Saturday, October 25, 2014

The Power of the Counterintuitive, Part Two: Hush Up

by Mike Nitzel, Principal
Thomas Jefferson Elementary School
Rock Island-Milan (IL) School District 41
Milan, IL

October 25, 2014

Counterintuitive: Counter to what intuition would lead one to expect: The direction we had to follow was counterintuitive--we had to go north first before we went south. (From

Scripture tells us that God gave us two ears and one mouth, presumably so we listen twice as much as we talk.  Pretty good advice.  How are we doing on following that advice? 

The value and power of discussion as a learning tool is undeniable.  And it is self-evident that discussion is a two-way exchange of ideas.  We need to listen as much as we talk, probably more.  But are we really doing that?  In leadership and in the classroom, who dominates the conversation?  In your administrative meetings are those "in charge" dominating the conversation or is everyone given an equal chance to participate? In staff meetings, do the teachers and paraprofessionals have as much time to talk and share ideas and opinions as the principal?  In your classroom, do you, the teacher, talk far more than the students?  

I've taken a look at this recently and I've found that what we might erroneously call discussion would more properly be called a one way sharing of information.  I took a quick pulse recently of the ratio of teacher to student discussion in several classrooms.  I have discovered that even in so-called book study groups, book chats and guided reading groups, places where students are supposed to have a large voice, the teacher still dominates the conversation 72% of the time!  Yet I hear all of the time in various conversations with teachers and on Twitter chats about the "power of student voice".  I would challenge all of the teachers who may be reading this to ask yourselves, how much voice are you really giving your students?  When you are planning your lessons ask, how can I give my students a bigger voice in this lesson?  As you know, I participate in a number of Twitter chats and we expound on the value of the exchange of ideas and opinions all of the time.  Every time I participate in a chat, many participants make the comment that they "learn so much talking to their colleagues."  I believe it to be an axiom that the same must be true for students.  But are we truly giving them that time?  If you are, kudos to you!  If you're not, it might be time for some self-reflection and figure out how to hush up and give your students more time in your class to talk and share ideas. 

Administrators, how are you doing on this?  Do you dominate the conversations in your meetings or do you TRULY give your principals or teachers a chance to talk and share ideas?  Time for a mea culpa on this one.  I believe I may be guilty of talking too much.  I don't know for sure but I'm going to find out.  In my next whole group PLC meeting, I'm going to have one of my teachers track and record the amount of time I talk compared to that of the teachers. If that time is "out of whack", as I suspect it may be, time for some self-reflection and perhaps changing up how we're doing things.  I'm also going to video record the meeting so I can see for myself how I'm doing. I need to model what I expect of my teachers.  

One more word about listening.  In a conversation, just because we are quiet does not mean that we are listening.  Are you actively taking in what the speaker has to say, or is your mind spinning, trying to figure out what to refute before the speaker has even finished?  Again, a mea culpa on my part here; guilty as charged.  I was definitely guilty of this in a recent discussion with my staff on the benefits or lack thereof of a particular reading program.  I'm fortunate that I have a teacher who has the ability to gently point me in the right direction when he sees that I may be starting to dig my heels in and argue for a particular point.  He brings me back to a more neutral center.  What this shows me, though, is that I need to do a better job of listening actively and disposing of my preconceived notions so that I can truly hear what's being said.  I'm going to work on this.  

Regardless of our current roles in education, we are teachers.  We teach (It's the most noble professional title I've ever possessed.  I'm a principal today but when asked, I'm still proud to call myself a teacher).    In today's vernacular, being a teacher means to facilitate learning.  But to facilitate learning, we need to listen as much or more than we talk so that we can guide our students, principals or whoever is in our audience to come to their own conclusions because that is the foundational principle of true learning.  So the next time you're up in front of a group, or preparing to be up in front of the group, and taking the role of "sage on the stage" seems right, think of Counterintuitive Principle Two: Hush Up.  You may well get more for the effort.  

As always, thank you for taking time out of your busy lives to read this.  I truly appreciate it.  I would appreciate any comments or suggestions.  I promise I'll hush up and listen!  Have a great week!  You are my heroes!  

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

The Power of the Counter Intuitive--Part One--Less IS More

by Mike Nitzel, Principal
Thomas Jefferson Elementary School
Rock Island-Milan (IL) School District 41
Milan, IL

October 16, 2014

Counter-Intuitive: Counter to what intuition would lead one to expect: The direction we had to follow was counter-intuitive—we had to go north first before we went south. (From

Most of the time our intuition is probably dead-on and more often than not we should probably heed it.  For example, if you’re not feeling quite yourself and you think a visit to the doctor might be in order, you should probably go.  Intuition is, after all, a form of good sense.  However, there is a reason that the term “counter-intuitive” exists.   There are those times when we need to go against what our intuition or common sense tells us to do in order to get the results or the outcomes we want. 

I’ve considered this a lot as I’ve thought about all of the changes we are making in education right now as a means of “fixing what’s broken”—we have to “engage” our students further; we have to “empower” our students; we have to teach them how to develop “grit”; we need to adopt “standards-based grading” and “standards-based reporting”; we have to implement to Common Core State Standards (or whatever name your particular state has decided to give them); we have to figure out how to make student growth a part of educator evaluation and we’ve had to change educator evaluation itself to match the requirements of PERA; we need to add The Leader in Me to our arsenal of tools; let’s add “Genius Hour”; the list goes on and on.  And while your list may vary, it is an undeniable statement of fact that we are doing more and more and adding more and more in an attempt to “fix” a system that too many argue is “broken”.  As a somewhat regular participant in various Twitter chats, I know how much and how many things you are all doing.  Here’s the problem from my view.  The more we add to the menu of “fixes” and the more “fixes” we adopt all at once, the farther away we get from getting to the root of the problems we face and solving the very real issues that need solving. 

How many of you are working in a school district that has adopted all or most of the above-named initiatives and are working to implement them with both fidelity and integrity?  How are they working?  Are you doing better or has your performance fallen relative to other school districts?  If your performance has fallen, I would suggest that you consider the first counter-intuitive option that I posit for improving your school or district:

Counter Intuitive Option 1: Less is More

Take a close look at what your outcomes are.  It doesn’t matter whether or not they are on the academic or affective side of things.  Just take a look at something.  If you are not performing where you want to be, engage in a close analysis of the function of your situation, why it is that you are where you are.  From there, determine upon one or two courses of action that you really believe will make a difference and get you started down the path of where you want to be.  Notice I said “started”.  The problems we face are real and require more than quick fixes.  In many cases they require deep changes in existing practice but for those deep changes to really stick, you can only really focus on one or two at a time.  By doing too many things at once, you will be giving lip service to change because no real change is going to take place, there’s simply too much for you to focus on. 

At my school, Thomas Jefferson Elementary, the staff and I engaged in a conversation at the beginning of the school year about what we do well and what we need to do differently to improve our outcomes.  We determined upon two things:

1) We need to build upon and improve our relationships, both within our school and with our external community. 
2) We need to build upon and continue to develop efficacy in our use of Professional Learning Communities.  

This is not to say that we are not working on many of the other things that I listed at the beginning of this post.  It simply means that the two things that we have identified for our school community have become our priorities; they get the lion’s share of our time and attention because they are foundational.  We will monitor the outcome measures that we have identified and if the emphasis on our two top priorities bears fruit, we will continue to keep them at the top of the heap.  If not, we’ll start looking elsewhere.  And I do not suggest that you adopt what we have.  What we have adopted makes sense for us.  It may not for you and your unique situation.

One thing we know for sure, if we always do what we’ve always done (i.e. latch on to every improvement strategy that comes down the pike), we’ll always get what we’ve always got (i.e. lagging outcomes).  That’s why we’ve embraced Counter-Intuitive Option One: Less is More. 

This has been my first post in a long time.  Thank you for taking time out of your busy lives to read it.  I really appreciate it.  If you have any thoughts or comments, I’d love to hear them.  Please let me know what you think!  Thank you for all you do for kids and families every day!  You are my heroes!  

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

A Little Girl, A Soldier, A Banana, And a Lesson in Character

by Mike Nitzel, Principal
Thomas Jefferson Elementary School 
Rock Island-Milan (IL) School District 41
Milan, IL

“Character is what we do when we think no one is looking.”—H. Jackson Browne, Jr.

Last week I went to my church’s Maundy Thursday service.  During the service, one of our pastors, Amanda Weinkauf, preached a sermon about love, certainly an appropriate subject for a Holy Week service and not an altogether surprising one.  Of course during her sermon there were the requisite Bible passages and psalms, certainly inspiring and moving but nothing unfamiliar or particularly surprising. What really grabbed my attention was a story nestled in the middle of her sermon.  The purpose of the story was to illustrate the power of God’s love and what it truly means to love another unconditionally, the way that God loves each one of us.  It was a story about a little girl in Afghanistan, an American soldier serving there and a piece of fruit.  However, as I ruminated on the story, I came to the conclusion that the story was as much about character as it was about love.  I’m a big fan of character education and I realized that the story would be a good one to share as an example of not only love but of character.  I’m going to do my best to recreate the story for you here.  I can’t promise that it’s a verbatim retelling of the story, but its essence is there.  Read on…

It seems that there was an American soldier serving in Afghanistan whose job it was along with the rest of his unit to provide food and water to the local people in one of the villages in their area of operation.  One day, this soldier was finishing up handing out the food and, as usual, the food was gone before everyone received a parcel.  This soldier and others in his unit promised to return the next day with more supplies, when suddenly his attention was drawn to a little girl who was standing alone off to the side of the road.  She had received no parcel and the soldier knew that she would receive no food until the next day at the earliest.  Clearly she was hungry, perhaps starving; there was no other reason for her to be there.  The soldier felt badly that he couldn’t help her; he felt badly that he hadn’t given this little girl a parcel when he had handed some out to adults.  He simply hadn’t seen her, standing alone, somewhat in the distance.  And now the food and water were gone. At that moment he remembered that he had put a banana in his rucksack should he need a snack at some point during the day.  Deciding that the little girl needed the banana more than he did, he walked up to the little girl, reached into his rucksack, and handed her the banana.  The little girl took the banana, gently and carefully peeled it, and then turned and walked away.  As the soldier watched, this little girl walked up to two boys, younger than she, both lying under a tree; they were apparently too weak to move.  The soldier hadn’t noticed the boys before, in the same way that he hadn’t noticed the little girl.  He watched as this hungry little girl took the peeled banana, broke it in half, and gave each of the little boys one half of the banana.  The little girl then proceeded to eat the peel. 

The soldier standing by the side of the road witnessed this.  And wept. 

This little girl gave freely.  She gave, without expecting anything in return.  She gave away the most important possession she had at that moment in her life. There’s much I don’t know about this story.  I don’t know if the little girl knew the little boys.  I don’t know if they were friends or enemies. What I do know is that a hungry little girl gave two hungrier little boys the only food she had and received nothing in return and expected nothing in return.  What I do know is that she shared more than a banana with those two boys that day.  She shared her love with them.  Unconditional and unfettered of expectations of something given in return, she gave them love. And in so doing, she demonstrated a remarkable character.

“Character is what we do when we think no one is looking.”

When discussing character with your students, perhaps this is a story that you could share and have a discussion with them.  I think they would relish a conversation around these questions--What would they do faced with the same situation? Would they eat the banana? Would they share the banana? What do their answers say about their character? 

What would you do?

As always, your comments and feedback are most appreciated.  And as always, thank you for taking time out of your busy lives to read this.  I really appreciate it!   

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Four Rules for Difficult Conversations

by Mike Nitzel, Principal
Thomas Jefferson Elementary
Rock Island-Milan (IL) Dist. 41
Milan, IL 

Difficult conversations are a part of every leader’s responsibilities.  However, difficult conversations need not be confrontational and the goal every difficult conversation should be to enhance relationships and/or improve outcomes.  The following four rules can help you achieve these goals.

1)   Be cognizant of timing. Not every difficult conversation needs to be had immediately after a particular incident.  Sometimes time is needed, particularly if emotions are involved, to remove some of the emotion and allow cooler heads to prevail.  Your own professional judgment and knowledge of your staff will help you determine when to hold your conversation. 

2)   Be compassionately honest. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, brutal honesty is usually more brutal than it is honest.  Say what you have to day, but utilize your compassion.  To do otherwise will damage relationships in the long run.  Remember, people may not remember what you said or what you did but they’ll certainly remember how you made them feel.  This is never more important than in difficult conversations. And if you are confronted with emotion, meet it with reason.  Reason and compassion are not mutually exclusive.   

3)   Think Win-Win.  Stephen Covey is right on the money on this one.  When dealing with a difficult conversation, you’re usually dealing with a situation in which someone has not met your expectations or the expectations of your organization.  As a leader, it is your job to find common ground with those who work with you that will allow both parties to walk away with something in the win column.  Much of the time, people just want to be heard.  By giving them a respectful audience, you’ve provided them with a win.  You win when you get an agreement that they will respect your expectations or that of the organization.

4)   Walk away with common understandings. Ambiguity and uncertainly will do nothing but breed additional problems.  Come away from your difficult conversation by making sure that both of you understand what each can expect from the other.  As the leader, sometimes those understandings must be imposed by you.  But those are likely few and far between.  By reaching mutual understandings after a conflict, future problems can be minimized. 

These are just four overarching rules that I follow when dealing with difficult conversations.  I’m sure you have others.  I would love to hear them.  Please feel free to comment on this post and, as always, thank you for taking time out of your busy lives to read this.  I genuinely appreciate it.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Tips for a Great School Day Start

by Mike Nitzel, Principal
Thomas Jefferson Elementary School
Rock Island-Milan (IL) School Dist. 41
Milan, IL

Are mornings a struggle in your house?  Do you find it difficult to get the kids up and get everyone out the door on time?  Here are a few simple tips to help you get your kids—and you!—off to the best possible start to the school day.

1)      Prepare the night before. The start to your day actually begins the night before.  Make sure clothes are laid out, backpacks are packed and lunches are in the fridge and ready to go.  Get the kids to bed at a decent hour and help them get all of the sleep they need.  Here is a quick guide from WebMD regarding how much sleep the kids need:
Age 3-6: 10-12 hours per night
Age 7-12: 10-11 hours per night
Age 12-18: 9-10 hours per night

2)      Set a wake up time so that you’re not rushed.  What sets a better tone for the day, rushing around or being able to take your time and attend to what needs attending to?

3)      Eat breakfast.  It really is the most important meal of the day.  It fills the gas tank for the day.  Whether it’s at home or at school, save time to make sure the kids get a healthy breakfast.  My kids do well with proteins and whole grains.   

4)      Be positive.  No matter what last night brought, start your kids’ day with a hearty and heartfelt “Good morning!” and a smile!  Each new day is a blank canvas.  Treat it that way.  Let your kids know that you are counting on them to be their best at school that day and every day!

5)      Let your kids know that you’re going to think about them during the day.  Whether you tell them directly or leave them a note in their lunchbox or backpack, your kids love knowing that you’re thinking about them during the day.

6)      Ask your kids, “Is there anything I can do before you leave or I drop you off to help you have a great day?” This is a good way to be proactive and to deal with potential problems before they occur. 

7)      Dress appropriately for the weather, especially during cold weather.  I’ve seen some kids “snow” their parents (no pun intended) into letting them leave the winter coat at home.  They say things like, “I’m only going from the car to the front door” or “We’re not going out for recess today.”  Um, what about a fire drill or other emergency that might require them to leave the building?  Ask them to make sure they have a coat.  However, I would not get involved in a protracted war about the issue.  Natural consequences work wonders.  If they have to go outside for any length of time and it’s 20 degrees, they’ll quickly learn to take their coat from then on. 

8)      Dress appropriately for school.  Know your school’s dress code and abide by it.  It’s there for a reason. 

9)      Tell your kids you love them.  Make sure these are the last words your kids hear before you see them again at the end of the day.  It’s also a harsh reality that the last time you see someone could be the last time you ever see someone.  We don’t like to think about that but it’s an unfortunate fact in today’s world.  Make sure that what could be your last words are loving ones.  There’s peace of mind there.

These are just a few things that we have found through trial and error over the years to help us have a decent start to our school days in our house.  I’d be interested in hearing what you think.  Please leave a comment or two and as always, thanks for taking time out of your busy lives to read this.  I genuinely appreciate it!