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!

New Beginnings, Perseverance, and a Blog Reborn


    As I write this blog post, I do it as a newly appointed elementary principal. I couldn’t be more excited about this transition and the opportunities for learning new things, building relationships with new people, and growing as a leader, educator, and person.

    In reflecting on the last few months, and trying to make sense of the millions of thoughts and questions I have, I can’t help but come back to the idea that you never really know where circumstances and situations may take you. I’m not going to lie, I interviewed a lot this spring. Multiple positions, multiple rounds, as many different formats as you can imagine, and it was a grueling rollercoaster of emotions in the Sellenheim household. I was living what Randy Pausch writes, “Experience is what you get when you didn’t get what you wanted.” However, the gamut of interviews was also a time of great growth for me on a number of levels, and I feel like I have come out the other side understanding more about my ability to persevere and focus.

    There is one particular moment that stands out to me in this season of job search. At the conclusion of a dinner interview (which I thought went very well), we were walking to our cars to go home and an interview committee member told me they appreciated how genuine I was, that they really enjoyed getting to know me, and that I gave the interview committee a lot to think about. Now, at this point, I was thinking, “well that sounds like a ‘thanks, but no thanks’ if I’ve ever heard one,” but as my wife pointed out, “That’s a really nice thing for them to say, and it’s true. You are genuine.

    Now, unfortunately I might have been right about their comments because I didn’t get that job, but my wife’s better way of thinking helped me see that oftentimes you have to understand and accept that as long as you are doing your best, you don’t have to apologize or feel bad for being who you are (even if being rejected by, say, an interview committee). Take compliments when they come to you, and also realize that eventually the right opportunity (something even bigger and better) is going to come along.  From our failures we learn and will find success.

    The idea of genuineness or authenticity also leads me to a few other reflections on the past few months.

  1. Authenticity has always resonated with me. I don’t appreciate people who fake being nice. I am a firm believer in being true to who you are, authentic in what you do, and I genuinely care about the well-being and growth of those around me (my staff and students). I value relationships, and it has always been my desire to be a building principal so that I can help teachers help kids.

2. Authentic learning is a bit of a buzz word, and ever since my graduate studies, Authentic Intellectual Work (AIW) has shaped my philosophy of education. I truly believe staff and students should be engaged in learning that allows them to construct knowledge, engage in disciplined inquiry (critical questions), and see the value of their learning beyond a classroom.

3. Sometimes the most authentic thing you can observe in a person is how they respond in adverse situations. As previously stated, I learned a lot about myself through the interview processes and am proud of my ability to persevere, focus, and take the next leap forward professionally. Bless my wife again when she said, “If nothing else, you lasted the longest,and wore everyone else down so they’d hire you.”

    So here is where I end this post: The explanation of the blog’s new title and focus. To quote George Couros, “I am blogging to learn, not to share learning. There is a difference.  Part of the reasoning why I do this is to see my own evolution of thought over time.”  Personally, I, Joe Sellenheim, am at a time where each day will contain a “first” and experiences of something new. I am excited to use this blog as a way to view my growth throughout my first year as a principal (and the subsequent years hereafter). I am, and will continue to be, genuine, or AUTHENTIC, in what I say, what I do, and what I write because that is who I am.

From this point forward, I can call proudly myself, a Principal of Authenticity – which is something that I have wanted (being a principal that is) to do for a very, very long time.


Oh, take me back to the start…

As administrators, we all started somewhere.

While I searched (endlessly!) for my first administrative position, I discussed what it would take to make that leap from band teacher to administrator with my superintendent. He understood my frustration with the fruitless efforts of applying and interviewing and told me something truly great. He said, “When you make that leap, and it will happen, remember that when things are tough, or you wonder why you decided to make this career choice, how you felt when they offered you the job.”

And I do! I remember driving in my car the day after the final round of interviews thinking I had struck out again because it was taking so long for them to call (it was 9:00AM). My phone rang (oh brother, hear we go again)! I answered and I heard the words “we’d like you to be our next Director of Student Services.” Though I remained conscious for the rest of the conversation, I only being told I could take time discuss it with my family. After hanging up, I fumbled to dial my wife (1 touch speed dial) and vividly remember being overcome with tears of joy as my wife said to me, “You did it, [Joe], you did it!” (She used her pet name for me).

This moment, though, comes well before what we face in out job every day: Reality.

  • It comes before the reality that if you don’t like something, you can’t just fix it in a day because you don’t just have a classroom. Change now requires a lather of shared vision, patience, relationship building, data collection, and carefully crafted professional development. (Rinse and repeat…rinse and repeat…has it changed yet?)
  • It comes before the reality that you have to document and organize dozens of observational artifacts and complete a written narrative at 9:00PM in bed before you can do what you love (and in my opinion matters) the most: the coaching conversation with the teacher who is on the cusp of going from good to great. (aMAZing!)
  • It comes before the reality that you will receive phone calls from an upset parent wondering why you haven’t done anything stop their child’s classmate from tormenting them every day for the past two weeks. Keep in mind, you knew nothing about this until right now (Have they informed to the teacher yet?…No.).
  • It comes before the reality that you want to bang your head against the wall because no matter what you do or say to students about bus behavior (PBIS is legit!), students can’t still seem to sit and stay in their seat, talk quietly, keep hands to themselves, and eat the food when they get OFF the bus. (It sounds simple to me!)

Sure, the reality of school leadership can be harsh, but what was described above is just a day in the life of someone with a job they love. I maintain a  good sense of humor, I am a bit of an eternal optimist, and, maybe, just maybe, I am a bit of a glutton for punishment.

It is a privilege to lead teachers and impact students each day, and their successes are  motivating and inspiring. That being said, after a super tough day when success. motivation, and inspiration may be scarce, I push my own reset button and remember how I felt when I was offered this job. It helps me visualize that greater success with staff, bigger smiles from students, and deeper appreciation from families will surely come.

Coldplay: The Scientist

Nobody said it was easy,
No one ever said it would be this hard.

Oh, take me back to the start.