Thinking Outside and Inside the Box

Thinking Outside and Inside the Box

This past December I went to the Michigan Elementary and Middle School Principals Association (MEMSPA) state conference. There, I was so inspired to begin thinking outside of the standard educational box. It was so refreshing and so invigorating given the data-driven world that education seems to be.

After the conference, I began to connect with people I met there and others, and to write and reflect. As a result of the learning at the conference, Twitter learning, blogging, reading George Corous’ Innovator’s Mindset, being in a Leverage Leadership (by Paul Bambrick-Santoyo) professional learning group, and using Marzano’s iObservation, I feel so excited about the possibilities to come for elementary education. I also feel overwhelmed at times and inadequate because we are just skimming the surface of those possibilities.

The biggest change that has happened as a result of this learning is within the conversations we are having as a staff. The professionals in our elementary school feel that our direction is a little off…that data is so important for student learning…but that it is not the ONLY thing that is important. We want students who are disappointed about a snow day, we want to challenge their thinking and empower them, we want to have fun and build relationships. Our conversations over the past few months have given us permission to dream again in that direction, and it breaths new life in us.

We are working to marry the two concepts and create a new “one” way of thinking…how can we empower students, have them love school, have teachers love school, and support their achievement so they can perform outstandingly on ANY assessment we put in front of them? How can we allow time for creativity and fun while making sure they learn the curriculum in a deep and meaningful way?

We don’t have the specific answers to those questions quite yet, but we do know that they live inside of the collective whole of us, and we just need to ask the right questions and have time for the collaboration. My job as a leader is to make time for the conversations, to listen and HEAR, to remove roadblocks, to be a positive source of energy, and to continue to model the vulnerability that is real and lives inside all of us. I also love them, love our students, and love our parents, which is a key catalyst to continuous improvement.

When I think back to a few months ago and reflect on all the learning squeezed into that little time, I can hardly believe it. It is a true testament to the power of being connected and being open, taking baby steps, and letting the heart of collaboration truly live in the collaboration.

Let us know…how do you think outside the box within the box? Let’s collaborate on Twitter: @allysonapsey

5 Steps to Follow When Dumbfounded

5 Steps to Follow When Dumbfounded

I imagine most people want what I want…to feel important, like I belong, to have some freedom, to have fun, and to have my basic needs met. In Choice Theory terms, these needs are called power, love and belonging, freedom, fun, and survival. We all want these few, simple things. Yet, they are not so simple. Not simple at all–wars have been fought over these five needs.

I have been confronted with some pretty ridiculous things in my life…bet you have too. Those things that leave you confounded and temporarily speechless. If you know me, you know that my speechlessness last for just microseconds. I have a recipe I follow when I am listening to others, and I follow it closely when I am dumbfounded.

  1. What is this person really saying?
  2. What does this person really want?
  3. What positives am I hearing?
  4. Communicate understanding
  5. Make a plan to move forward

What is the person really saying? Often the person is telling me about how they have been wronged in some way, and if I really listen, I will hear what they are saying.

I feel like I do not belong.     

I feel like a bad parent.     

I don’t know what to do next.

What does the person really want? Once I hear the message, I can ask some questions to figure out what the person really wants, and it is most often power. People get upset when they feel out of whack–what they want is not matching up with reality and they feel powerless to change it. The powerlessness stems from the fact that we cannot control anyone but ourselves, and that is a hard thing to accept.

Moving forward can only come once there is acceptance of what can be controlled and what cannot be controlled.

What positives am I hearing? You may laugh when I say this, but when I say look for positives, I mean it. I mean it for the person who is so mad that they are spitting in my face. I may have to compliment someone for not cursing at me, or for sitting down with me, but I find something. A quick, “I can tell how difficult this situation is for you, and I appreciate that you came in to talk it over.”

Communicate understanding. When I communicate the understanding, I am careful not to assume I have that understanding, so I ask questions. I may say, “Let me sum up what I think I am hearing you say…”. I do not do this until I am relatively certain that I do have that understanding, or I will hurt the trust we have built and we will have to start over.

I have seen my fair share of trials and tribulations, so I often can relate to the person with a story of my own and how I overcame the situation. I try to keep it brief, however, because the conversation is not about me, it is about the other person.

Make a plan to move forward. The plan should not be my plan, but I can certainly ask questions that may lead to ideas. “What do you see as the next step?”, or “What other information do you need before you decide what to do next?” are great ways to start the process to empower the person and make a positive step in the right direction. Making sure the plan is simple, immediate, and based only on what can be controlled is crucial for the success of the plan.

Thank you to my PLN for inspiring me to reflect on my practices, and thank you to the late great Dr. William Glasser for all of his books and work to understand human behavior. These are the steps that have worked for me, what steps have worked for you?

Honor What Your Students Already Know

Honor What Your Students Already Know

I attended a professional development day this past summer, and was sitting there thinking that the presenter must think I know nothing about teaching. I had been an educator for more than 15 years, and I was a newbie compared to most others in the group, yet she was talking to us as if we were new to instructional practices.

This made me wonder how often we do this to our elementary or secondary students.  How often do we go right into “teaching” mode without first understanding what they already know? I was immediately turned off at my training as an adult learner because my teacher did not honor or recognize what I already know, and I imagine that our students feel the same way at times.

The solution seems simple–ask the students what they know about a topic before you teach it. We can ask in a variety of ways–turn and talk, whole group sharing, raising hands, small group discussions, writing and many more. Honor what your students already know and let them share it, and the discussion and excitement that follows can enrich the learning for all.

Who Controls You?

Who Controls You?

Why do you answer the phone?

Because it rings, right?

Or, do you answer it because you want to talk to the person calling you?

Is all behavior purposeful, or are we simply responding to what is happening around us?

Let’s look at an example and see what we think.

A young woman, in her early twenties, was driving home from her first teaching job, fighting traffic. She stayed late at school planning for the next day and was starving, tired and really wanted to be at home. The person behind her was honking and inching forward until he was almost on her bumper. She was thinking a few choice words and wondering what the guy’s problem was. Didn’t he realize that everyone was anxious to get moving?

She raised her hand to give him a taste of his own medicine. She stopped with her hand in mid-air. What if it was one of her student’s parents? That would be so unprofessional, and the parent might recognize her. She put her hand down and took a deep breath.

What stopped this young lady from displaying an obscene gesture? She was angry and the guy behind her probably deserved it. What does her behavior tell us about why people do what they do?

We all have urges to behave, and typically our urge to behave is driven from a frustration signal. We behave because we want something. We might eat because we are hungry, or bored, or sad. We yell because we are angry or frustrated. We select our behavior from a recipe book of previous behaviors in our head in our best attempt to meet a need to calm the frustration signal.

So, if we behave to meet a need, and we select our behavior in our best attempt to meet that need, does that mean that the only person who has control over our behavior is ourselves? That is empowering! And a bit frightening—does it also mean that I cannot blame my behavior on how someone else is making me feel?  I am responsible for my own behavior all of the time? Woah, mind blown.

What about my feelings; who controls them? Sometimes, I feel sad when I don’t want to feel sad. Or mad, or stressed, on and on. How can I “control” my feelings?

Let’s go back to the young lady. Instead of reacting and making an irresponsible choice, she took a deep breath. What might happen if she then called her best friend? How might she start feeling? Do we think she would forget about the grumpy guy and enjoy the conversation with her friend? Or, what if she turned on her favorite song and started to sing along—how would she feel then?

We do not have direct control over our feelings, but we do have indirect control. How we behave and how we think has a significant impact on how we feel. We are not Jeanie from I Dream of Jeanie, so we can’t wiggle our nose and magically feel better. The good news is that there are things we can do to feel better.

In our example, the young lady listened to some music, sang along, and all of a sudden began feeling happy and looking forward to the rest of her evening again. If instead she had sat in silence and thought about how horrible the drivers are, she would have continued to be frustrated and angry. Therefore, we can surmise that we can change how we feel by doing something, especially something we enjoy.

I find that taking a walk can help me feel better almost every time. When I take a walk, I do something that I call “peeling the onion”. I may be feeling bad about something, but I cannot pinpoint the exact root of my feelings. When I peel the onion layer after layer and get to the source of the concern, it is typically something that I have no control over. Identifying the source, realizing what I do and do not have control over, and making a plan helps me feel so much better.

The next time you feel like unleashing on someone, pause and think about how you would handle this exact situation with your boss sitting next to you, or with your grandma there. Picture someone you love and admire there with you. What behavior choices would you make then, and what does that tell you about who controls you?

Please note:  This blog post is based upon the teachings of Dr. William Glasser and Choice Theory. I learned about Choice Theory and Reality Therapy through training with The William Glasser Institute and reading many books written by Dr. Glasser. I was even able to spend some time with Dr. Glasser–one time I bought him a bluegill dinner at Hofbrau restaurant in Interlochen, MI.

If you are interested in learning more about the work of Dr. Glasser, I recommend reading Choice Theory (Glasser, William. Choice Theory: A New Psychology of Personal Freedom. , 1998. Print.) or visiting www.wglasser.com for training opportunities.

Lessons from MLK Jr.

Lessons from MLK Jr.

Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that.

Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.

-Martin Luther King Jr.

This quote is a reminder to always walk in the path of others, to put yourself in their shoes. To understand someone’s perspective is key to compassion and good communication. If you can meet them where they are, together you can move forward.  

I am a work in progress always, like everyone. On this day when we remember a gentle risk-taker who stood for what he believed in, even in the face of grave peril, I remember some of the lessons I take away from him:

  • When faced with anger, seek to understand the source.
  • When faced with despair, seek the missing piece.
  • Always show compassion.
  • It is not our place to judge others, rather we can share a different perspective.
  • Stand up for what you believe in, but in a way that does not hurt others.

These lessons are continuously demonstrated by the innocent hearts of students at Quincy Elementary.  I am grateful for these daily reminders of love!

3 Easy Steps to Calm Confrontation

3 Easy Steps to Calm Confrontation

Someone is heading for me…I can tell because of the squinted eyes that are locked on me. I see a gait that is determined and quickened. Is there smoke coming out of their ears? Uh oh, what do I do…

Have you been there?  I certainly have…in my personal life and in my professional life. This was the stuff of my nightmares when I first became a principal. My hands would get clammy, my stomach would knot up and I would pray for someone to pull the fire alarm.

That was then, and this is now. Thank goodness. After years of experience with challenging confrontations, I cannot say that I necessarily look forward to them, but I do approach them with the confidence that I am not going to let my emotions get the best of me during the conversation. I know that I will listen to understand the concern, and express that understanding. We may not end up agreeing at the end, but we can be agreeable.

I approach difficult conversations with 3 easy steps.

  1. Listen. Don’t speak, other than to ask the initial question, “I am glad you came to see me, I can see you are upset. What’s going on?” Just listen and have open body language.
  2. Understand the good intentions the person has. Communicate their good intentions back to them in short and simple sentences. Negative emotions might mask the good intentions that are there…dig for them if necessary.
  3. Ask, “How would you like me to help you with __________ .”

At that point in the conversation, you will have an understanding of the concern, what the person wants from you, and you will have calmed the situation by empathizing with him or her.

From there, you can identify the things you both want that are in common. With parents in a school situation that is relatively easy because we both want the best for their child, and we can agree to that. If what the person wants is not reasonable, explain that without insulting his/her perspective. It is never our job to judge feelings or perceptions, just to provide information.

Above all, I always tell myself that it is not about me, it is about the person in front of me and what they are going through at the time. As much as I like to think that the world revolves around me, I am not the most important person. This helps me set my feeling aside because, quite frankly, if I do not set them aside, my feelings can get in the way of good communication. Nervousness can lead to timidness, defensiveness can lead to disagreeing to be disagreeable, and fear can lead to talking in circles. Staying focused on serving the person in front of me helps me stay calm.

…as the person approaches, I give a supportive look and invite him into my office, where we sit side by side at my table. I thank him for coming in, and ask what’s going on. I reassure him that I know we can handle it together…we leave smiling and laughing, feeling understood, validated and with a plan to move forward. 

My Hands Are No Longer Tied

My Hands Are No Longer Tied

Please excuse the typos and extra use of the word “had”. In order to preserve the original message, this article is in its original form. I wrote this article in 2000 during my second year of teaching, and it was published in The William Glasser Institute Newsletter in the Spring of 2000. The ideas in this article continue to influence in my work every day as a school leader.


The William Glasser Institute Newsletter – Spring 2000


Stories from Huntington Woods

Editor’s Note:  Allyson Apsey is a second-year teacher at Huntington Woods Elementary School. She has recently just completed her Advanced Week of training and this article journals her struggle as she moves from a Boss Management to a Lead-Management teaching philosophy.

My Hands Are No Longer Tied

I remember walking into my first day of teaching at Huntington Woods thinking that I had this teaching thing in the bag. I had received rave reviews from everyone that I had encountered in all of my teaching experiences before this job. Despite the fact that those experiences had been students teaching, before-school programs and summer camp, I thought I had this teaching thing under control. I could do this with my hands tied behind my back.

I have been wrong before in my life, but never this wrong. Halfway through that first morning, I walked into the bathroom and started at myself in the mirror. What had I gotten myself into? Could I be wrong after all this time? Was I really meant to be a teacher? I felt like the kids in this classroom were walking all over me. I didn’t know what this Choice Theory thing was. All I knew was that these students were not behaving in the way I wanted them to, and I could do nothing about it. I felt like I was teaching with my hands tied behind my back and I did not like it.

I had just finished my student teaching experience in a traditional classroom with punishments and rewards that ran pretty smoothly. I started teaching at Huntington Woods halfway through the 1998-1999 school year, and things were running anything but smoothly. My face seemed locked in a constant look of frustration and despair. How could I teach these children when I couldn’t even get them to sit back down in their seats? My principal mentioned something about adding more fun into my lessons. I thought she was crazy. How could I add fun to a lesson when I could not even get them to listen without interrupting me?

Walking into a classroom halfway through a school year is challenging. Pile on team-teaching 50 third, fourth and fifth graders. Add trying to learn a crazy theory that allowed students to walk all over you. I felt like I was drowning, and I did not know how to save myself. That is when a light of salvation shone through.

It was called Choice Theory. Through learning about Choice Theory with a wonderful woman named Jeanette, I was able to understand that I had complete control over ME! I was choosing to frustrate and agonize over what was happening in my classroom. Was choosing to feel this way helping me? NO! I realized that I had to learn different ways to respond to all these difficult situations I encountered. And, slowly but surely, I did.

The first step was realizing that I was doing the best I knew how to do. That realization helped me forgive myself and let go of some of the mistakes I had made. The next step was figuring out what I could do to get what I really wanted—a wonderful classroom.  Did frustrating help my classroom? Did getting angry help my classroom? Absolutely not. I was not modeling Choice Theory to my students, so how could I expect them to use it? I realized that the only person I could control was me, so that would be a great place to start the change that needed to take place.

Once I started to make better choices, I was able to step back and help my students make better choices. I was able to sit and discuss poor choices that a student was making without choosing to anger. I could then help my students work out problems with each other without choosing to fight or become angry.

I also realized that my principal was not crazy, my students needed to have fun. I began to see fun not as a reward, but as an integral part of our classroom. Before I could expect my students to open up and begin to learn, they needed their needs to be met. They needed a safe, clean, comfortable classroom. The needed to feel like they were loved in that classroom, by each other and by their teachers. They wanted to feel powerful. If we help them meet their needs within the functions of our classroom, like their needs for fun and power, they would not be acting out to get their needs met.

The next school year turned out to be more than a little different than the last. I knew that I was responsible for modeling Choice Theory, for helping my students meet their needs while they were in school, and for teaching my students about Choice Theory so they could help themselves get what they wanted. I would have never believed it a year ago, but Choice Theory really works. We have very few incidences of students acting out to meet their needs, because we help them meet their needs while still being a productive part of the classroom. In our classroom, both the teachers and the students are responsible for self-evaluating a poor behavior choice and learning how to make better choices. Our students have developed skills that will help them be able to better get what they want for the rest of their lives.

When I first started teaching at Huntington Woods, I felt like Choice Theory tied my hands behind my back. Now I know that by using Choice Theory, I am free to control myself. My students are responsible for their own behavior. Now my hands are free to wrap around my students in an embrace of love, trust and honesty.