All Means ALL

I have taken up the mantra that ALL students deserve to learn at high levels.  It is sobering to think about what it takes to achieve such a goal, and while it is a lofty vision, it is doable. 

I’m often in conversations with teachers and administrators related to activities and practices to increase student learning.  While I am rarely challenged about all students learning at high levels, I am sure that many are asking themselves questions and wondering what it actually takes to make this vision a reality.  

I am reminded of a time in high school band class.  We were sight reading a new piece of music and my part contained a flourish (a bunch of notes between two beats) that was very difficult, and the notes were not part of a typical scale.  I remember declaring that it was “impossible” to play, and my band director’s response was simply to laugh. I was a pretty good high school musician, and only knew what I knew at the time.  It would take years of development, study, and practice to understand my naivety. 

I won’t go into all the pieces that are necessary to have all students learn at high levels, but I do want to illustrate an idea of how sustained, intentional efforts over many years can have an effect.  Let’s take a look at a hypothetical student in their sophomore year in high school (we’ll call him Roy) whose best efforts only attain him a D- in a certain subject.  I won’t spend time in this post discussing that a typical grade may not be the best method to assess learning. For now, let’s suspend that conversation and just say that the best this student can do is a D-.  If that were the fact, do we believe that Roy could grow to his best, attaining a D in one year? Hmmm… I love pulling out my time machine, so let’s do that and take Roy back to 2nd grade. Here is his growth trajectory if we use a grade to measure learning.

  • 2nd grade – F
  • 3rd grade – D-
  • 4th grade – D
  • 5th grade – D+
  • 6th grade C-
  • 7th grade C
  • 8th grade C+
  • 9th grade B-
  • 10th grade B

While a straight-line growth trajectory is extremely unlikely, we need to remember that we have Roy for 13 years!  Much like financial interest, we can compound his learning growth. Early intervention and non-stop sustained support is Roy’s best opportunity to learn at his potential.  (Please don’t think that all of our problems should be solved in the primary grades. A student with a learning challenge will always have that challenge.)

Can we believe that something is beyond us now, yet have hope that we will eventually gain the capability as a learning organization to achieve such an audacious goal?  I’ll save “Collective Efficacy” for a future blog post. 🙂

Trust, Relationships, Mindset, and Strategy: TBRI Works for Kids

Thirty years ago, I began my career in education and have served in about every position possible from a teacher to a superintendent.   These experiences have allowed me to observe over a long period of time the many changes impacting our work in schools.  One of the most significant changes involves the students walking through our doors.  As wonderful and amazing as they are, many of our students are experiencing more and more mental health issues, and we are simply not prepared to meet their needs.  I was brought up in the love and logic system of behavioral intervention and asked questions such as “Was that a good choice?” or “How do you think that made them feel?”  While that cognitive approach still works for many students, it simply has no benefit to the plethora of children with significant needs.

In order to address this need, many school administrators are developing or implementing plans to support student mental health.  While extremely important, many interventions are focused at the Tier 2 and Tier 3 levels without much focus on Tier 1. Therefore, we are missing the opportunity to be proactive in supporting the long-term mental health needs of all students.  To provide the most loving support that children need, all staff members must be retooled. Understanding that “those” kids are ALL of OUR kids and should be supported by every school adult they encounter is essential.

When you learn more about the impact of trauma on childhood development, and how their brains become hard-wired due to their adverse child experiences, you will understand that it is not a child’s fault when they exhibit extreme behaviors.  Of course it is their responsibility when behavior greatly disrupts the education and even the safety of their peers; however, it is also ALL of our responsibility to help children learn to use their voice and strategies to better regulate their own behaviors.  By equipping our teachers and staff with a common language, strategies, and support, we can empower them to help meet the significant needs of our students. Teachers and staff need a common language, strategies, and support to help meet the significant needs of our students.  

Multiple approaches exist to address a quality Tier 1 mental health support system, and most of them require an understanding of how Adverse Childhood Experiences (trauma) impact student behavior.  For me, the best way to understand that paradigm shift was by participating in training regarding Trust Based Relational Intervention training. While I gained knowledge regarding the neuroscience of childhood adversity, TBRI provided me with a comprehensive approach to build resiliency in our students.  I now have a completely new mindset on how to approach students who display extreme or otherwise challenging behaviors.  

At Mt Vernon Community School Corporation, we are hosting Amy Abell and Alli Chance for a 1-day intensive training for school leaders.  By design, participants will walk away with information that they can use right away when conversations develop around this subject in our schools.  Amy Abell shares:

After this one day experience, school administrators and their accompanying team leaders will understand the needs of their most struggling students on a much deeper level. Not only will attendees leave feeling more equipped by their new perspective, they will walk away with a renewed sense of hope and compassion for even the most difficult students.

I encourage everyone to participate in Spark Hope: A One Day TBRI Experience for Administrators and other school leaders.  Like me, you may be changed forever.

Click Here for more information and for links to Registration.


The secret of education lies in respecting the Pupil.  Ralph Waldo Emerson

Mr. Emerson had it right…but I struggle with why it has to be a secret.  Does respecting students have to be something that only some people know and many don’t talk about?   

I remember talking with a teacher several years ago who was exceptional in developing great teacher/student relationships.  He had very few (if any) problems with the students who were seen in the office frequently. I asked him why he didn’t struggle with student behavior when others did.  He said: “I try to over-respect students.” Wow! Why did he say “over”? I think he did it very intentionally.

Why should we respect students more (more than we may want to and even more than students respect us)?  I can think of a few reasons:

  • Students are children…they are still developing.  We are adults. We can’t expect students to do something that we are not willing to do ourselves.  Children can see through hypocrisy in a heartbeat. We must earn the right to have expectations and we do that by understanding we must model what we expect.
  • Respect is not a game.  “Sure, I’ll go first, but if you don’t reciprocate with showing me respect, I’m done showing you my respect.”  If this is your mindset, please reconsider…and maybe remember a time when you received grace that you didn’t deserve.
  • Adults already have more authority.  The systems, structures, and laws, provide for that.  When you play the authority card, “because I’m in charge” you actually dig your respect deficit just a little bit deeper.  If you have to tell people you’re in charge, you likely are not. “Being powerful is like being a lady.  If you have to tell people you are, you aren’t.” – Margaret Thatcher
  • Having good relationships with students are essential to having the ability to teach at high levels.  You can only have good relationships if there is mutual respect. That starts and ends with the adult.
  • The power of your words are immense.  Many of our students are hurting and/or are struggling with their emotions and perceptions of themselves.  The little pieces of kindness and respect given to children can make a world of difference in their lives. 

Understand, I am not advocating for being a pushover or bending to the desires and misbehaviors of your students.  The students in the classes of the teacher I mentioned above were engaged and positive participators. However, our students always deserve to be respected, even if they haven’t earned it YET.  When we approach all students (even the most difficult) with unwavering respect, we have the best chance to develop a meaningful relationship with them.

Thankful and Hopeful, State Funding of Schools

I appreciate the state legislators’ work on the final budget that passed which increased funding for schools.  This was a good session for us financially, and I am thankful. I also align with legislators’ desires to increase teacher compensation and I believe that was a significant motivation for bumping the tuition support to schools. Teachers deserve the assurance of adequate compensation over the course of their careers.

In the recently released budget estimates, Mt. Vernon Schools are expected to receive a 2.8% increase in tuition support for 2020 and 2.1% increase for 2021. Additionally, through the governor’s creative use of the state’s cash balance to buy down the pension fund, our school is now able to decrease our payments to the state retirement fund by approximately $250,000 (0.9% of our revenue). That is real money that we can use! It is not all good news though. Our February student count will have a negative financial impact. Next year will be the first year that the state attaches dollars to the February count, which for us will be a decrease in funding of approximately $110,000 (0.4% of our revenue) due to only capturing a half-year of revenues for students who graduate in December. Let me break down the math for you that we are using in Mt. Vernon to plan our future budgets.

2020:  2.8 + 0.9 – 0.4 = 3.3% Budget Increase

2021:  2.1 + 0 (captured in 2020) – 0 (accounted for in 2020) = 2.1% Budget Increase

2020 & 2021:  (3.3 + 2.1) / 2 years = 2.7% Average Budget Increase

That indeed is good news for Mt. Vernon, but it is not great news. Great news would be the legislature doing this for many years in a row. Since 2006, Indiana has slipped from ranking 22nd to ranking 36th among 51 states and District of Columbia in per pupil expenditures. Additionally, state funding of education is not keeping up with inflation. Our state is woefully short in proportionally increasing funding to education. The state’s general fund has grown by 21% over the last several years while the funding for education has only grown 12%. We are lagging behind and we are all feeling it.

Every once in a while, I hit a tee shot 200 yards down the center of the fairway. That doesn’t mean I played a great game. This was a good legislative session for Mt. Vernon’s finances; however, we are not getting a 5% increase that legislators would lead you to believe. I believe this is a good start in properly funding schools; however, only multiple budget sessions with appropriate funding will truly allow us to improve.

Do Your Best, Not Someone Else’s

Dr. Tim Lautzenheiser said once that “It is easier to be better than somebody else than to be the best we can.”  These profound words remind me of the bear story. You know, the one where two hikers stumble upon a bear in the woods and take off running as the bear begins his chase.  Suddenly, one of the hikers stops, grabs his backpack to pull out running shoes and begins to put them on. The second hiker exclaims that he needs to keep running so that they can outrun the bear.  The first hiker simply says, “I don’t have to outrun the bear, I only have to outrun you.”

In Dr. Tim’s book The Art of Inspired Teaching, he shares that our society has been programmed for everything to be judged, including art.  We have so many contests and award shows to see who is the best. That’s what we do in the good old U. S. of A.  We praise the winners and make every second best seem like less than they are. Why do we need an opportunity to win something before we decide to put forth effort?

As soon as we put standards out there to be judged by, the game is changed…even for people who didn’t know it was a game.  When expectations are set, and a measurement is observed, people behave differently.  Is it because they want to win? Win what? Recognition?  I suppose we all want recognition to some degree. I can remember my first day working at the Bicknell IGA. I was a sophomore in high school and my very first task was to block the cleaning aisle.  That meant that I needed to clean up the shelves moving everything to the front and making products nice and neat with labels facing out. It meant the world to me to have our manager, Mr. Wampler, walk by and say “good job”.  I wanted to do a good job, but hearing that from my boss made me want to do an even better job the next time.

Is teaching an art or a science?  Teaching degrees, for example, come with Bachelor of Arts, and some come with a Bachelor of Science.  Obviously teaching is both. The art side of teaching recognizes that different people are going to attack a problem differently based on their strengths and the needs placed before them.  The science part is equally strong as one must ensure that practices chosen are based on research and will lead to the most learning for students.

In Mt. Vernon, we are embarking on transforming our district into a Professional Learning Community.  The PLC process, as I’ve shared in all of our schools, is s system of ongoing collaboration focusing on results and learning.  PLCs allow us to use the science of teaching and learning to guide us to improving our craft, a craft that relies just as much on the art as it does the science.  I don’t doubt that we will succeed.

As we go down this path, I implore you to find your worth in your own growth, not in a comparison with your colleagues.  The last time I checked, not one person I work with was exactly like someone else. Dr. Tim shares this: “The ultimate competition of life is with the person we see when we look in the mirror and the only way to win is by continuing to play the game to our best abilities.  It is not a judge’s opinion that determines our worth or artistic value, but rather our own opinion. Certainly be wise about learning from other people’s’ opinions and suggestions.  Consider their thoughts and feelings and apply them where they are appropriate, but ultimately, you make the call.”

So, the moral of the story…do YOUR best, not someone else’s.  If a student does their best, and falls short of a prize, don’t we heap significant praise on them?  Of course we do! Praising work, even if one falls short of the goal, helps to provide motivation.

One of my favorite, yet most thought provoking quotes comes from W.H. Murray.  Please read it…and read it again…and read it again…

“Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back, always ineffectiveness.  Concerning all acts of initiative and creation there is one elementary truth, the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves too.  All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from decision, raising in one’s’ favor all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance, which no man could have dreamed would have come his way.  Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it.”


Indiana’s Mental Health Bill – SB 266

In the last 6-7 years, we have seen a significant spike in the number of students coming to school with severe behaviors  Many are simply not ready to learn. While I have my theories as to why we are seeing this large uptick, I am certain that this is a societal issue that is not going away soon.  More and more children with mental health concerns are entering our schools and quite frankly, we are not prepared enough to help them.

Many people would say that it is not the job of schools to deal with mental health and that it is the parent’s role to ensure that their children are ready to learn.  Some would even say that if children are not, then we shouldn’t let them come to school. That could not be further from what children need. For many children, schools are the only place they can feel safe and cared for by trusted adults.  Moreover, the biggest problem is not the changing student population, it is how quickly we can learn how to help these struggling students.

Here is what we know…most children can be taught to regulate their own behavior and to develop trusting relationships with others.  You likely know that children with adverse childhood experiences, or trauma, have extreme difficulties making decisions on how to appropriately behave because they can only “feel”.  Their responses to challenging situations are driven by their limbic brain where fear resides. They can only “fight or flight”. Thus, they become extremely dysregulated.

We can teach children to regulate their behavior and to better deal with difficult situations, but we simply don’t know how to do that.  We were trained to work with students who are using their prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that is used for decision making, by asking them questions like:   “How do you think that makes him/her feel?”or “Was that a good choice or a bad choice?”. This logic based approach will not work with students who can only feel.

In order to educate our students, we must teach the whole child.  To do so, we need to learn how to help students with struggles that are new to us.  We need to learn why students have these needs and to develop a common framework and vocabulary for helping them to succeed.  I believe that when we do so, we can actually help to teach students to regulate their behavior.

Furthermore, schools need help, and a lot of it.  We can do this, but a system of mental health support that is integrated with schools, coupled with ongoing training for teachers and staff, is essential to meeting our students’ needs.  Senate Bill 266 is something that can help us. It is designed to increase funding for schools to help students dealing with mental health issues as well as funding for teacher preparation programs to provide instruction to future teachers.

Senator Crider, R-Greenfield, authored SB266 and it passed the senate by a vote of 29-20.  The article in Hendricks County Flyer can get you up to speed a bit, but suffice it to say, I believe that we need help…and a lot of it.  SB266 gets us going in the right direction.

I Wasn’t Good Enough: What I Learned After Leaving the Principalship

Below is a blog I wrote for the Indiana Principal Leadership Institute and was published on their page in August of 2018

I loved my nine years serving as a middle school principal.  My experience, sandwiched by five years as an assistant principal and five years as a district administrator, was amazing.  Our school seemed to be firing on all cylinders, earning many accolades and positive community support.  If only I had known then what I know now…

One of the many things our school was proud of was our professional development program for teachers.  My experience prior to the principalship was steeped in capacity building and adult learning theory, so bringing my growing abilities to bear helped to find processes where teachers were motivated to continually improve their instruction.  What they did, how they supported one another, and how they grew, was a daily inspiration.  We had our ups and downs with standardized assessment results, but the trends found us making moderate improvements with student learning and achieving at a relatively high level among other middle schools in the state. Strong teaching was a focus, and boy did that school have an abundance of excellent teachers.

This is my thirtieth year in public education, so I can say I’ve been around the block a few times.  Being a part of many professional development and program initiatives designed to impact student performance has been a regular part of my experience.  The thinking was that if teachers would teach better, students would learn more.  Most always, we started the improvement cycle by looking at teaching.  I’m not saying that is a bad thing, we’ve just been doing it backwards for many years.

Have you ever seen a great teacher who works hard, captivates the attention of his/her students on a regular basis, and is in command of a large toolbox of research-based instructional practices?  I’m sure that everyone has had some of those teachers.  Have you seen a teacher like that, who when standardized assessment results came in were surprised by the results…some years increasing and some years not?  The years where scores didn’t improve may even have found that teacher mildly depressed.  They had worked their tail off for 180 days, and the performance they sought from their students was still elusive.

I’ve found that this problem is usually not a teaching problem, which is what I was geared to solve.  The problem of elusive results, I believe, is a learning problem. Let me explain.

I’ve often asked teachers this question: “In the absence of learning, does teaching exist?” That elicits many thoughts and emotions.  There are a plethora of teachers who exhibit strong instructional abilities day in and day out with their students; however, is it possible that their students are not learning at the levels they need to learn?  To get to the root of this enigma, one must come to an understanding on what we believe to be the definition of teaching.  “Teach” is a verb and Merriam-Webster online notes that it is “to cause to know something…to cause to know how”.  I am drawn to the two words: TO CAUSE.  I may have done some great “teaching” but if students didn’t learn, I didn’t cause what I had hoped.

To cause something to happen takes purposeful work, collaboration, and a system…especially if what you are wanting to happen is difficult and complex.  Our recipe is still simmering, but we have found that PLCs, coupled with a guaranteed & viable curriculum, is our best hope to ensure learning at high levels for all students.  This symbiosis, where we can know each student’s proficiency at each topic level, makes our vision of learning for ALL possible.  Joel Barker said it best when he said: “Vision without action is merely a dream.  Action without vision just passes time.  Vision with action can change the world.”  I strongly believe that our symbiotic actions can actually make our vision a reality!

How did I come to this epiphany?  It started with my exposure to some amazing minds as a mentor for both Cohort 1 and Cohort 5 of the Indiana Principal Leadership Institute.  IPLI has been a wonderful experience for me.  Through action research and exposure to ideas outlined in the High Reliability Schools™ framework, I have had experiences that sparked a change in the way I see instructional leadership.  Of course, none of this is novel.  I have learned from exposure and study of Marzano, DuFour(s), Heflebower, Schlechty, Mattos, Hoback, Hoegh, Rains, Warwick, Dweck, and Hattie.

What I learned since leaving the principalship is that focusing on improving teaching first, and then expecting learning to increase, can only get a school so far.  Believing that all students can learn at high levels and not focusing on students and their learning first is nothing short of a pipe dream.  It’s fanciful and quite frankly unobtainable.


It’s About Learning

I believe that all kids can learn at high levels.

For that to occur, we MUST HAVE:

  • A curriculum that provides an opportunity for all students to succeed within the time provided for that course.
  • A crystal clear definition of what proficiency looks like at each and every topic level.

If it is truly about Learning, we will also:

  • Know the basic skills that are precursors to proficiency AND we will know what it looks like to extend learning for students who reach proficiency quickly.
  • Involve students in understanding where they are and what they need to work on next in each learning progression.

When we have:

  • A tight curriculum,
  • Crystal clear definitions of proficiency, and a
  • Collaborative system that is focused on results and learning,

We have the opportunity to work as a team for 13 years to achieve high levels of learning for ALL students.

The Last of an Amazing Generation


My 6 Great Uncles.  Uncle H is 2nd from the Left

My Great Uncle, HT Hogan, passed away yesterday.  He was a wonderful man with a spirit that brought energy to everyone around him.  He was wise, warm, humble, and a wonderful singer. The trio of he, Aunt Mary and Randy (their son) still sings to me as it is their voices I hear when I replay “Inside the Gate” or “Feeling Mighty Fine” in my mind.  Memories of Uncle H flood my consciousness from his gentle conversations with my father on Thanksgiving Day to me sitting in the balcony of the Bicknell United Methodist Church listening to him sing with his wife and son.  I was certainly blessed to have him as an exemplar during my formative years.

In my eyes, my Uncle H lived a life of greatness, but another part of that greatness is that he is the last of his generation to leave our earthly family.  How I admired my many Great Aunts and Uncles! They were amazing models for all of us and I’m glad that my son got a chance to meet some of them. The world is a better place because of them.  What I wouldn’t give to get in a time machine and go back to Thanksgiving at 703 N. Main in Bicknell, Indiana for one more time.

Teaching & Learning Beliefs

A friend recently got me thinking about articulating my beliefs regarding teaching & learning.  While I may add and edit later, my quick jots are below.  I find that I am driven by my beliefs.  Hopefully, you share one or two of them yourself!

I Believe…

All students can learn at high levels.
The historical approach to school improvement is to build teacher capacity first, and then expect student performance to increase.  This of course works, but only to a certain level.  For all students to succeed, you must first be focused on student learning.  To do that, we must be crystal clear on what students should learn and what that progression of learning looks like for each topic within a course.

Students Deserve Equal Educational Opportunities
The only way to accomplish this is to have a clearly defined curriculum.  How would kindergarten be different if all students entering had the same high-level preparation?  What about the other 12 grade levels?

In the absence of learning, teaching does not exist.
This is not to say that high-quality instruction didn’t take place.  This only emphasizes that to teach is to change.  Of course, students play an important role in the learning process, but that doesn’t mean that the teacher should ever shirk his/her responsibility to help students grow to their potential academically.  If a student hasn’t learned, it just means that they have not learned yet.  If a teacher hasn’t figured out how to reach that student, it just means they have not figured out how to do that yet.

Professional Learning Communities are vital to extremely high levels of student learning.
A system where teams of teachers focus on student learning based on a clearly defined learning progression, provides the impetus to discover new instructional avenues that meet the needs of the “not yet” proficient student.  It also helps to provide an avenue to purposefully look at students who are ready to be enriched.

A grade should reflect student learning.
Traditional grading is at least a mildly ambiguous system.  In most instances, the criteria for a grade varies from class to class.  We all know that an A in one teacher’s class is not always equal to that same grade in another teacher’s class.  I like reporting A-F, but to have a high degree of integrity, we must back our reporting with a strong correlation to our corporate vision of student learning.

Homework is an important part of learning.
My friends at CGMSC helped me to cement this belief.  I believe that homework should only be assigned when teachers are confident that all students have enough knowledge to work on their own with limited support from the teacher.  A good way to measure the quality of homework is to see a strong correlation between homework success and success on tests and quizzes.  Oh, I absolutely hate work/homework that is designed to be “busy work”.