My Mission Means #educator4life

I’ve heard it murmured a time or two: “he will leave education for some big private sector role”. I didn’t know that this was a “widely” held belief until the past few months when I heard it over and over.

I don’t know which is sadder: 1) that speculation or 2) I didn’t know it was there.

Truth be told, I almost did leave a few years ago. In fact, I neared the main office to turn in my resignation and accept an #edtech position within the private sector. Funny thing happen though that was the wake-up slap I needed: a student stopped me to share what a difference I had made in her high school career and that she had made it to the college she wanted. I turned around, walked into my office, and shredded the resignation letter.

I haven’t and never will look back on the best professional decision of my life. 

So let’s put this speculation to bed publicly. I’m writing my story and our story in the walls of schools. What is that story? Like I’ve said in so many ways, my mission is to make this change

Innovation, Happiness and Smiles. I want the spirit of schools to be such that everyone is happy and smiling. If everyone was happy and smiling, I’d know the conditions for engagement, passion, interests, agency, agility, human-centered, loving, and living were in place. I’d know that these were capable of being alive and well. I’d know that education wouldn’t be about just content and skills but mindsets, dispositions, and experiences. When I look at educational leadership, I’m worried. I see hyper-standardization. I see a focus on the mundane and trivial. I see a landing mindset that fears changes, fears risk-taking, and fears innovation. Very, very few are smiling in that type of environment.

The only way that I believe and want to do this is by being in schools, in education. I am an #educator4life.

Why Ethnography and Leadership

When I get in full-blown Ryan mode and the edubabble starts flowing, one question I’m often asked is, “what the heck does ethnography mean in relation to leadership”?

I admit. It sounds a bit awkward and definitely not a common word tossed around when pontificating about leadership.

To put it simply, I’m saying…

  • Learning about and from people is core
  • Balancing heart and mind keeps us soulful
  • “Culture Eats Strategy for Breakfast”
  • Decision-making is first and foremost human-centered
  • Exploring, questioning, and wondering should never cease
  • Empathy reigns supreme
  • “Data with a heart is a story” (boy, oh, boy have we forgotten this one in leadership)

That’s it. It isn’t magical. It is just being deeply curious about people, cultures, climates, and environments. Because that curiosity and “learning from people” (Spradley) can grow a better world.

“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view …
until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” To Kill a Mockingbird

Defining an Excellent Administrator

Leadership is not about mandates, processes, nor standardizations. It is about a meaningful community that thrives on happiness, innovation, love, and smiles. When I look at educational leadership , I’m more convinced than ever about this point: our past models of leadership can inform us but they are dated. In a world that is rapidly changing and shifting, leadership is about a continuous state of renewal and avoidance of complacency. What if we led as fast as the world is changing? How might we create conditions for this type of leadership?

Beyond all of the management pieces and the given qualities of effective administration, relevant leadership is about creating conditions for others to excel. I believe those conditions are rooted in agility, agency, and joyfulness if our students and teachers are to benefit from our leadership:
– What If We Empowered and Fostered Ownership
– What If We Developed a Designer and Ethnographer Mindset
– What If We Focused on Design Thinking for Decisions
– What If We Put Wheels On Other People’s Ideas Not Our Own
– What If We Embraced the Wild Ones in the Organization
– What If We Build Experiences Not Products, Programs, or Tools
– What If We Rapid Release Tech and Professional Development
– What If We De-Privatized Our Departments
– What If We Shortened the Yes Change
– What If We Focused on Spaces (cognitive, digital, and physical) for Engagement and Renewal
– What If We Fueled and Sustained Innovation, Growth, and Excitement
– What If We Kept Passions Ignited in the Soul, Smiles on Faces, and Hunger in Hearts
– What If We Connected and Celebrated Ideas in Order to Create Ripples
– What If We Honored Today while Never Losing Focus on Tomorrow

This list of conditions is not exhaustive but speaks to minimizing standardization and maximizing autonomy. When we hire outstanding people and encourage individuality within a spirit of collaboration and when we trust, support and encourage our people to do great things, our students and teachers have the right conditions for amazing things to happen. This fosters the autonomy, love, passion, happiness, and innovation needed for today and tomorrow.

Defining an excellent administrator does not come from a list of textbook traits. It is about beliefs and actions that encourage and inspire people to move individually and collectively. It is about walking into a learning environment and seeing love, joy, and smiles within a changing, innovative environment. This is what defines an excellent leader, the ability to create conditions for constant renewal without those they serve losing ownership and happiness.

Importance of Technology in Education

Our world today provides unprecedented opportunities for learning and inventiveness limited only by our own curiosity, imagination, and wonder. But to create those opportunities, we need to design the learner experience around agency, empowerment, engagement, and inventiveness. This means exploring and experimenting as we reimagine learning as engagement of the heart, mind, and body. This is where deep, transferable learning lives. This is where our educators feel the empowerment and the freedom to ignite and support the passions of learners.

All of this begins with questioning and asking what if:

– How do we amplify the creative thoughts, sparks, and passions of each student with the conditions, people, and resources in an organization to bring those ideas to life?
– How might we make schooling worthy of student engagement?
– What does it mean to be well-educated for today and tomorrow?
– What are the qualities that define the learners when they depart from our community?
– What if we created conditions for agency, agility, and people that led to engagement and inventiveness?
– What if we shifted our beliefs and actions of our classrooms towards a garage studio concept?
– What if we focused on joy, love, and passions over policies, procedures, and standardization?
– What if we were able to tell our story instead of it being told for us?
– What if we unleashed the power of learning through the opportunities afforded by the combination of student, teacher, and technology?

While there are many paths towards a learning environment where agency, agility, engagement, and inventiveness rule, there are four experiences at the heart of this transformation:

* Pencil and Pixel
* People and Places
* Pause and Perspective
* Play and Produce

Today, we need to reimagine learning around more than skills, more than content. It is about co-designing experiences for knowledge, skills, and mindsets that foster the whole child and qualities of genius. It is about getting beyond saying and starting the doing. It is about more than ideas but watching those ideas come to life when wrapped around resources, people, and time.

Technology is but one significant force in reimagining the learning environment. What I bring is less about technology and more about a scope of understanding that technology is a piece of this great journey. With that piece, all facets of the learning environment are touched. This is the importance of technology in education and it requires us to see those layers in order to create the conditions ripe for student and teacher success.

Inspiration and Energy

Yesterday, we had a day long think tank with nearly 40 teachers around the idea of how our technologies can best support and push the district vision of learning and teaching.

Being knee deep in synthesis and ideation that allowed a first prototype to emerge all day is cognitively and physically exhausting.

But I sit here energized. I sit here motivated. Because in a design thinking process, the facilitator is a deep, deep observer and a sustainer of flow so I was able to let the voices of educators wash over me: their ideas, passions, challenges, hopes, and joys.

Quite simply, I can’t sleep because I’m inspired. It reinforces my strong belief that leadership is about breaking down walls, removing obstacles, creating conditions, and putting beliefs into action.

But a dull ache sits with me. Do we as leaders provide them with the same inspiration and energy? Do we as leaders foster happiness and joy? Do we as leaders ignite action and passion?

Teachers and students do that for me each and every time. Isn’t it time we do the same?

Happiness and Engagement

Almost everything begins and ends with our staff. If we keep them happy and engaged, they will keep our students happy and engaged.  This will then reward the organization with growth, loyalty, and renewal. And it is this that helps fuel our conditions for agency, agility, innovation, joy, and learning that creates the ultimate value for our community.

It is the human factor and it is the greatest goal of leadership: create the best conditions for people to thrive individually and collectively.

Not easy to create and perhaps even more difficult to sustain. Yet essential!

Honestly, show me a school without this and you’ll see the failures of leadership.  Programs, projects, plans, and protocols are the unwavering focus. Compliance and fear are the themes. “They” (over we) is the language. Buy-in (over believe in) is the strategy. Mandates are the norm.

In other words, it is the difference between leadership that grows and rejuvenates versus one that rules and governs.

As a colleague of mine often quotes from :

“A leader is best when people barely knows he exists. Not so good when people obey or acclaim him. Worse when they despise him. But of a good leader who talks little when his work is done, his aim fulfilled they will say, ‘ we did it ourselves'(Lao-Tsu).”

I can think of no greater accomplishment in leadership: living up to that last line, protecting happiness and engagement, and creating conditions for agency, agility, innovation, joy, and learning.

What If These Are Lacking

Scott Glass, another terrific colleague, recently expressed the irony that as , “an institution focused on people, education can be quite dehumanizing.” One of our greatest leadership imperatives is to fight against this reality and to keep the human-centric focus that is at the foundation of meaningful and relevant organizations.

So that answer to the question of what to do if the climate is a mess: stop everything you are doing, stand in front of your faculty, and say, “let’s pause and regain our focus on what matters: Us! Our happiness and engagement”. Is it admitting failure? Is it admitting wasted time? Yes. Will people not believe you? Probably. End by telling them that you’ll spend as much time as it takes proving that your actions align with your stated beliefs.

Then, live and walk those very words in each action you take. If you can’t, be open about why.


Losing the Glow of a Child

I’m not sure why it bothered me so much. I’ve seen in time and time before. But this past trip to Disney World at Thanksgiving shed the greatest light on the societal obsession with mobile devices.  But I’m not talking about children. I’m talking about adults.

Line after line was full of illuminated adult faces as children danced around the mysteries that emerged around each corner. And the adults were missing it. They were missing out on the moment just to do what: pass the time, to connect to those not near, to disconnect from… Disney World?

It is hard to imagine how we’ve gotten here. It is hard to imagine the impact all of this will have on this generation of kids whose parents are often more concerned with the glow of a screen than the glow of their child.

I disconnected from my device more on this trip than I’ve ever done in the past. The glow of my children was simply more important than the glow of a screen.

Great Reads for Creating the Conditions for Innovation

It was an honor to share insights on “Creating the Conditions for School Innovation” with the Google Team. Without question, the genesis of these ideas emerge from the great mentorship that I’ve been blessed to receive. With that said, I’ve received a plethora of requests seeking pragmatic ways of bringing these conditions to life. In coming weeks, I’ll post these in a series of writings knowing that so much of it is

  1. about shifting mindset not completing specific tasks
  2. about removing the obstacles so that others can innovate not owning innovation
  3. about embracing the discomfort of the messiness that is ethnographic leadership not striving for order and predictability
  4. about reimagining change management not holding to what has always been

As a starting point, here are my top ten recommended books for you to read in the area of organizational innovation.

  • Orbiting the Giant Hairball: There are few books that I read annually. This is one of them. It focuses on how to navigate the paralyzing conditions that all organizations inherently foster that stifle creativity and growth.
  • The Power to Transform: This is one of those books that you need to read five pages and then chew on for a few hours. However, it is one of the most impactful and thoughtful looks at the conditions for sustained transformation. It is a head of its times.
  • Mindset: I’m not sure there is a better book that tackles agency and agility more than this one. It is simply a must read. Two things to do while reading: 1. evaluate yourself 2. evaluate the things you do in your role asking, “do I promote a fixed or growth mindset”.
  • Coaches of Chicago: This is written by one of my mentors and dives deeply into this topic from a leadership lens. It is a tremendous read for those working to understand the conditions that foster ongoing growth but not at the expense of a joyful environment.
  • Disney U: How does a huge organization rooted in a picture of perfection develop and sustain a culture of performance? This book tells the tale of Disney University and the approaches they take to ensure personal and professional growth for all employees.
  • Where Good Ideas Come From: This is one of those must reads. I encourage you to write down how you generate ideas currently both as an individual and as an organization (or team). As you read it, compare and contrast.  For me, this book opened doors on idea generation that I never fully understood and was doing a terrific job on facilitating (you’ll get the problem with that very word upon reading it).
  • Creativity, Flow and Psychology of Discovery: Creating the conditions for organizational Flow is my goal and ultimately how my worth should be  judged.
  • Switch: Change management. It is not easy. There is no script. It is at the heart of the work to get an organization rooted in innovation.
  • Better, A Surgeon’s Notes on Performance: While on the surface designed for those facing the challenges of the medical profession, it provides indispensable lessons for anyone in a complex profession where risk are frowned upon but needed to evolve.
  • The Dip and Tribes: These quick reads written by the same author tackle two aspects you are bound to face when shifting: “I want to give up” and “How do I start”. Dip helps you understand the change management cycle and the inevitable doubt stage. Tribes resonated with me from how do I move even the smallest of groups and then empower them to create their own tribes.

Bonus Reads (new pieces that I’ve just finished that are now foundational)

  • How Google Works: I actually just finished this book in the past couple of days, but it felt like everything I’ve written, shared, done and presented was captured on those pages. The difference is that it comes with much greater depth, experience, and success than what I offer in my writings :-)
  • Creativity, INC.: A recent book that I initially struggled to read. However, I went into it wanting to know specifics about Pixar and didn’t let the book have its own approach. The real value of this book is in the specifics on addressing roadblocks facing organizational innovation. As you read, focus on the roadblocks that resonates as something you face.
  • Creative Confidence and The Art of Innovation: Both by the same author, these dive into specific strategies that foster mindsets that believe in agency, agility, and innovation. While vignette based like many business books, you can draw the lessons from the stories told.



Photoshop on Chrome OS: First Impressions

I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not an Adobe Photoshop expert nor was I an avid user of the product when I was primarily using a Mac. That said, I was excited when Adobe and Google announced this partnership that brought Photoshop to Chrome OS.

For one thing, it attacks directly some of the misnomer that continue to run rampant in regards to Chrome OS. Second, it brings a productivity suite from an industry standard software company. Finally, it puts a great foot forward in terms of modeling what can be done with cloud-based software.

First Impressions

I turned to three experts within our organization to look at Photoshop on Chrome OS. Independently, each expressed “wow” in the fact that it is quick and fully functional. They each went to their typical flow and found it works flawlessly.

For me, I wanted to understand how the file system would operate and how well it would hold up on a Chromebook.

  1. Zero crashes
  2. Quick and precise
  3. Pulls directly from Drive so easy, easy, easy

Screenshot 2014-12-08 at 7.15.20 AM

Again, I imagine Photoshop experts having much more to say in terms of the software itself. However, I am blown away by the functionality and ease of the software on the Chrome OS. It opens the door for other heavy, complex softwares to see exactly what is possible on a Chromebook.

Innovative or Innovative Things

I’m always amazed by the creative and innovative ideas that translate into practice throughout education. It is what I enjoy most about networking whether face to face or digitally because I get a chance to hear all about these.

But like the old man on the front porch yelling at kids to stay off the lawn, I often feel like the mood killer. That is because I’m reminded when I hear about these ideas brought to life that too often they are just another thing.

Don’t get me wrong; we need innovative things! However, innovative things in a non-innovative organization can often be viewed with a skeptical eye and seen as “just another thing we have to do”.  Unfair? Yes.

As leaders, I would caution you to not look for innovative things to bring to your organization. Instead, I challenge you to start asking how do we become an innovative organization that fosters and brings to life your own unique ideas.

Because that is where the real magic lives. When the organization is creating and remixing instead of imitating and redoing.


No magic formula exist that I know. Perhaps someone has that and can offer it up (I’d love it!). However, here is what I believe is true knowing full well it is a long, messy process.

First, mindsets and conditions are the bedrock to an innovative organization. Second, it is a matter of analyzing current practices to decide whether it is a roadblock or an amplifier. Third, it is the confidence and will to replace roadblocks with new practices that better align with the desired mindset and conditions. Fourth, it is protecting with all you have those practices that amplify the desired organizational mindsets and conditions.

So my less than magical formula is something like this:

Mindset > Conditions > Inhibitors | Amplifiers > New Practice | Maintain/Enhance Practice

A simple example is this:

  1. ANALYSIS: Agency/Ownership (mindset) > Rapid Release Professional Development (condition) > Delayed Release for Google, 10 hours of PD prior to tool access, cohort release model, mandatory tool use, one tool per use mandate, etc (Inhibiting Practices) | choice-based PD, unconference model institute
  2. ACTION: The new practices to emerge that remove those that inhibit are a) shift to rapid release for Google apps b) immediate access to tools with no mandatory PD, cohort model option with ability to start without it, recommended tool with freedom to choose something better for particular needs, identified commonalities with flexibility in achieving those pieces (everyone has a digital space but…)
  3. ACTION: The practices to be protected that amplify are a) choice-based PD but with the greater openness to technologies there should be a cross-pollination of ideas. Thus, we need more opportunities for discussions of what is/isn’t working b) unconference model now will create even greater benefits because the freedom of time is coupled with the flexibility in technologies. Can we expand it to more than one day a year?

Again, this isn’t as “cool” as just adding new ideas that are no doubt innovative. Yet, I can promise you the reflection and action on current practices will lead to greater innovation than only adding the cool idea heard on social media, at a conference, or in a magazine. That is, unless you already are an Innovative Organization. If that is the case, you probably never reached this point in the post ;-)

Keep Shooting for the Moon!