Sunday, July 7, 2019

What's Next

Ever since I shared that I would be moving to Greensboro, NC, the number one question I get is "what's next"? A logical question for sure, and one that I will try to explain below.

First, a little history leading up to this. For the past 15 years, I have based most of my life decisions on professional opportunities. I have moved to different cities and taken different jobs based on amazing opportunities that have presented themselves. I have no regrets on any of them and I am proud to have been able to work in several sectors of education.

The one thing I have sacrificed the most, however, is my personal life. My family. My wife has been a trooper as we have moved to different places so she can support my dreams, even finding ways to make her dreams work within that. I have two children as well who have never gotten to play on a sports team or go to an after school activity because mommy and daddy were too busy.

Flash forward to this year and I had to make a difficult decision to leave a school that I was leading and in love with. I loved the teachers, students, and families at Moore. We did many incredible things in two short years. I think back with only fond memories.

I decided that it was my chance to support my family as they are now able to fulfill their dreams. My wife landed an amazing job as a pediatrician and my boys will be able to start sports and activities in the fall with me on the sidelines.

As for me, since many have asked, I'm keeping my options open. I will not be jumping back into a principalship right away. It is a job that requires the right mindset and right now I would not have that. I do plan on occasionally traveling to continue professional development opportunities that I have not had a chance to do as much the past couple years. And, of course, you'll see me at places like Ron Clark Academy, Get Your Teach On, and Get Your Lead On. I will also be working on projects with friends. It is exciting to be able to work on my terms and schedule for a while. I absolutely see myself back in a school in some capacity in the future, but I want to make sure I find the right fit and opportunity.

I appreciate all of the kind words and thoughts from people over the past month. It's been a blessing knowing that people are out there cheering you on.

So that may not answer every question about "what's next" but when I figure it out I'll let y'all know :)

Monday, May 27, 2019

Ambassador Program

I recently posted a video with one of my 5th grade Ambassadors doing a Greeter training (click link to see the video). This prompted a lot of questions about Ambassadors, Greeters, and how I set this all up. For all those wondering, here you go!

What are Ambassadors?

Ambassadors are a special group of my 5th graders who are expected to be representatives of my school. They conduct tours for guests, attend community events, attend district recruitment events, and partake in other events that require representation.

How do you become an Ambassador?

At the end of their 4th grade year, interested students have a week to apply for the position. The application is simple: obtain signatures from their homeroom teacher and three of their specials teachers (art, music, PE, etc.) and write an essay on why they believe they would be a good Ambassador. Based on the completed applications, my leadership team selects the top 15-20 to interview. For their interview, the student meets with my leadership team and is asked a series of questions (e.g. Tell us about your greatest strengths that would make you a good Ambassador. What is your favorite part of Moore and why?). We are not so much concerned about what they say, but how they think quickly on their feet, remain calm under pressure, and speak clearly and fluently. After the sit-down interview, the student does a mock tour down the hallway with members of the leadership team, explaining the school to the best of their ability in a short amount of time. Again, we're not concerned as much about what they say as we are in how they hold themselves, speaking voice, remaining calm, etc. In the end, 6-8 Ambassadors will be chosen.

How do you train Ambassadors?

Ambassadors begin training at the end of their 4th grade year. They begin learning the way to greet guests, talk about the school, differentiate their conversations depending on who is in the building, and building confidence in their skills. Much of this is modeled at first by the outgoing 5th grade Ambassadors, who also do one-on-one training with the newly inducted Ambassadors. During the summer, I bring in the Ambassador for at least two or three "boot camp" training sessions, where we dig in deeper and begin the real tough training. I admit, I fuss a lot at these sessions because the Ambassadors are the face of the school, and I need to ensure that they are top notch. Once the school year starts, training continues for several weeks with intense scenario role plays. All of the training is based on a system I created called S.P.E.C.I.A.L. You can read more about it here

What are Greeters?

In addition to my Ambassadors, every K-5 classroom in my school has two important jobs: classroom greeter and hallway greeter. The classroom greeter is an assigned classroom job where anytime a person walks into a classroom (administrator, school guest, parent, etc.), that student walks over to that person, shakes their hand, and greets them. The greeting usually goes along the lines of "Good morning, my name is _______. Welcome to Ms. ______'s room. Today we are doing _______. It was nice to meet you." The hallway greeter has the same idea, but is done in the hallway. A pre-assigned student approaches a guest or administrator in the hall, and greets the person. You can see a video about Greeters from a local news station here.

What is the secret to successful implementation?

Solid training and constant feedback is necessary in order to make this program successful. If teachers are not bought in and held accountable, and administration is not firmly behind the implementation, then this will not work. It is best when consistent messages and modeling are heard and experienced.   

Need help making this happen?

I am currently booking professional developments for the fall. If you need help bringing this to your school, you can contact me here.

Also, check out Abe Hege and my book, The Limitless School, which is all about building positive school culture. It has an entire chapter on making positive first impressions within your school!

Saturday, January 19, 2019

What Keeps Me Up At Night

Excitement from an awesome day
Conversations I had to say.
News that elated the entire school
News that simply added fuel.

An angry moment
A sad encounter
A scary situation
A meaningful dedication.

The child who just did the unthinkable
Everyone who expects me to be reachable.
Praises from strangers far and wide
Critiques that are painfully justified.

The teacher who has had enough
The teacher who is merciful and tough.
A wall that separates forty students
You hope both act with deliberate prudence.

An upcoming meeting
A ceremonious greeting
A lesson to teach
A presentation to preach.

Social media to manage
An image to uphold
Watching every word
While still finding lines to blur.

A constant array of echoing voices
Sifting through the limitless choices
Identifying those you trust most
Reflecting on words that keep you engrossed.

THIS is what keeps me up at night.


Monday, December 31, 2018

19 for '19

For the past four years I have offered up my New Years Bucket List Challenges (18 for '18, 17 for '17, 16 for '16, and 15 for '15). I'll be honest, I'm kind of out of fresh stuff, so I decided to make the 19 for '19 Challenge with a little twist. Simultaneously, I wanted to create something that I could offer my staff as a challenge. So to kill two birds with one stone, I created the 19 for '19 Magic Maker Challenge. I have 19 challenges (some are specific to my school, others are more generic) that my staff can complete if they wish to enter the contest!

Side note: We did a 20-day challenge at my school before winter break and it was a lot of fun. Everyone who finished received a jeans pass and then the names of those who finished went into a drawing for a big prize.

Below is the 19 for '19 Challenge if you are interested in creating your own version for your school (no I don't have an editable version, sorry). Thank you to my dear friend Katie Mense (@littlekinderwarriors) for making the challenge look good! I hope everyone has a fantastic New Year and 2019!

Thursday, December 27, 2018

Break the Script

When you walk into Carley Parker's 2nd grade classroom, your eye is immediately met by a floor-to-ceiling sized sunflower mural that is glistened by the sun when it peeks through the window blinds. The students have a variety of seating options, commonly called flexible seating, from stools to wobble seats to cushioned floor seating. She has a beautiful wooden stage that students use to present upon or gather around during morning meeting. As students come in each morning, they take part in a schoolwide practice called Morning Choice, where puzzles, board games, Legos, and art have replaced morning work and busy sheets. As she starts her instruction, students take a look at the Smartboard to see their small flexible literacy and math groups for the day.

In August 2017, I began as principal at Moore Magnet Elementary, a Title 1 public school in Winston-Salem, NC with approximately 600 students. As I did my initial walk-through of the school, it resembled many of the previous 200-plus schools I have visited around the country over the past eight years as a professional development trainer and presenter. It was a clean building with experienced teachers and a positive history. Staff and students were kind and it was a place that people spoke positively about.

But I also saw untapped potential. When I saw a white wall, I pictured color. When I saw rows of desks, I pictured flexible seating. When I saw worksheets, I pictured collaborative work stations.

As principal, I was not going to settle on being like everyone else. I previously taught at an innovative school in Atlanta called the Ron Clark Academy, a middle-school-meets-Harry Potter-meets-Disney World, where teachers combine rigor and high standards with a loving culture and endless engagement. This "potion" has produced amazing results for over a decade, and I wanted to bring this formula to a public school in North Carolina.

You see, school is different than when we were there. Higher standards are holding all students and educators more accountable, rapidly evolving technology is forcing educators to learn what students already know, and social media makes us that much more connected (for better or for worse). The need to evolve our classrooms is my non-negotiable, and it was my personal mission as principal to make my school feel like a place where students wanted to come everyday.

Carley Parker was one of my first teachers to join this movement. She began strategically transforming her classroom throughout the year, and piece by piece she would experiment with new ideas, getting rid of desks for tables, exchanging chairs for stools, putting up projects on DonorsChoose for new technology and materials for her classroom. As my teachers saw her results, they began jumping on as well. Teachers transformed their classrooms and their teaching. We are moving from a fact-regurgitation and skill-and-drill mentality to problem-solving and learning through multiple perspectives. White walls are being replaced by colorful paintings and murals. And teacher-talk time is being evaluated and reassigned to the students.

Let's be honest, unless you're playing bar trivia, the need to memorize facts is generally unnecessary these days. Siri and Alexa are at our disposal 24/7. What we do need are adults who can collaborate, imagine, trouble-shoot, and create. When our classrooms mimic environments where students have the opportunity to hone these skills, we are aligning our classrooms to the workplaces where students will one day work.

I see my teachers and my school moving more each day. As a person who likes things done yesterday, it can be hard waiting for change to occur. Even harder can be those people who do not believe that anything needs to be changed to make those changes. My goal then becomes to convince, not convert. While they may never be able to convert their classroom to the place that I believe it could be, I want to convince them that we do have a need to make our classrooms function differently. And belief is half the battle.

So in 2019, I challenge you to do school differently. Rethink, reimagine, and break the script of how school is done.

*You can follow Ms. Parker on Instagram at


Monday, September 3, 2018

One Chip

Math has always been my strength. I understand concepts and catch onto new ones quickly. It could be baffling, then, that my favorite game when I am in Las Vegas is roulette. For those unfamiliar, roulette involves a wheel with numbers equally spaced around it. As the player, you place chips down on a mat that has corresponding numbers to the wheel, hoping that a ball spun on the wheel lands on your number.

Mathematically, it is a tough game to play. The odds of winning are far lower than most casino games. I have learned various strategies in the game from observing others. My approach, frequently, is to have a chunk of go-to numbers that I play, spreading out my chips to try to increase my chances of winning. I do hit a number usually, but my return is smaller since I usually only have a dollar chip on the number. 

I promise this post is not about gambling! Something happened over the summer that provided an amazing “a-ha” moment in connection to teaching. I was presenting in Vegas this summer, and one night some friends and I went to the casino. I naturally gravitated to the roulette table, and my friends stood around to observe. I gave the dealer $100 and asked for my $1 chips so I could extend my time and go about my usual strategy.

Between spins, a man came over to the table, threw down $100 bill and said to the dealer, “One chip.” He proceeded to put his $100 chip on black, which meant that if the wheel stopped on a black number he would double his money, and if it did not he would be out $100. It landed on red. He shrugged his shoulders and walked away.

Afterwards, my friends and I were a bit aghast at this maneuver and the “all-in” approach in which this man took. Later, I thought about it more and realized that as educators, we have parallel approaches to our teaching and schools: 1) the small chunks of deposits that we put into our students and classroom over time, or 2) the “all-in” strike that can blow the roof off a place. 

In the end, we hope for a “payoff,” namely, student achievement. With the first approach, this usually comes in incremental gains. Examples of this might be small flexible groups, book studies, debate, Kagan strategies, or inquiry-based learning. These strategies do not produce instant results in isolation, but spread out over time, and you can make gains with consistent use. On the flip side, you have the “all-in” approach, where you are putting a lot of stake into one focused experience. Examples of this might include a room transformation, professional development speaker or conference, or a presentation. 

With both approaches, there are naturally going to be pros and cons. With the first, mistakes usually go unnoticed. If something is going wrong, it is not hard to make the correction the next day. The downside is that results take time. With the latter approach, your eggs are in one basket. If it works, you are a hero, if it fails, you may not get a second chance. 

In my opinion, good teaching and leadership involves both of these approaches. Balance is important and finding strategic ways to pace your teaching, but also throwing in there occasional “all-in” moments provides students with consistency and excitement, which is important for maintaining engagement for teachers and students.

Saturday, July 28, 2018

The Houses at Moore

One of the most frequent questions I get is how we did our "House System" at Moore Magnet Elementary. Instead of explaining over and over, this blog will give a detailed overview. Context is important, though, so let's start there.

What is a House System?

Houses are a way to build family within a family. The concept originated, of course, from Harry Potter, and includes students/staff members in different groups/teams who compete for some type of prize or recognition.

Why is it popular?

By having students/staff in Houses, everyone is included. There's no tryouts or qualifications. People like to feel included, and this system allows individuals to feel a part of something. It is competitive, but in a positive nature; it gives people something to get behind and cheer for.

How did this get so popular?

As previously mentioned, this all began with Harry Potter, but the Ron Clark Academy perfected this system. And as an educator training facility, with over 8,000 educators visiting the school a year, it's been witnessed by tens of thousands of educators and one of the more popular things taken back from the school.

Why should you listen to me about this?

Having worked at the Ron Clark Academy, and having helped many schools begin and refine their House System (while in the Implementation Specialist role for the Ron Clark Academy), I have seen this system change the cultural landscapes of schools. I know how it works in small and large schools; elementary, middle, and high schools; urban and rural settings; and public and private schools. I consider myself multi-lingual. I know how the system was effective at the Ron Clark Academy, but I also know how to translate it to other settings.

So with all of this experience and knowledge of the House System, would you believe me if I told you I did NOTHING at my school to put it together? Well, sort of. I'll explain.

I knew from the second I got my principal job at Moore Magnet Elementary that I wanted to have Houses at my school. I recognized at the same time that if I came in day one and told my staff that we're going to have this thing called Houses, I would get many blank stares and perhaps push back. I have seen Houses come and go like the wind at other schools because there was no context or buy-in from staff.

To rectify this, I put out a call to my staff to visit the Ron Clark Academy last October. The caveat of attending this professional development, however, was that upon their return they would become the "House Committee," tasked with creating, rolling-out, and maintaining the system.

The team of seven attended the PD in October, and spent the following month and a half planning out the details of the Houses at Moore. In December, the Houses were rolled-out to the staff. It included each staff member receiving a document answering all of the questions that people would have: What are Houses? Why are we doing this? What will it look like? How do you give points? It also premiered the names, colors, symbols, and crests of our five Houses (Agatohvsdi, Ionracas, Quantum, Huruma, and Sisu). One of my 2nd grade teachers and art teacher also collaborated to create the crests:

In preparation for the roll-out to the staff, the House Committee blew up black balloons and had the name of each staff member (teacher, assistant, cafeteria worker, custodian, administrator, etc.) on them. Everyone received their balloon and popped it at the same time. Inside the balloon was a piece of paper in one of five House colors to welcome them to their House. The Committee was strategic about dividing up staff so most grade levels, administration, and support staff had at least one person from each House represented.

Over the next month, the teachers began talking about Houses. They started drawing their House name in their classrooms, wearing House colors, and getting competitive. The idea behind it was to get the kids excited about what was about to come for them!

How did we decide what House students were in? Good question. Luckily, we had an existing system in our school that allowed us to make it fairly easy to figure out what House students would be in. For decades, our kindergarten classes at my school were designated by colors (blue, purple, yellow, red, and green). So students would be proud to say they were in the "purple kindergarten room," even as 5th graders. Instead of reinventing the wheel, the House Committee decided that any student who had been at our school since kindergarten would be a member of the House that matched the color of their kindergarten room. Students who had not been with us since kindergarten would spin an online wheel that we created to determine their House. In the end, the student and teacher numbers were fairly even. 

On the last day of school before winter break, we gave each student an invitation for January 3, 2018, our first day back to school. The invitation was in the student's House color, to add that first hint of House pride. We welcomed the students back on January 3rd with a House Party, which includes music, strobe lights, dancing, and a complete failed balloon drop! We tried rigging up a balloon drop with plastic sheets across the gym. When we went to drop the balloons, they all fell in one spot and the kids jumped on top of one another to get them. It was like a mosh pit. #Fail

Outside of that, though, it was a great kick-off! I introduced the Houses to the students, then we broke into Houses and met for the first time. We explained to the students that they would be trying to earn points by showing good behavior, working hard, being kind, etc. We kept all of our points in Class Dojo. We had a master page that every adult in the building had access to. The five Houses were there and you could add points as appropriate. Many teachers also had an individual class Dojo page, and would track overall points during the week there (so it communicated with parents), and then transfer them at the end of the week to the school Dojo page. I did allow teachers to do negative points in their individual class Dojo page, but once they were transferred to the school Dojo page, they were only positive.

My teachers also discovered an option on Class Dojo where you can add your own graphic for each student, so many put the House crest as the student's picture. You can also group kids within a class, so many teachers created House groups within their class, which made it much easier come the end of the week to know how many points for each House to transfer to the school Dojo page.

Hundreds of points were added each week, and at our weekly Friday Rally, each staff House leader would announce the student they wanted to represent their House and spin the wheel for extra points. A couple of clarifying terms:

House Leader: Each House has two staff House leaders. One was a member of the House Committee, the other was not. This gave a balance of perspective when making decisions. We also had each House select 4th and 5th grade House leaders. Their role wasn't as clearly defined as we wanted it to early on, but it may transition into a student government type feel moving forward.

House Wheel: One of my teacher's husband was kind enough to make us a House Wheel, which serves as a weekly game to earn extra points for their House. My art teacher designed the pieces of the wheel. Click here to see a picture of our weekly wheel spins.

We also met once a month as a House during our usual Friday Rally time to do team builders, develop chants/cheers, and build House pride. The House Committee was typically in charge of creating and distributing the agendas for these meetings.

At the end of the year, we named our House Champion (the green House, Sisu). The staff members of Sisu were in charge of creating a House celebration. On that day, we had the other four Houses line the hallways of the school and cheer and congratulate Sisu on their victory. From there, Sisu enjoyed a championship party, which included duct taping me to the wall!

What's next?

This coming year will continue the foundation of the Houses that we began, but we will also introduce new initiatives and ideas to make the Houses even stronger, like more House competitions and community service. The PTA will be selling House shirts this year. Many students began making their own House shirts, so we are excited about the potential this has as a fundraiser for PTA! We are also going to do direct donation this year for our PTA fundraising, and we will be matching each dollar with a House point!

We will be fixing a few issues we had with points and adjusting to not having each House represented on each grade level (since teachers have moved grades but remain in their House).

The greatest (and hardest) thing for me in this entire process is stepping back and letting the committee make the decisions. I believe the success of this program has been the people making the calls. My teachers know our school best, and I trust them to make student-centered decisions.

The bottom-line with making the House System work in your school, is "make it work for your school." You do not need to copy everything you see at the Ron Clark Academy or what I did at Moore. If your school doesn't buy in, make it work for your classroom. I am blessed to have experienced this fantastic system while working for the Ron Clark Academy, and want to pay it forward now by hopefully inspiring other schools to build a positive school culture by developing your own Houses!

If you are looking for other school culture ideas, check out Abe Hege and my book, The Limitless School, available on Amazon.