The Power of a Made Up Mind

When I was a little kid, I used to listen to the old folks say “ain’t nothing like a made up mind”. I used to wonder exactly what that meant. As of now, I am sure of its meaning. Sometime this summer, I made a decision to start running. In July, I ran here or there, but not as consistently as I wanted to run. When August came, I made up my mind. I started setting fitness goals, a goal for how many miles I wanted to run each week. If there’s one thing I know about myself, it’s that when my mind is made up and I’m focused, there is no stopping me. Needless to say, I’ve ran 34 miles since August 1. Now some might say, I’m over doing it. Others might say you should start slow. They could be right, but unfortunately that’s not how I live my life.

For most of my life, I’ve had to make up my mind to get things accomplished. I think back to the many obstacles my sisters and I faced growing up in Boyd Hill Projects. There I learned the power of a made of mind. I made up my mind to get out, get an education, and make my way. I learned that if you really really want something-in a way that you can feel it on the inside-and you are relentless in your focus and pursuit of your goal, you can accomplish anything.

So I became addicted to having a focus and a work ethic so sturdy and strong that it could not be shaken. I always told myself I may not be the smartest or the fastest, but I know how to work hard. I pride myself on working so hard that there’s nothing left to give and I’ve left it all on the table. I learned to not give up easily no matter what I faced or how challenging something may have seemed.
I believe in mind over matter. This is the lesson I hope to give my students. I want to let them know that there is power in a made up mind. I want to help them learn that everything they need to succeed they already have inside them.

My grandmother used to say if your mind is not made up, you’re in trouble. So wherever you stand, stand firm, stay steady, and keep your mind made up to have a fantastic year. Decide what it is you want for your students. Commit to making it happen by doing whatever it takes. Remove the word but from the equation. Stay away from excuses. As my mother would say-“An excuse is whatever you want it to be!” If you’re on the fence, you’re in trouble. Remember there is power in a mind that’s made up!
Until next time-be you, be true, be a hope builder!

To Take Care of Others, You Must Take Care of You! #fitnessedu

Something totally awesome happened today.
I woke up and had a cup of coffee. Then, I went to the gym and ran three miles. After it was all over, I tweeted this:

 11h11 hours agoThree mile run this morning! Hope I can keep this going when school starts back!

I took a shower shortly there after and got a notification on Twitter that my tweets this weekend regarding my running had inspired someone else. Someone in my PLN had been inspired and tweeted this:

 9h9 hours agoJust ran 3 miles in spite of it all! Inspired to do it by Thanks ladies

It was only a few seconds and someone else tweeted this:

 9h9 hours ago we should start a Twitter edu fitness motivation chat! Lol

And tonight, the #fitnessedu chat was born. A quick voxer chat started by @loriannegreen and our chat was set. Two questions, thirty minutes. Share goals and encourage each other.
  maintaining balance in our lives starts with taking care of ourselves!

Just that quickly, four educators had connected their desire to be fit and share their goals and successes. This is why I love twitter. What a great opportunity for all of us to encourage and motivate each other to be fit. We all know that we must take care of ourselves to take care of others. As we get ready to start the school year, and for those who have already started, on behalf of all of us-@MrsVanderborne, @1AVA3, and @loriannegreen and myself (@latoyadixon5), we invite you to join us in working to take care of yourself this school year. If you missed it, you can catch it here:

Whether novice or experienced, fitness is for everyone….and it feels good too!

Until next time-be you, be true, be a hope builder.

Get Out of the Way! (Of Great Teachers)

One of the biggest errors I see new principals make is that they get in the middle of everything! In their newness, full of energy, excitement, and ideas, they want to be smack dab in the middle of everything! Instead of building a strong, solid, and simple framework for teachers to operate within and focusing on the goals and results, they begin to dabble in the action items and steps to reach those goals. I believe whole heartedly that teachers can usually find their own way with the right support and guidance, but muddying up the details isn’t support and isn’t guidance. It’s micromanagement.

As a leader, I view my role in this way:

1. Clarify the vision. Make it as clear as possible. Focus the expectations. Keep it simple.

2. Repeat the vision often. Keep it simple. If you can’t say it in one sentence it’s probably too much. Support teachers as they work to make the vision a reality. Give them the tools and support needed to meet collective goals. (Don’t tell them what to do. This is where many get it wrong. Ask them what they need from you to meet the goals you’ve collectively set. Focus on their development as people not on monitoring whether or not they’ve done tasks x, y and , z! )

3. Celebrate their accomplishments. Create a sense of urgency for goals not yet met. Repeat steps 1 and 2.

I believe Fullan is one of the greatest writers on the tight-loose-tight leadership model. The focus is on the development of a strong system, not on a plethora of micro details. When the leader develops an effective system (think picture frame) the details take care of themselves. We can move from putting out fire after fire to refining the system-designing an effective mechanism for teaching and learning as our teachers do hard and challenging work.

When we focus our efforts as leaders on the development of a great system, the details take care of themselves. This is why I believe whole heartedly in the Professional Learning Communities model. The premises are incredibly clear and simple although implementation of it as a system of teaching and learning is incredibly hard. It emphasizes the tight loose tight model. Tight-a strong focus on what kids should know and be able to do. Loose- utilize collective inquiry to develop and refine common formative assessments and analyze the data to inform our teaching. Tight- focus on the learning not teaching. Take a close look at the results to determine who learned what we wanted them to learn. Refine.

Great leaders are skilled at clarifying the vision. They make it so clear that teachers feel confident and purposeful in their work as well as empowered. When teachers reach goals they feel the sense of mastery and professional autonomy that human behavior requires to continually grow and learn. Great leaders celebrate the efforts of teachers.

So my challenge to all principals is simply this: Ask yourself, How clear is your vision? How focused are you in your communication to teachers? Are you sending one clear message? Are you working on the frame, the system, or standing smack dab in the middle of the picture?

If you hear crickets when you ask yourself those questions, get out of the way of… great teachers!

Until next time-be you, be true, be a hope builder.

Quality trumps quantity. Always.

As we enter the upcoming school year, I am reminded that how much we do will never matter if we don’t do any of it well. What I know and feel as a leader is that there is no greater task for administrators than to clarify and focus the work of teachers. When teachers are able to articulate the focus of their work in one simple statement, there is a greater potential for us to excel. The quality of our work will be better.

So often in this rewarding, yet challenging field we are tempted to try a little bit of everything. We treat our work like a buffet of great desserts. We can’t just choose one. They are all so good we want to have a taste of it all. We end up with a smorgasbord of great strategies. We go to a workshop or attend a professional development and hear of another great strategy and think-We have to do this! As a result, we end up trying to do it all, but rarely doing anything well except for being able to check boxes on a list to say, ” Yes! We’re doing that!”
Too often educational leaders miss the mark in the art of simplification. When we simplify and focus the complex work teachers are asked to do, we increase the quality of the work. Our effectiveness is a result of quality work. It is not connected to the quantity of strategies we are pushing teachers to execute. Being able to make the complex simple is a skill that is developed over time. It is not easy and requires a great deal of strategic thought. You must plan with an intention to focus. Just like taking a photograph, the initial picture in the frame isn’t focused. It is in the second and third steps, that the picture becomes clearer. It is with the help of lighting and being sure one has the best angle that produces the clearest picture.
So my goal for the year is quite simple. Focus. Clarify the vision. Recognize that every interesting or neat idea doesn’t have to be executed. Forget the checkboxes. Instead of talking about all we are doing, work to be able to say, “Here’s what we are focused on and here’s what we do well.”
Simply put-quality trumps quantity. Instead of asking yourself are we doing this and this and this, ask yourself what are we doing well? If you hear crickets, adjust the light and the lens and…focus!
Until next time-be you, be true. Be a hope builder!

Our Kids Are #semicolonedu Too!

According to, 

“Project Semicolon (The Semicolon Project) is a faith-based non-profit movement dedicated to presenting hope and love to those who are struggling with depression, suicide, addiction and self-injury. Project Semicolon exists to encourage, love and inspire.” You can find more information on their website and/or follow the #semicolonedu hashtag on Twitter to get an idea of what it’s all about.

For far too long, (in my not so humble opinion) schools have ignored the mental health crisis in our schools. While the #semicolonedu hashtag has mostly been about educators sharing their personal struggles with depression and the like, I’ve longed for a conversation that also focuses on what our students are often struggling with as well. When I began my career as a teacher in 1999, I never considered that any of my students might be struggling with mental illness. Aside from the now ever so common ADD/ADHD, it really did not cross my mind. Despite having an aunt who struggled with mental illness for most of my childhood until her death in early January of my freshmen year in college, I did not even think that any of “my kids” might be depressed or suicidial.
Fast forward to 2014, where I now serve as a middle school co-principal in a Title I school and I find myself having weekly conversations with my colleague and co-principal about the high rates of depression among our students. It’s rampant. Guidance counseling has taken on an entirely new dimension. Kids are cutting themselves. They are lonely and depressed. Many are struggling with feeling any sense of self-worth. Our counselors are spending a great deal of time connecting students and their parents to outside mental health agencies for greater assistance. 
This inspires me to push and continue saying we need mental health workers and counselors inside our schools. We can no longer view it as an outside service. The struggles our kids face can’t be measured by any state standardized test, but it certainly impacts their achievement when they don’t get the help they need and deserve. What will it take for mental health to become a structural part of our educational system just like lunch? It is needed as much as our kids need lunch each and every day.
My aunt was an awesome person. She was incredibly funny and by far the best braider in the family. I miss her dearly. I often wonder if there was ever one educator in her life who thought that perhaps there might be some sort of imbalance. In her memory, I realize that I can be a voice to those who need help and don’t know where or who to turn to for help. I can spend time listening to the student who feels hopeless. I can give my attention to the student who is depressed. I can work my hardest to share a little hope with them and try my best to advocate for them in the best way I know how. 
The semicolon project is all of us. Everyone of us knows someone who struggles with anxiety, depression, or the like. Some of us have our own battles with it. We all have the power and responsibility to help the students who we interact with each day as best we can. Our kids are the semicolon project too.
Until next time-be you, be true, be a hope builder!

Teamwork: From Cliche to Reality

Teamwork: From Cliche to Reality
This morning I participated in #leadupchat. It’s a collaborative platform for edu leaders. It happens on Saturday mornings at 9:30 CT. Today was my first chat and it was AWESOME. Literally.
The topic was on building great teams. Building teams is something near and dear to my heart. As a former coach and athlete (basketball-I still have a mean crossover. Ask the kids at my school!), I believe and know the power of teamwork. But I also know that teamwork is hard, heart work. We underestimate how very difficult it is to build great teams.
As much as I’ve tried to filter over the years, there are some things that need to be told in raw form. Let’s just be honest. It is hard to work together. Especially if you are working with a person or group of people you don’t trust, don’t respect, or don’t like. Now, I’m sorry but I have to share this thought. Those folks who say, “I can work with anybody” are just pretending. Perhaps you can pretend to work with them or go along to get along, but real working together is messy, complicated, taxing, and fun and rewarding at the same time. True teams embrace the hard parts because they know the payoff is greater than the moment. As leaders, one thing we have to do when we start encouraging people to work together is acknowledge how difficult it is. Alert them that it will not be easy, but if they can find the courage to agree to work through it all for a cause greater than themselves it will be worth it. This is why I love the concept of PLCs. Real PLCs make it happen. Below, please find my thoughts from this morning’s #leadupchat on building great teams. Each tweet is accompanied by what I like to call a “Latoya translation” (LT), which means here’s the raw truth.
1. Great teams are honest and confront issues head on. As I used to tell staff-Sometimes you have to fall out to get together.
LT: Quit pretending like the issue isn’t there. Instead of ignoring the elephant in the room, eat him first-one bite at a time. Oh, and be nice about it.
2. Great teams learn from other great teams. They look for great models of collaboration!
LT: The will of one might be inspirational but why try doing the same work four different ways instead of multiplying the strategy’s effect by putting forth a focused effort. One person can’t do two people’s work-no matter how smart you are…or you think you are (just saying-to myself also)
3. Great teams get this: The power of WE is greater than the power of me!
LT: It’s not about you!
4. Great teams use an ALL IN mentality. Call out team members when they lose focus. Understand the power of togetherness is > I.
LT: There is no 50% model of teamwork. It’s all the way or no way. Go hard and all in or go home!
5. Great teams are relentless in pursuit of their goals. They don’t let up and instead of thinking we can’t they think why can’t we?
LT: Quit trying to anticipate the obstacles. Instead think about how you can prove all the negative naysayers wrong. Find a way to say yes!
6. Resilient teams use falling short as a catalyst. They view their shortcoming as a trampoline instead of a ditch! #Getup!
LT: No matter what happens, when a team knows and has a purpose, lying down is not an option. Stop looking for a miracle of hero. Remember-the hero lies in you! Be your own hero!
7. Great teams understand that relationship building takes deep work. They give the lingo more real time and less air time.
LT: Get to know those you don’t understand and who aren’t a carbon copy of you. You’ll be better for it. We often fear what we don’t understand and my mother always told me do not allow fear to stop you from doing anything! That includes the fear of learning something about yourself that you might need to work on! (Side note: I’m working on being less opinionated. I’m not sure this blog is helping. Funny, but true.)
8. Great teams aren’t afraid to disagree. They value the process as much as the product. Great teams see conflict as an opportunity to mine for the best solution and not as disharmony. Conflict breeds solutions!
LT: A disagreement is the beginning of progress. Don’t be discouraged by it! And if there are no disagreements on your team ring the alarm! The folks who agree all the time win Oscars and Golden Globes (hint hint)!
9. Great teams appreciate diversity of thought. They are able to consider ideas that they may initially not agree with as well.
LT: everybody doesn’t and shouldn’t think like you. We are products of our experiences. Challenge yourself to not just hear an idea but to LISTEN to it and consider it. This takes lots of practice. (Hard to believe I know, but I am still working on this)
10. On a great team, personal emotions run low & team emotions run high. All team members  understand they are working for a cause greater than self.
LT: Get control of your emotions. The work may require a personal investment but don’t take things personally. Don’t internalize everything that isn’t aligned with your thinking as an attack on your skills. See number 3.
11. Great teams understand the impact of professional jealousy and egos. They have honest and open conversation in order to do the real work.
LT: Now nobody wants to admit this but it’s a real issue in any organization. Understand that the success of someone else isn’t a deduction from your worth to the organization. Understand that when your personal pride becomes the center piece of your work, your humility will be on display shortly for all to see if you don’t swallow it.
That’s all for today and as my Grandmother would say, I think that’s a plenty!
Until next time-be you, be true, be a hope builder!

Change Starts In The Heart (and other wisdom according to Latoya)

A tweet from me yesterday:
The heart always changes before the mind. –@latoyadixon5

I could be wrong about this (I don’t think I am) and if I am, then…oh well. This post is for all, but I’m hoping principals are reading.

Change is hard. I’m always baffled by people who proclaim, ” I love change”. Maybe they do but…I don’t believe it. What I believe is that they have conditioned themselves to accept change. Some are even able to embrace it from years of experience. In case you haven’t figured it out, change is inevitable. It happens and it happens all the time. Nothing stays the same-especially in education.
I mean who remembers Oregon Trail? I do. However, you won’t hear me saying the only experience with technology I had in school was with Oregon Trail and I turned out fine (I’m still a work in progress). I’ve heard that song from so many before but what I really hear them saying is I don’t want to change.  Don’t make me learn something else! Dealing with change isn’t an issue of mind over matter. It’s an issue of heart over matter.
One thing I know for sure about change is that real change happens in the heart and then, the mind follows. Nothing is more powerful than a change of heart. So my challenge to all of us (myself included) is that when we find ourselves resisting change or afraid of it or hesitant to accept it, let’s search our hearts for the reason why, not your head. After all, you and I both know that our minds can play tricks on us, but our hearts cannot be fooled.
Until next time-be you, be true, be a hope builder!