Because Counting Our Blessings Just Isn't Enough



There is a recurring dream I have, typically when I am feeling anxious and unsure. I am standing at the edge of a tall mountain, overlooking the sea. The view is magnificent, and I feel both inspired and fearful. I stretch my arms upward toward the sky, as if ready to soar like an eagle. I jump as high as I can into the air, arch my body forward and bend into a dive. I descend with great speed, the wind enveloping me. As I splash into the water I feel a comforting transition from the windy speed of my descent, to a calm, cool forward movement as I swim beneath the sea. I look around, for what I am not entirely sure. The water is not the crystal clear blue of a tropical sea, but rather the dark green of a northeastern lake, filled with plant and animal life; vibrant yet murky. I find it difficult to see in the opaque water, yet realize there is something I am seeking.


When I awake from the dream, my mind floods with whatever challenges I am currently facing, registering the lack of clarity I feel. Sometimes, I remain painfully confused. Yet there are moments that I grasp an insight, gaining greater awareness and understanding. Those moments feel like impactful coaching conversations.


Since publishing  The Coach Approach To School Leadership: Leading Teachers To Higher Levels of Effectiveness, my co-authors Jessica Johnson, Kathy Perret, and I have been privileged to receive insights and wisdom in conversations about the book from educators striving to lead with a coaching hat. Time management, relationships, and feedback are topics explored in the book that have resonated deeply with educators. There are also topics educators seek to know more about, touched on in the book, which deserve to be explored further. Key among these is reflection.


After our Coach Approach twitter chat last month, the most requested topic for further exploration was reflection, with recommendations for upcoming chats including:

  • Getting teachers to be reflective and truly LOOK at their practice!
  • How do we get teachers to true reflection of their practice?
  • Effective ways to support reflection!!


I returned to the book, to ground myself in what we had conveyed on the topic of reflection, finding that we only touched on the topic, and could easily have dedicated an entire chapter. Where reflection does appear in the book is as a key component of the ORID framework, a tool we find particularly impactful. The framework enables coaches to engage in a logical sequence of questions, inviting reflection and insight, while pointing to next steps.


ORID is an acronym for types of questions coaches can use:

O – Objective

R- Reflective

I- Interpretive

D- Decisional


Objective Questions are easy to answer and are aimed at identifying pertinent facts and information, primarily in order to relieve stress and invite active participation. These are typically “what” questions, such as What were the key points you noted about . . . ? What did you observe during the . . .? What body language did you notice in participants?


Reflective Questions elicit emotional response and personal reactions, inviting a deeper level of participation. These questions ask, “What about ‘the what’?” Examples include What was the most/least successful thing you noted? What seemed to really work/not work? What concerns you/confuses you/annoys you? What was exciting surprising, or frustrating about . . .? How did you feel as you were . . .?


Interpretive Questions invite sharing and generate options and possibilities for the future, asking, “So what?” Examples include What did you learn about yourself through this experience? What are things that you might have done/could do that would have enhanced/would enhance the outcome? What do these results mean to you in terms of future planning? What other ways could you assess . . .? What insights have you gained about how you . . .?


Decisional Questions develop opinions, options, or solutions that lead to future actions, clarifying expectations for improvement or change. Essentially, these are “Now what?” questions, such as What things will you do differently? What things will you do the same? Which of your skills will you further develop, and what will you do to develop them? What are your next steps? What supports will you need to continue to work on those areas?


Frequently, in the fast paced lives of schools, teachers and principals alike are very quick to jump straight from objective to decisional questions. What can I take from this conversation to implement right now? There is impatience, and frequent frustration with those who strive to linger in reflection. And yet,  it is in the combination of the reflective and interpretive phases of the ORID framework that impactful wisdom and understanding comes. The process, when pursued in a thoughtful and self-disciplined manner, empowers us to open our minds to the possible, with a grounding in the realities of the present.


How do we enable teachers to engage in reflection in order truly to look at their practice? The answer is at once both simple and tremendously challenging. Allow ourselves to linger in the reflective and the interpretive, gaining insight and understanding into questions and possibilities. Doing so will entail numerous challenges.


Perhaps most significant challenge to reflection is time. While efficient to shift directly from objective to decisional mode, speeding forward deprives us of the self-understanding and exploration of alternatives. We can schedule time not only to be in classrooms, but to engage in meaningful coaching conversations with teachers, creating time in our busy school schedules for administrators and teachers alike to meet with one another and reflect. We can then dedicate time for the ideas generated in these conversations to simmer and develop, not expecting immediate action.


An additional substantial challenge to reflection is in developing the coaching skill of facilitating reflective conversations. These entail both the reflective and the interpretative stages of the ORID framework. Important professional learning can involve practicing these conversations with a trusted colleague who can offer us feedback and help us prepare. A possibility is for principals leading with a coaching hat to find a peer with whom to engage in these conversations on our own practice, with each of us taking turns to coach and be coached.


Ultimately, reflection is an act of courage, requiring us to embrace the person we currently are with compassion, while at the same time acknowledging the gaps between who we are and who we are striving to become, stretching into the person we are striving to become with hope.


I invite you to share your own perspectives on ways you self reflect and ways you help others reflect.



  • How have you engaged in courageous reflective conversations?
  • What are ways you might expand on the ways you engage in courageous reflective conversations?
  • What are ways that reflection can involve both pain and hope?
  • How have you engaged in hopeful reflective conversations?
  • What are ways you might expand on the ways you engage in hopeful reflective conversations?




This post first appeared in Education Week’s Finding Common Ground. 

Feedback, among the most impactful, and yet also among the most variable influences on student achievement, matters. It matters profoundly.

Educational thought leader John Hattie (2009), whose investigation of more than 800 meta-analyses represents the largest collection of evidence-based research into what actually works in schools, has found feedback to be among the top 10 influences on student achievement. While Hattie’s  research primarily describes the effect of feedback from teachers to students, he asserts that his findings pertain to professional learning as well. Simply stated, for schools to improve, feedback to both educators and students is essential.

Yet, Hattie offers a cautionary note. While skillfully shared feedback can catapult learning to new heights, poorly offered feedback can have minimal impact, or worse, can potentially have negative impact, leading to disengagement and resentment.

So how can educators learn both to give and receive feedback in a way that is impactful, leading to professional learning and growth? And, even more challenging, how can principals function in a coaching role when they are required to evaluate? How can teachers feel safe to experiment, take risks, and reveal vulnerabilities with a person who makes important decisions about their employment? These are among the core questions my colleagues Jessica Johnson, Kathy Perret and I explored in researching and writing The Coach Approach To School Leadership: Leading Teachers To Higher Levels of Effectiveness (ASCD, 2017).

A coach is someone who can give correction, without causing resentment.

John Wooden

Renowned UCLA coach and ten time NCAA national championship winner John Wooden’s definition of a coach as someone who can give correction (or, perhaps feedback) without causing resentment, gives rise to two vital keys to offering impactful feedback.

  1. To give feedback it is vital to recognize that feedback messages are filtered through learners’ perceptions, so what works as effective feedback for one learner might not work for another learner. (Hattie, 2012)
  2. Giving feedback hinges on the ability to reflect on progress toward transparent, challenging goals connected to clear success criteria. (Hattie, 2009; Wiggins, 2012)

These keys are so central to the process of giving and receiving feedback that it is important to delve more deeply into each.

Key Number One

To give feedback it is vital to recognize that feedback messages are filtered through learners’ perceptions, so what works as effective feedback for one learner might not work for another learner. (Hattie, 2012)

An important Insight I wish I had when I began my journey to become a “principal-coach”, redesigning the role of principal to function as much as possible as a coach, is that qualities of trustworthiness such as reliability, dependability, capability (Horsager, 2011), benevolence, honesty, and openness (Tschannen-Moran, 2004) are vital, yet insufficient. While aiming to explore curriculum and pedagogy, coaching conversations very quickly move to more sensitive and vulnerable depths, prompting educators to identify gaps between who we currently are and who we aspire to become. Engaging in these delicate, yet potentially transformative conversations requires us to be nonjudgmental. This is a new skill for many educators, who have learned in formal programs and through practice to focus on grading and evaluation.

. While difficult, many techniques of instructional coaches can help. Two frameworks in particular have been very valuable to me. The first embraces the use of four prompts:

  • I noticed . . .  
  • I wonder . . .  
  • What if . . . ?
  • How might . . .?

By utilizing these prompts, educators functioning in a coaching role can train themselves not to offer their own opinions or advice, but instead to support reflection. This enables us not only to understand learners’ perceptions, but even more significantly to help our learners, whether students or professionals, to uncover and recognize their own perceptions and self-understandings.

Once comfortable with suspending judgement, educators can extend coaching conversations using the ORID framework, involving a progression through four types of questions:

  • O – Objective questions (to relieve stress and invite participation)
  • R – Reflective questions (to elicit emotional responses and personal reactions)
  • I – Interpretive questions (to generate possibilities for the future)
  • D – Decisional questions (to develop solutions leading to future actions)

Through practicing use of these nonjudgmental prompts and questions, educators seeking to utilize coaching can gain ever greater skill supporting self-reflection meaningful to teachers.

Key Number Two: Goals

Giving feedback hinges on the ability to reflect on progress toward transparent, challenging goals connected to clear success criteria. (Hattie, 2009; Wiggins, 2012)

Receiving feedback is challenging. As much as I have always wanted to appreciate feedback, I have often noticed a tightness in my shoulders, an acceleration of my heartbeat, or a fluttering in my stomach awaiting reaction to my work. While I long for critique to help me improve, I simultaneously hope for praise, and then feel embarrassed by my yearning for a pat on the back. I want to learn, stretch my thinking, improve my practice, yet often feel insecure and crave reassurance and affirmation. It’s my sense that these reactions are common.

It’s only recently, as I have had the opportunity to lead a Project-Based Learning school in which we do not give grades, but instead help students prepare for public exhibitions, as well as to publish their work in digital portfolios, that I have truly been able to appreciate nonjudgmental, goal-centered feedback. I’ve watched with admiration as students aged 5 through 10 take in feedback with delight, viewing it as a gift that will help them prepare their work so that it is ready for exhibition and ready to publish. The experience of supporting students to give and receive feedback has enabled me to grow as well, focusing on ambitious goals. It has also helped me truly to recognize the transformational potential of feedback that is connected to goals of importance to the individual to whom the feedback is being given.


Hattie, J. (2009). Visible learning. London: Routledge.

Hattie. J. (2012). Visible learning for teachers. London: Routledge.

Horsager, D. (2011). The trust edge. New York: Free Press.

Tschannen-Moran, M. (2004). Trust matters: Leadership for effective schools. San Francisco: Jossey Bass.

Wiggins, G. (2012, September). Seven keys to effective feedback. Educational Leadership, 70(1), 10-16.


Photo courtesy of Pixaby

You can learn more about The Coach Approach To School Leadership: Leading Teachers to Higher Levels of Effectiveness on Principal Center Radio and download the first chapter for free

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What do we want for our children?

Happiness? Success? An overall sense of well-­being?

In achieving the dreams we have for our children, there is good news for stressed out, over-­extended families. Evidence is mounting that the very things so many of us want most for our children – happiness, success, and an overall sense of well-­being, can be achieved through what children, given the choice, do naturally ­ imagining, playing, and creating.

I remember an incredibly freeing moment when my daughter, now 21, was a toddler. I read somewhere that there was a huge positive impact to spending thirty minutes a day, every day, playing with your child in entirely child directed activities. It was one of the few pieces of advice from a parenting book to which I committed fully. I delighted for those thirty minutes a day in letting my daughter be, choosing whatever she wanted to play and either including me or having me sit quietly and watch. It’s not that we didn’t play other times; it’s just that this was time in which I did not allow any distractions ­ no phone calls, cleaning or multitasking in any other way and no suggestions from me as to what to play. The time stood in sharp contrast to our Sundays as I rushed to take her, and later my son as well, to every museum and educationally valuable child-­friendly event I could pack in. Weekday evenings, after work, for thirty minutes nothing mattered but my daughter, and later her brother. I focused on being fully present as she unhurriedly engaged in mostly imaginative and creative play.

While I will never know for sure what impact those thirty minutes daily had on my children, I am convinced that creative play matters. Recent research has found that creative practices for children and adults are associated with higher levels of life satisfaction, a more positive self image, less anxiety about change, and a more tolerant and open approach to diverse others (Tepper, 2014). And, I would venture to say that creative practice does not mean signing our children up for as many music and art classes as possible. Creativity can be found in many forms and thrives in playful, unhurried, self-­directed exploration.

Sadly, play is on the decline and some are convinced there is a correlation between that decline and a rise in childhood disorders including sensory issues, attention deficit, anxiety, and depression (Gray, 2014; Strauss, 2015) While the reasons for these disorders are complex, it is becoming increasingly evident that playful creativity is among the most important qualities leading both to an overall sense of well­being as well as to the problem solving skills needed for success in the rapidly changing economy our children will inherit.

We have known for a long time that children are naturally creative. In 1968, George Land, who had devised a creativity test to help NASA select innovative engineers and scientists, decided to try the test out with children. Administering a test for creative genius, he tested and re­tested the same children at 5 years of age, 10 years of age, and again at 15 years of age, and then compared results with the results of the same test given to 280,000 adults.

What did he find?

98% of 5 year olds scored in the creative genius range.

30% of 12 year olds scored in the creative genius range.

12% of 15 year olds scored at the creative genius range.

2% of adults scored at the creative genius range.

Land’s conclusion: Non-­creative behavior is learned. (Land and Jarman, 1993)

So what are parents to do to try to help their children skip those lessons on non-­creative behavior and retain their creative genius, potentially dramatically supporting children’s ability to achieve happiness, success, and overall sense of well-­being? Perhaps the question is more important than the answer. Perhaps by mulling over how to support your children to skip society’s many lessons on non-­creative behavior, you will find the ways to enable your children, inspired Matisse, who calls creative people those who are able to be “curious, flexible, persistent, and independent with a tremendous spirit of adventure and a love of play.”

So guilt-free – go out and play!

And, let me know your ideas on ways to nurture play at home and at school! I’d love to continue the conversation.

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Listen to Podcast on Coach Approach & download first chapter here

Join my co-authors Jessica Johnson, Kathy Perret and me with host Justin Baeder, talking about one of our favorite topics – using instructional coaching techniques as school leaders.

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The players’ entrance to the Centre Court at Wimbledon

Walking out onto center court at Wimbeldon, the last sight players encounter before emerging into public view are the words, not of an athlete or a coach, but of writer Rudyard Kipling: If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster and treat those two imposters just the same.

The words could be viewed as a meditation, encapsulating core values of resilience, perseverance, and humility. They temper the wisdom of positive psychology beckoning us to embrace happiness and optimism, almost to excess. While happiness and optimism are vital for sure, I’ve come to crave greater emotional balance.

A plethora of articles in the past several years beckon us to recognize that an exclusive emphasize on happiness can be counterproductive. Conflict energizes, mistakes are necessary to achieve top performance, and similarity fosters complacency and breeds overconfidence. Emotions typically viewed as negative like anger, embarrassment, and shame are vital to foster greater engagement, directing our attention to serious issues and prompting us to make corrections that eventually lead to success. Disagreement, typically viewed as unpleasant and unharmonious, when conducted with respect opens our thinking promoting far more effective and creative problem solving. Owning our mistakes without blame or shame, rather than hiding or avoiding them, promotes progress.


A turning point for me in my own understanding of myself came while watching Pixar’s Inside Out, now one of my very favorite movies. Seeing myself as the character “joy”, I was jolted both by how helpful, yet how annoying and blindsided a single-minded quest for joy can be. Having long emphasized, or rather overemphasized the positive, I realized I had inadvertently denied myself, and others around me, vital opportunities for learning and growth possible by embrace of a wider range of emotions and experiences.

The recognition came not only from the movie, or a number of articles, but from the painful ups and downs of life and the growth that is possible when we open ourselves to experience pain as well as joy. Reflecting with my dear friends, co-moderators of #educoach – a weekly twitter chat, and co-authors of our recently published book The Coach Approach To School Leadership: Leading Teachers To Higher Levels of Effectiveness, I reflected on how our frequent conversations on celebrating the positive, perhaps to excess,  were necessary, but insufficient. We talked more and more about finding greater balance in our own approach to coaching teachers, reflecting on balance, which in our idealistic perspectives on educators and schools, we had sometimes neglected.

With all the sharing that occurs in our age of social media, all of the opening of ourselves, it is paradoxical that much of our essence remains more hidden than ever. “It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye,” wrote Antoine de Saint-Exupery in The Little Prince. His words continue to ring true, with many of us choosing to hide the messy, complicated, broken places in our lives which ultimately, when embraced, can enable us to become the best of who we are.

If you can dream—and not make dreams your master;
If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim,
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same:
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build’em up with worn-out tools;

If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings,
And never breathe a word about your loss:
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: “Hold on!”

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with Kings—nor lose the common touch,
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
If all men count with you, but none too much:
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!

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Portfolio team with our friends new friends, Greg and Erin Whitely, and Slade and Andrea Combs. It was truly a full circle moment for us, seeing as Greg’s movie, “Most Likely To Succeed” has been a great source of inspiration for us from the beginning.

In the 1999 film The Matrix the main character, Neo, is given a choice by Morpheus, an elusive figure for whom Neo has been searching. Embrace reality or don’t; take a red pill and experience the truth of our world, which has been deliberately hidden, or take a blue pill and continue on with the illusory, albeit comfortable, understanding of our world as we have perceived it to be.

Although I did not realize it at the time, seeing the film Most Likely To Succeed for the first time, almost two years ago, was a “red pill” moment for me, opening my eyes to the possible, to a truth I had grasped at but had not yet recognized possible.

I sat alongside a group of talented, dedicated educators, watching and then discussing the film. Most of us in the room were already believers, agreeing wholeheartedly with the film’s premise that the current educational system in the United States, developed a century ago during the rise of the industrial age, has remained stagnant while the world economy has evolved and transformed, leaving graduates woefully unprepared for jobs demanding radically different skills than those that existed when our current educational model was created. Even more, many of us perceived ourselves to be innovators, boasting about initiatives in our schools including engineering and technology programs, courses in financial literacy and entrepreneurial skills, and innovation labs or Maker Spaces with high tech tools such as 3-D printers and laser cutters. And yet, being honest with ourselves, we realized and painfully shared with one another, how our schools could add “bells and whistles” through interesting programming and add-ons, yet were unprepared to rethink the experience of school in a serious way. Thus, despite our admirable efforts, we were failing to create an educational environment such as that at High Tech High, highlighted in the film, that would truly and meaningfully be most likely to succeed in the 21st Century.

What I saw of High Tech High in the film Most Likely To Succeed surprised and intrigued me. Despite the school’s name, High Tech High looked more like a school dedicated to the arts than a school dedicated to technology. Aesthetically beautiful work created by students was evident every place one looked, and there was a poignant emphasis on supporting students to reflect on themselves as learners, creators, and human beings. There was also a strong embrace of Project-Based Learning in which students engage in deep inquiry around questions and challenges with multiple possible answers and solutions, creating projects that are shared with the community in exhibitions in which the school is transformed into a museum and performing arts center.

Never turning back, I immersed myself in Project-Based Learning, training teachers in the approach. Given the opportunity several months later to lead a trip of educators to visit High Tech High and the whole system of High Tech charter schools in San Diego, I became even more enamored with the emphasis on creative problem solving and self-reflection so central to High Tech HIgh’s vision of learning. I longed for the opportunity to serve in a school like High Tech High, that not only pushed the boundaries of what was possible with interesting programs, but that redefined learning in a way that serves contemporary students. It was then that I found Portfolio.

Applying for the position of founding Lower School Director at Portfolio may have been “love at first quote”, as I shared an educational philosophy statement along with my resume that opened with a quote by Tony Wagner, a co-creator of the film Most Likely To Succeed who is a member of Portfolio’s Advisory Committee. The quote was this: “The world no longer cares how much you know; the world cares about what you can do with what you know.” I quickly recognized that Portfolio co-founders Babur Habib and Doug Schachtel were people ready to reimagine the possible in order to support the next generation to be prepared for careers in which nobody will be the least bit interested in the facts they could or could not spit back for standardized tests, but in which many will depend on them to apply knowledge creatively in order to solve increasingly complex problems.

Just a little more than 6 months after viewing Most Likely To Succeed for the first time, with numerous viewings in between, I saw the film again, alongside other members of Portfolio’s founding team. This time, I was not dismayed by the seemingly overwhelming obstacles in our schools to rethinking the experience of school in a serious way. Instead, I felt privileged to be working with people ready to reimagine school in order to support students to gain the creative problem solving expertise necessary to lead our communities and our society into the future.

Since that time, we have shown the film even more times, often following with questions and answers including skyping in our new friend Scott Swaaley, who is the teacher featured in the film, and currently Assistant Director of the Innovation Lab at the Nueva School in Northern California. Recently, we came full circle again, showing Portfolio to Greg Whitley, director and producer of the film, and his wife Erin who makes a cameo appearance in the film.

We’ve come a long way from seeing Most Likely To Succeed, creating a school that has stretched us beyond what we imagined possible, even though we began with a grand vision to reimagine what education can be. Stay tuned for more on the journey to reimagine education.


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CC licensed image shared by flickr user Andrea Goh

The paths to a life well-lived are varied and diverse; each life, each individual unique. As we struggle, strive, and aspire; seeking to survive, succeed, and thrive, we can experience a sense of being adrift, alone, uncertain, and afraid. At times, longing more for answers than for guidance, we look for recipes. In the unattainable quest for simple solutions, I’ve turned to many sources, including “how to” lists to well-being. There are so many versions.

4 Things Resilient People Do

5 Things Happy People Do Every Day

7 Habits of Remarkably Giving People

10 Things Productive People Do Before Bed

12 Things Successful People Do Before Breakfast

15 Things Highly Confident People Don’t Do

16 Things Positive People Do Differently In Their Everyday Lives

18 Things Highly Creative People Do Differently

19 Things Remarkable People Think Every Day

Incorporating the wisdom of such lists and other similar guidance, at times with unbridled enthusiasm, I’ve often mistaken comfort for true well-being. With a persistent smile on my face, sometimes masking tears or panic just below the surface, I’ve navigated through a number of serious challenges in my life and in the lives of some of those closest to me. Through it all I’ve been mostly fine and yet, paradoxically, the very approaches enabling me to achieve the resilience, happiness, altruism, productivity, success, confidence, positivity, creativity and more that I have sought have robbed me of the benefit of blessings, albeit blessings in disguise, that can emerge out of a bold grappling with what is most painful.

Realizing I had avoided struggle necessary for growth I’ve recalibrated, tempering enthusiasm for qualities I had once valued without question, seeking greater measure and balance.

  • Resilience with the courage to linger in hardship, obstacle and pain; not always bouncing back so quickly, seeking wisdom and purpose within difficult experiences
  • Happiness with an embrace of a more complete emotional life, searching for the understanding sadness, fear and other painful emotions have to offer
  • Giving with a readiness to accept the support of others, humbly recognizing  dependence
  • Productivity with unapologetic delight in both play and relaxation, allowing for a celebration of unproductive time
  • Success with a willingness to be vulnerable
  • Confidence with self-doubt, arising from honest appraisal of weaknesses
  • Positivity with awareness of negative reactions and the insights potentially revealed
  • Creativity with the wisdom to know when to follow along well traveled paths
  • Striving to be remarkable with appreciation and acceptance of the ordinary within

In life, as in baking, ingredients without thoughtful measure will either underwhelm or overwhelm. I have experienced both extremes. In a shift to an embrace of balance, I continue unabashedly to seek guidance to a life well lived. And yet, I now deliberately strive to resist recipes, simple solutions, or even the best ingredients added without attention to measure.

I invite you to join the exploration of ingredients and measure in a well-lived life.

What additional qualities in addition to resilience, happiness, altruism, productivity, success, confidence, positivity, and creativity might we consider?

How might we seek not only ingredients for a well-lived life, but also appropriate measure?

What other questions might we ask?


Embracing Stress

cc licensed image shared by flickr user Brian Ford

cc licensed image shared by flickr user Brian Ford

Chasing Meaning is better for your health than avoiding discomfort.

Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D

TED Talk, How To Make Stress Your Friend, Edinburgh Scotland, June 2013

Among the very first lessons I received as a school leader was to avoid stress whenever possible.

I began my career as a school administrator working as an associate principal alongside a wise, gentle principal who worried about stress. He had cause for concern. Several years earlier he had suffered a serious heart attack and his doctor had warned him to avoid stress. “Avoid stress?” he relayed to me of his conversation with his doctor. “I’m a school principal. How could I possibly avoid stress?” This principal calmly shared with me his doctor’s words: “I can’t tell you what to do, but I will tell you that if you experience too much stress, you will die. So, here is what I recommend. Each time you begin to feel stressed consider whether you will care about or even remember what is stressing you in five years. If the answer is ‘yes’, go ahead and be stressed. If the answer is ‘no’ then let it go.”

I’ve often paused during stressful moments and remembered this story, mostly allowing myself to let go of smaller stressors, or what I perceived as smaller stressors, while worrying about the large ones. Sometimes I’ve wondered whether or not I’ll remember a particular stressor, unsure as to its longer term seriousness or import. I’ve also shared the story more times than I can remember, conveying to others what I long viewed as wisdom about coping with stress.

I’m by no means alone in thinking about and stressing about stress. A survey of teachers and principals by Metlife, published in February, 2013 revealed that both teachers and principals experience substantial stress. Half of teachers and half of principals reported feeling under great stress several days a week. (Metlife, 2013)

We worry about stress. And yet . . .

Last week, on a trip to the library, I perused the new books section, open to something interesting I might not know about and might not ordinarily consider reading. I chanced upon The Upside of Stress by Kelly McGonigal and experienced a welcome paradigm shift. According to McGonigal, unlike the advice the well meaning doctor offered the principal for whom I worked so many years ago, in order to maintain good health we need not avoid stress, but rather embrace it. Choosing to see the good in stress can help us discover strength, courage, and compassion, meet challenges in life, and even lengthen life. The research is compelling.

In 1998 thirty thousand adults in the United States were asked both how much stress they had experienced in the past year, and whether they believed stress is harmful to health. Eight years later, 43 percent of those who both had high levels of stress and believed the stress was harmful to their health had died. The researchers estimated that during the eight years they conducted their research, 182,000 Americans may have died prematurely not because they were stressed, but because they believed stress was harming their health. McGonigal puts this number in alarming perspective, sharing that based on this estimate, believing stress is harmful to your health is the fifteenth leading cause of death in the United States, killing more people than skin cancer, HIV/AIDS, and homicide. Perhaps as astonishing is the finding that those who reported high levels of stress, yet did not view the stress as harmful to health, had even lower death rates than those who experienced little stress.

Many educators have been inspired by Carol Dweck’s book Mindset, and her distinction between those who hold a “fixed” mindset (believing their intelligence and talent are fixed traits, consequently seeking to prove their ability or avoid showing weakness) and those who hold a “growth” mindset (believing their abilities can be developed through hard work, consequently persevering despite obstacles). McGonigal explains that there are many different mindsets, or rather beliefs that shape our reality, including competing mindsets about stress; one maintaining stress is harming (depleting health and vitality, debilitating performance and productivity, inhibiting learning and growth) and the other proclaiming stress is enhancing (enhancing performance and productivity, improving health and vitality, facilitating learning and growth).

For years, convinced of the damaging impact of stress, I avoided, denied, or reframed as positive as many stressful situations as I could, striving as much as possible to remain unruffled by difficulty and calm in the face of adversity. Despite my best efforts, life happened. I experienced the usual stresses so many in education experience as well as a number of major, dramatic, life altering crises. Through it all, I learned to go into “crisis mode” when necessary, taking action to navigate through difficult situations, while mindfully expressing gratitude for the tremendous amount of good in my life; appreciating each good day, and even good moments during otherwise difficult days. Still, I viewed the stress as harmful and damaging. With a new mindset on stress, I feel I have received a precious gift; the invitation to embrace the many stresses in my life as challenges with the potential to enable me to strengthen qualities such as courage and compassion, connect with others by both giving and accepting care, trusting my ability to overcome difficulties, and forging greater meaning in life. It does not mean I wanted or sought the stresses, especially those that are significant and involve the suffering of others, but it does mean that if face them I must, I can allow myself to be transformed by the experience for the better.

Among the approaches McGonigal shares to embrace stress include transforming perceptions of stress from a threat to a challenge, helping others and accepting help from others, and trusting the human capacity to transform suffering into meaning. The shifts impact more than perception, altering biological processes in ways that enhance health. When anticipating that stress will help us, we produce more dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA), a hormone that speeds up wound repair and enhances immune function. Higher levels of DHEA have been linked to reduced risk of anxiety, depression, heart disease and other illnesses we often consider to be stress related, as well as greater focus, less dissociation, improved problem solving skills, and fewer post traumatic stress symptoms. Helping others and accepting help from others releases the hormone oxytocin, reducing feelings of hopelessness. In one study, every significant stressful life event among those who did not routinely help others increased the risk of dying by 30 percent. However, study participants who went out of their way to help others showed absolutely no stress-related increased risk of death. Accepting help is also vital and while there are likely very few more universal human experiences than stress, often we feel isolated and disconnected in our stress, making it far more challenging to take action, see any possible good in a situation, or reach out to others to receive help we need or to benefit from being able to help others. Trusting our own capacity to learn from adversity can enable us to forge meaning and protect against health risks. Edith Chen, a psychologist at Northwestern University, found that people who grew up in poor or unsafe environments and yet both accept that they can learn from adversity and maintain optimism in the face of adversity do not experience the toxic buildup of stress related ailments common among others who have experienced similar stress; including high blood pressure, high cholesterol, obesity, and inflammation.

And so, my gift to myself is to strive to shift a long held mindset about stress and embrace my stress, remaining open to growth and transformation. Might you accept the same gift? If so, how might you embrace stress and discover strength, courage, and compassion, meet challenges in life, and even lengthen life?

For more information, I highly recommend reading The Upside or Stress by Kelly McGonigal and viewing her TED talk How To Make Stress Your Friend, Edinburgh, Scotland, June, 2013



cc licensed image shared by flickr user Denise Krebs

cc licensed image shared by flickr user Denise Krebs

Creativity, courage, and uncertainty is integral both to joyous opportunity and painful struggle in education and in life.

While uncertainty has always been part of life, the changing nature of work is cause for parents and educators to pause and consider potentially seismic shifts in the ways in which students in our schools today will one day experience work. Differences in generational attitudes toward work are already substantial.

To put shifts into perspective:

  • From about 1880 to 1980, having a good job meant being an employee of a particular company for many years, perhaps even for a lifetime. (The Economist, There’s an App for That, Jan 3, 2015)
  • Generation X (people born between 1961 and 1981) have experienced the end of the expectation of a job for life. (Forbes, Where the Money’s At: The Fastest Growing Sectors for the Self Employed, Meghan Casserly, 8/22/2013)
  • 60% of Millenials (people born between early 1980’s and early 2000’s) are leaving their companies in less than three years and 45% would prefer more flexibility to more pay. (Forbes, Why Millenials are Ending the 9 to 5, Kate Taylor, 8/23/2013)


Many today aspire to a freelance lifestyle, qustioning the nature of having a traditional job at all. (Is the Era of Mass Manufacturing Coming to An End, Peter Acton, Harvard Business Review, December 5, 2014) A recent study by the freelancers union, a group promoting the interests of independent workers, suggests that 1 in 3 members of the American workforce (and a higher proportion of younger people) do at least some freelance work. (The Economist, There’s an App for That, Jan 3, 2015)

Knowledge and creative companies, demanding ideas rather than labor and services, are subject to the same forces promoting freelancing as the industrial and service economies. Topcoder can undercut its rivals by 75% by chopping projects into bite-sized chunks and offering them to its 300,000 freelance developers in 200 countries as a series of competitive challenges. InCloudCounsel undercuts big law firms by as much as 80% using freelance lawyers to process legal documents for a flat fee. Innocentive has turns companies’ research needs into specific problems and pays for satisfactory solutions to them.  Quirky operates as a next-gen manufacturer and R & D firm whose global online community of about 800,000 people submit, vote and fine-tune potential inventions. Quirky then manufactures, packages and sells promising ideas at retailers such as Home Depot and Best Buy as well as directly on (The Economist, There’s an App for That, Jan 3, 2015)

With all the uncertainty, there is creative potential difficult for members of previous generations to imagine. Vocation, avocation, work, and leisure combine and expansive options for crafting a life of joy and meaning, albeit with less security.

Among the most inspiring innovative endeavors for me is E-Nable, which I learned about at the World Maker Faire this past fall. Created by Jon Schull, a researcher at Rochester Institute of Technology, e-NABLE pairs children and adults with missing or deformed fingers, hands or forearms with makers who produce customized 3D printed prostheses. Making a huge impact with little more than 3D printers, open source product design, and the intelligence, passion, time, and good will of a growing cadre of volunteers, E-Nable has cut the cost of prosthetic limbs from tens of thousands of dollars to a mere $50 a limb. The organization went in 2014 alone from 200 members to more than 3200, and a recent $600,000 grant from google will enable E-nable to do so much more.

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For me, E-Nable models the potential for balance between knowing and doing; thinking and making, with a focus on being impactful in the real world. There are certainly many other models we can share with our students, assisting them to consider how they might contribute through vocation or avocation. In the words of organizers of the Maker Impact Summit, held in December, 2013, “We are on the cusp of an opportunity to more fully tap into our creative potential, driven by significant technological innovation that is democratizing the means of production and enabling connections between resources and markets. Realizing this opportunity will require rethinking and redesigning all of our major institutions innovating the way we work, learn and consume.

What are ways we might rethink and redesign learning experiences, supporting students to be courageous in letting go of certainty, finding creativity and meaning in the process?

CC licensed image shared by flickr user Bryan Zug

CC licensed image shared by flickr user Bryan Zug


The big challenge for leaders is getting our heads and hearts around the fact that we need to cultivate the courage to be uncomfortable and to teach the people around us how to accept discomfort as part of growth.  Brene Brown

When you identify the discomfort, you’ve found the place where a leader is needed.  Seth Godin

For many years, I believed leadership was about vision, certainty, confidence, and solutions. With a wall full of degrees, a position high in my school’s organizational hierarchy, and a job description demanding action, I felt it was my obligation to make decisions that would propel our school forward; perceived it to be my responsibility to tell rather than to ask, and to know rather than to search. How painfully wrong my perspective proved to be.

The economic downturn of 2008 hit the school of which I was then a part quite hard and demand for tuition assistance sky-rocketed, leaving the school with a painful choice; say farewell to students whose families could no longer afford tuition or function with a large deficit. The decision was made by the Board of Trustees to run at a substantial deficit for one year, and to craft a more sustainable business plan moving forward. As lower school principal, I was called upon to drastically cut expenses, primarily by eliminating positions, while at the same time significantly raising the quality of the school to more effectively compete with the growing competition we faced. It was a perfect storm. I wish I could say I navigated through the turbulence with the courage, compassion, and connection that Brene Brown describes as the hallmarks of wholehearted living in her book Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead. Being honest with myself, I was painfully unprepared. I floundered, made mistakes, and lacked the wisdom to know how to engage others in courageous, compassionate, connected discomfort. I did not yet know how to embrace vulnerability, to humbly engage in difficult conversations, to ask for help, and as Brene Brown so articulately advocates, “to lean into the discomfort of ambiguity and uncertainty, holding open an empathic space so people could find their own way”. Through the heart-wrenching pain of letting teachers know they would no longer have positions, demanding more of everybody, responding to increasing perhaps unrealistic expectations of me, and absorbing tremendous anger and distress, I faltered. Through many angst filled, sleepless nights and long, agonizing days, I found myself ill equipped for the many challenges facing me and recognized I needed to learn new ways of leading.

My transformation as an educational leader in some ways mirrors Brene Brown’s description of Lululemon’s CEO Chrstine Day’s leadership, moving from “controlling to engaging with vulnerability – taking risks and cultivating trust.” Day characterized the changes in her leadership as a shift from “having the best idea or problem solving to being the best leader of people”. Over the course of several years, I invented my leadership anew, learning to focus on supporting more than directing, coaching more than evaluating, wondering more than answering, and imagining collaboratively more than deciding individually. I accepted a new position as Head of School in another school community, crafting my approach to leadership with hard earned insights on vulnerability, risk taking, and trust building.

Echoing Brene Brown’s articulate words, “I’ve come to believe that a leader is anyone who holds her- or himself accountable for finding potential in people and processes.” I embraced leadership as serving to unleash the greatness in others. To that end, there are many techniques from the world of coaching that I have deliberately trained in and implemented, most significantly, giving feedback. Like Brene Brown, I have found receiving and giving feedback to be the key to normalizing discomfort, helping individuals to lean into discomfort with safety and support in order to stretch, to learn, to overcome challenges, to build on strengths, and to reach toward aspirations and potential. “At first, I was terrified by the idea that if education is going to be transformative, it’s going to be uncomfortable and unpredictable,” states Brene Brown, a sentiment that captures my intense emotion prior to the paradigm shift leading me from a leadership model focused on “knowing” and telling others what to do to an approach focused on “being”, deliberately nurturing trust and collaboratively striving toward shared, aspirational goals. In order to give feedback, I first had to be open to receive feedback. For that, I needed to embrace vulnerability – accepting that not only can mistakes and crises happen, but for any person or community that is striving to improve, mistakes and crises will occur. Acknowledging the inevitability of failures on the road to improvement enabled me to develop my resilience, patience, and fortitude in the face of challenge. I not only normalized discomfort for myself, but even became more comfortable with discomfort, welcoming the growingly familiar tension in my shoulders and flittering in stomach that arises when I have stretched myself beyond what I have done before, when I worry I have moved too quickly or made a wrong turn, when I face criticism that feels unfair or when I face criticism I feel I deserve. I have come to welcome the discomfort for it is through the stretching beyond the familiar that I grow and become more effective, more capable, more courageous, compassionate, and connected than I was before.

From seeking feedback for myself, I moved toward giving meaningful feedback to others – leading with a “coaching hat”; striving to focus more on support than evaluation. I revamped my approach to feedback; visiting classrooms as often as I could and sharing written feedback, including a compliment, and nonjudgmental reflections following four prompts: I noticed, I wonder, what if, and how might. I met with each teacher to set a professional learning goal, along with an action plan, supports we would put in place to help the teacher meet the goal, and ways we would measure progress toward the goal. I shared with each teacher that our end of year reflection, in lieu of formal evaluation, would not focus on whether the goal had been achieved, but rather on how much the teacher, and her or his students, had grown. I wanted teachers to adopt ambitious goals rather than playing it safe, and in order to do so I needed to create a culture in which striving was celebrated and protected. Teachers and I also filled out a rubric on professional practice as another means to reflect on practice, celebrate strengths, and identify areas more challenging. I made the commitment to teachers that the process would be focused on learning and that if I had a specific concern, I would be direct and share my concern with the teacher; enabling most conversations to be focused on professional growth and exploration of the possible, rather than being evaluative and judgmental. I reveled in teachers’ learning and growth; celebrating with teachers their forward progress.

Within the shifts in myself and our teachers, I caught glimpses of more dramatic forward movement for our school’s culture.  “A daring culture,” says Brene Brown, “is a culture of honest, constructive, and engaged feedback.” Nurturing a daring culture requires, according to Brene Brown, a “daring strategy”. We must dance with time, paying attention to the distance between where we have been, where we are, and where we want to be. While goals and accomplishments are important in this process, they are insufficient because, as Brene Brown shares, “culture is less about what we want to achieve and more about who we are.”

As we embrace one another’s strengths, along with one another’s quirky imperfections, we engage in painful yet potentially transformative disruption, offering the promise of engagement, creativity, innovation, productivity, learning, and trust. The key to this transformation is a frightening, yet potentially liberating, embrace of vulnerability.

I welcome you to engage in courageous, compassionate, connected conversation on vulnerability and growth.
How have you cultivated the courage to be uncomfortable?
How have you helped people around you to accept discomfort as part of growth?
How has discomfort helped you to learn and to grow?

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