Tag Archives: leadership



I just looked at the calendar on my IPhone and it says I am supposed to go back to work on Monday.  So be it.  I haven’t really left my work anyway… I have been messing with stuff for the past month:  developing our new program at the Chula Vista Nature Center, researching elements of our plan to eliminate grade levels, writing about how we  raise resilient kids, brainstorming strategies to focus our teaching.  Blogging.

money bagsjpegMeanwhile, I noticed that the state of California still doesn’t have a budget agreement and that there is now a $26.3 billion deficit!  The system is broke and it doesn’t appear that we are even structured to fix it

I noticed that the U.S. Department of Education now has $5 billion in special funding set aside to promote  the development of new innovative practices and I wonder if they are really ready for the innovations we have in mind!

I notice that Arne Duncan and President Obama are tweaking the NEA, the national teacher’s union, about the need for merit pay and opening up more charter schools– and that now they are both on the union “list”.

I notice that the NEA has been adamantly opposed to more charter schools… but they would like to unionize the ones that exist and steal their very best ideas! (By the way… the NEA is more than welcome to replicate our best practices!!!)

I notice that there is still some forward momentum around the effort to create one set of national curriculum standards and simultaneously wonder if that is really what is missing.

I notice that there has been no revision to NCLB and that we are still rolling up all our eggs in a very inadequate assessment basket called the California Standards Test.  And since we are not likely to have hit all of our AYP targets for the first time, and since we chose not to spend valuable learning time teaching our students how to take the test... we will have to be prepared to defend our teaching practices and explain why our kids didn’t score at a level that NCLB demands.   And, of course, we will have to demonstrate — to somebody– that we have a coherent plan for whatever ails us.  And the people we will have to answer to are the ones that can’t seem to do their own job… which is to manage the state’s budget and provide for the needs of children!      

IMG_3762As a matter of fact, I notice that the further away you get from actual classrooms where children and teacher live every day, the more delusional leadership becomes– like dancing in front of funhouse mirrors.  

So… much has changed since we sent our students tumbling into a very brief summer recess back in June.  And yet nothing has changed at all.  Real change and innovation still has to come from within the walls of the school.  And that is why I already set my alarm for Monday morning.


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Filed under California budget, California charter schools, charter schools, El Milagro, innovation and change, resiliency, school reform, standardized testing, teaching



In the summer heat the cicadas sing in harmony, their collective voices rise and fall… rise and fall.  As if the Bayou breathes. And of course it does.  And they are matched in the distance by the pounding of hammers that rise and fall. Rise and fall.  Six houses in a clearing… and one small story in the resurrection of New Orleans.  DSC_0156

This past week, Anne and I lent our voices to the cicadas and our arms to the six houses. The habitats.

Habitat for Humanity is an amazing organization on so many different levels:  but especially the mission.  And the people. 

We continue to find models and metaphors for leadership in the strangest of places and this time in New Orleans we found Terry Cooney.  He was sent from New Jersey to New Orleans by the Red Cross 18 hours before Katrina came to shore.  He fought his way into a hurricane… upstream,  against the long lines of citizens fleeing their doomed city.  Then he fought against the storm itself, staying on his feet when the buildings shook.  floodThen he fought against the rising waters and pulled bodies from the canal.  Then he fought against the bureaucracy and incompetence of state and federal organizations to create food lines for people who had otherwise been abandoned. childjpegThen he fought against a police force in chaos– marauding officers that looted the Red Cross food supplies so they could stock their own hunting lodges.  Then he fought against the mounting anarchy– that moment in a crisis when good people bet the strength of their own resiliency against whatever force is trying to assure their destruction.

Then he fought against the corruption that rendered Katrina “catastrophic”.

In time the flood waters receded and the city was left in ruins.  But Terry Cooney stayed.  He could have returned to New Jersey, but he decided to do what he could to help in the long, long process of salvaging one of our nation’s most sacred treasures.  Eventually, that meant working with Habitat For Humanity and the many volunteers that come from across the country to help rebuild a community– one house at a time.  

This was our second opportunity to build for Habitat.  Last April we worked in Musician’s Village with a team of Anne’s co-workers from Intuit. After two full days of work, we managed to hang only the facia on the front and side of one house. That’s it.  But volunteers do what they can do and having never hung a facia, or worked on a roof, or swung a hammer clinging to the top level of an extension ladder– that was the contribution we could make.

This time we arrived on a site already buzzing with multiple teams of volunteers and Americorps workers and high school kids earning their way in this world by building houses and good karma.  And this time the six houses were on the other side of the river on the West Bank.  They were in a more advanced phase of construction and so our role was to hang the siding.    

DSC_0114Habitat for Humanity provides some basic tools and building materials for their volunteers.  And they provide a site foreman like Terry Cooney who has to take a very diverse group of people with different work ethics and skills and physical fitness and preparation and experience and lead them to some level of productivity.  He has had all kinds of volunteers from celebrities to church groups to not-so-motivated teenagers to company CEO’s and corporate superstars that haven’t done a day of physical labor in 20 years– if ever.  

Somehow, even with all the disparate daily tasks and oddball day laborers, Terry Cooney gets his houses built.  And they are strong enough to withstand hurricanes. 


Fortunately for  the mission of Habitat for Humanity and all their volunteers– fortunately for the City of New Orleans– Terry Cooney possesses a few skills that prepare him for the job.  And not just construction skills. Those of us who study organizations and group dynamics noticed his style of leadership.  

Here is the Terry Cooney Way:

• Keep the mission crystal clear for every volunteer; 

• Make sure that every volunteer has a healthy regard for site safety;

• Quickly assess the volunteers to determine if there are any experienced builders and who has skills with power tools and who hates climbing up ladders– then turn them lose on whatever stage of the project they can do;

• Provide enough basic instruction to get groups started on their projects for the day;

• Encourage and support every effort– but don’t do their work for them;  

• Never ask people to do anything that would compromise their safety or the safety of others;

• Never ask anything of your volunteers that you wouldn’t do yourself;

• When it is steaming hot outside and the morning hours drag on, tell ’em about “the giraffe that walks into the bar”;

• Demonstrate a genuine appreciation for every individual’s contribution, no matter how large or small; 

• Honor their service.

DSC_0127On Tuesday morning one of the high school groups was packing up to leave.  They were exhausted.  They gathered for their  group meeting along side the circular saw and waited for Terry to release them.  Then a sudden piercing hum rose well above the cicadas and construction sounds.  And around the corner came their leader, with bagpipes wailing the Marine Corps Hymn.  All other sound and activity momentarily ceased.  

And when he played the last note, Terry  rested his bagpipes under his arm and gave the workers a send-off speech fit for William Wallace:

DSC_0132“You should be proud of your work here,” he told them.  “I know your parents would be very proud of you too.  On behalf of the Habitat for Humanity organization and the people of New Orleans, I want to thank you for your service. You made a difference here.  I want to play another song that is dedicated to each and every one of you.”

And then he played “Amazing Grace” in tribute to a group of kids that would have likely found lots of better things to do this summer than swinging hammers in 98% temperatures and 90% humidity!  

I think when a city floods a lot of stuff gets shifted around and some gets left behind and some gets washed away altogether.  Sometimes the waters bring reconciliation and sometimes they bring the likes of Terry Cooney.

There is healing in this stifling heat. Each nail, each river of sweat, each silent tear shed for one man’s Amazing Grace, each hammer swing– a labor of love.  

In that instant of stillness after the bagpipe drones go silent, we hear the eerie cicada rhythm resume again.  Back at work… they serenade the habitats.  It is as if,  like Terry Cooney, their song is never done.


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Filed under resiliency, teaching

STIMULUS: 20 Leadership Lessons From Barack Obama

stimulus | ‘stim yul us
noun (pl. -li | -,li)

• a thing that rouses energy in something or someone; an interesting and exciting quality

pres1On this, the thirty-day anniversary of the historic Inauguration of our 44th President, this much is clear: when it comes to leadership, Barack Obama has some game! In just four weeks (about the time it took most of us to figure out where the restroom was in our new school), President Obama has named and re-named cabinet members, passed a nearly $800 billion stimulus package, flown to Denver, Phoenix and Ottawa, launched Hillary into the Far East, visited a Washington DC charter school and took Michelle to dinner on Valentine’s Day. Whether you agree with his policies or not, there is much to learn from this president’s powerhouse approach to governing.

Metaphors for leadership abound– in Fortune 500 Company CEO’s, NBA basketball coaches, and admirals who have captained naval ships. You can find their books in Borders or read about them in Fast Company. Or you can follow CNN on Twitter and study how one man, our president, has approached his first month on the job and confronted the most complex and urgent crises of our generation.

So whatever your role in schools might be, here are “20 Leadership Lessons” from the dynamic presidency of Barack Obama:

1. Keep your eyes on the prize: There is nothing like a wordle to know you are consistently ‘on message’.

2. Invite them to the barbecue: Stepping outside of the hallowed halls helps to build social networks with allies and adversaries alike. Kegger at the White House!”

obama_running_blueflys_blog_flypaper_123. Don’t wait: Hit the ground at a sprint and knock over the furniture. Launch and learn!

4. Keep your family first. Period.

5. Feed your inner gym rat: Stay fit!

6. Bipartisan “process” is secondary to doing the right thing: So do the right thing.

7. Be resilient: After the inevitable setbacks, betrayals, and disappointments… you have to bounce back stronger.

8. Don’t be a sap: “I am an eternal optimist,” said the President. “Not a sap!

9. Read stuff!


10. Don’t give up your Blackberry: Especially if it is your link to the only people who will tell you the truth.

11. Speak to the conflict: When you speak from the heart to the needs of people that didn’t vote for you, that’s real Servant Leadership.

12. Have some courage. Enough said.

13. Sneak out to dinner: (But leave your Blackberry at home.)

14. Change the culture to change the outcomes: Replace the curtains hung by your predecessor and then make up your own rules.

lincolnjpeg15. Stand tall on the shoulders of giants: Don’t wobble, they became giants for a reason.

16. Appreciate the ghosts. (If I lived in the White House I would walk around at night and listen to the spirits whisper.) Our schools have a history too.

17. Surround yourself with the best people you can find: Build your own team of rivals.

18. You belong in the room: So when you feel like you are over your head, it is good to remember that you were hired for a reason.

19. Communicate… communicate… communicate: Make it your gift.

And finally, whether you are an urban school district superintendent, the assistant principal of a small elementary school, or the most powerful leader of the free world, one month on the job–

20. Remember that HOPE is what brought you here.


(Cross-posted at Leadertalk, a blogging community for school leaders hosted by Education Week.)


Filed under President Obama, resiliency, spiritual intelligence