair, is to CHOOSE love.  I was reminded in a CharacterStrong training that love is a choice. When we choose to offer love consistently, we are not only protecting our spirit, but are breaking down the walls that prevent relationships necessary for real learning and real growth to occur.

The honest truth is teaching is hard. Choosing to love when you would rather walk away and say, “Maybe its not me whose supposed to be the change for this family or this student” is dang hard.  But if we as campus leaders don’t accept this challenge, how can we expect our teachers to do the same on the toughest of days?   You see, I am not convinced that our schools have to follow the norms of society, I’m convinced we can shape the norms of society.   We choose love even when its really hard. And this daily choice will make us ENOUGH.  Be the Keeper of Your Spirit.  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Nine Hard Truths About School Culture for Campus Leaders

Recent interviews and reflection of hiring practices have caused me pause. I will take a “culture builder” on our team any day before a “content expert.” Don’t get me wrong knowing the content one is hired to teach is vitally important but inevitably there is a candidate in the mix who knows the content well, but can ALSO contribute the growth of a positive campus culture. Failure to select candidates that aspire to grow positive classroom cultures in which the voices of all students are heard results in a content expert who cannot connect with kids.

Rerouting to recent reflections, if we believe this to be true for teachers we hire, then we, as campus leaders, must lead the same way. On the journey to improving student achievement, we tend to get stuck in slapping at initiatives that must be in every classroom. Our approach in bringing these worthy initiatives to scale often is without conversations centered around our personal and campus values and beliefs. We miss the human factor and prescribe steps to implementation resulting in confusion, resentment, and ultimately a leader who cannot connect with teachers. When you fail to connect with teachers and seek only compliance, school culture suffers.

According to a 2018 ASCD Article, “School Climate and Culture”, School culture refers to the way teachers and other staff members work together and the set of beliefs, values, and assumptions they share. A positive school climate and school culture promote students’ ability to learn.

Here are my reflections. I’m calling them the ‘Nine Hard Truths About School Culture for Campus Leaders’
1. You alone as the campus leader cannot foster a positive campus culture, it takes the right team. However, you alone can destroy it… quickly.
2. “Over valuing Compliance”- Don’t fall prey to the trap of thinking the more complaint your people are the better your culture. Compliance does not foster innovation. Demanding conformity/compliance does quite the opposite.
3. Improving the culture of your school will not alone guarantee improved academic achievement, however neglecting it is a sure-fire plan to student achievement decline.
4. Crucial conversations are paired well with a hefty helping of relationships. Culture is destroyed when we walk into tough conversation in the absence of a relationship. It is also destroyed when we never have the “crucial conversations” because we never establish the relationships.
5. Have an opinion, make it known, and ask others theirs… OFTEN.
6. The social and emotional health of staff and students is directly affected by the culture of a school. Period.
7. Find the pep in your step. Care too much. Smile too much. Get way too excited. I have never seen an abundance of negative people led by an overly positive person.
8. Isolate the naysayers then work your hardest to find their ‘why’? Start by sharing and living your ‘why’ daily.
9. Bleed hope. Always.

 

Meet Your Inner Genius

“Sometimes you have to introduce people to their genius, it is not always apparent to them. Great leaders create space for that introduction.”- Unknown

I miss teaching.  I miss designing lessons for kids.  I miss the daily gratification at knowing you helped one of your toughest smile or taste success.  I miss car rides home from a long day lost in thought about what I can do differently tomorrow to reach the one I missed today.  However, all good campus leaders never allow their hearts to stray too far from the classroom. After all it is the act of teaching we are obligated and privileged to support.

One of my greatest areas of recent reflection and passion is the concept of being a “teaching Principal.”  In other words, how to be the best I can at truly supporting the growth of educators so they can reach any child and ALL children.  Better yet, to inspire them to request the “tough ones”, to engage in risks because mistakes are celebrated, and to open their doors to feedback, and to encourage the open doors of their peers next door.

Not to over simplify my learning and growth in this area but it really comes down to believing in the inner genius in each teacher.  When a common set of teaching and learning beliefs are established and expected by all, you can move past the surface level compliance conversations and really listen to each other.  Listen to learn and not to respond.  Leaders create space for listening to the ideas that teachers feel are important because they know teachers are bringing the voices of their students forward.  Isn’t this the same thing we want in student centered classrooms?  Lessons centered around the needs and voices of students.

It’s on us then to create spaces, structures, and systems that allow the inner genius of each of our teams to come to life.  When this happens, culture grows, your leadership team becomes more than department heads, teachers and students share agenda items for meetings, efficacy is at an all time high, and learning cannot be stopped.  I don’t have to miss teaching anymore…

 

Restoring Hope in Public Education

A Life’s work In Question

I have been struggling… a lot. I have been struggling with promoting innovation in rigid structure of a seven period day. I have wondered if we can be the agents of change we want to be. Public education is in crisis- there is a movement of vouchers, private schools, home schools, etc. People are looking for other agencies to do it better. We have businessmen making policy for education. Funding is decreasing, class sizes are getting bigger… I WAS on the brink of losing hope.
I won’t venture to speak for each of you but I found myself lost and without purpose. Is it all worth it? What am I missing?
I have come to realize that one of the greatest assets of our nation is a free and appropriate public education. I know and believe this. I don’t like what it has become. I don’t like the hideous attempts at improvement that push us towards standardization. I don’t like that what we teach and that the seven period day we teach it in hasn’t changed in 50 years. But I am determined to stay the course and fight for the change, to be the voice for what the founders of public education meant for it to be. I can’t fail our future. We cannot allow our life’s work to go down without fighting like hell. The eyes of former students and courageous teachers speak to my soul. It’s worth it, alright. They are worth it. I’m in… are you?