When practices don’t yield desired outcomes.

I have always actively sought out opportunities to grow professionally. Though I may come across as a PD junkie, I’m intentional about everything I do. I want to learn from the best, implement the best, and ultimately become one of the best at what I do. Part of that strife has included reading books and articles, attending workshops and conferences, and engaging in Twitter chats, Voxer chats, and Google Communities. I network face to face and on the phone with colleagues, and as a result, have no shortage of information at my disposal. I also believe I have a pretty good lens to filter it with to ensure my growth priorities are laser-focused.

Completing my first year as a principal, this was a challenge because I had to figure out what my niche would be in my building and how I could, would, and should serve my students, staff, and families. I am reflecting constantly, and truly enjoy discussing ways to do things better, streamline, and work smarter (which is a really nice way of saying, “How can I get the best results out of the least amount of work?”). At times, it feels like asking questions is a hobby. A framework for that clear instructional vision was laid, and facilitating discussion about the system of delivery digging into what we consider to be best practices for our students (high leverage, “Visible Learning” strategies a la Hattie, Fisher, and Frey) has been a focal point for year 1. So what then do you do, in these infant stages of the journey, when the work so far doesn’t yield the intended outcomes you hoped for?

Do you get mired down and take a defeat? (Not me)
Do you abandon ship and reverse course perhaps teaching to a test? (Patience is tough)
Do you blame the measures from which those outcomes come? (That’s an easy out)
Do you prepare for what lies ahead and know that where you are now is not where you have to stay? (Look forward! That’s the spirit)

The preparation and forward thinking is what continuous improvement is all about. I think about the expression that “nothing great ever came easy,” and Jackie Joyner-Kersee’s words, “It is better to look ahead and prepare, than to look back and regret.” look aheadWe cannot change what has been done, regardless of the result. Just like winners only celebrate so long before they move on, when we experience any level of defeat, we regroup and prepare for what is next.

It is using those multiple sources of data, not as a be all end all but, as an opportunity to engage in a cycles of inquiry that allow reflection on practice in order to develop our capacity as leaders, learners, and teachers. Asking “why?” “how come?” and “what if?” is crucial to deepening our understanding of the past outcomes so to map out and prepare for what needs to come next. We should learn and grow just like we expect our students to do so. Even through summer. Now is the time rest and recharge, but it is also time to acquire knowledge, hone skills, and prepare for the school year ahead.



Recognizing the masks we wear

Last week, I had the opportunity to have lunch with some of my teachers. Although we were celebrating the winner of our March Madness Tournament of Greatness restaurant bracket, it was the first day of their summer break. I felt honored that those who chose to come would spend time socializing with their principal. After all the expression is, “It’s lonely at the top.”  Granted,  I have built strong relationships with my staff, as well as students and families, but I’ve been in my building still less than a year, and there is a lot to learn when you get to know someone or, in this case, many someones. So it isn’t surprising, despite the many positive interactions and teaming throughout the year there is still a certain level of “guardedness” that I choose (consciously or not) to employ.

This is not to say that I hold back who I am with others , but I think in being a new leader and coincidentally younger than many of my staff members and colleagues, there is a certain level of self-preservation I try to maintain. I am very honest, I am calculated with what I choose to share and with whom I share it. This blog is probably the most revealing I’ve ever been in a public forum, but I am a believer in personal privacy, and if you scrolled through my personal Twitter timeline, you would be hard pressed to find posts related to my personal life and family. One of those few examples reveals a little of my sense of humor. It is tweet I couldn’t resist sharing from the night my wife and I went to a show at the Riverside Theater and I volunteered to go on stage with Miranda Sings. As luck would have it former board member and their daughter (former student) were also at the show and Tweeted to me. Completely innocent, no foul, just fun.

All that said, relationships and transparency are an important pillar to what I believe it means to be a principal and how I choose to lead. The lunch conversations with those teachers were fantastic – superficial, but meaningful and beneficial. We shared about families, summer plans, odds and ends school-related items (I didn’t bring them up), and professional sports (i.e. World Cup, the length of MLB and NBA seasons, and upcoming NFL season including the implications of the pass heavy offenses and their impact on what a running back means to a fantasy football team).

While discussing the summer plans, one exchange sticks out. I cannot recall what got us to this point in the conversation, but one of my teachers mentioned my constant high level of energy and ability to manage a variety of tasks at once. In response to the high energy level, I replied without hesitation, “We all wear our masks, we all wear our masks.”

That comment, which was tongue and cheek and resulted in hearty laughter all around, was the end of our conversation topic, and now I wish it hadn’t been because it resonates truthfulness on a number of levels.

First, I made that “masks” comment because I wanted express that I am human and there are times when I am incredibly tired. I think it is important for others to know that. I do choose to have private moments when I spout negativity and let frustration get the better of me, and I am not that unashamed of that because it is done in the right place and the right time. Self-control is the key there, and after the moment is over, I focus on solutions and positive outcomes..

Second, the comment itself implies that in “manufacturing” the appearance of high energy all the time, even if with an undetectable artificiality, we hide certain elements of who we are – for better or worse. Modeling positivity as a leader is important, but with my tongue-and-cheek response, I could have taken a real opportunity to share part of what drives me as an educator and leader. The truth is, I like the struggle, I revel in the challenges, and when someone tells me “no,” or “you can’t do that,” I innately want to find a way around that push back to prove them wrong. That tenacity is what I believe kids deserve from me as their principal, every single one of their teachers, and the community of family that surrounds them.

In the end, It was a great lunch and the purpose was socialization, but again, a great opportunity missed on making an even deeper connection into who their leader is, what he stands for, and that vision of the school they come to work at every day.

Though we live in an age of over-sharing on social media and self preservation is encouraged in many places, it is time we recognize the masks we wear, and reveal ourselves beyond the superficial level. Believe it or not, showing vulnerability in times of leadership can be an incredible opportunity to demonstrate strength and inspire others.



What’s measures define your success?


I just completed my first year as an elementary principal, and it was truly a great year for me and my school. I built strong relationships with students, staff, and families, helped re-establish a parent teacher organization that is poised to make greater gains this fall, and laid groundwork toward strengthening community partnerships. Student attendance is on the rise while habitual truancies decreased, and for the third year in a row, my school was name a Title I School of Recognition by Wisconsin’s DPI for “Beating the Odds” (closing achievement gaps and performing among the top 25% of similar schools in the state). I can also say I have earned a high level of respect and credibility with other leaders in my district through our interactions this year.

Given these great things, it was also far from a perfect year. I experienced a lot of discipline incidents in my building and found I spent (what felt like) a lot of my time tending to them. I know in certain classrooms there were a few students who consistently managed to take the wind out of the classroom learning community’s sails. I also question whether or not I was assertive enough in how I approached moving our school toward our shared vision for teaching and learning – that though is something that takes multiple years any way. This is also the first blog post I’ve put out in a few months meaning so much for a documented digital portfolio of progress and learning throughout year 1.

So these are the thoughts in my mind right now, and given the those previous two paragraphs take on two complete different tones, herein lies my inner struggle now that I am no longer a “rookie” principal: What was my own measurement of success?

I realized early this spring that the biggest mistake I made this year was not setting any personal goals for myself as a leader. I didn’t really have anything specific to measure myself by. Can I call the year a success? Yes, there were many successes. Was this year a failure? I’m guessing not, but like most things, success and failure fall on a spectrum of gray, and unless we bring out the color (or at least delineate a black and white), what evidence of growth can a leader find satisfaction with? Never before have I understood the importance of setting goals and developing an action plan. I did it with my staff and for our school, but I wasn’t intentional enough on a personal level.

Knowing it is important to avoid making same “mistake” twice, I have already set goals for year two, and can confidently say those three objectives will inform and guide my focus areas for growth.

  • Ensure I am dictating my calendar as much as possible – as opposed to letting it dictate me. Sure, I knew what my priorities in the building are (many centered around students), but I didn’t understand what needed to be dropped immediately and what could wait, or where I needed to be at any one time, and how I could best serve my school holding the title of principal.
  • Continue building and shaping a school culture of excellence with decisions guided by the eyes of students and staff. I plan to spend this summer defining what excellence is for me ensuring I communicate that in everything I do, say, and hold others accountable for.
  • Finally, increase my capacity for instructional leadership – specifically, when it comes to setting expectations for student learning and behavior. This must be clearly reflected in what I (we) do. Using language defined in the WI Framework for principals, this means to “lead and regularly monitor a coherent standards-based curricular and instructional program to deliver rigorous academic content to all students.” Coherence, rigor, all students. Love it.

They are lofty, yet attainable, goals, and though I have yet to truly determine what that measure of progress tool will be, I am very excited that a plan for how to prepare myself for an action plan is already in place. Summer is about a recharge, and big part of that for me is professional learning (sharpen the iron).  Attending a Learning FIRST Institute, the National Principal’s Conference, and participating in AWSA’s pilot of the Building Effective Leadership (BEL) Academy are all on the docket. The last of these, BEL Acedemy, extends into the school year which gives it more relevance.  I also look forward to facilitating a summer book chat on Jimmy Casas’ Culturize, with some fellow elementary principals.

Every experience we have helps us more clearly develop a yearlong plan for setting a measure of success. I also know that looking forward I have to seek opportunities to develop distributed leadership in my building so that what our school is building together maintains its sustainability. That said, I already know that taking advantage of others’ strengths engages and empowers staff, and as they are entrusted tasks providing high quality formal and informal feedback along the way will allow my building leaders to find success. In short, all that’s left to say is…time for me to get to work.

What’s going to define your success?


It’s no accident you’re here


Last week, I had a conversation with one of my students. He has been struggling with managing some anger and finding the motivation to produce and learn at school, and he recurring theme is that he wants to go home. The interesting thing is, when I ask him what he wants to do at home, his reply is “nothing.” In the course of our conversation, I shared with him the secret to how he could find success and be happier, and when I did I swear I saw his face brighten and a light go on in his eyes.

I told him that I wasn’t the principal of our school because I was some kind of super genius or because I had special talents. I admitted that I was good at thinking about things in different ways, but really it came down to that I worked my [tail] off to have do what I do.

Conveniently, I was standing in front of my framed Bachelor’s and Master’s Degree diploma’s, and below is how I went on (parentheses are thoughts I had after, but didn’t share with him)

I went to school for 18.5 years to get these two stupid pieces of paper that say I can be a principal. They are stupid, but they are important and mean something. They mean I worked hard and it took me a long time to get them. I completed:

  • 13 years of elementary, middle, and high school (didn’t have a lot of friends, wasn’t the smartest or the coolest, but I learned and “played the game to get the grade” at times).
  • 4 years of College (averaging 22 credits to earn a B.A. in Music with triple emphasis to be certified to teach in any K-12 music room while working a part time job, volunteering as a church youth group leader, and wooing the love of my life).
  • 2.5 years of a Master’s degree (where I completed courses over the summer while on vacation, and for a semester, drove an hour and 15 minutes one way two nights a week to get to classes that weren’t being offered again for a year and half)

Then, on top of earning those papers, I taught music for 12 years (where I’d show up at 6:30AM for a zero hour course and for months at a time come home after 9:00PM because of a music rehearsal, pep band, or concert) and took on a variety of extra responsibilities that would help me understand how to lead a school. School doesn’t get you everything; you need experiences too. 

I had a goal – to be a principal – and I worked hard to get there. That’s it. I had a plan and I worked hard, and you can work hard and have the potential to do what makes you happy so you can make a great life for yourself. The best part is, you can start today!

I share these things (including those parentheses), not to brag – because everyone has their own stories of how they worked hard and many are more impressive than mine – but because as I was explaining it at the time and thought about it later, I was proud of what I had done and proud of the fact that I had walked my talk.

The rest of the day went really well for that student, but in all honestly, it’s been up and down since as we are still trying to figure out what his passion is help him experience the joy of hard work paying off. My hope is that he, and the many other students, like him understand that you don’t need special genius powers or insane talents to get what you want.

Let’s be real, it’s important that students know successful people work hard and we have to tell them because they don’t see it.

They don’t know that famous athletes spend hours in the gym conditioning, practicing, and perfecting form.

They don’t know that Youtube stars market themselves like crazy, spend time editing videos and brainstorming ideas to maintain people’s interest.

And they certainly don’t know that their teachers and principals show up early, stay late, work from home on weekends, or give up their only free time during the day to help students at lunch.

No one needs a pat on the back for these things, but they matter and they make a difference.

A Prologue for an epilogue

Two closing ideas

First, take it back about a month, I started reading Angela Duckworth’s Grit, and my wife said to me, “Why are you reading that? You don’t need to read that book. You have plenty of grit.” I asked her what she meant, and she replied, “I watched you apply for principal jobs for 5 years, interview, and come up short so many times. A lot of people would have quit, but you didn’t. You did it. You are a principal now, and if nothing else, you wore everyone else down and lasted the longest to get where you are.”

Although I explained I was reading it to gain a deeper understanding of how to apply it to school leadership and my students, she was right. I’m living the dream and landed in a school with a staff, students, and family community that couldn’t have been a better fit.

Second The icing on the cake was that when I took this job, I was told by my supervisor:

“You may be young and people will question some of the decisions you make, but always remember, you were hired because you were the best person for the job. You earned it.”

If you read this blog post, let those words be icing for you too. You were hired as the best person for the job you have. You earned it.

Inspire, Lead, & Live with Brio

Celebrate life

One of the best lessons I’ve learned in my career is that when you offer students advice, it is likely they won’t identify with the “when you are older” scenarios because the scope of that thinking just isn’t in their cognitive wheelhouse yet. It makes sense, because I certainly recall thinking about how awesome it would be to turn 16, 18, 21, and even 30 for the various privileges that come with those ages, but I never gave much thought to the responsibilities that accompany those privileges.

That being said, now that I have passed all of those age markers, it occurred to me that the older I get, the more I appreciate some of things the adults in my life shared with me during my youth. They make sense and matter more now when maybe I didn’t care or understand then. Lately, two such moments keep coming to mind, and, not coincidentally, they were shared by two of the educators who are responsible for my existence in the profession today.

The first of these was in Drawing and Painting III of my junior year. My teacher, Mr. Foster, began sharing about the Italian word, and the concept of, Brio which translates to mean “mettle, fire, or life.” The English definition also brings up “vigor or vivacity,” and one can even find it to mean “full of life.” The concept applies to visual art and, likely, whatever historical connection we were focused on at the time, but it was the passion (mettle, fire) and way in which Mr. Foster shared about brio that resonated with me…

…My senior year of high school, we were commissioning a piece of music for a local composer, and our choir director, Mr. Carpenter, posed a question to the A Capella choir one morning to kick off rehearsal. He simply stated, “How do you celebrate life?” and sat there waiting in silence. You can imagine the conversation unfolding with a group of teenage musicians, who were actually accustomed to these existential questions by this point in the year, and what was most striking was not just the way he initially posed the question, but how he then affirmed what was said with joy, excitement, and intensity that led you to believe whatever you said was the most important and profound thing known to mankind. It also strikes me because, for whatever reason, Mr. Carpenter always called me by my first and last name together which I will never forget because it was in this conversation that he said (after my response), “Joe Sellenheim, you should become a music teacher!”

The significance of these memories for me now is that I realize the educators who facilitated those discussions personified the content they were sharing about. They knew how to live and show their students (others) what it meant to “celebrate life,” and they practiced their craft with brio and gusto (another “Foster-ism!”). They always sought out the positive, made people believe things could and should be done with excellence, and showed how any endeavor we take on is bigger than the product itself – be it musical, artistic, or otherwise.

Those experiences, now 16-17 years ago, began shaping me into the leader and person I am now. Entering the second half of my first year in a principalship, I strive more than ever to live each day with vigor, perseverance, fiery passion, and as a celebration of life. I take advantage of every opportunity to glean the positive, seek out greatness, and attack problems with an optimistic, solutions-driven mindset. Most times this comes naturally, sometimes is needs to be a conscious choice, but I know that as I think, speak, and act with brio, it becomes contagious. My hope is that in the interactions I have with the students, staff, and families I am entrusted to lead and learn with cultivates the amazing things we want for our school and lives of the kids who attend it.

I close with these words, written by Osho in “Creativity: Unleashing the Forces within”

Be the celebrators, celebrate! Already there is too much—the flowers have bloomed, the birds are singing, the sun is there in the sky—celebrate it! You are breathing and you are alive and you have consciousness, celebrate it!

May this discussion and mindset never fade…ask others how they celebrate their life, their work, and the relationships they build each day.

Every moment matters.

Vivo con brio!


Be Bold. Drop That Mic.


As an educator who now holds the title of principal, all I’ve ever wanted was to make a difference in the lives of kids and have an impact on my organization. I consider myself a humble person and I’ve grappled with the notion that you must have a certain level of “ego” in order to assume a position of leadership (power). I am starting to see that it really is possible to live in both the world of humility and that of ego as it was pointed out to me recently by a mentor that what I was deeming the potential to be drive by selfish ambition was really just my innate desire to be a servant leader. (Thanks JL)

So it is without hesitation (after two weeks of hesitating) to write the following.

Recently, I was at a a district meeting  to hear about the findings and recommendations of an independent research group who had conducted an audit of our K-5 math curriculum. The findings were unsurprising: inconsistency in implementation and minority groups achieving at a lower rate than those of the majority. The recommendations weren’t anything out of the ordinary either: essentially adopt a curriculum that addresses the perceived areas of weakness and provide appropriate, ongoing professional development for successful implementation.

During the session, I appreciated that we were given time to talk about these findings and recommendations in small groups and then provide feedback at the end. While I discussed the recommendations with my instructional coach, I mentioned that we also needed a universal (district-wide that is) system of accountability to ensure implementation fidelity for if that isn’t in place, all the curriculum adoption and professional learning in the world will only get us right back where we started. Surely this was something others would notice as well.

The time came for the discussion to return to the whole group (that group consisted of principals and instructional coaches from 20+ elementary schools and most district office staff members) and we were asked to give our feedback. The presenters even asked for brutally honest information and that feelings wouldn’t be hurt. It was silent, I turned to my coach and asked, should I share what we talked about, and she replied, “Yeah.”

So in what felt like (for me) a surreal, intense moment (almost like being in a movie), I raised my hand, was called on and said, “I appreciated the focus on curriculum review and professional learning for teachers, but I noticed that absent from that list was a recommendation for a universal system of accountability to ensure implementation fidelity.” I then hear from various areas of the room sounds of agreement and observed nodding of heads. Mic Drop. I was thanked for the feedback, the discussion wrapped up, and the meeting drew to a close.

Afterward, I had several people tell me that what I said was spot on and it was something they talked about as well. Although that was an incredibly validating moment for me that I am truthfully quite proud of (it’s the little things), I felt like it was part of what we as educators and leaders need to do:

Speak about what matters and say what needs to be said. If everyone sits around thinking, “someone will say something, so I don’t need to” there runs a pretty good risk that it won’t get said and we can deprive ourselves, our organization, and worse, our students an opportunity to make progress or growth.

We need to start dictating the rhetoric about education and share the amazing things our teachers and students do each day in places where it needs to be heard. We must share our story, we need to advocate for programs, we need to have vision for what we believe are sound, researched practices that are going to meet the needs of the population we serve, and we need to develop a plan of action and hold ourselves accountable to it each and every day.

I vow to continue to be bold, say what needs to be said, not lose opportunities to grow or attain greatness. For it is my dream to make an impact and to serve others wholeheartedly, and I’m going to live it.

Let’s drop the mic!

Imagine a school full of kitchens

Untitled drawing

I love having people over to my house. My motto with any get-together is: the more the merrier. In fact, Thanksgiving is now my favorite holiday simply because it is the holiday our family gets to host. My house is wonderful, nothing fancy nor overly big, and when you put 25+ people in the main living area, which includes our kitchen, it’s definitely cozy. I’m usually concerned about having enough food (though it never fails that there is usually enough for a second party) and the clean up is obnoxious (especially when scrubbing multiple NESCO roasters), but the conversation, laughter, and vibrancy of the atmosphere…well, it just doesn’t get any better! When it comes to gatherings, people generally come for the food, the kitchen is where the food is prepared, and, subsequently, where the magic lies.

A few weeks ago, I hosted a meet ‘n’ greet in the office for my staff because I am new to the building, and I wanted everyone to have an opportunity to meet me in person before we begin working together. I picked up coffee, juice, breakfast pastries*, and some fruit. I brought a folding table into the office, complete with school-colored plastic table cloths, to display the smorgasbord. There’s a counter that spans across the entire main office, that actually resembles a kitchen island. The area outside of that counter is probably about as big as a large modern kitchen (watch HGTV or This Old House and you’ll know what I mean), so when 2/3 to 3/4 of the staff showed up, there was an awesome buzz in the air, the room was loud, filled with laughter, and absolutely alive.

The variety of conversation was all over the board: sharing about summer trips, to-do lists for spouses or kids, and of course, when talking to me, the standard tell me about yourself small talk (which I am good at and know is necessary, but hate). The atmosphere, though entirely professional, felt more like a home than a workplace, and I realized that is what I want every day at school to feel like for every staff member and student. So as I think about the experiences I have had in my kitchen at home and that atmosphere of the summer meet and greet, I propose that classrooms and schools become a kitchen for learning using these guidelines:

  • Plan for the right amount of food (content) for the guests (students). Time guidelines for kids attention spans with direct instruction generally don’t go higher than 12-15 minutes at a time (for high school seniors)!
  • When prepping and executing the plans, use the right utensil for the right job. You can’t cut a steak with a drawer full of spoons nor can you engage kids with cookie-cutter instruction and packets of worksheets.
  • Make sure relationships are built so guests (teachers and students) don’t just feel like they belong to a community, but KNOW they are the community.
  • If guests are learning, don’t mind the noise or the mess. Time is a premium and if the room is in a groove, just go with it. Plus, you can clean things up later and someone stays behind to help.
  • Make learning exciting, fun, and full of stories that are not just entertaining, but contain lessons that impact students lives. This is where the authenticity is.
  • Along those lines, make sure there is content and experiences that have meaning and can be connected to outside the classroom. Application is key – again making learning authentic.
  • Like tasting a good dessert, everyone should leave wanting more, and salivating at the thought of what can be eaten (learned) next for “the unfed mind devours itself” (Gore Vidal).

Part of why I went into the education was because I was inspired by my high school choir director, Greg Carpenter, and the way he was able to create community, loyalty, and draw out meaning from the music for his students. One day, while discussing the meaning of a song, he posed the question, “How do you celebrate life?” The meaning behind this question (and the song) was pseudo carpe diem (Oh Captain, my captain!), and the notion of appreciating every moment we have together.  After 16 years, I still think about that question and now often ask myself: How can we celebrate school? Celebrate the work we do with kids? Celebrate the opportunities we have to connect and collaborate with the educators we see every day or on social media? How can celebrate each day in our classrooms and school like a we would in a warm, inviting kitchen surrounded by others?

*For the record I bought 4 dozen donuts and after 3 hours and 25+ people, had 33 left. Enough for another party!