A new era of visionary leadership begins

by Ryan B. Jackson, Ed.D

Let’s start with a quick story, shall we?

This past year I transitioned from an assistant principal at a large metropolitan high school to the executive principal of a small, rural high school. Like any leader, I packed up my bag of tricks, curated over a decade and sharpened in one of the more intense public schools in the state of Tennessee, and set my sights on changing the future of education. I had already fallen in love with STEAM education several years before I set foot in my new school, witnessing its transformational powers. However, it’d be my new school where I’d truly test the impact and paradigm-shift qualities of STEAM as a holistic learning model, where students are taught to think as creators not merely consumers. Not a month into the 2016-2017 school year magic began to happen. See, STEAM is as much a mindset as it is a curriculum – and that’s where we started. Our #Courage2Create vision hinged upon healing a fractured culture, paralyzed by stigma and wrought with a covert inferiority complex. But, things were changing – fast. Students responded first, gravitating towards optimism and the possibility of learning through different modes and pedagogies. Next came the parents, then the community – then we went even bigger…

But let’s back-up, briefly:

Two years ago, I wrote a piece titled Rise of the Visionary Leader (Read it here). At that time I was vision-casting a new era of school leaders needed to usurp a century-long, archaic education paradigm, using fearless innovation, radical ideas and, above all, an unbridled passion to lead change. I had served in public education for almost a decade and watched first-hand how the effects of our industrial-age school model was stomping out any remnants of joy in what we were currently calling school. Teaching within this innovation-less model is what drove me to be a school principal, where I could both champion and implement change. There was no greater factor.

Flash-forward two years: I have just completed my first year as the Executive Lead Principal of the Mount Pleasant Arts Innovation Zone, America’s first Pre-k through 12 STEAM campus. When I said we went BIG earlier, that was no hyperbole. After a month of implementing a STEAM mindset and vision into the high school, the ripple effect took hold. Given the go-ahead by a visionary superintendent, we quite literally took our STEAM model and expanded it – stretching it across ALL grade-levels, with the vision and understanding that this experiential-based learning juggernaut was imperative for all students, especially our youngest ones.

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THE MOUNT

Like any good reflective practitioner, I couldn’t help but wonder if my own leadership efforts lived up to the musings and expectations of a younger me?

So, as I sit here and reflect on the past school year and our outcomes, I wrestle with the only question that seems to matter: Were we bold enough? For the sake of clarity, I’m not just talking about being different. We’ve seen different. Paideia, STEM, Academies, Charters, Parochial, they were all different. I wanted 2nd order change – a complete break from the past. This kind of change hinges on a catalyst, a legitimate change-agent that’s willing to embrace the Stockdale Paradox while broadcasting his or her risk-taking efforts for the entire world to see.

Bold. Not just different.

For instance, our students researched, designed and constructed thematic Escape Rooms. The transdisciplinary PBL, aptly titled #EscapeTheMount, included over seven content areas with nearly 100 students contributing. See for yourself here. We were forgoing theory and actually applying the Arts into almost everything. The impact was irrefutable: Discipline dropped (drastically), ACT scores rose (dramatically), and our enrollment, in conjunction with the revitalization efforts of the city itself we serve is spiking!

Escape Room view

Students monitor their Escape Room experience.

Now I know what you’re thinking: “Our school is different, Dr. J. We’ve got intense poverty; Nearly unmanageable discipline; Almost zero parental involvement; Our central office doesn’t support us!” Of course, if this were an action-research dissertation, there’d have to be a limitations section, right? What were our constraints? What innate barriers stood seemingly insurmountable? So, let’s address the biggest elephant, a limitation that stands both connotatively and practically: Being a visionary leader in a public school.

A legitimate concern with public schools is how do you truly innovate within an overtly bureaucratic system, while earning enough early wins to not find yourself on the leadership chopping block come May? Furthermore, as author Diana Laufenberg famously noted, “you can’t have innovation with standardization.” Even beloved education advocate Sir Kenneth Robinson stated, “We have to personalize education, not standardize it.” Herein lies yet another innate public school quagmire. Just like the business sector, where start-up companies strive to take their small businesses public, going to scale while trying to maintain a culture of creative innovation is practically an oxymoron. Thus, our public education system, mirroring the high-volume factory output of the industrial age, is designed to standardize both curriculum and procedures in order to service the sheer volume of students while maintaining some semblance of quality control. Admittedly, there are many more elephants concerning public education, so at the risk of fully opening Pandora’s Box, let’s suffice to say that our public education system is, at the very least, curious to navigate. This realization and acceptance makes the next-step ever so critical:

Cutting through the noise

When we reference cutting through the noise, we begin our lap back to visionary leadership. The visionary leader operates amongst the static – surrounded by noise – yet somehow, almost supernaturally, can both see and get messages through. Let’s also be careful of confusing visionary leaders with mythical superheroes. We’re not letting school leaders off the hook that easy! It’s my firm belief that visionary leaders are more principle-centered than superhuman. Furthermore, it’s also my firm belief that visionary leaders are simply more in-tune with their WHY, which serves as something analogous to Tony Starks’ Arc Reactor, with a clear WHY perpetually generating passion into its leader. When we know our WHY, cultivated through countless hours of reflection, a growth mindset develops, serving as a scaffold amidst unchartered terrain.

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Evolution turns to revolution!

Added up, our WHY and a growth mindset form a sharp synergy. This synergy operates like a surgeon’s scalpel cutting through the aforementioned noise. It’s here, in this space, the visionary leader truly manifests, for now a new horizon begins to crystalize far beyond the distractions and disturbances of the public education paradigm. With a principle-centered compass coupled with an unrelenting, WHY-inspired passion, the visionary leader now begins to take on attributes and abilities lost to him or her before – call it third-eye-vision, gut-instinct, magic – no matter what name we give it, the visionary leader transcends the boundaries hindering the majority. This ascension towards something greater, outside the lines of mediocrity, complacency and normalcy, is where boldness happens – and fortune favors the bold. Fortune in this case is literally changing the lives of students and the community we serve, repositioning public education as debt-free catalyst towards future success.

Lastly, the correlation between visionary leaders and situational leadership should be noted. Visionary leaders must always ask the question, “What about the sand?” This question stems from concerns surrounding Dwight D. Eisenhower’s visionary leadership leading up to the Normandy invasion and whether or not the general had given sincere thought to the weight of the US’s massive tanks on soft beach sand. History lessons aside, the example is spot-on as visionary leaders must be able to toggle at-will between the micro and macro of leadership…faster than a speeding bullet!

See for yourself if we were bold enough by following me on Twitter @RyanBJackson1 and search our hashtag #TheMount.

The School that could change everything

by Ryan B. Jackson, Ed.D

Fear inhibits creativity. It’s a psychological fact. Whether it’s fear of failure, fear of change, or fear of making a mistake, the simple yet gripping effects of fear keep us in a perpetual state of self-control. Authors Chip & Dan Heath detail the effects of intense, unwavering self-control on our brains and, specifically, our creative processes in their book SWITCH: How to change when change is hard. Essentially, fear is exhausting, and anything above a remedial task or recall response, in turn, falls victim to fear’s fatigue. Our education system is no stranger to fear or fear-tactics. We’re all guilty of it in some form or fashion: Study hard or suffer in summer school! Go to college or accept a life of retail! What if there was another way? What if we took the Terminator 2 approach? You know, like how the Terminator became a good guy, showcasing the power of man and machine working together!

Bad movie nerd analogies aside, what if we overcame our fears by deliberately dropping our neurotic focus on them and instead opened our minds to a world of creativity and synergy that surrounds us? Sound far-fetched? Well, that’s the vision for the Mount Pleasant Arts Innovation Zone, America’s first PK-12 STEAM campus. We’re striving to be the Daredevil of education, a public school with absolutely no fear – dedicated to connecting students with their passions by empowering teachers to think, teach and live outside the box. Sure, this may not be the most academic approach to explaining just exactly what a STEAM school is but it’s certainly the most honest. We’re building a culture where teachers are encouraged to take risks, students are inspired to create, and learning happens as a result of the amalgamation of subject-areas.

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Just a high-functioning 3D mouthpiece. NBD…

So what does this STEAM school really look like? I like to use the Music of Mechatronics example. Picture a high school student that loves playing in the band. This kid carries his horn around like a badge of honor and proclaims the brass section to be the funkiest troupe of horn blowers any stadiums ever laid ears on. Now this student loves music but when he sees Mechatronics on his schedule, initially his heart sinks. Not hard to understand, as most musicians would shy away from the program’s Wikipedia description “a multidisciplinary field of science combining a varied array of engineering fields…” However, the Mechatronics instructor, operating under our vision of connecting students to their passions, sees an incredible opportunity to teach this freshman about a different kind of melody. The sweet humming of a 3D printer. Before long, the student is 3D printing functioning, multicolored mouthpieces that leave his band mates both curious and impressed. This freshmen now loves band AND mechatronics.

There are countless examples like this but the results are the same. We’re taking a page out of the Nanodegree generation’s playbook, combined with a bit of practical psychology, and helping students embrace their passions while simultaneously opening their minds to the reality of real world synergy. It’s education a la carte. We’ve recognized that under the one-size-fits-all, factory-line education model we’ve done more damage than good, so we’re leveraging the power of relationship-building and personal interests to foster both a new way of thinking and learning. It’s metacognition for the mobile-generation! And what’s cooler than 3D printed French horns is that we’re starting this process as early as three years old. See, basically we’re a public school acting like the coolest start-up company since Snapchat. Only this isn’t Silicon Valley, we’re re-directing the course of education from the cozy confines of Mount Pleasant, TN, a cool little pocket-city an hour outside of Nashville. I use the start-up comparison because our teachers vertically plan – like 2nd graders working with 11th graders on the same Tiny House PBL – and our emphasis on hands-on, experiential learning transcends both grade-level and content-area. This allows for an overarching vision free from the compartmentalization of students by arbitrary birthdates.

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He’s big. They’re little. And they’re all learning!

We’ve championed the moniker #TheMount and for good reason. Our students are on a journey of self-discovery, a journey that will take them up the mountain of personal excellence. In order to climb this mountain, they’ll need to synthesize their learning, apply its knowledge and reflect on their progress. That’s what STEAM, both conceptually and practically, is all about. We’re committed to thwarting old paradigms, opting instead to create new ones. We see ourselves as creators – not merely prescription fillers – who inspire students to think and do like creators not consumers. We’re bonded by an oath to prepare our students for an ever-changing global economy by eradicating learning silos, marginalizing standardized tests and, above all, dispelling fear. Are we perfect? Of course not, but we’re also not afraid to be imperfect. Do we fail? Sometimes. But when we do, we always make sure we fail forward, learning and growing from our calculated risks.

People ask me all the time, What is STEAM? Here’s my thoughts: STEAM is loving Art and Science. It’s applying both to something like agriculture and realizing your harvest just got way cooler. STEAM is as much an educational state of mind than a set curriculum. Swing by The Mount sometime, I’ll show you what I mean…

Mr. Progress

by Ryan B. Jackson, Ed.D

I’ve talked before about my decision to stop drinking alcohol. This New Year’s Eve marked four years sober. My biological father died well over a year ago, end result of a hard-living life. He and I had been estranged five years before he finally met his grandson (relationships first to go with substance abusers) and at that point in my life I was over two years sober. I had never outright called myself an alcoholic but his premature death coupled with my own struggles with excess left me forced to face facts. Thankfully, by the time my father died and grief left me temporarily toiling over the inescapable idea that I was more than likely genetically hardwired to follow suit, I had already read Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning. I eventually detached from grief-stricken logical fallacies because I understood and accepted Frankl’s concentration camp-tested claim that man’s greatest innate ability is undoubtedly his power to choose.

So I chose sobriety and with it the blank canvas of re-starting my physical, mental and emotional health journey. My very next move was seemingly trivial and by all accounts superficial but the effects and catalyst-like impact on my life have been game-changing. I was in the early stages of my doctoral program so I had “free” access to the university’s gym. I set an immediate goal of losing beer-belly fat so began the extremely humbling process of hitting the gym three times a week.

What I found out soon after those embarrassingly painful first gym visits, however, was an almost instant improvement in my entire physiology. Ever the skeptic, I just couldn’t deny I was feeling, looking, sleeping, even thinking better!

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Look good. Feel good. Do good.

It was upon this realization that the Fit Leaders ideology was born.

Never a big fan of self-help or motivational gurus but Tony Robbins’ mantra “Progress equals happiness” rang true after every session spent bettering myself in the gym. If life is our constant physical battle against gravity – literally keeping ourselves off the ground – then each session in the gym for me equated to grabbing the very next rung on the ladder of life. Now at this point in my professional career I’m transitioning from teacher to administrator in one of Nashville, TN’s toughest high schools. Maplewood High School, where I started my education career, is the stuff of legend: high discipline, high poverty, gang violence, low student achievement, etc. It was Dangerous Minds but real life. In the 80s a teacher was shot, mid 00s a murder at our graduation ceremony, pick a heartbreaking, gut-wrenching scenario we had it.

Now I was being asked and, ultimately, asking myself to lead others in this pressure-cooker of a high school. So my choice to abandon alcohol, consume more water, and force myself into the gym couldn’t have come at a better time. My job performance blossomed because I had more energy. My ability to influence increased because I could think better. It became crystal clear the correlation between personal and professional health, as I got physically stronger so did my job performance. As I looked and felt better, my interpersonal skills and relationship-building skyrocketed. This health-job correlation helped me turnaround a struggling inner-city high school, helping raise both ACT scores and graduation rate in the process.

I felt and thought better which meant I was able to pour into my passions even stronger.

I love art and believe it breathes life into the soul of a school, which led to me infusing art into our STEM curriculum – which attracted the attention of a nearby school system looking for an innovative school leader willing to embed Art across curriculums and create the nation’s first PK-14 STEAM campus. [Side Note: I’m now the Executive Lead Principal of the Mount Pleasant Arts Innovation Zone, the United State’s first PK-14 STEAM campus]

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Introducing America’s 1st K-14 campus.

As my career and energy-level steamrolled, I took to twitter and Instagram to share and connect with other thought and fitness leaders. I was bitten by the Abraham Maslow bug, eager to belong to a tribe of NewAge leaders who were ready to change the world by leading the millennial generation towards a healthier, purposeful life. Through this process a hashtag was born: #FitLeaders serves as a beacon, a categorical calling card that attracts, connects and bonds all those wanting, willing and striving for a better life. The Fit Leaders movement now reaches coast-to-coast, from Marilyn McAlister in Southern California to Sean Thom near the shores of New Jersey. With a growing presence stretching across the United States, the Fit Leaders vision has crystalized, formed by a collective of passionate leaders.

Fit Leaders is a lifestyle brand striving to sustain high-quality, innovative leadership across all industries in an ever-changing world. Our mission is to empower all those wanting a better, healthier life for the sake of both ourselves and the industries we serve. We understand that progress equals happiness and that even small, daily advances of momentum can result in life-changing good. Lastly, we commit to leading ourselves so that we can be rock stars at leading others.

Burning down the house: Rising from the ashes of NCLB

by Ryan B. Jackson, Ed.D

The Chinese have a great philosophy on crisis. The eastern vantage point sees crisis as Danger meets opportunity. For many educators, reformers and parents, the United State’s education system has been on the precipice of disaster for some time – considered by many to be a full-blown crisis. Since my visit to China several years ago, as part of a leadership exchange program between trepid nations, my personal approach to crisis has been drastically altered. Serving as an educator now for more than a decade, I’ve spent the past five years seeking out the opportunities clouded amidst the shadows of seemingly unyielding danger.

A quick reference through my blog catalog confirms where I’ve spent my time unearthing these hidden opportunities: Restorative Justice, PBL, Art Antidote, to name a few. Furthermore, I’ve pressed the need for education transformation rather than the archaic, profit-laden reform approach. This past summer I rolled the dice and wagered my professional career and family’s future on the lofty goals of a forward-thinking district led by an atypical superintendent, who positioned this school system more like an inspired start-up company than a stagnant corporate giant. Only a month into the 2016-2017 school year and we’ve already erected a symbolic statue of the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) paradigm that has devastated curriculums across this great country of ours for the past two decades. This pyre of misaligned standards, hurtful protocols, over-testing and empathy-less remediation stands reminiscent to the towering Wooden Man effigy burned annually to represent radical self-expression.

Now it’s time to throw the match…

Breaking out of the industrial-age education model

How awesome is it to live in such an inspired technologically advanced time? Our devices update every six months (if not sooner), our children learn to swipe before they learn to crawl, and our ability to connect with one another has created a boundless classroom, where pen pals are now virtual classroom companions. Yet with so much #EdTech advancement, the most puzzling, if not scariest, irony is our unfathomable commitment to an industrial-age education model that has stood now for more than 100 years. Impossible to proclaim true change when our education model harkens class-based ideologies trumpeted as high as the Presidency:


“We want one class of persons to have a liberal education, and we want another class of persons, a very much larger class of necessity in every society, to forgo the privilege of a liberal education and fit themselves to perform specific difficult manual tasks.” – Woodrow Wilson

I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out the parallels between this month’s Labor Day celebration, a national holiday commending the efforts of those who sacrificed in order to improve working conditions during the height of the – industrial revolution – in order to secure better working conditions, specifically for children, immigrants and the poor, and the educational uprising that seeks to eradicate a class-based education paradigm through progressive means. Of course these parallels and proclamations aren’t anything new, author Jonathan Kozol exposed the system and its origins almost 30 years ago in his riveting expose Savage Inequalities. Yet, here we are in 2016, embracing the advancements of augmented reality while operating within a paradigm designed for children who would once spend 12 hours a day working in ankle-deep waste.

Not on our watch…

Pulling the NCLB plug

NCLB and its emphasis on Big Brother-style accountability seemed to serve as a life-support system for the industrial-age education model, herding students based on achievement levels with an unwavering, merciless blind eye to socioeconomic status. Beyond the morality issues, NCLB forced an entire generation of students to continually confront their weaknesses, hammering on them daily, while outright ignoring their innate talents and passions. The result has been a joyless education experience that has left the idea of School Spirit on its proverbial deathbed, a purgatory of sorts where children dread school with physical manifestations such as increased violence, panic attacks and an alarming increase in truancy.

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Time to inject Art back into education.

So, if breaking out of the industrial-age education model and deconstructing NCLB are WHAT we’re doing and we’ve discussed at length WHY we’re doing it, the next logical question is HOW? And the how, fellow educators, is what has me so inspired to serve in the Maury County Public School system!

Inspired PBL with project-enabled resources

At this point project-based learning (PBL) should be new to no one. This experiential learning model begins with a driving question and places students right where they belong — at the center of their own learning, while charging them with identifying, investigating and proposing theoretical or practical solutions to community and/or global problems. The issue up until now has been throwing teachers and building leaders directly onto the griddle, watching them squirm and side-step around this cutting-edge learning model due to inadequate training and limited resources. The result, naturally, was teachers and principals feeling like PBL was one more flavor-of-the-month or Edu Band-Aid, never giving it the proper attention or necessary implementation.

Enter Discovery Education: Maury County Public Schools has partnered with the global brand Discovery Education, leveraging their infinite PBL resources and tech-friendly web portals to give teachers a one-stop-shop when looking for inspiration, training, and 21st century resources. Unlike highly-publicized and contested partnerships (Pearson, anyone?), Discovery Education helps teachers pour into students’ strengths, while fostering a creator-mindset that looks to usurp the current consumer, rote knowledge landscape plaguing our young people.

The US’s first k-12 public school STEAM campus

Where PBL is an awesome experiential learning model, STEAM education is the universe it lives within. Think of it like Hulk romping around the Marvel universe. One of the biggest catastrophes of NCLB was the degradation of our Nation’s arts curriculum, relegating it to the doldrums of education’s hierarchy while eviscerating imperative human needs and traits like self-expression and empathy. The STEAM movement combats this education evil by embedding the arts across a much needed STEM curriculum, infusing visual and performing arts so that students can embrace their talents and passions while sharpening creativity and ingenuity.

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Does your school provide 21st century access & opportunities?

I’ve been a STEAM advocate for the past two years and this passion has put me in a position where, coupled with a progressive school district and the forward-thinking non-profit Kids on Stage, we are creating the Nation’s very first k-12 public school STEAM campus. Imagine a world where students as young as three-years-old begin a life-long journey towards personal excellence through artistic expression with advanced STEM curriculum. Think Mechatronics meets AP Environmental Science and Concert Band, where amphibious drones collect Zika virus samples set to the tune of Jaws played by a live, student orchestra, or Construction students partnering with a songwriting class, researching, designing and constructing a tiny house while writing then recording an ode to country love songs titled I’m gonna build you a tiny house. Quickly you realize the infinite possibilities and equally infinite life-changing educational experiences – with students living and learning like this from three to 18-years-old. That, my fellow educators, is truly the future of education and the pure Phoenix rising out of the ashes of the industrial-age model.

Finding the Courage to Create

by Ryan B. Jackson, Ed.D

An anchor statement is your brand’s bottom-line, the boiled-down essence of everything your organization represents. I’ve been on a mission lately, evangelizing to educators the power of embracing their brand, both personal and professional, and I’m prepared now to put my money where my mouth is.

I was recently hired to administer my own school; I’m now the proud principal of Mt. Pleasant High School in Mt. Pleasant, TN. Naturally, I’m bringing my personal brand with me. In fact, I’m quite certain the #UnderdogsAdvocate brand played a large part in why I obtained the position. The past several years have been dedicated to showcasing my life’s work, tirelessly serving underprivileged students, in order to better connect with fellow educators, community members and various stakeholders. The impact of creating and sharpening my personal brand has had a multiplier effect on not only my work but also serves as a conduit for others to learn from my work, the driving factor of a professional learning network (PLN), as well as a 21st century form of professional development.

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Limitless possibilities

Immediately after taking the helm of Mt. Pleasant ideas began to swirl. Mt. Pleasant is a school in the midst of a rebirth-like transformation, surrounded by a city bubbling with innovation and business development. The school’s identity was starting to develop organically as its middle-school feeder (a visual and performing arts 5-8) was promoting incredibly talented freshmen year-after-year. This overwhelming surge highlighted the obvious: What’s the next step?

And so the #Courage2Create movement was born.

The idea is simple, and it most definitely applies directly to Mt. Pleasant; however, its impact and reach stretches far beyond any one particular classroom, school or school district. Actually, I’d argue the ethos of Courage to Create expands through school systems, organizations, families, even governments. It’s a divergent way of thinking, where status quos are burned in favor of rebuilding new paradigms from the ashes of archaic, controlling old ones. All of this scholarly rhetoric sounds great nestled in a blog post but it has to have a starting point, a tangible beginning: the beginning is courage.

Courage implies we make a leap of faith, trusting our instincts, relying on our skillsets. Courage rejects judgment, ignoring the mundane majority in favor of a more exclusive, eccentric club. You can begin to see how my two brands intersect, as the Underdog’s Advocate platform is built around proving the majority wrong while writing your own success story. The Courage to Create movement is merely an extension of that ethos; it’s where the rubber-meets-the-road. Initially, I thought this movement exclusively applied to young people – I’m an educator thus my brain constantly focuses on improving student outcomes – but a trip to Boston, speaking at the Americans for the Arts convention expanded the idea.

After speaking with artists, educators and community stakeholders from across the country, the unyielding message was an extreme need for change. Reduce education’s standardization and increase community arts influence to improve quality of life were just a few of the common threads echoed during the convention. The majority of the dialogue that followed centered on HOW? How do we change things? How do we inspire others? How do we sustain it? My response overwhelmingly was simple: Courage. Yes, the courage to begin, as so often the decision to change and its first-step require the most faith, yet also the courage to persevere, that unwavering fortitude to weather life’s (and our system’s) inevitable storms.

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Introducing the #Courage2Create vision at AFTACON.

At Mt. Pleasant it will mean inspiring a student body to find the courage to create their future, a symbolic rally-cry that emphasizes your destiny is indeed in your hands not cemented by bloodline or previous expectations. Practically speaking, we’ll ask students to embrace their inner-artist, whether that’s as an engineer whose art serves a necessary utilitarian purpose through the beautiful bridges and infrastructure designs they’ll create or the dancers, musicians and painters whose artistic-creations equate to food for the wearied soul. Even student-athletes will see the artistry behind disciplined training and courageous commitment. Furthermore, it’ll mean challenging a faculty and staff to step outside of their comfort zones. Embrace the courageous act of relinquishing the safety and self-control of our previous norms in order to create something new – something different.

The Courage to Create is most definitely our Mt. Pleasant High School anchor statement but it’s so much more than that. It runs parallel with my philosophy on leadership:

“Leadership is a lifestyle.”

And, in essence, so is the Courage to Create. It’s an amalgamation of growth mindset, logotherapy and a burgeoning STEAM movement. All of this coupled with a personal touch, that unique flair that distinguishes us from every other living thing making our creations truly one-of-a-kind.

Our Courage to Create mission is uniquely embedded within the rising tide of Mt. Pleasant High School but its universal message – the theme that transcends geographical borders and passionate purple cow leaders – lies within the hearts of all organizations redefining themselves. It’s a synergy that has a Tesla-ability to illuminate our shared connections while celebrating peacock-inspired differences. Please join us on this journey towards self-discovery and realizing then maximizing human potential.

All it takes is courage…

Nanodegree Nation

by Ryan B. Jackson, Ed.D

Maury County Public Schools is in the midst of massive change. A once stagnant district now has a new innovative Director of Schools, a global partner in Discovery Education and a quickly crystallizing plan to become middle Tennessee’s first 1:1 school system. MCPS’ 1:1 push serves a plethora of functions, the most noble of which seeks to help eliminate the digital divide perpetuating student achievement gaps across racial and socio-demographics. The second function addresses not only how students learn but WHERE they’re doing it. As a veteran educator with more than a decade’s worth of experience in both urban and rural settings, I’ve listened as more and more students share with me their passions, purposes and pursuits of learning. A growing number of our students have turned to the internet as their classroom of choice, picking and choosing their learning times while leveraging the infinite resources at their fingertips to become micro-credentialed in just about anything.

Introducing Nanodegree Nation.

Self-help gets a digital makeover

Anyone unfamiliar with the live-streaming video platform Twitch let me school you on what 100 million people already know: Globally people of all ages – with Centennials serving as the bedrock – connect via Twitch to, well, learn how to play video games. If I rock at playing video games (call me a “Gamer”), I broadcast my skills through Twitch while other would-be Gamers tune-in and learn from an expert. Simple, right? There’s no video game school. No video game principal. No video game 7:05AM start time! Just various learners of different skill-levels seeking differentiated instruction from countless experts. I know, I know, we’re talking about video games, how silly – except there’s nothing silly about 2020’s $115Billion gaming software revenue projection but that’s another blog post.

The point is, like YouTube and Twitch the web’s digital classroom is eviscerating all notions of what contemporary school looks and feels like. Any educator willing to face reality will tell you students are rejecting education’s current paradigm and they have good reason to. The tip of the spear is and always will be teachers, as their effect-size carries the greatest impact. Some of us educators have adopted the digital settlers mindset, bravely, boldly trekking the #edtech frontier in search of a way to strike gold with our wayward students. Yet, we’re still too few and far between and the reality is we’re still serving within systems that are afraid of this type of thinking. The greater atrocity is the teacher-next-door who thinks smartphones are the Devil and insists on continuing the Vulcan mind meld method of torturous pontification and recall. To help quell these fears and practices, MCPS superintendent Dr. Chris Marczak repeats the mantra, “Technology isn’t replacing teaching; it’s enhancing it!” The looming fear, however, is that without a paradigm shift from educators at-large technology will replace teaching, whether we like it or not.

coder loveUnless you’ve been living under a Gateway 2000, it’s no surprise today’s students are indelibly tethered to the digital world. From Snapchat to Kik, Twitch to YouTube, students socialize, entertain themselves and…gasp…learn while serving as flesh-and-bone Ethernet cords. This blog post doesn’t mark the beginning of students’ perpetual penchant (addiction?) for screen-time or signify its phenomena status but instead shall stand as a conversation starter as to the power of student perception on our current education framework and how this perception will undoubtedly impact both high school and college degrees.

 So old it’s new

Ages ago humans passed down knowledge orally. We’d sit around a campfire, literally chew the fat, and learn from more experienced members of our tribe. Over time this method of teaching and learning graduated to an apprentice model, where hands-on experience coupled with expert tutelage forged us into young professionals. Scene-select to the last hundred years or so as more complex societies took education to scale and we find teaching and learning now confined to age-cohorts, processed through a grade-level format with a blanket of knowledge and skills already prescribed for us. Aside from some tweaks and variances here and there, teaching and learning – school, as we’ve come to know it – hasn’t changed in over a century. That idea alone is terrifying but it’s become Stephen King-level when you consider our smartphones advance approximately every six months with students serving as the beta-testers.

Speaking of education’s one hundred years of stagnation, let’s shift our focus to today’s students and the oil and water relationship between their physical and digital education. What makes students more and more unique, unlike their student-body predecessors, is not only are they true digital natives but for the first time in history a generation has access to boundless information sources at nanosecond speed. Yes, the Internet’s been around since ’95, I’m well aware; it was my generation that staked our digi-flag in AOL’s early chat rooms. However, how we actually learned through the Internet was analogous to AOL’s dial-up speed. Nowadays, students seem to merely exist in the physical world, whereas they simultaneously live and learn in the digital one.

For educators, parents, researchers, and social scientists, it’s the learning part of that last sentence that should pique your interest the most. Why? Because it’s as fascinatingly brilliant as it is scary. Students are literally taking matters into their own hands, refusing to be confined to education’s bureaucracy and archaic system. Instead, students are adopting an entrepreneurial mindset, creating their own curriculums, choosing their own instructors and gaining their own micro-certifications.

The future is no longer ahead of us – it’s upon us.

I say this with fervor and familiarity because I am now the Executive Lead Principal of the Mt. Pleasant Arts Innovation Zone, the United States’ first PK-12 STEAM campus also selected as the pilot campus for MCPS’ 1:1 vision.

What is college?

To be fair, post-secondary academia will probably be the first true casualty of the nanodegree revolution. I’ll speak solely from experience here, as my learning has increased exponentially now that I’m a PLC junkie. My professional learning community (PLC) has without a shadow of a doubt far surpassed any learning I received during my years in grad school – and I had a solid grad school experience, standing proudly behind my action-research dissertation. (Read about the Competitive Teaching Model here.) With student loan debt sending college grads to financial purgatory and Bernie Sanders’ pleas for FREE college fading, young adults’ version of anarchy is now to find their path and expertise through free, well-informed channels.

These days when I’m hiring a new teacher or interviewing a prospective administrator I’m more interested in your digital profile than your college portfolio, as far-out as it sounds I’m more interested in your Twitter handle than any letters you have following your government name. Who do you actively learn from? What Voxer groups are you in? Have you ever moderated a Twitter Edu Chat? These are today’s version of what school did you attend and what was your GPA?

If all of this sounds far-fetched, ask anyone under the age of 30 when was the last time they read an instruction manual. And, don’t ask students who their favorite teacher is because that word has specific connotations, instead ask them who they learn the most from – and where does this learning occur.

The answers are shaping our future: the physical and the digital one.

Making the case for competition

by Ryan B. Jackson, Ed.D

Educators everywhere are celebrating because it’s finally March – which means a couple of different things: spring’s promise of better weather and new beginnings, as well as the fanatical fervor of college basketball’s March Madness. Since March’s weather matches the temper of your building’s copier, let’s instead focus on the latter and the excitement those blank NCAA brackets bring.

It’s a safe assumption everyone reading this has at one point in their life partaken in the watercooler-fueled competitive March Madness bracket buster pool. Maybe you’re a pro, a legitimate college sports couch analyst submitting countless variations of your nuanced brackets to ESPN.com. Or, maybe you simply succumbed to the allure of joining your friends and co-workers in your school’s $5 shenanigans pool and were hooked once your Cinderella underdog clawed its way to the Sweet sixteen. Either way, the impact of your involvement affects the brain similarly:

  1. Your dopamine spikes as you highlight each of your wins
  2. Your sense of status skyrockets as you edge-out competitors
  3. Your sense of belonging surges as the pool becomes the talk of your building
  4. Your need to satisfy our innate desire to survive is quenched
  5. Your focus sharpens as your engagement grows with each round

What at face-value seems to amount to little more than just random picks and a bit of harmless fun is in fact a melting pot of brain-based, needs-satisfying psychology. Thus, the idea of March Madness fervor parallels perfectly to the impact of non-threatening competition in schools, where the five effects listed above combine to create a culture of passion and goal-setting – resulting at the very least in student engagement and at its pinnacle student empowerment.

Paging Mr. Pink

I’m a big Daniel Pink fan. His ideas on motivation and our insatiable appetite for autonomy, purpose and mastery have helped shape my leadership style while also vetting my Competitive Teaching Model (Discover its power here). Creating a culture of healthy competition aligns with Pink’s BIG three, ultimately motivating students to be their best while inspiring the group as a whole to collectively reach for new heights.

Matt programming drone

The CTM hardwires student engagement!

Autonomy through the lens of a competitive teaching model empowers students to set goals, devise a plan, analyze progress and fine-tune after feedback. Ownership and control now rest squarely in the hands of the student. With more and more teachers beginning to “hold students able” instead of merely accountable, shifting our perception as we presume positive intent, genuine autonomy now transfers to measured success. As students meet and exceed goals, set and conquer challenges, the brain rewiring weaves electromagnetic magic as dopamine traverses neurons – sending positive message after positive message. It’s one thing to instill passion in students – the Competitive Teaching Model literally hardwires it!

Purpose can confound the most focused student. The key is creating a transparent culture where students can clearly see the impact of their role on both personal and team success. This is where Pink and Maslow high-five each other, as crystalizing a student’s purpose solidifies his or her perceived sense of belonging, which is a major personal and professional hurdle for those on the road to self-actualization (mastery). How big is that for a student, though? Helping students not only realize their true potential but correlating their unique role to the team’s outcome, while simultaneously embedding empathy practices that help students identify and relate with the roles of their teammates. The Competitive Teaching Model is now hardwiring success skills!

Mastery can’t be rushed and for the majority of us it certainly doesn’t come over night. Thankfully our intrinsic curiosity and innate desire to win (evolved from our primordial instinct to survive) motivates us to chase mastery – driving harder, headlong into tumultuous surf, grasping for what’s just beyond our fingertips. Often times we’re competing against ourselves, and anyone who’s ever attempted a strict diet or workout regimen knows that daily personal goals are simple: be better than yesterday. This intrapersonal goal-setting sharpens our skillsets and talents, which allows for greater success when we compete against others, whereupon we now include status, belonging and engagement – synthesized respectively into a hardworking, goal-setting, driven individual.

Brain Rules of Engagement

If you’re anything like me, you fell out of love with math in middle school. Before that I quite enjoyed the subject, especially days we’d compete at the front of the class feverishly working through multi-step subtraction problems while my friends cheered me on in the background. If the new buzz in education is to inspire passion in students, I’d love to have a snapshot of just one of those board races – my face inches from the board, left hand covered in chalk, sneaking peaks to my right to see how my competition was doing. Meanwhile, students behind me couldn’t contain their excitement as they rooted-on their favorite mathematicians with fist-pumps and cheers. This was passion personified.

A year later I “hated” math.

So how do we inject the spirit of something as simple as elementary math races into a 21st century curriculum? The answer could be as simple yet profound as Reading. Yes, you read that right, and, yes, I realize that passion and reading aren’t the first two words that come to mind when you think of igniting a culture of engaged students. However, that was the case this past fall when Maplewood High School hosted its first-ever Read-A-Thon, where close to 50 students holed-up in our library after school – on a Friday – and competed to see who had greater reading stamina. Our English Department knew they had a heavy chore on their hands when they decided last summer to commit to creating a culture of reading in one of the poorest high schools in Nashville, TN.

Reading marathon

Students compete on reading stamina!

Teachers laid the groundwork by promoting student-choice reading, allowing all students to self-select novels they’d be reading during class time and for homework. Once the foundation was set, the teachers positioned the Read-A-Thon as a no-holds-barred, survival of the fittest Reading Rumble. Each hour prizes were distributed for students who continued to turn pages. By 9:30PM it was clear the more than 20 students that still remained were in this competition for the long haul, refusing to be outlasted, out read by any would-be bibliophiles; By 10:30PM we declared approximately 20 students WINNERS of the Read-A-Thon. These 20 students only represent a fraction of our student body yet their participation and commitment to something as atypical as competitive reading has helped propel our reading culture to its next phase: Reading Rebels.

Our Reading Rebel attitude manifests itself this spring as we are now challenging other schools across Metro Nashville Public Schools in a first-ever district Read-A-Thon hosted by Maplewood High School. This coming April schools across the city will connect via Google Hangout and compete to see which school has the most committed readers. Participation is all-inclusive with students from every grade and ability-level encouraged to carry their school’s flag with each page they turn, each chapter they close, each book they finish.

For Maplewood High School, every school day is now framed as a chance to train as we prepare for the upcoming Reading Rumble, with students committed to a shared goal: Increase our reading stamina so we can claim victory against our Reading Rumble rivals! Whether you’re filling out a NCAA bracket or selecting books for a Read-A-Thon, the brain’s willingness to compete serves as an intrinsic motivator. The Competitive Teaching Model plays to this brain-based advantage, amplifying a sense of belonging in students and faculty while clarifying our purpose and preparing us for mastery.

As usual, I’ll be rooting for the underdogs!

Graduating with empathy

by Ryan B. Jackson, Ed.D

I love hopping on Voxer and listening to other leaders make the case for top leadership traits. Passion, communication, vision, ingenuity, integrity – the usual suspects. All solid traits, no doubt, yet I’m here to make the case for the underdog of emotions, the most underrated of all leadership traits: I’m here to amplify Empathy.

I’ve been serving in education for a decade, all of which has been in a large, urban school district serving primarily low socioeconomic students. If we’re being transparent (a trend I hope never gets old) serving in high-poverty schools can harden even the most passionate of educators. Maybe that’s a little shortsighted, as today’s educational landscape seems to contort and constrict just about all educators regardless of setting. Appreciating just how tough it is to be an educator helps when trying to understand why something as powerful as empathy sits buried at the bottom of the leadership trait totem pole. Today’s educators are so busy weathering the continuous tempest of change, we too often embrace the callous, cold reflection of our data and directives.

The reflective practitioner in me not only understands but has also been entirely guilty of the educator’s survival tactic of trading empathy for sympathy, the arm’s distance 2nd cousin to truly helping others. Unlike sympathy, empathy goes beyond feeling, beyond compassion; it pushes into action-verb territory as it forces us to step inside each other’s world, witnessing the struggle – free of judgment and perception. When we embrace empathy-based leadership or teaching practices what we’re really doing is committing to a lifestyle change, a paradigm shift that begs us to perpetually shift our perspective at will, depending upon whom we’re dealing with at any given moment.

And, well, it’s hard.

bodywater

Like water…

Sometimes our bodies own physiology makes legitimate excuses for our behavior. Let’s face it, our science shows we’re comprised of about 70% water and like water innately we tend to travel down the path of least resistance. Thus, if we leave it up to nature and I’m sure Darwin’s philosophy of Survival of the Fittest would affirm, empathy doesn’t stand a chance. In his book Teaching with Poverty in Mind, Eric Jensen makes the case that empathy absolutely must be taught, as it is not one of our six innate emotions yet imperative for successful socialization. Therefore, since we’re not born with the knowledge of empathy coupled with the fact it’s an arduous trait to continuously and effectively implement, we begin to understand exactly why empathy falls into the “I know I should be doing this but…” category, right next to exercising, clean eating and financial planning.

Going back to Jensen for bit, I actually think it’s dangerous to presume all leaders and teachers are capable of exercising empathy. The fact is, just like so many of our students, if they, too, weren’t taught empathy early on, there ‘s a strong chance they flat-out don’t possess it – at all. That’s a scary thought, a very, very scary thought yet nonetheless true. Furthermore, as 21st century leadership continues to shake-off the antiquated traits of leadership’s yesteryear, it’s important we disengage from the barbaric mindset that all leaders must be overtly tough and that vulnerability and emotional intelligence play second-fiddle to authority and power. And so, if we genuinely buy into the ideal that education is the key to unlocking the world’s potential and that our academic institutions are the last training outposts before we reach the world’s wilds, it then behooves us to identify empathy, analyze it, apply it, before finally – hopefully – creating cultures that reflect understanding, love and equity.

living the dream pic

Are you an empathy-based leader?

I leave you then with a little call-to-action: Are you an empathetic leader? Does it help steer your moral compass? If not, I beg you undergo this life-changing transformation, choosing to presume positive intent through embracing the feelings and emotions of others. If in fact you are, how are you ensuring empathy is a hallmark inside of your school, classroom or organization’s culture? How are you measuring such a qualitative construct to ensure it permeates and maximizes your leadership influence?

Let’s continue this dialogue in the comment section, Twitter feed and Voxer groups – our schools are counting on it!

Why schools must create a culture of reading

by Jarred Amato

As a high school English teacher, I constantly find myself creating analogies to help my students comprehend confusing concepts. (I’m also a sucker for alliteration, but that’s beside the point).

And so, during a recent conference with a student, a member of the Maplewood freshman football team, and his father, a former athlete himself, I attempted to convey the importance of reading in terms they would understand.

“Reading is a lot like exercising,” I began. “You see, the more you work out and lift weights, the stronger you become. The more you run, the faster you get.”

I could tell my hook had worked.

“Well, the same is true with reading. The more you read, the better you get at it.”

Heads nodded in agreement.

“So, that’s why I’m pushing your son to read so much in class and at home. He’s already improved his reading level by more than a year since August. But, we’ve still got work to do.”

The father shook my hand, thanked me for my passion and support, and promised that his son would be reading for at least twenty minutes each night.

As educators and non-educators alike discuss ways to improve our students’ reading scores, I want to remind us that sometimes the best solutions are, in fact, the simplest. There is no magic formula, special sauce, or computer program that will turn our reluctant, struggling readers into confident, proficient ones.

Instead, it requires that we trust and embrace the process of developing and nurturing lifelong readers. If teachers and leaders commit to creating a culture of reading in their schools, the results will inevitably follow. And by results, I’m not just talking test scores, although those will improve too. Research shows that students who identify as readers are significantly happier, less stressed, more empathetic, and ultimately far more prepared to succeed in this crazy thing we call life.

Before I dig deeper, I want to pause for a pop-quiz. (Don’t panic; there are no wrong answers!)

Here’s my question: How many of the following statements do you agree with?

1. I consider myself a “reader” and see the immense value in reading.

2. I read a variety of texts and for a variety of purposes.

3. As such, I am reading something all the time.

4. I generally only read about things that I deem interesting or worthwhile.

5. I enjoy sharing and discussing what I read with friends and colleagues.

6. I loved to read, and read a lot, during my childhood.

7. I consider reading a hobby of mine.

Now, I’m going to assume that you answered “yes” to the majority of the above statements. In fact, I’d bet that a lot of you, like me, identified with all seven.

However, what if we asked today’s students the same questions? How many would they agree with? For far too many, the answer would be one or two, if any. And through no fault of their own.

There’s no question that selling today’s students (and adults, for that matter) on books is harder than it’s ever been. We’re up against a lot of competition, most notably from the smartphone.

However, rather than admitting defeat to the likes of Instagram, Snapchat, YouTube, Netflix, and Xbox360, educators have a responsibility to show students that reading can be far more enjoyable, and beneficial, than any iPhone app or video game.

Ts unplugged reading

Teachers must be reading role models.

When my ninth graders unplugged from technology for 24 hours last semester, the results were overwhelmingly positive. Hours usually spent in front of screens were replaced with exercise, sleep, family time, and yes, even reading.

Our #PanthersUnplugged event was just one small way we are working to create a culture of reading at Maplewood High School. The first annual reading marathon, in which more than 40 students and teachers read consecutively from 2:30 to 10:30 (with small breaks for snacks and prizes every hour) on a Friday evening, was another.

Most of the work, however, is happening inside classrooms day in and day out. Our long-term goal is for all 1,000+ students to self-identify as readers, and to see the lifelong value in reading. We want all students to leave high school with not only the ability to read well, but also with the confidence and desire to one day read to their future children before bed each night.

Of course, we have a lot of work to get there. Approximately 90% of our freshmen entered high school reading below grade level, with nearly 60% reading at a sixth-grade level or lower. There are many reasons for this tragedy, but here’s a big one: too many schools have taken the joy out of reading. We’ve turned off our skilled readers, and done nothing to encourage our struggling ones.

Let me ask you this: How many of you would enjoy coming to school and being told that your only reading would be a passage from a TCAP prep book? And when you finished reading it (or maybe just skimming it, since that’s what your teacher told you to do), you got the privilege of answering biased multiple-choice questions?

Or, how about being told that the only novel you could read was the one that your teacher picked out because he read it as a kid? Never mind that it’s above your reading level and completely irrelevant to your life. And, since you’re not allowed to take the books home, you have to listen to your teacher read aloud one chapter a day while the fidgety kids in class constantly interrupt him? If you’re lucky, you’ll get through one book a quarter.

Should it be any surprise, then, that so many of our students have grown to hate reading? Years of “teaching to the test” and “drill and kill” have killed any enthusiasm they may have had. Furthermore, because students are now so turned off to reading, their reading level has remained stagnant, and often times, regressed.

Therefore, our first step is to earn back our students’ trust. We have to prove to them that not all reading is bad, and that starts with two things: time and choice.

Students need to read independently for at least 20 to 30 minutes every day, with no exceptions. In the beginning, teachers may start with 10 minutes (the same way you would start by running a mile before trying to run a marathon), and then add time as students’ reading stamina increases. Without this consistency, reading will never become a habit.

Students also need to have choice in what they read during this time if we want to increase their motivation. Otherwise, students will still see reading as a chore, not a hobby. Additionally, if we assign one book to all, skilled readers will find ways to skim or Sparknote it, while struggling readers will have trouble accessing it at all.

Therefore, as teachers, our focus should be on connecting students with books they don’t want to put down. Depending on their interests and passions (as well as their reading level), that book is going to be different for each student.

In order to get students excited about reading, here are five other tips for teachers of all grade levels:

* Be a reading role model. How can we expect students to love and appreciate reading if their teachers don’t? It’s essential that teachers practice what they preach. We should be reading alongside students, not sitting at our desk grading papers or working on our laptop. When we’re not reading a book ourselves, we should be conferencing with students about their books, making recommendations, and checking in on students’ progress. Every day should be a celebration of literature.

S reading on floor

Emphasize comfort!

* Create a nurturing reading environment in your classroom. This includes an accessible and inviting library, absolute silence, appropriate lighting, and comfortable seating (if students read better on the floor, let them). If we treat reading time as sacred, students will too.

* Help students set personalized reading goals. Reading should not be a competition. However, most students respond well to a personal goal, whether it’s to read a certain number books or words, improve their reading level by a certain number of grades, or finish an entire series by the same author. Teachers should help students set these goals, and then check in frequently with them about their progress.

* Celebrate reading. We glorify athletes with pep rallies, yet our readers tend to walk through the halls virtually unnoticed. That needs to change. We have to be better about acknowledging and appreciating these students. Often times the only rewards that are needed are more books and more time to read.

* Be patient and positive. Remember that it’s a marathon, not sprint, and that it’s never too late for a student to become a reader. Continue to put good books in their hands, and eventually one will stick.

To be clear, 30 minutes of choice independent reading per day will not solve our literacy problem by itself. There are other instructional strategies that schools must implement in order to significantly improve students’ reading and writing abilities, but I believe that this is a great (and cost-effective) place to start.

In closing, I hope this post sparks dialogue in your school, community, or household. I would also love to hear your thoughts and feedback, whether it’s through Twitter (@jarredamato), email (jarred.amato@mnps.org), or in person here in Nashville, Tennessee. Happy reading!

Jarred Amato is in his seventh year of teaching in East Nashville. He taught seventh and eighth grade English at Jere Baxter Middle Prep for six years and is now in his first year at Maplewood High School. Jarred is currently a Hope Street Group Tennessee Teacher Fellow, and during the 2014-15 school year, he participated in the Tennessee SCORE Educator Fellowship and the MNPS Teacher Leadership Institute.

Empower yourself! #FitLeaders

by Ryan B. Jackson, Ed.D

With so much turmoil surrounding education’s deficits, too often our analysis paralysis blinds us to solutions lying dormant in plain sight. Time then for a little New Year’s Tabula Rasa…

Recently, there’s been a leadership and learning idea percolating in my head, brought to full brew with the arrival of 2016 and the unavoidable necessity for those ubiquitous New Year’s resolutions. As a quick aside and an attempt to quell any further jaded dispositions on NYE resolutions, I’ve grown quite fond of these promises since I’m now in my third year of an alcohol-free lifestyle and just completed a year’s worth of monthly blogging – both due to the power of New Year’s goal setting. Which tangentially prompts me to mention—

I’m a Libra.

Libras are notoriously desperate for balance. Ask any leadership Libra, this insatiable quest for a harmonious life keeps us in a constant state of reflection. I’ve spent the last three years diving headfirst into servant leadership. You know, the kind of leadership that lays it all on the line for those around us [the ultimate resource, make allies not enemies, the Underdog’s Advocate]. This kind of full-throttle leadership can spin a Libra completely off his or her axis. I’ve equipped myself for the unbalanced scale primarily through the research of John Medina and Rory Sutherland. In his book Brain Rules, Medina trumpets physical exercise as a key component in stronger brain development. Sigmund Freud doesn’t have to tell us “Happy brain = Happy life.” Thus, in a sincere attempt at a happy, well-balanced life, I’ve followed a simple creed—

Embrace a physically active lifestyle

3 plates

#FitLeaders

Originally, my choice to embrace the gym and a #FitLeaders lifestyle, putting myself through the consistent rigors of intense weight training, had nothing to do with the audacious goal of saving schools over $163 million annually. I merely needed a lifestyle change and found it sharpened areas I never would have imagined. I expected some stress relief, specifically measured through decreased blood pressure, and I most certainly welcomed a more fit physique, admittedly measured by the fact I can now wear a Euro-cut suit. What I didn’t account for was the unexpected boosts in idea generating, relationship building, goal perseverance and the potential, when multiplied across school systems, to revolutionize the correlation between leadership and school operating budgets. For me, adding iron to the opposite side of my Libra scale not only restored that desperate need for balance but it also awoke a synergetic sleeping giant. Back to that idea I mentioned —

We need to restore physical education in schools

Let’s go back to Rory Sutherland for a minute. In his TED Talk, Sutherland speaks to the idea of Psychological versus Newtonian solutions. I love it because it gives me hope each day while serving in an urban school that suffers from every single trapping of poverty imaginable. The idea is that we don’t have to reinvent the wheel; we don’t have to demolish infrastructure in order to rebuild completely anew. Instead we can take existing systems, reframe our thinking, integrate innovative planning and goal setting and voila! Progress proceeds…

Like many non-tested subjects, Physical Education (PE) has fallen victim to standardization’s collateral damage purgatory. Yes, PE exists in varying degrees depending on which school you visit but by-and-large it’s an academic afterthought. What excites me to a great degree, though, is that IT-DOES-EXIST. We don’t have to rebuild anything: refurbish and repair, yes; rebuild and recreate, no! The more alarming reality is instead the tear-jerking truth discovered when peeling PE’s onion. Consider for a moment the nauseous-worthy amount of time wasted during physical education. Schools are perpetually vying for resources, continuously scrambling for capital yet the indelible reality is that TIME is the sole resource we can neither buy nor get back. Meanwhile, with little to no vision or outright concern for what a successful PE curriculum can accomplish, schools, students, families and communities are more often left with the effects of uninspired hours of pick-up basketball games or whole group attempts at volleyball – or much, much worse…

Thankfully the solution is purely psychological. For instance, imagine an educational system where the countless number of college graduates vying for those elusive physical training jobs instead flooded to our schools, charged with enhancing our students’ learning capacity through inspired exercise regiments and dietary lessons. Far fetched? Not only do I believe there’s room for this kind of curriculum with millennial teachers waiting in the wings to jump aboard, I’m willing to run an action-research study to prove it—

Follow our #FitLit research

Meet Ms. Gabrielle Hampton @MsHampton_ and Mr. Jarred Amato @jarrredamato, two of those inspired millennial teachers I was just referencing. Gabby’s an all-star science teacher at Maplewood High School in Nashville, TN who also happens to teach a practical, goal-centered health & wellness class. Jarred is a literacy guru who’s helped ignite Maplewood’s culture of reading in one of the most impoverished high schools in TN. Together these two forward-thinking teachers, driven by the immediacy of psychological solutions, are about to measure exactly what I’ve been preaching, the impact of organized exercise on student literacy. We’re setting out to prove that with vision, commitment and passion, every school’s PE curriculum can be reconstituted as a brain-based academic ancillary, designed to not only improve students’ overall well-being but also their learning capacity and cognitive processing.

FitLit

#FitLit

The #FitLit PBL will be student-driven, with students active in the research of specific exercises, regiments and hypothesized outcomes. The students will also be responsible for quantitative and qualitative data collection and analysis over the course of the study, including but not limited to weight change, heart rate, mood variations, and reading lexiles. Both Gabby and Jarred will oversee and facilitate this unique study, sharing progress and insights through Twitter using the #FitLit hashtag. I implore you to follow along as we are kicking-off 2016 with specific, concentrated efforts to improve schools from the inside out.

Finally, Kansas principal Paul Erickson @PrincipalPaul and I have started a discourse about the synergy between healthy leaders and healthy schools. The reason for “school” and the act of “leadership” both hinge upon the undeniable fact of survival. Renowned Leadership Diamond guru Peter Koestenbaum pulls no punches in his explanation, “leadership success is tied to survival.” Doubling-down on our own well-being increases the chance of both personal and professional survival. Join the #FitLeaders movement that seeks to build healthy, sustainable leaders capable of lifting our Nation’s most precious payload – Education.

It’s time we stop accepting the almost 30% principal turnover rate as “the $163 million cost of doing business” and instead do something about it, once again improving schools from the inside out.

See you in the gym!