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


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.



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!

The Cure for Education #ArtAntidote

by Ryan B. Jackson, Ed.D


“I don’t think about art when I’m working. I try to think about life.”

~ Jean-Michael Basquiat

Before we knew to add, before we thought to write, before we had the capacity to control fire – we had art. Our primordial instinct for the aesthetic traces the human race back to its origin. This innate sense to artistically create has long fascinated and propelled us towards something greater, outside of ourselves. Even as early as the middle Paleolithic ages, where humans spent the majority of their time desperately hunting for food, with every move predicated on survival, even then we found time to make art.

The argument that art is an integral part of human existence, that its imperative nature is seamlessly woven into our neuro-fabric is virtually no argument at all. We’re innately artists. History suggests it and our continued attraction to symmetry, abstraction, color swatches and fashion confirms it. Why then has our current educational paradigm positioned art near the bottom rung of our learning ladder, where too often we’re expected to step-over this seemingly superfluous “elective?”

That is not a rhetorical question.

Decadent Data

Education’s obsession with data and the resulting data-driven leadership and data-driven instruction has culminated in a data-driven culture where anything not quantifiable is tossed to the wayside, further solidifying our throwaway culture while systematically eroding any and all traces of humanity-based learning. Though we’ve talked at length about dispelling the standardization doctrine that has consumed the better part of a generation, we’ve yet to fully face the specific fallout and collateral damage. That’s not to say we haven’t begun to addressed over-testing’s psychological impact on middle-America or the stressors of high-poverty schools to compete in the rank and file race, because we have – and those very conversations have been the catalyst for earmarking standardization as education’s cancer.

The next-step then in our counter-programming offensive is to reposition subjects such as Art back to education’s foreground. How else will we regain the trust of students who have grown to loathe education’s current “learn this or else…” landscape? How else will we paint joy back into schools that have gradually morphed into the antithesis of fun? Furthermore, how would our coveted data fit into a reimagined educational hierarchy with Art serving as the thread connecting students’ innate desire to create to society’s incessant demand for imaginative innovation?

These, too, are not rhetorical questions.

Connecting the dots: From line-graphs to Pointillism  

Education reform as an ideology is both archaic and futile, in terms of practicality and general sensibility. Instead, education futurists, myself included, liken the current palpable movement to a transformation, an evolution of existing, forward-thinking practices coupled with the outright abandonment of counter-productive, hurtful ones. Included in this transformation is the recognition of current subjects and curriculums that have been previously relegated to non-essential status under the ominous standardization regime. Thus, once coveted subjects of significance such as Physical Education, Computer Science and the aforementioned Art are beginning to be looked upon again as key components in the revitalization – some would say revolution – of education’s effectiveness and relevance.

drone paint Mitchell

Education’s transformation looks something like this!

In terms of overhauling education’s current infrastructure, transformation lends itself to a more efficient, practical approach – readymade scalability. Waiting in the wings are legions of passionate, dedicated teachers chomping at the bit for their turn in education’s spotlight. These teachers, who for years reluctantly and begrudgingly accepted their role as second-fiddle support players, are some of the foremost experts on education hallmarks: Metacognition, creativity, empathy, computational thinking and physiology. One simple yet profound solution is to embrace these existing resources, reaffirm not only their talents but also their role in recapturing the hearts and minds of today’s learners.

The data obsession doesn’t necessarily have to stop, either, just because we’re tapping back into right brain processing and more intuitive curriculums. In fact, quite the contrary, as an ongoing argument centers around the shortsighted standardized test measurements that present schools as Prince or Pauper. Now we can begin measuring the qualitative impact Art has on school culture, or the increased cognitive ability Physical Education has on the adolescent mind, or how about tracking the correlation between computational thinking and overall problem-solving skills?

Again, not a rhetorical question.

Recalibrating our POV

As a champion of whole-child learning, I find that my greatest joy in the recent time I’ve spent reinvesting in my school’s now thriving Art program (thank you @panthersart) is witnessing not only students’ passion for learning come back to life but more so the real-time effect of an invigorated school culture and its causal impact on the general sense of well-being that flows throughout the students and staff. The feeling became so palpable around October I coined the hashtag #ArtAntidote, because that’s exactly what it felt like: Art acting as the life-saving agent fighting off bureaucracy’s deadly neurotoxins.



Self-expressive science? #ArtAntidote

It’s no secret I’ve poured into my school’s art curriculum over the past two years, showcased through our award-winning PBL work and increased alignment with arts-related business partners (big ups to @redarrowgallery!). True, I’ve also spent a good deal of time developing our computer science initiatives and blended learning rollout, but it’s been my hands-on experience with this year’s Art focus that has helped reaffirm my optimism for the future of education. Is this future rooted in student-centered creation? Can self-expression coupled with Metacognition literally reverse the effects of the learned helplessness plague? Should there be a call-to-action for Art teachers to begin assuming school leadership roles?

By now you get it, none of these are rhetorical questions.

STEAM: A revolution of Frida proportions

 Still-life jokes aside, if art is life and life is about movement, where then is education’s so-called #ArtAntidote movement actually going? If art is to be more than the equivalent of a film acting extra, how is its integration done so in order to not only maximize its self-expression-inspired, therapeutic effects but also further enhance innovative curriculums – curriculums such as STEM?

 Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (collectively referred to as STEM) serves as a fertile canvas yearning for Art’s right-brain counterweight to balance a rigid curriculum with a more malleable one. The result is S.T.E.A.M., education’s #ArtAntidote that when properly synthesized leaves students thinking more about life and their education’s real world applications than the mere lecture, homework, assessment doldrums they’re used to. I’m now a first-hand witness of the exponential power Art brings to education’s palate. Injected into STEM’s curriculum, Art engages, empowers and enhances 21st century students desperately searching for a unique education they can call their own, thus begging possibly education’s most important question…

Can STEAM bring joy back to education, carving a hope-filled academic identity for a generation of students clamoring to create one?

The Metacognition era begins…

by Ryan B. Jackson, Ed.D

Lately I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about our thinking. More specifically, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about student thinking. Serving in a high-poverty school where students too often greet us several years behind grade-level, teachers and principals are perpetually peeling the proverbial onion for any keen piece of insight or instructional strategy on how to expedite the student learning process and, almost equally, how to make this process more enjoyable, for everyone.

Recently, I’ve found myself in an enlightened situation where I seem to have the classroom equivalent of a courtside seat watching an all-star teacher slam dunk teaching and learning. As my school district continues its surge towards a forward-thinking blended learning initiative, one teacher in my academy has grabbed this electronic bull by its digital horns, making me an avid believer and vocal advocate in the process. I’ll table the topic of blended learning for a later post but it’s worth mentioning here because it’s proved to be a conduit between centennial* learning styles and the role teachers play in how to better help them think.

Picture this

 Interior Maplewood classroom – day

Students enter class, swiftly grabbing numbered laptops and routinely following practiced procedures with nonchalant familiarity. There’s a bellringer illuminated on a state-of-the-art Smartboard. The directive guides students to www.noredink.com, a fun, pop-culture-based portal where students sharpen grammar skills. As students work at their own pace, those who finish quickly segue seamlessly to item two on the day’s agenda, constructive response questions found in Google Classroom. Once here, students toggle back-and-forth between selected reading passages and their writing responses.

There’s little direct instruction during this time, as the teacher occasionally addresses the whole group but mainly circulates – using proximity to prompt focus while ensuring students feel supported. It is while circulating the teacher eases upon a student who is clearly stuck –

 Two words are typed on the student’s laptop screen:

 INSERT: “I can’t”

 RETURN TO SCENE: The teacher slides-up a seat alongside the clearly frustrated student, his shoulders now slumped, his brow furrowed. Today’s lesson in metacognition begins…

 What happened next in that little slice of classroom cinema is what prompted me to write this post: A frustrated student, attempting to utilize the technology he was born with, finds himself clearly incapable of simply getting past understanding the prompt itself.

For context, this is an English class so a didactic approach, which may very well serve the breakdown of an algebraic equation, is of no use here. Instead, the teacher shifts the thinking from the content at hand (Gatsby) – pulling the student away from the constructive response quagmire – choosing instead to hone-in on the student’s cognitive barriers to understanding the prompt. This instructional shift from content to process, called like a QB issuing an audible at the line of scrimmage, is much more complex than the 25 words in the previous sentence does it justice. Getting students to think about their own thinking, identifying cognitive roadblocks before further analyzing why they are roadblocks at all, is like asking a teenager to surrender his or her cellphone: frustration mounts, anxiety sets-in, possible heart palpatations. The student’s inner-modem defaults to learned helplessness mode, a slumped-shoulder sigh before a quick toggle to Temple Run so he can experience some success in order to boost an instant dopamine fix.

Herein lies an undeniable challenge all educators face: We so desperately want our students to understand, while simultaneously feeling the immense sense of urgency due to continuous benchmark assessments, that more often than not we’re guilty of rushing solutions or explanations instead of allowing the time it takes to critically think through a problem. The aforementioned scenario rings so true that we’ve literally created a cohort of students whose power-save mode is set for 90 seconds, with anything taking longer to figure-out resulting in a temporary shutdown.

Too often our immediate response is the path of least resistance, blaming the students’ lazy, indifferent even apathetic nature towards school. However, this argument loses steam quickly as we analyze man’s innate motives to survive, stemming from curiosity-hardwiring and a predisposition to discover new things. Basically, it’s our natural instinct to learn and we’re designed to walk about and get it. Naturally, we side-step and target teachers, who stand as low-hanging fruit in education’s scapegoat skeet shoot. Teachers aren’t engaging, teachers don’t differentiate, teachers are out-of-touch – Admit it, you’ve heard it before, some of you have even said it yourself. Yet, the slow realization is that the standardization system that has been meticulously constructed over the past 20 years has ultimately curbed instructional design while perpetuating the mundane, drill-and-kill test-prep pedagogy found at the root of learned helplessness. This academic apocalypse, in turn, myth busts the teacher-as-target argument, as clearly teachers have an airtight alibi in the killing of education.

student thinking

Embrace the power of Metacognition!

Ironically, as fate would have it, teachers play the role of hero in an almost Joseph Campbell-inspired tale of redemption, lassoing misfiring synapses, corralling them towards connections, all while keeping skeptical students engaged long enough for a fraction of success to take hold. The tactic now becomes helping the student better understand their own learning style and processes. At first mention this may ring cliché, as any teacher will tell you she’s tired of hearing students proclaim, “This sucks – I’m a visual learner!” And while that may very well be true for most students, seeing as humans have a preponderance to visual stimulation over the rest of the senses, what we’re talking about here goes far beyond a preference for graphic organizers over lengthy lectures.

We’re now scratching the surface of neuro- and behavioral science. I won’t pretend to be an expert on either subject but any educator worth his or her salt understands the correlation between the two and would be remiss not to further probe the research and data as to their impact and effects on student learning.

I will, however, nudge you towards John Medina’s Brain Rules, as this brain-based tell-all is currently on my can’t-put-down list. Medina’s assertion that “We must do a better job of encouraging lifelong curiosity” speaks to our innate motivation to separate from all other life forms by continually questioning ourselves and the world around us. This affirms our duty as educators to embrace metacognitive teaching practices as a means of both building success skills (critical thinking) and reinforcing resiliency in order to combat the learned helplessness plague.

Furthermore, our approach to metacognition and facilitating students through the arduous task of learning about themselves and understanding how our own thinking can be manipulated pushes into more advanced psychology, even going so far as to tap into famed psychiatrist Carl Jung’s Shadow Self Theory. When teachers begin directly helping students work through cognitive barriers, both conscious and the unavoidable subconscious, a byproduct is the acceleration of once before stagnated brain maturity, advancing students towards an understanding of self, which, in turn, positively impacts a perceived sense of belonging and, ultimately, a push towards self-actualization – being their best.

Granted, I’ve gone on record as to the Underdog nature of today’s teachers, encompassing the life-changing work and tireless efforts they have committed their lives toward. Toggling our teaching approaches between both learning content versus analyzing process is just another example of why today’s teachers deserve the respect and admiration that’s gone missing the past few decades. Yet in true Underdog fashion, the passionate work continues – Now let’s rewire some synapses through Metacognition!

*Centennial: the term for students born around the turn of the century.

What does it mean to be an Underdog’s Advocate?

by Daniel Bauer

Recently I was listening to one of my favorite podcasts, The Art of Charm. I was intrigued by the guest, Amy Morin, a psychotherapist, college psychology professor, and author responsible for writing the viral blog post “13 things mentally strong people don’t do.” This post has been shared millions of times. You can read the post here and list to the podcast here.

Here is a summary of Amy’s points. Mentally strong people don’t:

  • waste time feeling sorry for themselves
  • give away their power
  • shy away from change
  • waste energy on things they can’t control
  • don’t worry about pleasing everyone
  • fear taking calculated risks
  • dwell on the past
  • make the same mistake over and over
  • resent other people’s success
  • give up after their first failure
  • fear alone time
  • feel the world owes them anything
  • expect immediate results.

These are not my ideas. Again, you can read Amy’s entire list and her description of each of the ideas in the original blog post here. Amy also turned this list into a book you can purchase here and is releasing an e-course on mental toughness available in November 2015. At $97 this course seems like a steal if you are interested in developing your mental toughness.

But if you don’t want to fork over $97, let me share a few of my own thoughts on developing mental toughness absolutely free!

As an Underdog’s Advocate you need mental toughness. This is a key advantage that you can bring to work with you every day. Underdog Advocates need this edge on the front lines of our schools because our jobs are really hard. The physical, mental, and emotional toll that school leaders go through is incredibly taxing.

Only the strong survive.

Mental toughness is natural to some, but in my case it had to be developed. My family of origin made life easy for me so early in my life (and sometimes to this day) conflict and obstacles seem a lot larger than they actually are. Maybe you can relate.

Here is how I developed mental toughness.

Develop a sound core.

If you work out enough you know that the core is the foundation of all strength. The same is true in mental toughness. My core was established through my faith which I “work-out” every morning. Each morning I read a devotional and pray. Therefore, each morning I start off feeling “centered” and have the right kind of perspective to bring to the school where I lead. This daily discipline helps me develop compassion and empathy.

I also use an app called “Calm” regularly. I have yet to use it everyday, but I look forward to making it more of my daily routine. I like this app because it is teaching me how to meditate and in my view, this bolsters my prayer life. It has helped me develop more self-awareness, but most importantly, it helps me recalibrate and slow down as the day’s busyness fights for my attention.

Finally, I also like to journal. I stole the idea of the 5 minute journal and applied that to my morning and night time routines. Journaling helps me stay focused and develop an attitude of gratitude.

I encourage you to explore faith, read inspiring literature, pray, meditate, and journal. These actions will develop mental toughness.

Develop close personal connections

This idea is also heavily influenced by my faith and I believe we were meant to do life in intimate relationships with others. Real relationships founded on shared interests, trust, and vulnerability help leaders develop a strong core. If you are like me, you can struggle with thinking your stuff don’t stink. The antidote to this illness is through intimate relationships.

For married folk this is easy, our spouses can act like a mirror and help us identify weaknesses and blind spots we need to be aware of. For singles and marrieds alike, it is important to develop additional close relationships where people express both love and truth.

Developing relationships can take blood, sweat, and tears, but the key component is time. One way this process of developing close relationships can be accelerated is by harnessing the power of technology. Now with the internet and social networks it is easier than ever to connect to amazing people.

How do you think I got to guest post on this blog? I don’t live in Tennessee nor have I met Ryan in person. In early 2014 some of my colleagues visited his school and were wildly impressed. They shared with me a YouTube video he made capturing some of the great things happening at his school. From there we connected via Twitter and LinkedIn. The next thing I know we’re doing an interview for my podcast, and now I’m writing on his blog!

I encourage you to develop great relationships harnessing the power of technology. Just by creating a blog and podcast myself, I am now connected to hundreds of amazing people from 84 different countries. My thinking and mental toughness has no choice but to develop even stronger.

Do Hard Things

Being an Underdog’s Advocate is tough and if this is the toughest thing you are doing right now it will be hard to win.

@MrRileyjo practices what he preaches -- Do hard things!

@MrRileyjo practices what he preaches — Do hard things!

People develop bucket lists to identify what will help them feel fully alive with the short amount of time they have on this earth. While I fully support people maximizing their lives I believe that it should be done in a way that is others-focused.

What if we took bucket-lists and added a socially conscious component?

One guy I heard on a podcast mentioned, “the easiest way to make a million dollars is to help a million people.” That is when it clicked for me. Of course I would like more money and nice things in my home … heck, I’d even like to own a home!

However, my focus needs to be on helping people. The financial rewards will follow, but most importantly I will be rewarded intrinsically and will truly be emotionally and relationally wealthy.

In 2013 I ran my first marathon. I had no desire to do this even though I had been invited numerous times. Each year, my church partners with Team World Vision who trains average people like you and me to run marathons. Now this is cool enough on its own, but the beauty of Team World Vision is that they provide clean water for kids in Africa that lack access to the clean water you and I take for granted each day.

Now in 2015 I’ve trained for 3 marathons and completed 2 (my sports doc pulled me from the starting line this year due to a stress fracture in my foot). What I’ve learned over the last 3 years and completing 2 marathons is that I am capable of anything.

No one in their right mind runs 26.2 miles straight. Who really wants to run or work out for more than 4 hours? This is crazy, right?

The key take-away I’ve learned from these marathons is the development of a “toughness” muscle that just won’t let me quit! I’m now working on a the complaining muscle, but that’s another story …

Over 3 years I’ve had just over 80 high school students complete the marathons with me and together we’ve provided around 600 African kids with a lifetime supply of clean water. You can help me provide more clean water to kids here (and it’s tax-deductible).

Whether it is marathon or some other challenge, I encourage you to commit to doing something extremely hard this year. You will be a better leader and develop more mental toughness as a result.

In summary, those looking to develop more mental toughness should

  • develop a sound core
  • develop close relationships
  • do hard things

This blog post was written by Daniel Bauer the founder of Better Leaders Better Schools a blog and podcast made for you, the school leader. Daniel helps school leaders create winning cultures, focus on the essential, and lead with courage and integrity. You can read his blog here and listen to his podcast here. Daniel is also an AP at a top-performing high school in Chicago, IL.

Daniel has created a special gift for free for readers of the Underdog’s Advocate blog: 15 questions guaranteed to unlock your leadership potential. You can get this free download here.

Introducing teachers, society’s new underdog

by Ryan B. Jackson, Ed.D

If you’re reading this, chances are you’re an underdog. Today’s teachers are faced with some of the most complex, unforeseen challenges the world has ever known: It’s no secret that today’s students are continuously disengaging from the archaic school-model that has cramped creativity and problem-solving while force-feeding standardization and the overuse of assessment tracking. For teachers, this is just the tip of the iceberg. What typically goes unnoticed are the countless hours working from home, the selfless sacrifices for children we’ve just met and the ever-increasing demand to simply give more.

Yet, in the midst of a seemingly barren academic future, there lies unbridled hope – hope that takes the shape of every teacher and educator reading this today. I used to think it was only the students I served, most of whom come from severe poverty, that were the underdogs. Their challenges are so great, their adversity insurmountable. I positioned myself as the underdog’s advocate because as a teacher and then an administrator I wanted nothing more than an opportunity to fight for these students, helping them push through, overcome, and persevere.

However, like any reflective practitioner I soon realized how shortsighted this mindset was. Yes, today’s students are underdogs there’s no question about that but they’re certainly not the only ones – because being an underdog is more than just your financial status or test-taking ability. It’s more than what school you attend or what zip code you call home.


Being an underdog is a state of mind. A state of mind that positions one’s self as the challenger. The challenger who faces brooding forces with unyielding courage. As I work with teachers today, the spirit of the underdog is palpable – it’s electric. And as I participate in Twitter chats like #Leadupchat, the ideas and visions of committed teachers and educators affirm this undeniable energy. We, too, are the underdogs. We are the challengers fighting for every inch of academic progress, fighting for every new idea that pushes the limits of curriculum and expectations — fighting for our future.

We’re fighting for our future because for too long now quality education has been crushed by the immense pressure of standardized testing – the effects of which have left teachers, students and families suffering from the strains and anxiety of a system that values statistical data and the stoic, robotic-nature of pre-programmed teaching methods instead of a nurturing, creative-centered teaching approach that would position teachers as instructional designers, organically crafting inspired lessons used to spur student engagement while fostering a coveted sense of belonging in the classroom.

Furthermore, it was Chip and Dan Heath, in their landmark book SWITCH that asserted that “Self-Control is an exhaustible resource” which so fittingly lends itself to the current educational landscape, where teachers are forced to abandon creativity in order to meet the confines of standardization. The fallout has resulted in low teacher morale, plummeting teacher retention and an overall decrease in young professionals even pursuing what was once considered one of the most noble occupations on the market.

Thus, the impact on teacher-effect and its correlation to student achievement and, more importantly, students’ love for learning has bottomed-out. Even in schools where the stressors of poverty don’t create infinite barriers and head-banging challenges, these schools, too, suffer from a passive-compliance epidemic because students now merely see school as a means to an end, forgoing inspiration and intrinsic motivation for mind-numbing drill and kill, multiple-choice based teaching prescriptions that have all but choked the last remaining breathes out of learning’s last attempt at life.

And so the question now becomes what fuels our fighting spirit? What drives the underdog deeper into education’s new frontier after years of confinement and complacency?

Typically we’re taught to fear the unknown. We shy from strangers, avoid darkness. Even more so we’re psychologically hardwired to avoid change. We like things the way they are, comfort provides security and security ensures our safety. But there’s a shift happening in education. In fact this transformative shift is happening as you read this blog. As ironic as it may sound, there’s never been a better time to be an educator, a teacher, a life-changer, an underdog.

collab pic

Success skills: teaching’s new imperative

Education itself is changing – the shift is happening right before our very eyes and it’s playing out in schools and classrooms across the planet. See, no matter how hard the forces that be hold onto the archaic model of education, where group think and standardization rule the day, there’s an even more powerful force surging headlong into education’s new frontier, already carving the proverbial path for a new generation of inspired underdogs. Whether it’s the advanced momentum of cutting-edge technology, practical approaches like Project-Based Learning, or how Nashville is revolutionizing the high school model with our Academies of Nashville, this bona fide shift takes the shape of each and every student that steps foot into a classroom searching for something new. This overwhelming force is slowly but surely causing educators everywhere to rethink what a great education looks like. It’s forcing us to analyze our teaching styles, redefine our measurement criteria, and above all – to listen.

That’s the beauty of being an underdog, we don’t allow our ego or complacency to stand in the way of appreciating what truly matters: And what truly matters is creating inspired educational platforms that allow students to embrace the technology they were born with while providing experiential learning opportunities they crave. This doesn’t mean Education 2.0 comes without reading, writing, math, poetry, or the Gettysburg Address.

Not at all.

Everyone reading this knows a teacher who incorporates all of the indelible academic pillars into forward-thinking, engaging lessons where a student-centered approach lifts learning beyond rote memorization and blends technology with inspired pedagogy. These teachers – teacher like you — are leading the underdog’s new charge to transform teaching and learning in one of the most pivotal points in history. Globally we’re shrinking. Platforms like Twitter and YouTube have made the international exchange of ideas as simple as the impact of a 140-character tweet! Economically we’re expanding. Look no further than the city I live in as Nashville booms its way towards a tech-rich economy.

And so I’ll reiterate: There’s never been a better time to be an educator. We stand on the threshold of a new era where the only certainty is that change is inevitable and the need for progressive teaching undeniable. History has called us – it demands our service and implores us to commit our efforts for the betterment of not only students but all of mankind. Will this challenge be easy? No. Will our adversity be great? Yes. Yet let’s not forget who we are…

As underdogs we’ re built to persevere, born to overcome and destined to make history. So, I leave you with a final call-to-action – embrace your teaching passion, connect with other inspired educators and together let’s show the world that the spirit of the underdog is what’s driving us forward into education’s new millennium.

Unlock the passion behind project-based learning

by Ryan B. Jackson, Ed.D

Teachers are some of the most creative people I’ve ever had the pleasure of knowing – this even includes my time as a writer/producer/director in a short-lived film career. Because when it comes to creating engaging, thought-provoking lessons, often times using the most rudimentary of materials (what can’t teachers do with scotch tape, hot glue and an Elmo!), teachers are more like contestants on the latest season of Project Runway than the wide-eyed, crazy-haired fashion designers themselves.

Actually, that comparison is quite fitting. Anyone familiar with the zany yet compelling antics on Project Runway knows Heidi Klum and Co. select approximately 15 inspired designers, skilled in various fashion niches — denim, textiles, outerwear, leather — and have them compete in pressure-cooker design challenges. These challenges place the designers under extreme duress: limited time, limited resources, merciless feedback, snarky peers, the list goes on…

Now, minus the leather and couture, this sounds a lot like the life of a teacher!

Indeed, the new role of an inspired teacher has more to do with creative instructional design than the mundane pedagogy of replication regurgitation, requiring intense problem-solving skills, multitasking expertise and a passion for exploring the unknown. For educators the tip of this instructional design spear is Project-Based Learning (PBL).

Project Runway finalist Amanda Valentine mentors an MHS student on his PBL spacesuit design.

Project Runway finalist Amanda Valentine mentors an MHS student on his PBL spacesuit design.

The Golden Rules

Admittedly, there’s a lot that goes on with PBL. With eight essential project design elements, it’s easy for teachers, who already have a lot on their plate, to quickly get overwhelmed and resort back to a safer, more comfortable albeit archaic teaching style – a little direct instruction, throw in an activity, finish with an exit ticket…viola! See you next class.

However, once we get past the initial fear of adopting a more advanced instructional strategy and truly analyze the elements embedded in PBL, the question instantly shifts from Why am I trying this? to What took me so long to try this?

Think about it:

  1. Student Learning Goals
  2. Challenging Problem or Question
  3. Sustained Inquiry
  4. Authenticity
  5. Student Voice & Choice
  6. Reflection
  7. Critique & Revision
  8. Public Product

The above list is an essential element gauntlet that when properly synthesized purposefully prepares students for the rigors of an ever-demanding, 21st century job market. Yet, PBL isn’t merely an esoteric model for STEM students or high school Career and Technical Education (CTE) classes.

Not at all.

In fact, as blended learning and other tech-based academic platforms have pushed down to grade-levels as low as kindergarten, PBL proves vital for all learners in terms of capturing the imagination and engagement of connected young minds while providing coveted 21st century standards-based substance, packaged as a cool “project.”

Furthermore, experiential learning serves as counterprogramming in an ever-increasing digital world, where even standardized assessments are taken online. Both Millennial and Centennial students not only crave hands-on learning opportunities but it is increasingly becoming education’s moral imperative to help students balance both the digital and physical world – ensuring students can navigate online platforms and virtual skill sets while providing imperative opportunities and training for students to collaborate, deliver and receive feedback before selling both their idea and themselves.

Passionate Practices

I can get a little passionate about education. Whether it’s utilizing competition to spark urgency and foster student belonging using the CMT or highlighting the digital divide in last month’s blog, my passion for the evolution of quality education beams.

For clarity’s sake, let’s define purposeful passion. The days of using Robin Williams’ approach to engaging reluctant poets by pontificating at length about the ethereal nature of romanticism and James Joyce are over. Sacrilege, right? Well, before you stand on a desk and shout “Oh, Captain, my Captain!” consider the paradigm shift from teacher-centered to student-centered instruction. As teachers segue from keepers of knowledge to catalysts of discovery, PBL and its teaching practices have usurped other instructional strategies as the tool of choice for infusing much needed passion back into the classroom.

Circling back to Project Runway, the parallels between high fashion and education begin with Design and Planning. Where fashion designers seek inspiration from cityscapes and the eclectic people around them, sketching and visualizing silhouettes while aligning form with function, teachers, on the other hand, “create or adapt a project for their context and students, and plan its implementation from launch to culmination.” (BIE.org)

Thus, the paradigm shift for teachers is perceiving themselves as designers – instructional designers. This visionary approach to indelible learning puts teachers in the proverbial driver’s seat, charting their course, controlling their speed and rerouting as necessary. Today’s passionate teachers invest the bulk of their precious time in the design and planning stage because of the significant impact on culture, activities, engagement and learning – all academic imperatives.

More than a dot on a line graph

The argument around the stressors of standardized testing and its undeniable overuse have been well-documented, with schools, communities, even media outlets warming to the idea that student achievement and positive outcomes take various shapes and forms. No longer do proficiency scores solely tell the story of a school and its learning success. In fact, there’ s a growing trend that the public display of PBL outcomes more accurately showcases a school’s 21st century learning approach, where voice and choice trumps standardization and collaboration frees students from the chains of drill and kill purgatory.

Today’s teachers are channeling their passions, refusing to play the role of test-prep statisticians and instead embracing the PBL framework, designing engaging experiences that culminate in stories worth sharing. This ideology has even positioned teachers as branding experts, as their projects literally give unique insights into the day-to-day awesomeness that occurs throughout schools across the country.

So, whether you’re a third grade teacher designing a PBL that’ll see your students create their own healthy cookbook to combat poor dietary habits in their community or you’re a high school art teacher whose PBL has students designing and creating theoretical spacesuits for a proposed trip to Mars, you are officially an instructional designer.

Now, as Tim Gunn would say, “Make it work!”

Code talkers: Education’s new literacy

Ryan B. Jackson, Ed.D

For the record, I am not a coder and I have never played one on TV. I am, however, fascinated and sold on the fact that coders are the inevitable lifeblood of our future workforce.

As our back-to-school excitement reaches fever pitch, a few things have my brain stirring. For starters, Google fiber recently completed its design for a fiber network in Nashville, with construction already underway. Google’s choice of Nashville as its fiber network hub further solidifies Music City as “an advanced tech city with seemingly infinite life-changing impacts for Nashville and its residents – specifically students.

We have all heard the tired education adage “We’re preparing students for jobs that don’t even exist yet.” Coding stares this excuse-based declaration in the face before quite literally slapping the words out of our mouth. Software developers and digital infrastructure engineers are now circling Nashville as the new Tech-Mecca, spring boarding those with coveted coding skill sets to unchartered heights as the city officially shifts into overdrive. Ultimately, one of the byproducts of Google fiber and its Nashville infatuation is the opportunities it affords Nashville students in terms of future-ready jobs and cutting-edge careers. Thus, the question surrounding Nashville educators drastically shifts:

Are we preparing students for a future-ready, tech-based economy?

Unfortunately, the present answer for both Nashville and public school districts across the country is shamefully – no, scarily – an emphatic NO. We have already heard from the Department of Labor and their prediction that the U.S. alone will add more than 1.2 million computer-science related jobs yet as it stands we currently graduate fewer computer-science majors than in the 1980s!

Like I said, scary.

And, that’s just the tip of the iceberg. One doesn’t have to pour through mounds of empirical data to realize rather quickly that the disparity between race, gender and coding pushes ludicrous levels.

Ironically, Twitter’s #EdTech movement has spurred a much needed focus on utilizing technology resources in the classroom – and that’s a great start but if we are to keep up with the advancements of society and the expectations of a global marketplace, #EdTech alone no longer suffices. Thus, if you’re still anti-tech and the thought of students engaging in problem-based solutions through technological resources turns your stomach, I implore you, if not outright beg you, GROW or GO. Our future undoubtedly depends on it.

His next step is to create his own app!

His next step is to create his own app!

Any educator remotely tuned-in to the rapidly changing economic and business landscape understands the imperative shift from tech as a resource to tech as an outcome. Software apps engage both adults and children, so a follow-up question becomes Why are we not positioning students as creators, embedding in them coding skills that usurp stagnating analog skill sets while boosting their 21st century job-ready stock?

The Future of Literacy

Very, very soon the question will no longer be Can you read? Instead, the majority of tomorrow’s worthwhile employers will simply ask, Can you read Code? The answer to that question could very well seal a student’s financial fate. Students who can respond affirmatively snatch the red pill out of Morpheus’ hand, leaping into the real world headfirst as a creative participant in an ever-expanding digital reality. Everyone else is relegated to consumer-status: a blue pill blindfold that only allows users to play the game – never control it.

Thankfully, games such as Minecraft and interactive sites like Codeacademy.com are spreading awareness and enticing students of all ages to embrace the coding pathway. Yet it’s far too risky of a gamble – if not outright unethical – to merely hope students will stumble upon coding and if they like it, awesome! It’s no mystery both Millennials and Centennials crave hands-on, self-directed learning but our job as educators is to provide the framework, platform and opportunities for this learning to incubate, securing the imperative resources for this kind of journey while facilitating the admittedly arduous process.

That’s not to say there aren’t schools, programs and advocates actively promoting this life-changing skill set. In fact, newly elected Maury Co., TN superintendent Dr. Chris Marczak begs the question, “Why isn’t coding offered as World Language credit?” — I couldn’t agree more! As the Underdog’s Advocate, it’s my dream to see Coding “at scale” which will only happen through public education.

Recently, Crosspoint Church, one of Maplewood High School’s official community partners, opened Tennessee’s first-ever Teen Dream Center (TDC). Under founder Ketric Newell’s vision, The TDC provides life-changing opportunities for disadvantaged Nashville students, running the gambit from academics to social-emotional learning. The TDC stands on Ketric’s mantra of giving students a “Hand-up not a Hand-out.” As an advisor, it is my utmost dream to fulfill this vision by including a Coding pathway into the TDC curriculum, thus legitimately empowering inner-city students with an equalizing skill set that levels the playing field while positioning them for success. Using various social media platforms, we reached out to the Nashville coding community and the response has been overwhelming. The coder’s affirmation that this kind of program is exactly what the city needs has now further advanced to local coders volunteering time to teach inner-city students both computational thinking and C++ scripting.

The response from Nashville’s homegrown entrepreneurs only further fans these coding flames. Project Music finalist (the Nashville Entrepreneurship Center’s leading action to support innovation in the music industry) and EarIQ co-founder Joseph Moore has been coding for the past 20 years. “The basics of instructing computers should be considered fundamental literacy, not a esoteric skill required by programmers,” says Moore. “The child taught computational thinking at a very young age has an insurmountable advantage, no matter their eventual career choice. “

The question stands:

Are we preparing students for a future-ready, tech-based economy?

Change is strange, but never a stranger

by Ryan O. Murphey

I have always been fascinated by change and strangers. My mom told me not to talk to them, and I hated when new things happened. Remember the new “Star Wars” movies? Oh, the blasphemy….I wonder if when my mother comforted me as a child by telling me that the Beatles and Van Gogh would always be popular, that I actually started to fear change the most. I put on my Beatles records the day Lennon was assassinated and somehow it made me feel better to look at that large cover with the Fab Four in black turtlenecks and pointy-toed boots and suits with no collars in glorious monochrome. Don McLean so beautifully compartmentalized the tragedy of the misunderstood, deranged painter so gorgeously that I forgot to weep, even though mom would every time it played on the eight track.

The paradox of change lies in the fact that while necessary to survive, our childhood brains are programmed by nature to avoid it to survive. Babies love repetition; it helps their brains develop patterns, and patterns help build foundations for cognitive glory. If you’ve never seen the dancing bear on “Teletubbies,” it’s no joke! The reason things like Bach and B.B. King’s blues still resonate even today aren’t because they are dead and famous. In this fragmented digital present that seems oddly pre-destined to disconnect us from other humans by superficializing every human interaction, or at least taking away the fear of its immediacy, many things curiously resonate larger than ever and they aren’t just “meta.” Or perhaps meta is something more “meta” than we actually want to admit. I will call it the “super-meta.”

My issue with a digital interaction is that it only works one way. Either you are typing with thumbs or someone else is, and you can manage the time and space between the two however you wish. Even “face-time” (why must we be obsessed with names or things that have a face in them, just saying, Facebook?) has an element of control and an editing power that real-time three dimensional interactions do not. When I try to play fiddle tunes with my digital bandmate in Oregon, we can’t hear or see everything that’s actually happening in that space and therefore the signal gets compressed or thrown offline (unless you buy the expensive version). But seriously folks, I am no Luddite. Oddly, I am writing this hoping that you will be reading it on a digital blog, but that experience will be no different than it was on paper. Think about it–it is still static–it will not change if you click away from it because you are distracted by a text message or advertisement, and this is no different than it was or is when you are reading a paper book and your kids interrupt you to find the Wii remote.

Yes, at times it does seem that we are living in strange times, but I assure you they are no stranger than they ever were. Perhaps you are a Talking Heads fan and you may remember that life on planet earth is the “same as it ever was,” or never was, depending on your perspective, in many respects. If you don’t know about David Byrne and co., well you can go to the You Tube or better yet, get a record player and buy it on vinyl–David would surely appreciate a few cents back in his pocket after Spotify has managed to rip him off along with countless other of our musical heroes and villains!

All of this is leading me back to my original point (I swear), which is to say that change is simultaneously natural, necessary, exhilarating, terrifying, stifling, and frustrating. Sometimes I wish I were a history teacher when scouring Facebook and tiring of the rainbows and Confederate flags. It’s as is if everyone has forgotten the basic rule of evolution and religion: change, or die trying not to. If you are religiously inclined, your history teacher hopefully mentioned Henry VIII and his somewhat accidental fragmentation of the Catholic Church that was either necessary or blasphemous depending on your point of view (If you haven’t heard this, watch “The Tudors” on Netflix. Johnathan Rhys-Meyers goes “all-in” as the Henry that should have been). Or perhaps if you are more of the science bent, you may favor Einstein’s famous letter to Truman begging him not to drop the bomb after helping to create it! I love this kind of stuff, but it’s surely scary for conservative Christians and retro-liberals who probably never thought civil rights would extent past the issue of race. But the truth is folks, as I have often quoted myself, “There’s more truth in fiction,” and yes, the truth “is” stranger than fiction because the truth is fiction. Ok, this is a paradox, a play on words, a double entendre, not an oxymoron (I love those too), and I know this because I teach the greatest subject of all besides music, Language Arts, even though most would say I am being replaced by STEM, You Tube, books on tape, movies, Common Core, and whatever, or whoever else; however, the truth of a fictional character can’t be digitized or captured on video, or quantified into useable data because fiction is both static and malleable. It actually demonstrates the covert if fifth-dimensional thinking. It is intellectual Mercury. A story, unlike a song, can be stopped or started by the reader in real time at any point on any “page” and still keep moving in his or her mind at any pace, regardless of the author’s tempo (Joyce demonstrates this best for all of you brave souls who have even glanced at Ulysses). A song requires time to exist, but not words. Words can be stared at like a painting and still move you by their forms. A novel like The Catcher in the Rye or 1984 can be read one way by baby boomers and another way by millennials and both interpretations are correct…So many great novels are timeless because they are new and old at the same time and therefore more true than any history.

If you apply this concept to your actual career, or for me life, as a teacher/artist (yes, all teachers are artists), you will stop worrying about standardized testing, evaluations, technology in the classroom, or any other of the latest techniques touted by pedagogues, or you will worry about it even more! The point is, change will happen. It happened to me and I was afraid. I have worked for ten years in the same urban high school with the same devastating stories that you’ve seen on “The Wire” or heard or read about at some point in the forefront or fringes your life. There are great things about challenging, poverty stricken environments as well as horrible things. For one, you can actually “change” a kid’s life every day. That’s truly amazing, and the universe can never take that away from you. You can also get so stressed out from all the poverty factors that are daily manifested in forms of fear, pressure, insanity, insouciance, and learned helplessness. My unexpected demon finally reared its head this year in the form of stress that I didn’t ask for but probably caused myself to awaken by repressing feelings of being overwhelmed and generally depressed under the guise of a red cape and cross I had fashioned as some kind of superhuman savior of hard-luck teens at-risk. What my doctor and I realized was that I was the one at risk with a blood pressure reading of 190/110. Yeah, that was a difficult day. I knew I had to change-up…I thought I would never leave the war on intellectual terror being quietly waged by synapse soldiers like myself every day. Ultimately, it was my family and close friends that urged me to get out. Thank the universe for them.

It was really hard to leave my post knowing that plenty of other brains would fall victim to our helplessly broken and beyond repair public educational system as I moved on to the more peaceful pastures of a magnet school. Yes, there was guilt, then emotional detox, and finally acceptance that perhaps it’s alright that I left and the hope that some other poor and naive soul will proudly take up my flag for that same noble, yet mostly fruitless cause.

Today, watching all the posts and rainbows flash before my iPad, it really hit me though. My battle is eternal. Next year, there will be a new theater of war in a different kind of mind, the intellectually empowered. How will I keep their need for intellectual stimulation fed while constantly barraged by banality on every device? How will I combat the entitlement of wealth or the zealotry of well-meaning, yet over-involved parents? It will be different, but yet the same.

Change your tune!

Change your tune!

I listened to Chris Thile, mandolin genius, today on You Tube, again. He was wearing blue jeans, alone with legs crossed in a hotel on tour, playing Bach’s violin Partita in E major. Then I found a video of Nathan Milstein playing the same piece in a coat and tails, alone on stage, in black and white with carefully placed silhouetted statues. I was struck by the immediate brilliancy and variance of each performer. One was blown glass-like, fragile, yet cascading, Lloyd-Wrightesque, relaxed and lighting fast, fluid–a hummingbird stopping for a brief second at a feeder to fill its lithe body with sugar water. The latter was studied, erect, dignified, with sudden stops and starts and elegant dynamics which spoke of East Egg pseudo-royalty, or Greco-Roman pantheon-like columns–a lioness studying its victim respectfully before a sudden and beautifully terrorizing slaughter. Either way, I can assure you beyond all reasonable doubt that Bach did NOT intend his piece to be played “that way” and yet both are flawlessly, perfectly, beautifully flawed in every way.

In this same way is our existence and the characters of fiction that I will excitedly revisit with trepidation each year. They, like the eternal hope of our souls can never die. That is both reassuring and haunting…That is the truth of fiction. That is the truth of change. That is the law of life. Your world will change and you will be changed by it, yet some things, like Bach, the Beatles, Shakespeare, Jay Gatsby and Jane Eyre will always be there for you to revisit. So is the course of our brief time in this terrestrial plane. I say spend it wisely, or unwisely (for some wasted time ends up being extremely valuable), and don’t be afraid to converse with a stranger. That is what I now know (sorry mom) and am meant to ultimately face–the strangeness, or strangers of change.

Obama was elected like so many other former politicians on the platform of change and hope–we humans are so delusional to now reject these natural impulses, or think of them as new at the time of an election or major legal decision. Speaking of delusions, I think I’m going to go and learn that Bach partita myself, I mean, how hard could it be? There’s an app for that, right? Or, I could buy the recording on vinyl. Either way, the notes will be waiting for me to “read” them and any way I or you choose to “play” this game of life in any given moment, or millennium will always and never, change.

Teachers, have you discovered the power of the Competitive Teaching Model?

Serena Williams has won an astounding 20 Grand Slam singles titles, along with 13 Grand Slam doubles titles with sister Venus. By anyone’s measure, this makes the “Queen of the Court” a bona fide expert on competition. And, although raised in Compton, California, sharpening her tennis focus as gunshots echoed throughout her neighborhood, it’s Williams’ perspective on competition – specifically losing – that has always inspired me:

“If anything, you know, I think losing makes me more motivated.” – Serena Williams

Here’s a world-class athlete, who by her own admission “hates losing,” applying Dweck’s growth-mindset to the international dog-eat-dog world of professional women’s tennis. At 33 Williams is impressively the Women’s Tennis Association’s world No. 1, yet it’s her approach to competition and the impact it’s had on her life that has affirmed my work for the past eight years.

The frontline of education

When I arrived at Maplewood High School in the spring of 2008 two things were undeniably clear:

1. The school was inches away from a state-takeover.

2. Traditional teaching methods would not suffice.

However, the plight of Maplewood High mirrors the hardened reality of so many other schools across the globe and their hard fought journeys to increase student achievement, while simultaneously closing achievement gaps, combating merciless poverty and stabilizing teacher retention.

Moreover, the valiant teachers who dedicate their lives serving on the front lines realize quickly it takes more than Pearson products or the latest app development to inspire students who have historically been written-off and ostracized by society at-large.

The evolution of collaboration

Before I applied for a doctoral program, before I researched Freud, Maslow, Akey, or Finn, before I naively took the stage at TEDxAntioch, there was Ryan O. Murphey (@ryanomurphey). Everyone has that handful of life experiences that we are convinced irreversibly changed our lives forever. One of my select few is meeting the man who would become my teaching mentor yet biggest competitor.

Soon after my arrival at Maplewood, Murphey and I began collaborating. The Texas bluegrass anomaly, who’d already done a couple of years at Maplewood, and a redheaded twenty something from Evansville, Indiana used English Language Arts content as a platform to not only build our unique curriculums but also solidify a one-of-a-kind friendship, collaborating feverishly while pushing each other to be our very best.

Murphey was without question my teaching mentor. From unit plans to seating arrangements, syllabi to summative assessments – if Maplewood was Tatoonie, Murphey was undoubtedly Obi-won. Yet in true Jedi fashion, I knew collaboration would only get us both so far. If we were to truly help students grasp the next rung on the student-achievement ladder, we would have to extend our synapse-warrior mindset into a full-blown pedagogical sparring match.

Then one day it happened.

I made an announcement to a classroom full of 35 juniors that we would be challenging Mr. Murphey’s class in the upcoming writing assessment benchmark.

And that’s when everything changed.

Introducing the Competitive Teaching Solution

Born out of necessity, the Competitive Teaching Model officially took shape as my teaching experience and better understanding of how and why students learn continued to grow. I didn’t need 15 years of experience to understand students learn differently. In fact, after only four days in a loaded classroom, it became unavoidably obvious students need tailored instruction, nanosecond feedback and a shared goal to rally around.

Cooperative competitors!

Cooperative competitors!

This triangulation of pedagogies began to shape my entire teaching style. As I began digging deeper into the how and why, it became more and more clear my role was transitioning from didactic teacher to facilitating coach. Great teachers maximize the absolute best out of students by gaining significant insight into them as learners and people. This new focus and approach to individual student needs was a catalyst in creating a culture of trust in the classroom, which inevitably became the lynchpin of our success. Franklin Covey’s Chief People Officer Todd Davis may have said it best, “High trust culture is the competitive advantage.”

Any educator worth her salt knows the value of differentiated instruction and formative assessments. What remains a mystery to most teachers is the real-time application of these non-negotiables and how catering them to specific student needs impacts learning, retention and attitude.

However, this mystery can be solved in as much time as it takes to refresh your Twitter feed. Students react favorably to personalized feedback, based on tailored instruction. This reality cemented my student-centered approach to teaching. Insight had now turned to outright inspiration, which commanded a new kind of student attention, offering the perfect opportunity to unleash a shared vision.

 When Freud met Maslow

The unyielding reality is great teachers work both smarter and harder. Thus, students need a psychological X-factor, an intangible motivator that goes far beyond the occasional piece of candy or fist-bump. I leveraged my growing sense of teacher-efficacy with increased student buy-in and positioned my classes as the underdogs. As I began creating an ethos and identity for each class, a psychological thunderstorm was brewing.

Famed psychiatrist Sigmund Freud asserts that man’s innate desire to hunt and kill to survive has not vanished – merely transformed into his innate desire to win. This primordial instinct formed the cornerstone of how my classes would do business. We were learning and growing, perpetually sharpening our skillsets so as to do what underdogs do best: prove to everyone we were significant, not once, not ever to be underestimated.


Celebrate Success!

Where Freud’s emphasis dealt primarily with man’s origins, the grandfather of modern psychology Abraham Maslow helped actualize our present. I quickly realized when underdogs perceive themselves as formidable, affirmed by hands-on leadership and personalized practice, a life-changing shift happens. As my classes identified common goals – competing against other classes – an overwhelming sense of belonging took hold. Students found strength in their unique talents and applied these individual pillars to form a collective Parthenon. No longer was competition solely for the athletic or artistically gifted. Now, a kaleidoscope of students and their reinvigorated passions and talents banded together to form a new kind of team – an academically eclectic mix of inspired underdogs with laser-focus and an appetite to go the distance.

Beyond Winning or Losing

Besides maybe Dolph Lundgren’s iconic performance as steroid-strengthened Ivan Drago in Rocky IV, the original ROCKY sits at the proverbial mountaintop, maintaining its universal appeal heavily due to the film’s authentic ending. The reality in that film, as well as in any classroom, is that winning ultimately takes a backseat to the power of the journey itself. Balboa’s inability to capture the title means very little compared to his affirmed ability to take punishing hits and keep moving forward. This ideology beckons Serena Williams’ admission that losing actually motivates us further. And don’t take my word for it – ask any millennial or centennial gamer: the reward of completing the latest Call of Duty mission fails in comparison to the learn, unlearn, relearn process of mastering the game.

Or, maybe its author Rory Sutherland’s plea that we give more attention to “psychological solutions” than to our historically-focused “technical-engineering solutions” (learn about the power of perception here). This certainly stands to reason in the tumultuous landscape of education, where too often we rely solely on the arrival of the next-big-thing, from gadgets to legislation. In the end, it’s the global shift of empowerment that is driving a new breed of student. Today’s Centennials don’t have to be told they’re unique – their Instagram does a fine job of that – and they expect their feedback to come as quickly as their Snapchat goes. More importantly the Centennial mindset lends itself to a practical intelligence, one that would have them see their learning directly correlate to their unique success, which, in turn, strengthens the team’s overall success, as Centennials and their penchant for equity and diversity remind us that a Rising Tide Truly Lifts ALL Boats.

For more information on the Competitive Teaching Model, peruse my dissertation here.

Watch my TED Talk everyone is buzzing about here.

Rise of the Visionary Leader

by Ryan B. Jackson, Ed.D

There could not be a more exciting time to be a Nashvillian. As Music City continues its unprecedented rise and exponential growth, the overwhelming sense of opportunity and possibility abound. Lending itself to Nashville’s allure and frenetic-magnetism is the city’s search for both a new Mayor and Director of Schools. Normally these two particular searches would garner appropriate levels of attention, yet due to Nashville standing on the threshold of Top 10 US cities, the stakes – as well as everyone’s attention – have fallen under an intense microscope.

While Nashville’s well-documented rise has positioned the city in a most promising light (Forbes magazine refers to Nashville as Nowville: http://www.forbes.com/sites/pauljankowski/2013/01/23/nashville-is-nowville-and-has-been-for-a-while/ ), the real debate is no longer about the city’s promise or potential – merely about the leader’s vision who will realize them.

Nashville serves as a great springboard into a leadership blog post, specifically due to its current stage on the organizational lifecycle spectrum. For starters, Nashville no longer needs a manager at the helm. The city has rhino-raged its way to the proverbial fork in the road and only genuine, visionary leadership is capable of steering this surging city towards its anticipated, sky’s-the-limit pinnacle. Thus, our next leader must possess profound vision, with the tenacity and fortitude to see it crystalize. As a leadership case-study, Music City represents a microcosm for organizational leadership, where too often vision – or lack thereof – stands between greatness and irrelevancy.

Closing the Management Era

For the internet cynics and jaded journeymen, I am well aware of the cliché-level approach to the leadership vs management argument. The intangible trait worth analyzing, however, is vision. This leadership X-Factor bemuses most and too often falls the way of rhetoric instead of real, with countless politicians solidifying this perception. Yet, vision ultimately takes center-stage, especially when organizations confront undeniable change.

In the simplest of explanations, leaders create systems and managers run them. Never a fan of generalizations, I hesitate limiting the prowess and influence of effective managers while over-glorifying a leader’s impact. Still the fact remains, leadership connotes fresh ideas, inspired goals and calculated trajectories – or, succinctly, vision. Therefore, as all organizations – especially school systems – prepare for the inevitable global shift in learning, knowing, doing, the immediate responsibility rests firmly on the shoulders of visionary leaders, architects of our advancing 21st century systems.

Circling back to our Nashville leadership case-study, at this stage in the organization’s lifecycle, vision has become the most coveted intangible. The idea now is to lead into the future, paved by a clear, inspiring vision, not manage the present, stagnated by bureaucracy and dying paradigms.

Cast a vision then realize it!

Cast a vision then realize it!

Millennial Uprising

At 35 years old, I find myself at a unique advantage in regards to leadership analysis. Raised by both the Greatest Generation and the Boomers, I have an unyielding sense of work ethic and sweat equity, forged by decades of watching my mother and step-father hammer-out their sliver of the American Dream. Conversely, as my awareness radar ascends – from social media savviness to pop-culture pulse – I find myself enamored with this new millennial ideology, a forward-thinking, growth mindset approach to a tech-based universe where challenges represent opportunities and failure lends itself to learning and growing. Ironically, my inspiration grows as the future becomes less and less clear. Old paradigms are now questioned, as plummeting efficiency and output give way to system overhauls.

So it’s here, standing on the frontier of leadership where I begin to feel a perceived sense of grounded optimism. My Boomer roots encourage me to stay-the-course while my millennial mindset embraces growth-laden opportunities brought about by system usurps. However, it’s out here on the leadership frontier where grounded optimism expands to visionary opulence. The notion that once seemingly indelible systems, from how Hollywood calculates gross to how kids learn in classrooms, are collapsing only to be leveled, restructured and built anew based on future-ready visions from forward-thinking leaders.

Thus, as we segue out of the management era into a digital dreamscape (depending upon your perception, of course), leadership and the vision that should accompany it become non-negotiables. A leader’s vision must now encompass a millennial workforce that looks to replace an astounding number of retiring baby boomers (approximately 10,000 a day! http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/fact-checker/wp/2014/07/24/do-10000-baby-boomers-retire-every-day/ ). Furthermore, a leader’s vision can no longer rely heavily on outdated models to build from, as these models are proving unworthy of mere scrap parts in an organizational landscape where EVERYTHING is changing.

Future School

As an educator in charge of preparing this generation and beyond, my sense of duty and societal obligation are now fueled by graphene-threaded solar power: Visions of experiential learning models begin to sharpen, where problem-based learning orbits students around real world applications; Visions of a tech-based economy supported by a creator-curriculum eviscerates the old student-as-consumer paradigm while positioning millennial upstarts as young entrepreneurs with in-demand skill sets; Visions of globally connected educators, whose professional learning networks eclipse the professional-development-in-a-vacuum era, as international trends, pedagogies and tech-based resources are shared beyond borders – without restraint.

To alleviate any “pie-in-the-sky” concerns, my optimism is, in fact, grounded and I am still a firm believer in the Stockdale Paradox – optimism rooted in reality. And, yes, I am aware that a leader’s vision must be a shared-one in order to inspire a sense of belonging, thus satisfying those Maslow needs and moving everyone along the hierarchy towards being “our best.” In fact, I whole-heartedly support the Art of Influence approach to great leadership because an idea is only worth what you can get someone to pay for it – and great leaders must be able to sell their vision. I have personally been blessed in my career to serve under unique visionaries, learning first-hand how influence impacts change while vision shapes success. Whether it’s supporting a vision that resurrected a failing high school, casting a vision that saw inner-city students solving the colonization of Mars, or embodying an Academies-Model vision which President Obama called “Powerful,” (http://www.bizjournals.com/nashville/blog/2014/01/obama-praises-metro-schools-in.html ), clearly the Visionary Era has begun.