Growth Mindset: an Essential Tool of Positive Leadership

This past weekend, I was pleased to receive an invitation to help @LeeAraoz prepare for a presentation by sharing my experience with growth mindset. I was asked to post a video on his growth mindset Flipgrid.

Because of a combination of not figuring out how to post my video on his Flipgrid, and the distraction of yet another in a long series of remodeling problems on our home, I missed my opportunity. Given my belief in the importance of a growth mindset, I will share my thoughts, here.

When I first heard the term “growth mindset, I had to stop and think about what it meant. After a little research, I was excited to discover that I have been talking about and teaching the concept for decades. In my leadership consulting practice, I referred to the concept of learning continuously as striving for “relentless improvement.”

I much prefer the more apt and elegant descriptor, “growth mindset.”

I have long believed that this focus on relentless improvement, growth, and learning is an essential tool of positive leadership, whether as a manager or supervisor in a business organization, a principal of a school, or a teacher in the classroom. We must always strive to pry open our minds to growth. We must be willing to challenge our assumptions at any point in time as we work to be better at what we do and produce better outcomes.

Change and growth are an essential part of life for both people and organizations. When the outcomes we produce tell us something is not working, doing nothing is irresponsible. It is a silly analogy, I know, but imagine changing the decorations on a cake but never baking a new cake. Sooner or later you’ll have a mess on your hands.

Someone, many years ago, shared with me the advice of a ski instructor, who said:

“if you are not falling down once in a while, you are not really skiing.”

When we extend ourselves to the cusp of our knowledge and experience, we fall down. It’s what we all do; it is how we learn. The best advice I can give people is “don’t sweat the mistakes we make, celebrate them.”

“Stop complaining,” is another challenge I offer to current or aspiring positive leaders. Complaints are the province of the weak and powerless. When unhappy about some aspect of your life, job, or organization, instead of complaining, offer a better idea or solution. If you do not have a better idea or alternate approach of your own, become a positive advocate for someone else’s proposal for change. If no one has a better idea, put your heads together and discover one.

There will always be a better way if we take the time and teach ourselves how to search for it. Train your mind to push the boundaries of your imagination, to reject complacency, to ask tough questions, and challenge your assumptions. Nothing hampers a growth mindset like complacency and inertia.

My mission in life, for the past decade, has been to stop the failure of disadvantaged kids. These kids are not destined to fail, and they do not struggle because they are incapable of learning, or because they have bad teachers and bad schools. If we listen to these kids, and observe their behavior, it becomes apparent that they are “street smart.” They learn what is important to them and they learn what works for them in their unique environments. The only way to convince them that what we are striving to teach them is important is by convincing them, through our words and actions, that they are important.

Growth mindset is an essential tool of positive leadership.

When disadvantaged kids struggle and fail in school it is because the education process in which their teachers are expected to teach does not allow them to give every student the time, support, and attention they need to overcome their disadvantages. Those disadvantages, un-remediated, leave young people at the mercy of discrimination.

Until teachers give up, themselves, and leave the profession they chose with such high hopes and aspirations, I can assure you they do everything they can to give kids the time and attention they need to learn. The education process in which teachers are expected to work, however,  is not structured to support them in that effort. The education process at work in American schools, both public and private, has become brittle and unresponsive to the changes taking place in the world in which their students must live and teachers must work.

The moment a process, product, service, or idea can no longer be improved is the point at which it becomes obsolete.

That’s why I developed The Hawkins Model©. It offers an education process that has been designed to serve teachers and students as they do their important work, not the other way around. It’s a simple question of “who exists to serve whom?”

Never underestimate your power to influence to the world around you. Cultivate a growth mindset for yourselves and create an environment that fosters relentless growth and learning for the people around you.

The Importance of Feedback and How To Provide it

Performance management has become a necessity in almost all organizations, irrespective of venue and yet, typically, they are one of the most stressful and virtually useless activities in modern-day leadership.

Unfortunately, in public education and elsewhere, the evaluation process has become engrained as a bureaucratic requirement, much like high-stakes testing. If principals, as with all supervisors, focus on their mission, however, formal performance evaluations should be little more than a minor inconvenience.  All it requires is to integrate feedback into the daily work of principals. Same is true for superintendents providing feedback to principals. I call this integrated performance management.

This may seem impossible within the context of the existing education process, but imagine an education process structured to support these responsibilities. This is exactly the type of process I propose in The Hawkins Model©.

So, what is a principal’s purpose?

Their mission is to help teachers develop their potential to the optimum and do the best job of which they are capable; to help your teachers develop their craft, relentlessly. Principals have no greater purpose and their success will be measured in terms of how well teachers are able to serve the needs of their students.

What is “a teacher’s craft?”  

Teaching is an uncertain science. Never can we be assured that if we do “x”, “y” will be certain to follow. Not only is every teacher unique, as are each of their students, every teacher is on a unique growth and developmental path and the principal’s role is to help them improve the level of their “craftspersonship,” daily; which, in turn, improves the quality of outcomes.

A teacher’s craft is a dynamic body of skills, tools, experience, and wisdom coupled with the ability to apply them to meet the unique needs of individual students.  By utilizing their accumulating body of experience, teachers learn how to assess and respond to the unique needs of each student as each of them moves along their individual growth and developmental path; whether academic, physical, and emotional.

The teacher’s mission, also, is to help students begin accepting responsibility for their own dreams and aspirations. The ultimate objective for each of our students is that they leave school with meaningful choices and become productive members of a participatory democracy.

Ironically, teachers are much like their students; they must take increasingly more responsibility for their own professional growth and development.

As a principal, the job does not involve comparing teachers to one another or to grade them. Neither is it to find someone doing something wrong, unless it presents a teaching opportunity. When you spend time, daily, talking to each team member about their unique situations and working to help them develop their craft, they will always know how they are performing, and you will always know their status. Providing this kind of ongoing, integrated support is not something done once a quarter, semester, or school year, rather it is what you do every day in your interactions with both teachers and staff.

Principals must also understand that his works only if your teachers are willing to trust that your purpose is to help them be successful. They must view you as their champion and this must be demonstrated by your actions, not just your words.

This kind of an approach will help teachers feel they have some level of control over both process and outcomes. Having control over the outcomes in our lives is a powerfully motivating force.

Neither teachers nor students will commence their developmental journey from the same point of embarkation; rarely will they follow the same pathway or progress at the same speed; and, always, the objective is to help them apply in life what they have learned every step along the way.

If we learn to appreciate the value of every individual, what we do ceases to be work and becomes an adventure. There are few things in life that feel better than helping another person be successful. Being a principal, like being a teacher, is supposed to be rewarding.

There may be times when principals must make tough decisions. We do not want to give up on our teachers too quickly, however, any more than we want our teachers to give up on their students. The key is to give everyone an opportunity to surprise us, which, in turn, gives us something to celebrate together.

When formal performance evaluation reports are required, they will be little more than a status report and will almost always be a positive. The exceptions are when some remedial action has been deemed necessary and, in such cases, there should be a specific remediation plan where expectations are clear for all parties. Never should a teacher be out there feeling alone, hopeless, powerless, or unsure of their professional standing. We must help them learn to expect positive outcomes. The same goes for students.

Working in a bureaucracy is never easy but we are not required to let the bureaucracy define us. The best way to avoid being constrained by the environment around us is to keep a laser-like focus on our mission/purpose, which is: “help people be successful.”

If you are thinking this is impractical or even impossible in your school, you are offering “proof positive” that the existing education process is obsolete and unable to meet the needs of kids, teachers, and communities. For as long as a principal or teacher must circumvent the process to do their jobs, we will never produce the outcomes we need.

My education model is engineered so that the structure supports the work we do, not the other way around. Please take the time to check out The Hawkins Model©. You might be surprised!

Lesson #3 for Positive Leaders: Make People Feel Important!

Let me start with a clarification. This list of important lessons for positive leaders are numbered for logical progression, not importance. These lessons are equally essential to the success of positive leaders; they are interdependent.

Lesson #3 – “Make people feel important,” is crucial to the development of the positive relationships that make successful organizations and classrooms special places to be. The ability to make people feel special is essential for cultivating a powerful motivation for success whether at learning or striving for achievement in any venture.

Doing it is as simple as it sounds. Truly like them and if they are among those individuals who are difficult to like, work a little harder. For teachers, you must learn to look beyond the behavior and recognize the challenges they present to you are consequences of circumstances over which they had little or no control.  You are each student’s opportunity for a “do over,” where they write off the past and begin anew. Shower them with affirmation and affection through your words and actions.

Help them learn that success is a process. Help them begin at the point on the academic, social, and emotional preparedness continuum where you found them when they arrived at their door. Measure their progress against their own, unique pathway and never against the performance of others. Learn how to convey genuine concern for their welfare even when giving them constructive feedback.

From the moment when they come to believe you genuinely care about them and are committed to helping them be successful, they will begin to accept responsibility for their own success. This, also, is a process of growth so do not be alarmed or disappointed with lapses. Again, shower them with affection, affirmation and help them celebrate their success enthusiastically. You will also have boys and girls, men and women, who will go the extra mile for you.   Treat them as special people because, indeed, they are.

Also, work to create an atmosphere of mutual support and affection in your organizations or classrooms; one in which everyone cheers for everyone else. Remember that in life, in organizations and in classrooms, relationships are everything. Pay special attention to the affirmation of one student/team member by another. This is behavior that positive leaders strive to foster and reinforce.

It seems counter-intuitive but “make people feel important” serves our own self-interest because we are all better off if every individual is emotionally healthy and productive.

This is also the irony of positive leadership in that the best thing a positive leader can do to ensure their own success is to help their people achieve success. Mastering that process requires that they understand that mistakes are not something to be feared, they are learning opportunities.

But mistakes and disappointing outcomes are not just learning opportunities they are opportunities to bond. Teach them to laugh at their mistakes by laughing at your own. Help them learn that disappointing outcomes that result from extending themselves are not mistakes at all. They are experiments and the lessons learned from them are, themselves, successes to be celebrated.

Remember, “if you are not falling down once in a while, you are not really skiing.”

“Make people feel important” is imperative for teachers. Positive teachers must learn to look at every child as a seed pod, of sorts, within which lies some future accomplishment that will add an element of beauty to the world. Your job is to nurture that seed and help it germinate and blossom. Who knows what great things your students may achieve, someday.

We said, in Lesson #1 that it is not about you. The truth is that your success is a function of the success of the people you serve and lead and the students you teach. It is sort of a cosmic “what goes around comes around” scenario.

In 1982, Zig Ziglar, in his book See You At the Top1, may have said it best when he wrote:

“You can get everything you want and need out life if you help enough other people get what they want and need.”[1]

It truly is a prescription for positive leadership, not to mention a wonderful life.


[1] Ziglar, Zig, See You At the Top, Pelican Publishing Co., Gretna, LA, 1982.

NAEP and Other Standardized Tests Have Been Weaponized.

This a break in my series on positive leadership in order to respond to a recent post on our colleague @StevenSinger3’s outstanding  blog. Gadfly on the Wall.

The reaction of public-school educators to the results of standardized tests, whether state-based or national is very much like the reaction to more lessons and tests in their classrooms on the part of struggling students. When one feels victimized by something, having an aversion to it is a natural thing.

The genesis of high-stakes testing is irrelevant when public school educators feel beaten down by such exams and by the blame that is so often attached. In essence, standardized tests have been weaponized and are used to attack the very existence, not to mention credibility, of public-school teachers and administrators, and the public schools in which they teach. It should not be surprising that these educators go on the defensive at the mere mention of high stakes testing.

This is no different than a student who fails lesson after lesson with such repetition that they feel hopeless. By the time they reach middle school, struggling students have given up on learning. Some of them have given up and stopped trying by the time they reach the middle elementary grades three, four, or five. While the  demographics of these children cover the full spectrum of American society, a disproportionate percentage of them are poor, have skins that are varying shades of brown, or live in households where English is not their mother tongue.

It is no different than a person or a dog that has been beaten by a cane. After a while, they begin to react, viscerally, to the very sight of the cane. Objectively speaking, there is nothing wrong with the cane other than it is being utilized in a manner other than its intended purpose. If the child’s parent or grandparent, or a pet’s owner, picks up the cane and uses it to help themselves walk across the room it is serving its true purpose and is inherently good. The child or pet that has been beaten by that same cane will shy away from it, nevertheless.

The problem in public education is not high stakes testing rather it is that they are being utilized as a weapon to attack public education as a whole, and teachers and their schools, more specifically.

Neither is there anything inherently evil about the results of such exams other than the fact that they are being used for reasons other than their purpose. Because they trigger a negative emotional response, educators have discounted the value of what we can learn from them. It is probably more accurate to say that educators have rejected the value of the results, altogether.

This is unfortunate because those results validate what we learn by examining the gradebooks of public-school teachers. The results confirm what our military services are dealing with when a significant percentage of our nation’s young men and women are unable to score well enough on the ASVAB[1] to qualify for enlistment. They correlate with the experiences of employers who want to hire these young men and women but find them unqualified. The results of all these assessments corroborate the reality that the men and women who populate our prisons were, at one time, our struggling students.

Having been one of those employers I can attest to the frustration when so many candidates for vacant positions lack basic math and reading skills essential to the jobs they would be asked to perform; even entry-level production or warehouse positions. For a brief period, before a change in our ownership, we provided basic math and reading skills instruction for these candidates. Even then, the results were disillusioning. Many struggled and some quit. My interpretation, then, was that they felt traumatized by the classroom.

I saw this while subbing, particularly in middle school classrooms, when students appear to be afraid to try. This triggered recollections from my years as a juvenile probation officer when my probationers seemed afraid when encouraged to talk about school experiences.

I challenge public school teachers to imagine how kids feel when, week after week, lesson after lesson, they  perform poorly on practice assignments and fail both quizzes and chapter tests. Imagine how you would feel if the evaluations from your principals were negative, time after time. After a while, being instructed to “work harder” is as demeaning as it is unhelpful.

I know teachers agonize over these kids and I know they do the best they can in the environment in which they are asked to work. I tell myself that these teachers, whom I have come to respect, must know in their hearts that something is not working; that, somehow, the process is flawed.

High stakes testing has become a pivotal issue for educators on both sides of the debate on the future of public education in America. It is worth looking at the NAEP (National Assessment of Educational Progress) testing because the results confirm that what is happening in our schools is not confined to a few unfortunate communities or school districts but occurs nation-wide. What is important about NAEP assessments is the way they define the “Proficient” level of performance.

The vital component of that definition is that it attempts to measure the ability of these youngsters to utilize what they were expected to learn in real life situations. Ultimately, this is the only measure that counts. I have no illusions that the instruments of assessment are perfect. Yes, they are culturally biased; yes, multiple choice questions are limited in their utility even though we have been using them in our classrooms for generations; but, it seems that the results are the same however we measure them. Even the chapter tests that are given in almost all classrooms, routinely, bring us to the same conclusion.

It does not matter what teachers and other educators think their students have learned; and neither do graduation rates matter. Similarly, the piece of paper with which graduates walk away that says they have completed a portion of their formal education is meaningless if they cannot apply useful skills and knowledge in real life.

Whether young people can apply what they were expected to have learned when they go out into the world and strive to make a life for themselves is the essential question and the basis on which the performance of our education process must be measured. And let us make it perfectly clear that it is the efficacy of the education process that all forms of assessment measure, not the effectiveness of public school teachers, public schools, or public education as a whole.

No matter how hard they work, how qualified they may be, nor how dedicated public-school educators may be, they cannot make an obsolete education process give us outcomes it is poorly designed and structured to produce.

My message to public school teachers is that I am not here to blame you. You are my heroes. I have subbed in classrooms that have shown me the challenges you face, daily. I have experienced what it is like to strive to teach in a classroom where the distractions of student behavior make it seem impossible. I have felt the dread of walking into a classroom every day, after having to gird myself for the challenges I was certain to face. I have at least sampled the frustration of professional men and women who are unable to do what they were trained to do; who are unable to experience the satisfaction of helping kids learn and grow—the very reason why they chose to become a teacher in the first place.

Teachers and principals: you are not to blame. I do not question your commitment or professionalism. I do not dispute how hard you work or how valiantly you strive to give your students what they need to learn. The education process that has been at work in our schools for as long as any of us can remember does not work for a significant percentage of our students, and it does not work for teachers. I would assert, also, that it does an injustice to even the students who appear to be performing well because it inhibits their ability to achieve at their full potential.

Both teachers and their students deserve better.

The challenge is, we cannot create better outcomes until we analyze what contributes to the struggles of our students and are willing to let go of the traditional methods and approaches with which we have grown comfortable. For most of you, it is the only way you have ever known.

Our students are not struggling because of bad teachers and bad schools. Neither are they struggling because they are poor, because of the color of their skin, because of the language of their birth, or because they are genetically incapable of learning.

I want to convince you that poverty is as much a consequence of inequality in education as it is a cause of that inequality.

I want you to understand that we will never get better outcomes for your students—our nation’s most valuable assets—until we go back to the drawing board. We will not get better outcomes until:

  • We assess the level of academic preparedness of each student when they arrive at our door for their first day of school.
  • We tailor what we do to meet the unique needs of each student;
  • We create an environment in which they can form enduring relationships with teachers who will provide the constant emotional, physical, and academic support they require;
  • We ensure that every child has at least one teacher with whom he or she can bond, even the kids who are hardest to love,
  • We discontinue the practice of severing relationships between students and a teacher on whom they have come to rely;
  • We stop treating education as a competition in which some kids win, and others lose;
  • We stop pushing kids ahead to “next lessons’ before they are ready—before they have mastered and understand their previous lesson in each subject area;
  • We stop asking students who “get it” to sit by patiently until their classmates catch up;
  • We stop marching to the tune of arbitrary schedules and time frames;
  • We stop measuring the performance of students against the performance of their classmates;
  • we free teachers from the unnecessary distractions that prevent them from giving each child the time and attention they need to feel safe, to feel special, and to learn at their own unique pace;
  • We give teachers the freedom to utilize whatever approaches, methodologies, media, or technology that will help a given student learn;
  • We recognize that our students are not all preparing for the same destinations and aspirations and that no one destination is more important than others;
  • We allow our students to discover the best versions of themselves and chart out their own goals and ambitions;
  • We ensure that every child learns that success is a process of learning from our outcomes and experiences, both successful and unsuccessful, and that it is a process each of them can master;
  • Until together and with enthusiasm, we have celebrated all their successes along the pathway to whatever destiny they have chosen for themselves;
  • They have developed the powerful self-esteem they will need to face the unprecedented challenges in the balance of this 21st Century; and,
  • They have sufficient strength of character and the tools to withstand the slings and arrows of prejudice and discrimination with which so many of them will be subjected.

Answer the following question for your own benefit, not for mine:

“Is the education process in which you are asked to teach structured to provide students with each of these essential components?”

My purpose as an advocate for an education model designed to provide all these things, is to recruit you to rally around a positive idea that can transform public education in America.

I am an advocate for public education in community schools that are accountable to the residents of those communities. I am an advocate for teachers, whom I consider to be unsung heroes who have one of the most important jobs in all of society.  

I encourage you to ask yourself: “What if there is another way to teach our nation’s children?” What if there is a way that gives all children, not just a lucky few, the quality education they deserve while giving teachers the career you dreamt of when you chose the field of education?

What if there is a way to ensure that you will make a difference, every day, without the distractions and complications that have led so many of your colleagues to leave teaching?

Why not sneak a peek at a new education model, The Hawkins Model©; a new way to teach your students? What do you have to lose?

Remember that it is a quality education on which the future of our nation’s children depends, and it is on those same children that the future of our nation depends.


[1] Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery, the instrument used by the Armed Services to determine eligibility for enlistment.

The Second Most Important Lesson of Positive Leadership.

The most important lesson for those who aspire to be powerful, positive leaders is that it is not about you. The second most important lesson is to focus on one’s purpose and, almost always, that purpose/mission is to satisfy one’s customer.

In the private sector, focus on customers is easy because it is the customer who buys goods and services. Dissatisfied customers can act immediately to take their money and seek out other suppliers. If that dissatisfaction spreads, the enterprise is at risk of losing their ability to compete.

In the public sector, of which public schools are a part, there can be a disconnect between leadership and dissatisfied customers.

Unlike buyers of consumer goods and services, the end-users of public education (the community, parents and employers) are faced with limited choices. Rarely can they take their money and seek out other providers of education services. With no consequences with which to deal, leaders of schools and other public institutions  are under minimal pressure to alter what they do. In the absence of choices and meaningful responses from educators, the dissatisfaction of the community festers.

It is this author’s belief that striving to replace our nation’s public schools with a smattering of uninspiring charter schools is a classic example of “throwing the baby out with the bathwater.”

Contrary to the perception of many public-school educators and advocates, however, education reformers—with  their focus on charter schools, vouchers, and digital learning—are driven by neither a greed for profits nor for a reliable pipeline of automatons to work in their factories. Just the opposite is true.

An over-supply of unthinking workers is the very thing employers are unhappy about.  And, while reformers may want their charter schools to make money, profits are not the motivation. There are much easier ways to make money.

The true motivation for creating charter schools, in present day, is to create an environment where dissatisfied parents can take their money and seek out a better school for their children; to have a choice. Having such choices puts pressure on providers to produce better outcomes.

It is this observer’s assertion that reformers are not out to do harm rather they are misguided. Just changing the name on the door does nothing to differentiate charter schools from public schools. Different teachers working in different facilities matters little if they teach in the same way. And, no, it does not matter that they rely more heavily on digital tools. Varying media does not alter the essential nature of the learning environment.

It is a positive environment that fosters learning and it is the quality of relationships that create positive environments.

What superintendents and local school boards must understand is that it is not enough to believe their schools are effective nor does it matter how hard their teachers and principals work, or how dedicated they may be. Neither does it matter that the societal issues of poverty, crime, discrimination, and segregation make it difficult for educators to do their jobs. These are excuses. The only thing that matters is whether a school’s outcomes are acceptable to their communities.

The challenge for leaders of public education—their essential purpose—is to accept responsibility for the outcomes with which one’s customers are disappointed and find solutions that work for all kids. Societal issues do not diminish the need for change, they make it more compelling.

In public education, or any other setting, innovative solutions must be sought outside the boundaries of conventional wisdom. Finding them requires that we go back to the drawing board and challenge our assumptions about what educators do, and why.

Throwing out the bathwater of public education but not the kids is a formidable challenge. Professional educators must take the lead and would do well to invite corporate America to join them in addressing this most significant challenge for 21st Century America. Only by working together and rallying around innovative solutions can educators and corporate America marshal the resources necessary to transform the American educational system.

The education model I have developed is an example of just such a solution and I invite superintendents and corporate leaders to examine it at https://melhawkinsandassociates.com/education-model-white-paper/

To leaders: It’s not about you!

The most important lesson new leaders must learn is that it is no longer about them. A leader’s role is more like that of a teacher whose job it is to help people learn and grow, not catch them doing something wrong. 

Occasionally one does find someone doing something wrong but that says more about the quality of our leadership than about the capabilities of our people. The response must not be to come down hard on them rather to give them more positive attention and affirmation. On the rare occasions where an individual’s behavior is unacceptable, deal with it quickly, efficiently, privately, and with emotional detachment.

A leader’s job is not to show others how smart they are rather to help people learn how smart each of them can be. It is to give them ongoing feedback to help them optimize their talents and abilities, to remove obstacles, and to have their back.

If a leader wants a more effective organization and better performance from his or her staff the solution is to be a better leader.

Ultimately, a leader’s work must be judged  by the success of their people and organization. 

Reinventing Public Education: A Categorical Imperative!

Transforming/reinventing public education in America is well within the realm of possibility because it is a relatively simple human engineering challenge. The obstacles to its realization exist not in the architecture or mechanics of a solution rather in the politics of change. Those obstacles begin with how difficult it is for people to step outside their paradigms and envision a different reality. Being able to envision a new reality is important to all human beings but is imperative for educators if we are to insure equality in education.

The danger we all face when confronted with a long history of disappointing outcomes is succumbing to resignation that we are powerless to alter those outcomes. It is so easy to become inured to the human consequences.

In public education, disappointing outcomes have been a fact of life for generations and the consequences have had an adverse impact on virtually all aspects of American society. Teachers entering the profession almost always believe that all kids can learn but, over time, they are confronted with the reality that so very many of them do not. Some educators succumb to the proposition that there are children who cannot learn.

That so many of these students are poor, black, and other minorities makes it inevitable that some men and women—not a majority, we believe—will draw unfortunate conclusions. Educators must be challenged to reject stereotyping or profiling by racial, ethnic, or any other categorization and conclude, instead, that the problem is not that these kids all look alike, rather that they experience similar disadvantages.

This tradition of unacceptable outcomes will not be altered until educators take a paradigm leap and imagine a new reality outside the boundaries of conventional thinking. Envisioning an alternate reality does not guarantee a solution, however. Even when we discover a transformational solution, we are still faced with one of greatest challenges facing organizations; we must overcome the paralysis of inertia.

What teachers, principals, and other administrators must do is simple. They must acknowledge that what they are asked to do in their schools and classrooms is not working for many students, especially the disadvantaged. They must be encouraged to forget about what the critics say; forget about the corporate reformers and the politicians who have been influenced by them; and, forget about test scores.

The only thing that matters to teachers is what they see in their classrooms. Not all teachers can see the pattern from their classroom, however, nor can all principals. Those educators blessed to work in high performing schools must not turn a blind eye to the challenges faced by so many of their colleagues.  They must remind themselves, often, that “if not for the grace of God, that could be me.” They must stand shoulder to shoulder with their colleagues in our most challenging schools and districts.

Superintendents have a special responsibility to provide positive leadership and in districts populated by struggling schools and failing students, superintendents must be strong enough to share the truth of what they witness. Their responsibility includes their students, the men and women who staff their schools, and the communities they have been chosen to serve. It serves none of these interests to act as if everything is okay.

It may be unreasonable to expect all top administrators to break from tradition, but they must be  relentless in challenging the assumptions of conventional wisdom. When these leaders see a long pattern of academic distress, they must feel compelled to act because if they do not, who can? 

It is not my desire to shower these good men and women with blame, but I do challenge them to accept responsibility. Blame and responsibility are two entirely different things. There is an essential principle of positive leadership that suggests “it is only when we begin to accept responsibility for the disappointing outcomes that plague us that we begin to acquire the power to change them.”

It has long been my belief that the top executives of any organization must be positive leaders with a passionate commitment to their mission. I have observed far too many leaders in education, whether superintendents or principals, who appear to be administrators more than powerful, positive leaders. Because most were hired and are evaluated based on their administrative experience and skills, we should not be surprised. Those graduate programs for school administrators that do not place great emphasis on leaderships skills must be challenged to rethink their mission.

It is my assertion that the absence of dynamic, positive leadership in school districts throughout the U.S. has given rise to a groundswell of dissatisfaction that, in turn, has opened the door for education reformers. These reformers—also good men and women—are only striving to fill a void of leadership. They see inaction from the leaders of public schools in the face of decades of unacceptable outcomes. Those outcomes are the millions of young people leaving school without the academic skills necessary to be full partners in the American enterprise.

What is unfortunate is that the solutions these education reformers and their political supporters offer have proven to be no more effective than the public schools they are striving to supplant. And, why should we be surprised when all they do is change buildings, call it a charter school, and ask teachers to do the same job they would be asked to do in public schools. They rely on the same obsolete education process and it is inevitable that they will get the same results.

This flawed education process impacts every child, adversely. To disadvantaged students, those impacts are often devastating.

Once again, I ask the reader to consider an alternate approach; a new model designed to focus on relationships and giving every child as much time as they need to learn every lesson, at their own best speed. Please check out The Hawkins Model© not seeking reasons why it won’t work rather striving to imagine what it would be like to teach in such an environment.

The ultimate measure of the success of our schools is not graduation rates, or the percentage of students going off to college. Education must be measured by each student’s ability to utilize, in the real world, that which he or she has learned; regardless of the directions they have chosen for their lives. Education must be evaluated on the quality of choices available to its young men and women.

Whether you are a teacher, principal, or superintendent, how does one explain that all your dedication, best efforts, and innovation over the last half century have produced so little in the way of meaningful improvements in the outcomes of disadvantaged students?

Blaming outside forces is unacceptable. If the pathway to our destination is obstructed, do we give up or do we seek an alternate route? If we succeed in treating the illnesses and injuries of some patients does this let us off the hook in dealing with people whose illnesses and injuries are both more serious, and more challenging? “They all count, or no one counts.”

It serves no purpose to beat the superintendents of our nation’s public school districts about the head and shoulders, but we have a responsibility to hold them accountable. 

If teachers would rally together and utilize the collective power of their unions and associations to challenge conventional wisdom, they would gain support and become a revolution. The same is true of administrators and their associations. If teachers and administrators would link arms, they would become an irresistible force, not for incremental improvements, but for transformational change.  

Is there any doubt in the reader’s mind that if teachers and administrators were united behind a positive new idea that would assure the quality of education of every one of our children, that their communities would rally to the cause?

Educators, you truly do have the power to alter the reality that is public education for every child in America.

A CALL TO ACTION: A New Civil Rights Movement Focused on Public Education!

Education is a civil rights issue of our time just as education and segregation were in the 1950s. Back then, the challenge was breaking down the barriers that prevented black children from attending public schools.  Thanks to the civil rights leaders of 50s and 60s, all children are permitted to attend public schools, but not much else has changed. Academic performance of many poor and minority children, blacks especially, still charts well below classmates.

Poverty still pervades the black communities and those of other minorities, and they are populated with multiple generations of men and women who have always failed in school. Far too many of their sons and daughters fill the seats of the schoolhouse-to-jailhouse express to overflowing; adding “criminal justice reform” to the list of civil rights issues.

Shutting down the schoolhouse-to-jailhouse pipeline is a point on everyone’s priority list, but all the talk and pledges in the world will not alter our current reality until we begin to alter the forces that drive that reality. Even then we cannot change, overnight, that which has taken generations to evolve.

The problems are systemic, and we must address the inherent imperfections of systems, not treat the symptoms of those imperfections.

The issue of criminal justice provides a useful example. For people who have not worked in the criminal justice system, the reactive nature of the system is often misunderstood. Our courts do not go out and seek people to load up their dockets nor do corrections facilities recruit inmates. Each institution must deal with the people delivered to its door.

Our police departments respond to complaints, patrol to deter crime, and act when witnessing evidence of illegal activity. Abuses of their power are not part of law enforcement training protocols, they are aberrant behavior; whether resulting from prejudice, poor training, or breaches of policy.

Although founded on the principles of democracy and on the rights and responsibilities protected and expected under the U.S. Constitution, the criminal justice system, like all systems of human design, are imperfect. When these systems are inundated, both the imperfections of the systems and the prejudices of some of its people are exposed. It is such aberrations that destroy trust between law enforcement and the communities they exist to serve and protect.

The criminal justice system is inundated because the schoolhouse-to-jailhouse pipeline is overflowing. We will not be effective in improving the efficacy of the criminal justice system until we address the social problems that overload its circuits. We must understand why the pipeline exists and the simple and convenient answers of poverty and discrimination are not very helpful. 

If we have learned anything over the last 60-plus years, it is that  we cannot legislate an end to the prejudices and enmity in the hearts of man. We cannot wish away the social realities that devastate the lives of so many people.

While necessary, protesting the injustices in society will not alter the social realities of our communities.

The only way to protect blacks and other minorities from discrimination and the imperfections of the justice system is to reduce the flow of people entering that system.

The only way to keep young black and other minority men and women from entering the system is to help them become impervious to discrimination by giving them a menu of meaningful choices.

The only way to provide them with meaningful choices is to make meaningful changes in the education process that was intended to provide them with those choices.

The only way to ensure a quality education for every child is to alter an education process that, historically, has not served the interests of society’s most vulnerable children; whatever the genesis of that vulnerability.

Like poverty and discrimination, the schoolhouse-to-jailhouse pipeline is a consequence of something that is not working the way our society needs it to work. That something is the “education process” at work in our schools, both our public schools and private. Whether they will admit it or not, virtually every educator understands that what they are being asked to do does not work for many children. Our education process has been obsolete for generations.

From the perspective of this observer, when the growing population of students demanded a reconfiguration of the process, in the early years of public education, the mounting cost and the need for operational efficiency obscured the essential purpose of education. We must redefine that purpose, which was to ensure that the unique needs of individual students are met.

Far too many of the young men and women leaving high school, today, with or without diplomas, are bereft of meaningful choices of what to do with their lives to find joy and to provide for themselves and families. When they leave school, this population of students opts for the only choice available to them: return to the communities from which they came, unprepared to participate in what the rest of us think of as the American dream.

Clearly, the education process is not meeting the needs of these young people. Unfortunately for society and educators alike, we blame our schools and teachers for the flaws of the process rather than the process, itself.

The consequence for society is that the education reforms, innovations, and initiatives of the last half century or more were like seeds planted in barren soil. Even the best ideas in the world will not take root in an environment unable to provide the nutrients necessary for germination, let alone blossoming.

A special report published, just this morning, in EdWeek UPDATE illustrates my point. The report notes that there is “no measurable gap between charters, traditional public schools on national tests.”

The charter school movement has not fixed what is broken in our schools because they still rely on the same education process as other schools. Just changing names, buildings, and teachers doesn’t change that which does not work.

In the interim, notwithstanding the litany of education reforms, American society has seen significant erosion of its faith in our public schools and teachers, never quite comprehending that teachers are as much victims of flawed education process as the students and communities they were employed to serve.

Americans are left with an education process that is the functional equivalent of a maelstrom in which children, communities, teachers, school, administrators, policy makers, and elected officials have become entrapped. It is an education process that cannot be fixed from the inside out.

As difficult as it may be, everyone involved in or who has a stake in the American education system must fight their way to the shore, climb out of the maelstrom, and examine the process from a new perspective. They must be challenged to take a paradigm leap and seek solutions outside the boundaries of conventional wisdom.

For that purpose, I have developed an education model that has been created to serve no purpose other than meet the unique needs of each one of our children. The Hawkins Model© is designed to allow teachers to focus on relationships and to ensure that every student has as much time and attention as they need to learn as much as they are able, at their own best pace. Only in such a learning environment can teachers help children develop their intellectual, physical, and emotional potential and begin discovering their special talents, interests, and aspirations.

The one thing educators dare not do, after fighting their way to the shore, is to dive back into the maelstrom where they will be engulfed in hopelessness; powerless to alter the destiny of our society and our participatory democracy.

Should not our Schools Be Set Up On the Basis of How Children Learn?

One of the principles of Positive Leadership is to challenge people to re-think their underlying assumptions about why we do what we do. Education in America provides a perfect example of a system or education process that demands a complete re-examination.

Think about how children learn to walk or ride a bike. Children learn these things very much the same way they learn almost everything else. We provide lots of encouragement and many opportunities to practice whatever it is they are striving to learn. We understand that some children learn more quickly than others and, when we are teaching them to walk or ride a bike, we do not push them to learn any more quickly than they are able. We know that the only thing that matters is that they do learn.

When children make a mistake while learning to walk or ride a bike, they fall down. When that happens, we pick them up, we comfort them, give them a hug or a kiss, dust them off, and we encourage them to try again. When they finally get it, we celebrate their accomplishment just like we celebrate all victories. Victory is just another word for success.

What we don’t do is tally the number of times they fall, nor do we diminish the degree to which we celebrate their ultimate success based on the number of mistakes they made along the way. We also do not push them ahead before they are ready.

If we are helping two children learn how to ride a bike, simultaneously, and one child catches on more quickly, we do not stop working with the child who is struggling and tell them time is up. Neither do we push the second child to take off in pursuit. We certainly do not start teaching both children more advanced skills, rather, we give each the attention they need appropriate to their progress.

We continue to work with the child who struggles and we do so patiently, providing lots of support and encouragement. Once both children are riding proficiently, we do not remind the latter child that their counterpart learned more quickly, nor do we celebrate the quicker child’s success more lavishly. The reality is that, once both have learned, one rides every bit as good as the other and has just as much fun. Once one masters a skill, it no longer matters, in the least, that one student took longer to learn than another.

Now, think about how we teach children in many of our schools. We present a lesson to the entire class and we encourage them to practice, both at school and at home. We call it homework, not practice. The next day, we gather up all the homework and we review the most common mistakes that students make to help them learn from their mistakes. We, then, require our teachers to do one or more of three things that are incomprehensible when you think about it.

The first is that we do not, routinely, give struggling students whatever extra time they need to understand their mistakes. If they are to acquire a sufficient level of mastery of the subject matter to demonstrate to us that they understand and can use the knowledge or skill, proficiently, they must have time to learn from all their mistakes, even the uncommon ones.

Secondly, teachers will either record the grades of their students’ practice assignments or give or withhold credit for those assignments. They, then, factor a students’ scores/credits into their final grade at the end of the grading period, which often influences their grades at the end of a semester or school year.

The third unfathomable thing teachers are expected to do is require struggling students to move on to the next lesson in a textbook or syllabus, ready or not. It is as if the designers of the education process did not consider that for students to understand many lessons, they must be able to apply what they have learned on previous lessons. Teachers are expected to let their students advance without the prerequisite knowledge and understanding they will need.

The fact that one or more of our students is poorly prepared for the next lesson might trouble us, but the expectation of the education process and entire American educational system is that we move everyone along to make sure we cover, within arbitrary time frames, all of the material identified by the educational standards that drive our curricula and our competency testing process.

It was not always this way. When we first began teaching children, in a classroom setting, the only thing that mattered was whether each child learned as much as they were able at their own best speed. How, along the way from the early days of public schools until now, did we gravitate away from a focus on individual student achievement to an environment where we judge schools and teachers based on whether their classrooms are on an acceptable pace with respect to academic standards?

We also label the students who learned more quickly and successfully as “A”  or “B” students or “honor” students and, we label the slower kids as “C”, “D”, or even “F” students. We may or may not feel some sense of concern that these labels may follow our students well into the future, but that is what is expected of teachers. We ask teachers to shove aside their reticence and plunge ahead.

If we look closely and carefully, we will probably be able to tell that the kids we have labeled as “A” or “B” students seem to be having more fun and demonstrate more enthusiasm for learning than their “C, D, or F” classmates. Certainly they enjoy more success. In fact, it does not take long before it becomes clear that the latter group of children is having no fun at all and are demonstrating a diminished enthusiasm for learning. Oh, well, as the saying goes, “it is what it is!”

We observe this fully understanding that it is as much fun to learn successfully as it is demoralizing to fail repeatedly. How often do we refuse to play a game at which we habitually lose? How can one learn how to be successful without experiencing success?

If we were to examine this practice from a positive leadership perspective, what an educator, school principal, school superintendent, or educational policy maker would do would be to step back and begin to question what we are doing and why. These positive leaders would begin to challenge some of their assumptions.

The truth is that every time we push a child on to a next lesson before they are ready we are setting him or her up for failure. It is this practice, as much as anything else we do, that leads to an unhealthy focus on failure throughout our entire system of education.

If you are reading this post, you are challenged to begin questioning the fundamental assumptions of your leaders and policy makers.

You are also invited to examine an education model in which all these issues have been examined and where the way we have structured teachers and classrooms, and the way we  teach kids, has been re-envisioned. The result is an environment where we give our students the time and attention they need to learn every lesson and we evaluate teachers on how well they focus on that priority. It is amazing how, when we expand our paradigms, the possibilities multiply.

Bad Days and Grumpy Moods – we all have them both Teachers and Students

A friend on Facebook recently posted a meme, published by Miramir.com, quoting author Rebecca Eanes.

“So often, children are punished for being human. They are not allowed to have grumpy moods, bad days, disrespectful tones, or bad attitudes.  Yet, we adults have them all the time. None of us are perfect. We must stop holding our children to a higher standard or perfection than we can attain ourselves.”

-Author, Rebecca Eanes, posted at Miramir.com

It is a terrific message and should be read by all. Having, “grumpy moods, bad days, . . .” is a universal human characteristic. We are all like that, even kids. When kids have that kind of day at school or at home, however, they usually get into trouble. This is especially true in school because the education process demands conformance, obedience, and “respectful tones.” Anything else disrupts the classroom and interferes with the work of teachers and classmates.

Because of the way our education process is structured, we leave no room for our students to do the very things we will likely do when we get home because the behavior of students led to a bad day, left us in a grumpy mood, and feeling short-tempered. Hopefully, at home, our families and friends will back off and give us space to work through the frustration we feel. Good friends and good families are like that. They are people who love us and have no expectation that we be perfect, in fact, they love us with all our “perfect imperfections,” as John Legend’s song describes them. And, at home, we typically have places where we can get away from everyone, even if only for a moment or two.

At school, even for good teachers, it is not so easy. Good teachers care but are not allotted enough time to help students work through the frustrations that flow from dealing, in some instances, with problems at home that we can hardly imagine. There are just too many kids, too much to do, and nowhere near enough time. So, we discipline students and even send them to the office if their frustrations and acting out cause too much disruption. It’s a last resort for teachers but their responsibility extends beyond the individual child, to a classroom full of other students.

The problem isn’t just that we give kids a reprimand, time out, or trip to the office—all of which brand the child as a discipline problem–the most significant consequences that flow from such actions are related to the fact that they lose time. They miss out on lessons that are being taught and practice time that is being given, and opportunities to get in-class assistance from their teacher. Most significantly, they fall ever further behind and this this only exacerbates their situation and fuels the frustration that got them in trouble to begin with.

The combination of their frustrations from the challenges at home, combined with the hopeless feeling of falling further behind, academically, and being viewed as “a problem student” or “bad kid” pile up until a student feels overwhelmed. When kids begin to feel hopeless and powerless to extricate themselves from bad situations, the risk is that they may choose to give up and stop trying.

Think about how you feel when you have had ”meltdown” incidents. For many of us, what we feel is helplessness and hopelessness. When the episode passes, as they always do, they may have created some inconveniences with which we must deal, but we are still able to get back in the game. For our students, in similar circumstances, the game clock is ticking away and there are no timeouts as in an athletic contest, where the whole game pauses to let participants catch their breath.

The academic standards that drive teachers and classrooms function like a conveyor belt. Once a child falls off, it is difficult for them to get back on the belt, even with our help. If they get back on, they can see how much further behind they have fallen, relative to their classmates.

Those academic standards are tied to an external, arbitrary timeline that may be totally out of sync with a child’s unique internal timetable. We all know how difficult it can be to get back in sync with all that is going on in our lives, but for many children, particularly disadvantaged kids, getting back in sync seems next to impossible. Their internal and external timetables are like an event horizon in which the child finds him or herself on the wrong side, with no way to get back on track.

What I have striven to do in the education model I have developed—The  Hawkins Model©—is  to eliminate external timetable so that students are never at a place in time that is out of sync with their unique developmental path. Even when schools must teach to a set of academic standards, these represent an outline of what policy makers have determined all children need to learn. We need to ask ourselves what is most important: that students learn these things, even if it takes some children longer than others, or that we strive to get them all from point to point in perfect cadence?

If we accept the premise that the two most essential variables in education are relationships and learning, what are arbitrary timetables? Are they not a “constant” that regulates relationships and learning? If we eliminate the constant variable of time, relationships and learning become independent variables that are not compromised by extraneous forces? We need an education model—education process—that ensures that such forces do not impede a child’s progress down their unique academic path.

We need a model in which the teacher is able give each student the time he or she needs to learn. Teachers often tell me, “this is not possible, there just isn’t enough time.”

Within the context of the existing education process, they are correct. This does not mean that creating time is impossible, only that the existing process and structure does not provide for it. If we are willing to alter the process and structure, we can design it to produce the outcomes we want based on the unique needs of each of our students. It all depends on how we sort our priorities and whether we are willing to question the validity of our structure and process.

In The  Hawkins Model© giving students time they need to learn and work through their frustrations, bad days, and grumpy moods is more important than keeping all students moving at the same pace down the arbitrary timelines that complicate academic standards. The fact that they may need to be separated from the class so as not to disrupt, need not impede their progress, it just delays things a bit.