How A Divine Big Toe Relates to Cultural Consciousness & Being Student Centered

I was an outsider this weekend. I was immersed in traditions and a culture that I have seen and been close to but have never participated in to the extent I did this weekend. I was a little nervous and uncomfortable. I followed the motions. I said the words I knew and mouthed along with the rest. I listened, I was open, I was respectful, and (I hope) I was appropriate.

The whole weekend I was reminded of a time in 8th or 9th grade, when I attended Catholic Mass with a friend of mine in our small, central Illinois town where everyone knew I was definitely not Catholic. I went to the Lutheran church and had recently been confirmed, a process that educated me about the Sacraments and after which I could participate in Holy Communion.

On one Sunday, I found myself at Mass with my friend and his family whom I had known since the womb. When the time in the service for Communion came, I was confident in my knowledge of the Sacraments, happy at my ability to participate in them as a mature 13-year-old, and pretty sure Jesus would be OK with a little reciprocity between Catholics & Lutherans, so I joined the line approaching the priest for the wafer. The Body of Christ.

I was also a rule follower. Questions in my head started fueling doubt and guilt. I knew my Catholic friends had been doing this longer than me. Was it for different reasons? Why did my friend’s sister give me a weird look when I got up to join in? Everyone here knows I’m not Catholic. What are they thinking? If I do this here will it be a lie in some way? Will I be doing something wrong?

I came face-to-face with the priest, “The Body of Christ.” I held out my hand for the wafer (rather than opening my mouth for it), turned with all these questions in my head and what I thought must have been the whole congregation looking at me, and I buckled under the embarrassment and pressure. I shoved the wafer in my pocket. I skipped past the person with the Blood of Christ, and kept my eyes on my feet as I made my way back to the pew. A few years later, I told this story as part of an ice breaker exercise for an undergrad class. The professor commented, “So, you’re saying you had Christ’s big toe in your pocket?” The answer was, “yes,” and that day it was heavy.

This weekend, I attended a family weekend at the camp where my son will be going this summer–the kind of Jewish overnight camp my wife grew up attending. Our weekend there was fun for our whole family. And, for me and the kids since we are an inter-faith family who have not “practiced” much, it was an opportunity to experience Shabbat and participate in prayers and services for the first time. I felt like a fish out of water, but I listened and learned and was welcomed. I probably seemed quiet, and questions and doubts came to my mind like they did when I was 13, but I left this weekend with a blessing in my pocket.


Ask. Listen. Be Open. Make No Assumptions. Be Conscious of Your Biases. Empathize. Be Optimistic.

These experiences reminded me of a couple of students. One who started as “the new kid” this week in my school who I helped find his way on his first day and another who has been trying hard to find a way to tell us she needs something different. Both feel like fish out of water. I often ask students what they need or how I can help.

I also am reminded of the need to be open to new ideas and cultures in order to be an effective collaborator and educator. I welcome experiences, like the one I had this past weekend where I was in the midst of new things, because they help me easily empathize with students who are confronting the unfamiliar or who need a change.

I’ve said before, “To learn about others who do not share the same background as you: Ask. Listen. Be open. Make no assumptions. Be conscious of your biases. Empathize.” To that, after this weekend, I would add, “Be optimistic.” A tension between optimism and discomfort results in perseverance and growth.

Friday night, I started off open minded but uneasy about participating in Shabbat service. I experienced it and participated in it with my family, and we grew. The highlight of the service for me was thinking of my own children (and now, reflecting as an educator with hundreds of students) when the camp director, who was leading the service, told a story. She talked about how, even in the midst of the holocaust, Jews would find ways to carry on with traditions and customs associated with their faith and holidays. For example, they would use thread form their clothing and light it, however briefly, to have candles. They devised other covert accommodations and substitutions, but they didn’t have a way to recreate a Torah. At this point in her story, the camp director had a young girl recite a blessing. Her youthful voice in the context of the story brought a tear to my eye. The director went on, saying that in the grim midst of their struggling through those times they did, in fact, have a Torah: the children.

If I am among people who see children (students) and are optimistic, if we see them and know we can learn from them, if we base our decisions on doing what is best for them, then I know I am among friends.

Apple Fritters & the War of 1812: My Week in Empathy, Perspective & Hope

I got a giant apple fritter this week. The huge, gooey, delicious, and definitely NOT Keto-approved (though, I’ve been off the wagon for a while) treat was left in my school mailbox as a thank you. Apple fritters are my favorite. This one included a note from a teacher who has had to take some time to address a family crisis over the past couple of weeks. A carb-laden token of appreciation for empathizing and helping was unexpected. My empathy and help was, hopefully, totally expected.

The teacher from this story was not the only one–even this week–to need the help and understanding my principal and I strive to show all the time. The importance of rapport and trust cannot be overstated in our relationship with staff. Shelley Burgess and Beth Houf, in Lead Like a PIRATE say, “PIRATE leaders make it a priority to build rapport and relationships. They do this with staff, with parents, with students, with community members, with their colleagues, and with their supervisors,” because, “nothing leaders do matters much without the trust of their teams and communities.” An important soft skill for all leaders is the ability to have empathy. Without it, the path to the trust, rapport, and connections that Burgess & Houf describe is difficult, maybe even impossible.

On March 6th, 2019, the monthly Twitter chat hosted by Mike Lubelfeld & Nick Polyak, #suptchat, covered the topic of Empathy in Leadership. I loved this chat! It was just what I needed after a moth of stress at school because it allowed me to connect with others, see other perspectives, and talk about something that is “in my wheelhouse.” The contributions of all the participants were terrific, I learned from them, and I felt good about my Tweets as well.

In the chat we were asked, “how do you ensure you are being empathetic as opposed to sympathetic?” I responded:

Empathy leads to great collaboration & problem solving. Sympathizing is just “problem admiring.” I operate using empathy because of my training, my natural inclination, and my desire for progress, and it makes me a better leader.

Another question in the chat asked, “What does it mean to you to ‘Encourage the Heart‘ of those around you?” I replied:

Encourage the heart

“Encouraging the Heart is culture building. It’s finding the hope or silver lining and magnifying it and communicating it loudly to sustain people through the tough times.”

All that being said, collaborating emapthetically and culture-building led my principal and I to Post-War of 1812 America this week.

The Era of Good Feelings

After the War of 1812 and its conclusion’s ensuing enthusiasm (starting around 1815), American politics entered a nationalist phase. The history teacher at my school also described it as a time when not a lot of great things were happening but people were finding hope in order to make it through. The teacher mentioned The Era of Good Feelings as we were preparing for a faculty meeting that we had been stressing about planning.

We would be covering student discipline and the feelings that student behaviors were bringing up among the faculty in the midst of the long slog between winter break and spring break. We knew we would not get far by getting defensive about our discipline process or by showing data about consistency and consequences. We had to address feelings with feelings and the Era of Good Feelings was perfect! We asked the teacher to introduce the topic at the top of the meeting.

The inspiration to open with this idea, and the fact that it worked, are testaments to leading with empathy. We recognized the mood, we identified with it, and we–the administrators–were feeling the stress too. We felt a need to change our collective feeling so we collaborated, leaned on the trust/social capital we have with staff, and had a great meeting.

In the meeting we identified students who have needed the most intervention, and we took time to think about and identify with them. We talked a great deal about perspectives. We joked that we would enter an Era of Good Feelings if only we could find a little hope. We showed that 2% of our entire student body were the ones we were upset about, but over 80% of our students had zero conduct referrals. Then, we flipped things by presenting Positive Referral forms and challenged the staff to look for good things–to find the hope. We had half a dozen positive referrals for students turned in right after the meeting, and we intend to call them and their parents with the good news. We also got positive, approving feedback from staff and one or two apologies about recent attitudes.

A week that started with stress and worry was turned around by a great Twitter chat about empathy, an unexpected opportunity to collaborate with staff, lots of chances to take new perspectives, a little hope, and an apple fritter.

Pluripotentiality & Rekindling Creative Thought

The developing brain has pluripotential–it could learn anything. As infants, our “blank-slate” brains soak up stimuli, neural pathways form, and patterns repeat. We learn. As educators, fundamentally, we are reinforcing and/or building neural pathways in our students all the time. Learning in school, in society, and in our cultures decreases the super power of pluripotentiality. Sir Ken Robinson calls our potential “creativity” and says, “…we don’t grow into creativity, we grow out of it. Or rather, we get educated out of it.” I agree, and I think we can combat the loss of creativity with the right mindset, and we should strive for the kind of creativity and potential that allows us to make informed, bold choices as educators for our students.


Rekindle Creativity in Three Steps

The first step in recovering creativity is to be mindful of its loss in the first place. This kind of metacognitive exercise can help you come up with new solutions or innovative ideas. It could open your eyes to new ways of doing things that you might not have considered because of being stuck in the “this is how I always do it” routine. A couple of books helped me with this idea:

Bunch of Ameteurs: A Search for the American Character by Jack Hitt tells several stories of folks who didn’t know the rules or didn’t care. They followed their bliss (or their hunches) into innovations that upset the status quo. I like to think of “amateurism, ” as defined in the book, as a way of unlearning or seeing old things in a new way.

In Malcolm Gladwell’s David & Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits and the Art of Battling Giants , one of my favorite parts is the story of the guy who never played basketball who suddenly found himself coaching a team and winning because he did not follow conventions of the game (which obviously ticked people off).

In both examples, seeing something creatively and with potential helped the amateurs innovate. Try to see your responsibilities or challenges with the eyes of an amateur.

My training as a School Counselor and at the Second City Training Center for improv taught me the next step to remembering your creativity. Psychologist Albert Ellis’ Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy(REBT), in part says, “people tend to overuse ‘shoulds,’ ‘musts,’ and ‘oughts.’ Many of these self-defeating beliefs are indoctrinated in early life and grow stronger as a person continually revisits them.” The “shoulds” represent the way things have always been or the way we have been taught to think or behave. They help reinforce neural pathways. REBT suggests we identify them and work to change them.

In improv, the cardinal rule is to play the scene saying, “yes, and.” You agree with and add to the situation and things that are suggested by your scene partner. No idea is a bad one (almost). The “yes, and” rule is a sentence stem for potential. With regular use it leads to new, exciting places. In a scene, the phrase is not said aloud, but the actors know it and instinctively raise the stakes. It’s how a scene goes from “couple-in-a-car” to “couple-in-a-car-and-the-woman-is-in-labor-and-they-have-to-stop-for-tacos-before-they-go-to-the-hospital-because-they-want-the-first-sound-the-baby-hears-to-be-the-crunch-of-the-shell.” It’s not as sophisticated as REBT. It is an effective way to consciously open yourself to new possibilities.

The third and probably most important way to help reinvigorate creativity is to collaborate. In his TED Talk, designer Tom Wujec describes a design challenge in which he gave raw spaghetti and a marshmallows to different groups (business school students, CEOs and kindergartners). Because of how they collaborated, how they worked through the challenge and due to their innovative (amateurish, preconception-free) thinking, the kindergartners outperformed the other groups, making the tallest, most-stable structures in their initial attempts.

With the right mindset (and in most other cases) two or more heads are better than one.

Application to Education

As a school leader, I try to communicate these ideas to my staff and colleagues. I have been inspired by these ideas and those of Dr. Michael Lubelfeld & Dr. Nick Polyak who wrote The Unlearning Leader: Leading for Tomorrow’s Schools Today. The authors promote “unlearning” as a way to break free of tradition and ideas in education that, as an REBT practitioner might say, are irrational “shoulds.”

Think of what big, bold choices can be made to innovate and have the courage to do them. I have a few projects I intend to apply this thinking to before the school year is up. Another source of inspiration this week has been this article about a whole-school approach to behavior in which the principal, Michael Essien, innovated a way to address behavior in the classroom while maintaining relationships between teachers and students.

I’ll keep finding ways to innovate and collaborate. My district director of professional development told me the other day that I always find the coolest stuff. I replied that, “I’m always looking.”

Time Horizon & Management vs. Leadership

In psychology, the idea of Time Horizon refers to the distance into the future for which a person can plan.  Since first learning about this idea, I keep seeing how it affects my role as a school leader and how it affects the people around me.  If you are a person with a short time horizon, you’re likely to be experiencing trauma or stress.  You could also be an adolescent.  Or, you could be a school administrator in February.

Ryan Dowd, Executive Director of Hesed House, a homeless shelter in Aurora, IL, presented a professional development called “Run Your Classroom Like a Homeless Shelter” to teachers in my school district.  The themes were what educators would recognize as SEL-aware: they touched on poverty & trauma, being empathetic vs. punitive, building relationships, and having the right “people skills” to minimize or reduce conflict.  For me, the thing I think about most from that training continues to be the concept of Time Horizon.


The PD was in September, still close enough to summer and to what I know now was a time with a longer Time Horizon.  Planning for and beginning the school year were full of big ideas of mission, vision, and goals for the year.  Time was available for talks of embracing change and bold plans.

As the year has gone on, my Time Horizon has shrunk.  A lot.  I have found myself only being able to deal with the issue right in front of me.  I manage from one thing to the next hoping that my instinct, rooted in my guiding principles, is in line with the ideas and goals we set out with in August.  Great effort is needed to come up for air to see the longer Time Horizon and recall the bigger ideas and goals.  Even greater effort is needed in the doldrums of February in a school.  And it seemed impossible this past week–one of the most stressful I have endured.

This weekend, I have spent time reflecting, trolling Twitter for new ideas, starting a blog, and reading.  The Time Horizon idea came up again as I was reading The Principled Principal: 10 Principles for Leading Exceptioal Schools by Jeffery Zoul & Anthony McConnell. In Chapter 8, “The Management Principle,” they talk about “dreamers” and “doers,” saying, “schools need principals who possess qualities of both.”  Schools need the leader to both have the big ideas and the ability to get them done.  Zoul & McConnell talk about “leaders/dreamers” vs. “managers/doers.”  A bad connotation about management is somewhat debunked in the chapter, and it’s argued that an effective school leader needs to be both an effective manager and a visionary leader. As it applies to my dilemma with Time Horizon, I have to work on both the long/dreamer/leader horizon and the close/doer/manager horizon in order to be effective.

2 Horizons

In order to be (and feel) more effective and to find a way to manage two ways of functioning on the horizon like Luke Skywalker on Tatooine, here’s my plan:

  • Shore up structures that can help create more room for effective operation
  • Communicate clear expectations to anyone who can help
  • Know when & when not to delegate & collaborate
  • Create Creators who can help with innovative ideas who can share the leadership load

Now, if I could just find time for all of that….