The Lost Art of Diplomacy

One of the best lessons I learned during the first months of my principalship was that diplomacy matters. In a life of service, verbal assaults become par for the course. Think Jackie Robinson. Think MLK. Think Barack Obama. Are you able to rise above the rumors, the attacks and accusations and focus on the work? Is the mission still at the forefront of your work? I often equate the work of an educator to that of a professional athlete. I imagine that when Colin Kaepernick stepped onto a field, he was met with the roar of cheers and jeers, but his actions weren’t swayed by public opinion. Atlanta’s arts community recently rallied around his public stance against police brutality in full force by painting murals around the city in honor of his revolutionary stance.

Being able to block out the noise from the bleachers and focus on running the plays is essential to the success of your team. There’s always background noise, but we have a choice when it comes to where we place our attention. You quickly learn that people’s lives are so complex that much of the aggression you encounter has little to do with the situation in hand. It is often the symptom of deeper, more complex pains, biases and frustrations that have simply been triggered by a phone call from the school. In those moments, educators must have the presence of mind to remain calm, be level headed, and take the high road. This is not at all an easy task.

Bronx 1971

Diplomacy can even be linked to the start of Hip-Hop culture. Rolling Stone published an interview in 2015 where they referenced Benjy Melendez’s book “Ghetto Brother”. The book describes how a meeting at the Bronx Boys Club in 1971 triggered the diplomacy between gangs. The outcomes included b-boy battles and rap battles in the Bronx between rivals as an alternative to street violence. The first chapter of my book, The Mountain Principles, is titled “Master the Lost Art of Diplomacy”. There’s a reason why I placed this at the beginning of my book. Diplomacy is so critical to our success as school leaders. Diplomacy has truly become a lost art in our culture. In a political climate where diplomacy seems to be waning, we have to instill in our young people the value of peacefully resolving conflict.

Team Accountability

Inevitably, decisions must be made that don’t sit well with members of your team. Growing a team means to move people out of their comfort zones and challenge them to reach for new levels of performance. This week I faced a challenge at school where I discovered an issue and after peeling a few layers away and posing some questions, more things were revealed. There were many ways it could have been handled, but I decided to take the diplomatic route and provide a general directive that raised awareness of the issue. When we are reminded of our collective commitments to our work, we tend to see how important our individual roles are.

Don’t Call Me Sir

Diplomacy requires that we lead from a place of compassion and intellect rather than a place of emotion. Diplomacy doesn’t hinge on one’s mood, but rather one’s disposition. Teaching diplomacy to others means that we model it even when we are the only one speaking in a diplomatic manner. As parents, we have to change the narrative of telling children to meet violence with violence. Too many well-meaning parents are conveying a message to children that violence begets violence. I always use the example of the civil rights movement as an example of how a different response can bring about change. Several weeks ago I met with an angry parent who, in the midst of our conversation, shouted to me “Don’t call me sir!”. In retrospect, his outburst was humorous, but it typifies how emotions can overpower our ability to reason. My efforts to be respectful and calm were met with a plea to engage in a violent shouting match. Diplomacy allows us to maximize the productivity of meetings by keeping the focus on an equitable resolution rather than attributions of blame.

Marcus Garvey

Marcus Garvey is a powerful example of diplomacy in an international, Pan-African sense. In his book, Negro With a Hat, Colin Grant describes Marcus Garvey as “the embodiment of an idea that the African was just as capable of erudition, scholarship, refinement and leadership as anybody else.” Those four words resonate with me as the cornerstones of leadership: erudition, scholarship, refinement and leadership.

The Other Side

Sometimes I feel like I’m just standing in place, ain’t no real race.
Ain’t no other side. Life is like a circle and you end up where you started. If you end up where you started ain’t no other side.

-Gil Scott Heron, The Other Side

Our timing and God’s timing for our lives don’t always align. It’s a humbling experience when you realize that what you have planned for your own life is pale in comparison to the plan which has been written for your life. This Saturday I thought about the many years I’d travelled to Atlanta to secure a teaching position. For years, I envisioned securing a teaching position in the metro-Atlanta area. To this day, I consider myself an honorary resident of Atlanta’s Little Five Points neighborhood, choosing this eclectic neighborhood for my most recent book signing.

Though I was unsuccessful in securing a position at those job fairs, I was able to secure teaching positions in districts that grew me, promoted me, and ultimately helped develop me into the educator I am today. My journey eventually led me from Macon to Augusta to Tacoma. In 2017 we made Atlanta home as I became principal of an amazing elementary school. It is truly a story of coming full circle. This past weekend I had the privilege of sitting on the other side of the table at my metro-Atlanta district’s Job Fair. In the shadows of the city where I once longed to become a classroom teacher, I’ve transitioned into a role where I have the unique privilege of opening doors into the profession or bringing talented and experienced teachers onto my team of dedicated professionals. Being on the other side of the table is humbling because I remember what it was like to have just a few moments to share my passion, my experience, and my commitment to changing lives with those folks on the other side of the table. I’d wonder, “What are they looking for?”, “How can I set myself apart from the other applicants?” In many cases, I just lacked the experience that was needed to be truly effective in the roles I was seeking back then. I never understood that until I was on the other side of the table.

During my time on the other side of the table, I’m hopeful that I can help to bring people into the profession who are committed to changing lives, changing communities, and changing themselves in the process. The other side of the table is a place where, though still evolving, I’m finally prepared to stand.

Soundscape: Gil Scott Heron, The Other Side

The Courage to Fight


noun .   cour·age | \ˈkər-ij,  ˈkə-rij\ .   mental or moral strength to venture, persevere, and withstand danger, fear, or difficulty

This month I’ve been talking to students about how to display courage.  In order for our young people to understand how to embody courage, we must show them examples of those who have confronted obstacles and risked comfort for the sake of progress.  Individuals who put the needs of the group before their own are the example of courage our young people need to see.  Muhammad Ali is a perfect example of this.  Between 1967 and 1970 he was banned from boxing for refusing to participate in the Vietnam War.  He lost his title, was sentenced to five years in prison, and fined $10,000 as a result of his decision.  A contemporary example of this is Colin Kaepernick, whom I mention in my new book, The Mountain Principles:  Lessons on Leading & Learning.  Both Ali and Kaepernick engaged in noble fights on behalf of others.

Snip20181026_11People driven by a cause and purpose are relentless.  They are undeterred when it comes to moving around or through obstacles.  Along with the other 115,000 other school principals around the nation, I’m fighting for the quality of the education of our children.  The fight is ideological, philosophical, and theoretical. The opponents in the fight vary depending on the circumstances. At any given moment, the opposing parties could be publishers, vendors, politicians, parents, or media outlets.  Regardless of the opponent, the fight ensues daily.

Principals must never allow themselves to become prisoners of their position, afraid to confront harsh realities with the bitter words of truth. 

Rather than going through the motions, I want to unravel the tangled pieces of public schooling, with the help of a talented team of educators, and create spaces where students thrive and grow in ways that aren’t necessarily measured by normed referenced tests. How do we get beyond where we are now as a school and community and push forward?  It is a noble fight. 

Another fight worth fighting is for the autonomy of teachers to be creative and innovative in their practices.  We’ve traveled light years beyond the days when my teachers stood in front of the class holding a teacher’s edition reading off pre-printed directions to the class.  Teachers have the world at their fingertips and can extend the classroom to other states, countries, and galaxies using instructional technology.  The unfettered genius of teachers should never be stifled.  Teachers are professionals and should be treated as such.  As long as the curriculum is being taught, I love to see teachers integrating students’ interests, the arts, and discussion into the curriculum.  Standardization is a mixed bag of guidance, clarity, and constraints on creativity that can dull the luster of a brilliant educator if thrust upon them irresponsibly.  The fight is to find the delicate balance between teaching standards and teaching the child in a way that meets their needs.  It is a worthy fight.  

The fight for the respect of the profession is one that principals should be prepared to join.  Respect their time.  Respect their intellect.  Respect their voice.  For the most part, parents understand that teachers are professionals and treat them as such. However, there is a small subset of parents who engage teachers and schools in a verbally aggressive manner unbefitting of the role that teachers play in our children’s lives. Profanity laced text messages, veiled threats, and unreasonable demands are poor models of interaction for our students.  When parents engage in these behaviors, leaders should gracefully step in to support teachers in a way that teaches the appropriate behavior and establishes clear norms for how teachers will be treated.  Teachers prepare for this work by completing years of education, certification tests, graduate school, and a wealth of ongoing professional development. They deserve the respect that is afforded to any professional.  Sometimes that respect is shown by simply bringing a valid concern to the teacher before escalating it to the administration.  The fight for the respect of the profession is real.  It is a righteous fight. 

Edgar Albert Guest describes the drive to fight a righteous fight in the most eloquent way in his poem titled “Courage”:

Courage isn’t a brilliant dash,
A daring deed in a moment’s flash;
It isn’t an instantaneous thing
Born of despair with a sudden spring
It isn’t a creature of flickered hope
Or the final tug at a slipping rope;
But it’s something deep in the soul of man
That is working always to serve some plan.

Courage isn’t the last resort
In the work of life or the game of sport;
It isn’t a thing that a man can call
At some future time when he’s apt to fall;
If he hasn’t it now, he will have it not
When the strain is great and the pace is hot.
For who would strive for a distant goal
Must always have courage within his soul.

Courage isn’t a dazzling light
That flashes and passes away from sight;
It’s a slow, unwavering, ingrained trait
With the patience to work and the strength to wait.
It’s part of a man when his skies are blue,
It’s part of him when he has work to do.
The brave man never is freed of it.
He has it when there is no need of it.

Courage was never designed for show;
It isn’t a thing that can come and go;
It’s written in victory and defeat
And every trial a man may meet.
It’s part of his hours, his days and his years,
Back of his smiles and behind his tears.
Courage is more than a daring deed:
It’s the breath of life and a strong man’s creed. 

Edgar Albert Guest

The Light at the End of the Tunnel

Principle #31:  Trust the process. Pause long enough to see and experience the light at the end of the tunnel.  Premature departures can cause us to miss out on the benefits of our collective efforts.


We live in a society of instant gratification.  It’s a frantic race.  Our mornings can begin with instant coffee, instant grits, and up-to-the-minute news reports.  Everything is sold with the promise that it will speed up the pace of hair growth, weight loss, or teeth whitening.  But what if we decided to intentionally slow the pace of things down so that we can enjoy the journey to our destiny? What if the path of our careers included moments where we agreed to just be still and listen to our inner voice for the right time to make a move?  Corporate and school leaders need enough faith in their own vision to cast it, then step back to allow others to see the light at the end of the tunnel.  In my article, The Art of the Mic Drop, I wrote,  “Dropping the mic doesn’t equate to dropping the ball. It simply shows a level of trust in the team to get it done without micromanagement.”

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As I write this, school leaders all over the nation are launching into their new year of leading and learning. They’ve analyzed the data, identified the root causes, and hired the right people for the right seats on the bus.  They have turned the ignition and are pulling out of the parking lot.  No matter what changes a leader makes in an organization, the benefits of the change will take time to materialize.  Some people have been moved to new roles on the team, others have opted to leave the team altogether.  Any changes that are implemented must be allowed to run the course of the implementation dip before a true assessment of effectiveness can be made.  All too often, a change is implemented and if it isn’t successful within minutes those tasked with implementing it write it off as another failed attempt at changing “what we’ve always done”.

In the last stanza of Edward Guest’s poem, See It Through, he writes:

Even hope may seem but futile, 
When with troubles you’re beset, 
But remember you are facing 
Just what other men have met. 
You may fail, but fall still fighting; 
Don’t give up, whate’er you do; 
Eyes front, head high to the finish. 
See it through!

See it through! 

Leaders must have the fortitude to wait and see the light at the end of the tunnel when innovating in an organization. The learning curve for a team can be steep when it comes to changing how technology drives the work or rebranding the company.  Anthony Muhammad describes the four types of educators in a school in his book, Transforming School Culture: How to Overcome Staff DivisionSnip20180812_4In any school where I’ve worked, I’ve encountered each of the four types he describes:  Believers, Tweeners, Survivors, and Fundamentalists.  Believers have fully bought into the vision.  Tweeners are new to the team or the profession and are finding their way.  Survivors are waiting for the weekend or their grand finale in retirement. Finally, the most vocal of the four, Fundamentalists, devote all of their energy into derailing the plan or campaigning against the current leadership and any changes underway.  I can honestly say that in my educational career, I’ve likely been all four at different phases and settings since deciding to become an educator.  There have been leaders that I believed in and committed to, and there have been other leaders whose vision I couldn’t see because it didn’t align with my own philosophy of education.  In either case, my number one priority was to do what was best for my students.

The Book of Gail

IMG_0250As I sat at the East Lake MARTA Station (Metro Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority) on a peaceful Sunday afternoon, I read about the Law of Magnetism in John Maxwell’s book The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership.  We draw people into our organization who reflect the qualities and attributes we value. If you value creativity, you seek out and recognize people in your organization who demonstrate creativity.  If you value initiative, you elevate and hire people who show initiative, regardless of their title.  One of my staff members, Mrs. Gail, exemplifies this. She is that team member who is constantly thinking ahead and asking “How can I help?”, “Have we taken care of this?”.  Rather than focusing on the leader, or her opinion of the current vision, she is fully focused on accomplishing the mission and supporting the team.  She doesn’t complain about having to stay a few minutes longer or cover an additional duty.  She’s not constantly cornering me to schedule a day when she needs to leave work early.  She is an exemplar for those wise enough to notice.  As a leader, I strategize on how to bring more people like this onto my team. It’s refreshing to work alongside those who, in the darkest moments, work and grind until we begin to see that twinkling of light at the end of the tunnel.

This year we have brought 13 new team members into our school family. Each of them brings their own wealth of experience, creativity, and instructional expertise to the team we are building.  Establishing first impressions with parents, collaborating successfully with colleagues, and determining just what the administration values all takes time.  Adjusting to a new school community is a process, so with support, our hope is that they will successfully transition into our school culture and shape it with their own contributions. As we grow with them, returning staff and new staff, we all stand waiting on the light at the end of the tunnel. For me, the light at the end of the tunnel represents student growth, social emotional maturity in our students, increased teacher effectiveness, successful collaborations among teams, and families who appreciate our efforts to create a unique space in public education.


Decadence is (5)

André Benito Mountain is an educator and writer whose work has been featured in Education Week, Washington Principal Magazine, Curriculum in Context, and TEACH Magazine.  He is the author of The Brilliance Beneath: The Power of Perspective in Urban Schools.  His forthcoming book, The Mountain Principles, captures lessons in learning and leading for educators and leaders. He currently serves as the principal of Marbut Traditional Theme School in metro-Atlanta.


Arguments with Mrs. Collins

When I think of visionary educators, I think of Lucy Craft Laney and Marva Collins.  Both women started their own schools in predominately African-American communities.  Laney opened her school in 1883 in Augusta, Georgia while Collins founded Westside Preparatory School during the same year I was born – 1975. A solid elementary foundation was at the core of both their philosophies.  In 2012, I had the opportunity to visit the famed Ron Clark Academy in Atlanta, GA.  In many ways, Ron Clark Academy stands on the shoulders Marva Collins’ Westside Preparatory School National Training Institute which provided teachers with opportunities to visit and gain professional development as they saw the principles in action in a real setting with real students. Laney and Collins were able to leave remarkable legacies as educators without large corporate sponsorships, federal funding or dance routines.  Marva Collins’ story in particular, is one of grit and sheer resolve to instill a desire to learn in students.

This summer I’ve immersed myself in reading the works of legendary teacher Marva Collins .  Her school, once located in Chicago’s Southside, operated free of federal funds. This kept it free of many of restrictions and mandates that accompany those monies. From a purely administrative standpoint, this approach to instructional autonomy alone made Westside Preparatory School a brilliant approach to the education of young scholars.  Most administrators, including myself, depend upon Title I funds and spend a considerable amount of time trying to remain in compliance and meet the needs of our students and families.

Snip20180628_7My academic and intellectual relationship with Marva Collins and her school is a circuitous one.  I met her personally as a second year teacher in Macon, Georgia.  In 2002, weary from a long day of teaching, we were summoned to an unusually warm office complex that the district used for professional development.  A mix of excitement and fatigue loomed in the air of the large room that appeared to be designed for a considerably smaller crowd.  For the next two hours, we were all swept away into a Shakespearean stream of high expectations, tight routines, and relentless questioning and prompting.  Her comments were direct, her humor and wit were precise, and her charge to us was to be uncompromising because the lives of children were at stake.  “I don’t wear a name tag” she said.  “Never did!  It’s my job to tell you who I am.  That’s what we have to teach children.  Speak up for yourself.  Make your presence known.”  Her concepts were so simple, yet they pushed squarely against the prevailing notions of the teaching act.  Later that evening, I went online and read everything I could find about Marva Collins, including the 60 Minutes segment that featured her students reflecting on their experience at Westside Preparatory School.

Fifteen years after that meeting, I became the principal of a school founded on the concepts of Westside Preparatory School.  The school is grounded in a culture of high expectations and supported by parents who agree to dedicate 16 hours of time to the school each year.  Students memorize poetry, complete semester projects, morning meetings are conducted, and uniforms are worn.  But those are tertiary requirements.  What’s critical for converging with Marva Collins’ philosophy is establishing a pervasive culture of high academic expectations where students are challenged to step out of their comfort zones, speak in front of their peers, and write about their experiences.

I first found myself grappling with Marva Collins ideologically when I began reading “Ordinary Students, Extraordinary Teachers”.  Getting past the title took a moment.  I don’t see any “ordinary students” because I see how extraordinary so many of our students are given their talent, drive, and complex circumstances.  Beyond the cover page, the book is a beautiful collection of her writings that inspire and challenge my thinking in the same ways that she did in Macon in 2002.  While we disagree on the emphasis on whole group reading instruction and her suggestion that the small reading groups should be disbanded, we find common ground on her approach to phonics and teaching the many ways one sound is made so that students see all the spellings at once (i.e. ck, k, c) as opposed to introducing them separately.

In “Marva Collins’ Way”, she delves into her approach on teaching Macbeth and other Shakespearean writings to five-year olds.  As I read it I’m inspired and interested in how to integrate the classics into the elementary curriculum in a more rigidly structured,  high-stakes testing educational setting.  It is at this point that our approaches diverge once more.  My students, mostly African-American, African, and Hispanic, thirst for images and stories that connect to their experiences and their culture.  Culturally responsive classrooms and schools lay a psychological foundation for students that starts with them becoming more culturally and personally aware of who they are.  This prepares them to develop an appreciation for others’ cultures, languages, and perspectives.

This idea of grappling with an author is something that I learned studying with Dr. Daniel Chapman in Georgia Southern University’s Curriculum Studies program.  Too often, we pull from the text without fully challenging the assertions of the author, examining the context, and demanding more justification for a perspective.  As educators, we comb through articles and books looking for ideas we can implement in our schools.  Reading and thinking critically about issues insulates us in a culture that often seeks simple solutions to complex problems.  As we stumble upon gems, we inevitably must toss aside portions of the readings that either don’t align with what we believe or reflects time and context, funding-wise or testing-wise, vastly different from our reality.

Arguments with Mrs. Collins help me find my footing as a leader. I’m not willing to allow a few divergent perspectives to negate the immense wisdom found in her writings.  That would be foolish.  So as I argue and wrestle with her ideologically, I’m growing in my instructional prowess and reminded that while we may not agree on every issue, we are working for the same cause:  educating children well.

Decadence is (5)

André Benito Mountain is an educator and writer whose work has been featured in Education Week, Washington Principal Magazine, Curriculum in Context, and TEACH Magazine.  He is the author of The Brilliance Beneath: The Power of Perspective in Urban Schools.  His forthcoming book, The Mountain Principles, captures lessons in learning and leading for educators and leaders.


The Hard Knock Life

There is much symbolism around the idea of a door.  Doorways represent transitions from one place to another.  The doorway is where our guests are welcomed into a home or a school.  The doorway is where first impressions are made. Our language is sprinkled with idioms alluding to the significance of doors:

  • When one door closes, another one opens
  • Showing somebody the door
  • To get one’s foot in the door

As we celebrate graduations and students begin to walk out of our school doors and prepare to enter other doors in the fall, it is important to let them acknowledge the mix of emotions that come along with those changes. When students leave elementary school, it’s a bittersweet moment for many of them.  While they have excitement about what awaits them in middle school, many are equally nervous about being the new students on campus. That feeling of anxiousness is absolutely normal and will gradually turn to excitement as the first day of middle school draws closer.

As I spoke to my students and their families yesterday at our 5th grade Honor’s Luncheon, I recounted an experience I had that helped me learn 5 valuable lessons for life.  Unlike most of my classmates, my Saturday mornings were typically spent going from door to door teaching from the Bible and sharing and discussing religious publications.  After a hard knock on the door there were those moments of uncertainty.  Will they answer?  Who will answer?  How will they respond?

Here’s what that experience taught me:

Persistence:  Sometimes in life you will have to knock more than once before a door will open.  Whether it’s a job you interview for, a scholarship you pursue, or a team you try out for, you have to be able to bounce back if things don’t happen the first time.  Be persistent, patient, and attentive.

Preparation:  Once the door opens, be ready.  Know what you will say and deliver it like you believe it.  Review your notes.  Practice in the mirror.  First impressions are powerful, so make sure that you make the best of those first few seconds when the door of opportunity opens.

Probability:  The odds are that some doors will not open for you.  Every opportunity you pursue in life will not be successful.  Accept that and move forward.

Persona:  The moment of truth was the moment when a classmate opened the door.  I learned that your best self at the door had to be parallel to your best self at the school. Avoid the confusion of having to play different characters in different contexts.  Be you all the time.

Poise:  Be self-confident and willing to receive new information. Understand that sometimes the person the other side of the door may possess a perspective or information to take you further or deeper than you ever imagined. Be aware that at times people will say harsh things to elicit a response. Take the high road.

Go out there and walk up those steps.  Your best life is waiting on the other side of the door.  Knock hard.



Decadence is (5)

André Benito Mountain is an educator and writer whose work has been featured in Education Week, Washington Principal Magazine, Curriculum in Context, and TEACH Magazine.  He is the author of The Brilliance Beneath: The Power of Perspective in Urban Schools.  His forthcoming book, The Mountain Principles, captures lessons in learning and leading for educators and leaders.


Chapter 8: Be Coachable

{The following is an excerpt from the forthcoming book, The Mountain Principles:  28 Lessons on Leading and Learning}

Be coachable, reflective and resilient in your work so that you can continue to sharpen your skillset.

Years ago, while working as a curriculum coordinator, I was tasked with visiting the classrooms of social studies teachers and providing constructive feedback on teaching practices. Inevitably, the best teachers were the ones who possessed a thirst for feedback.  It was in their nature to want to add to their toolkit.  These teachers exemplified the growth mindset that Carol Dweck describes in her book.  This group of teachers varied in experience from the new teachers to veteran teachers.  What they all shared was a coachable spirit.  “How can I be better?” “What can I do to work smarter?” These teachers were a joy to work alongside because they never allowed themselves to become stagnant or delusional about their own effectiveness.

There was another group of teachers who were somewhat less effective.  These teachers, though struggling with classroom management and student achievement, were intent upon blaming the students, blaming the parents, and blaming the administration.  “If we had more technology…”, “If we had newer books…”.  There was always somTwenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explor.pnge external reason, beyond their control, that contributed to the chaotic learning environment or student disengagement.  They owned no parts of the process.  Their response to feedback was defensive and at times combative.  Working with teachers in this group was like walking through a mine field, navigating ego, fixed mindsets, and years of ineffective experiences.  Everyone else was the problem.

In his book, Good to Great, Jim Collins writes, “A Hedgehog Concept is not a goal to be the best, a strategy to be the best, an intention to be the best, a plan to be the best.  It is an understanding of what you can be the best at.  The distinction is absolutely crucial.”  I believe that we all possess our unique form of genius, but the challenge is to discover that genius.  That process starts with your mindset.  In chapter three of Mindset:  The New Psychology of Success, Carol Dweck describes Thomas Edison in his lab in New Jersey working with 30 assistants to create the lightbulb after multiple failures and disasters.  She writes, “Yes, he was a genius.  But he was not always one…What eventually set him apart was his mindset and drive. He never stopped being the curious, tinkering boy looking for new challenges. ”

Each day I find myself calling up my mentors, sharing notes with my peers, and even asking my teachers and AP’s to teach me something that they have recently mastered.  Degrees, titles, and organizational charts mean little when it comes to growing yourself into the best version of you.  The best teachers I know are always looking for new strategies, reading a new book, or trying a new project in their classes.  They look at the classroom as an organic, ever-changing place where they change as well as the students.  Great teachers seek out feedback to help them solve problems in their practice.  They ask their teammates how to address an issue with student performance.  When they receive feedback from parents, peers, or administration, they are not defensive.  Instead, they reflect on the portions that are critical and think of ways to either change practices or change others’ perception of their practice.

I recently had the pleasure of sitting down with a veteran principal who is now a regional superintendent in a large urban district.  For two hours, she poured into me lessons on leadership, school culture, and fostering a sense of community.  It was a powerful session where I learned much about the many layers of the leadership role and how the role itself can be larger than life.  Having the wisdom of the elders is absolutely necessary if we are to thrive and create the phenomenal spaces for learning that challenge scholars, endear families, and develop teachers into highly effective educators with a commitment to this work. _Sometimes the brick wall is just the canvas for your next masterpiece._ (3).png

The Mural Project:  Hitting a Brick Wall

Every principal wants to leave a school better than they found it.  Marbut Traditional Theme School is an expansive building with many bare walls. When you walk into the front entrance, there is a foyer with high ceilings and natural light pouring down upon a central logo in the floor.  As you come around the corner of the front office, on your left are glass display cases.  On your right is a glass case with samples of the school uniforms on display.  Just beyond this case is a sepia-toned mural of Barack Obama.  The building is over 91,000 square feet of beige wall space screaming out for color, character, and content.  During the school year, some of those open spaces are used to display student work.  As I’ve met with parents, teachers, and students, I’ve proposed the idea of painting some murals around the school over the next few years.  I began conducting my own informal opinion poll about the existing artwork in the building.  On the largest wall in the cafeteria was a painting of a huge mountain lion, two raccoons, and deer.  In the center of the painting were the words “Excellence Lies Before Us”.  I had my own opinions about the mural, but I first sought the input of two artists I highly respect.

During my time as a 5th grade teacher in Augusta, I’d been involved in a site-art project where students at Monte Sano Elementary would create and paint a 3-D art installation under the supervision of artist Jeff Mather.  Jeff and I had maintained contact over the years through social media.  Finally, I was in a position as principal of Marbut to bring him in to offer guidance on some of the ideas I planned for Marbut as we worked to become a STEAM certified school.  We met at the school on a Saturday and Jeff arrived with his iPad filled with images of the great art he’d been creating with kids all around the United States.

After several minutes talking about the direction of the school, its history, and our STEAM progress we decided to take a tour around the school.  Like most visitors, he was struck by the entrance with the natural lighting and exposed support beams in the ceiling.  He began pointing and spreading his hands out, envisioning a suspended piece of art hovering above our lifted heads.

I told him, “There’s this large mural in the cafeteria I want your opinion on…I’m considering painting over this.” As we walked into the cafeteria, I flipped on the lights and he stopped in his tracks.  His face went blank and he folded his arms.  He was silent for several moments and then he began to give a technical critique of the piece that articulated, in artists’ words, what most of us felt about the painting.  He mentioned the proportions, the flatness of the piece, and that it looked very dated.  He went on to say that even murals run their course and painting over it after 23 years may not be an issue since it’s only animals depicted in the mural.

The next artist I brought in was C. Flux Sing, one of the most dynamic visual artists in metro-Atlanta.  We commissioned him to do 3 murals at Marbut, but the locations had to be determined.  He, like Jeff, was in agreement that the mural in the cafeteria lacked the vibrant energy and color that I was looking to bring to the walls of Marbut.  He was excited when I told him of the possibility of repainting that space with one of his images.  We took the measurements and began talking about the designs for each of the 3 murals he’d be doing.

Coming from Tacoma, Washington, I’ve seen how mural projects can bring color and life to a neighborhood, school, or the side of an old building.  Something told me to ask a few more key stakeholders about my plans to paint over the mountain lion in the cafeteria.  I placed a call to my regional superintendent and she offered some sage advice that ended up influencing the direction of the project.  She told me the story of a time when a principal painted over a mural at his school without truly researching the history of the mural.  The backlash was fierce and the move was perceived as erasing part of the history of the school.  She explained that when alumni come back to visit, they sometimes seek out those landmarks that they remember and want to take photos in front of them.  Removing them would be what she described as a ‘hornet’s nest’ that should not be disturbed.

So there I was with this dilemma.  On the one hand, my artist friends critiqued the mural from a purely artistic standpoint and suggested a move toward replacing it.  A district leader looked at it from a community and school legacy standpoint, foreseeing the potential implications of removing the image.

Weeks later my art teacher and I met to discuss our STEAM certification initiative.  She stops abruptly mid-sentence and takes a deep breath and says, “Mr. Mountain…I thought of something!  You know how you’ve been wondering whether to paint over the new mural!  I have an idea.  What about painting the mural on the wall behind the curtains on the stage? It was a genius idea because all of our main school programs are in the cafeteria.  Behind the audience would be the mountain lion mural from 1997, raccoons, deer and all.  In front of them would be the new, colorful and inspirational piece by C. Flux Sing inspired by a song by Nas entitled “I Can”.  Between two images of children would be the words “I know I can be what I wanna be.  If I work hard at it, I’ll be where I wanna be.” We’d only need to pull back the curtains at the back of the stage.  The placement of the new mural would be symbolic with an image from our past behind us and in front of us an image that alludes to the bright and vibrant future that awaits each child at Marbut.

In looking back, it’s interesting to note that throughout history, the wisdom of African-American women has shaped history.  Coretta, Harriet, Sojourner, Maya, and Rosa all poured their wisdom into men who benefited from their guidance.  In this experience, once again it was two wise women who helped steer me from making a strategic error in my effort to leave a legacy and make changes.  Their wisdom and insight were the compass toward a compromise that ultimately had more symbolic value than the simplicity of painting over bad art to create better art.  It was a moment where I had to learn to be coachable and put the legacy of the school ahead of my own ambitious objectives. While the two artists I brought in offered considerable technical expertise and a vision aligned with my plan, the two sisters coaching me through this decision helped me avoid an unnecessary backlash from stakeholders offended by a well-intentioned, yet poorly executed move.  Always be coachable, even when it’s your call.A28C7490-7236-451F-A771-114CABAF71DB

Decadence is (5)

André Benito Mountain is an educator and writer whose work has been featured in Education Week, Washington Principal Magazine, Curriculum in Context, and TEACH Magazine.  He is the author of The Brilliance Beneath: The Power of Perspective in Urban Schools.  His forthcoming book, The Mountain Principles, captures lessons in learning and leading for educators and leaders.


The Art of No

Principle 28:  Learn to gracefully say no so that you can say yes when it matters the most.  Prioritize and don’t overcommit…just say  no.

Harvard Business Review published an article in 2013 entitled “Nine Practices to Help You Say No”.  One of the best phrases in the article was “know your no”.  Know what things you are not willing to compromise on in your profession or your industry.  People in business understand that your no is a rejection of the request and not a personal rejection of the person.  Learning to say no keeps you from overcommitting your time and energies on things that draw you away from your most important areas of focus.  No one loves to hear it.  The two letter word that portends the closing of a door.  It tests our persistence and brings us disappointment.  Those who have to say it feel bad because in most cases we’d love to say yes and fulfill every commitment that comes our way.  There is an art to learning to say no.  BBC Capital featured Warren Buffet in their article, “Why Saying No Will Boost Your Career”.  Buffet is quoted in the article as saying theNo Quote “difference between successful people and very successful people is that very successful people say ‘no’ to almost everything.”  I’m certain he gets solicitations to invest in a range of business ventures, but he gracefully declines the lion’s share of them to focus on a select set of investments that he watches closely.

The ‘no’ becomes somewhat more palatable when we frame it in a clear context, with reasons.  Seasoning the no with reasoning eases the sting of it a bit.  Coupling the no with a change in time or circumstances also helps get beyond an impasse.  Perhaps the idea is a great one but the timing is problematic.  But no matter how you slice it, ‘no’ is the two-letter word that we usually aren’t prepared to hear.

I confronted and overcame my issue with ‘no’ within a week of graduating from college.  Three days after walking across the stage at Georgia Southern University,  I found myself walking up and down the streets of Manhattan with a briefcase looking for work in the financial district.  My only work experience was in retail during my college years.  Interview after interview with staffing agencies and financial firms all led to the same answer: no.  But something was happening in the process.  My interviewing skills become stronger with each rejection.  I was gaining insight on what they were going to ask and I was able to rethink my responses.  Then the offers started to come in.  So the word ‘no’ helped me to pull back, regroup, and come out stronger than before.  The no was actually a “not yet” or “not now”.

As a principal, there are always questions from vendors about a new program, a consultant with a service to offer, or a parent with a request.  Without fail, one has to often figure out how to tactfully frame the no in a way that explains the context.  That comes with time and once mastered, it is a key to keeping your eye on the ball and your head in the game.  Saying yes too often can pull one in so many directions that you lose focus.  The challenge is when the request is reframed 7 ways, yet your response to the request is the same.  Then, a leader has to either fluently find 7 ways to reframe the no or use the repetition method and repeat the initial response.

The bottom line is that no is a troublesome little word that carries with it lots of repercussions and emotions.  Is it easy to receive it?  No.  Will it always be easy to say it?  No. Can we avoid it?

No.  (Not yet.)

The Elephant in the Room

Principle #28:  Confront the elephant in the room and get comfortable with being uncomfortable.

Soundscape:  Wake Up by John Legend and the Roots

There is an elephant in the room and it needs to be acknowledged.  We tend to ignore things that make us uncomfortable.  There are conversations with friends, family, and coworkers that need to be had.  But for some reason, we avoid it over and over.  This week I read the article “Why Feeling Uncomfortable is the Key to Success” in Forbes.  Getting out of your comfort zone is one of the best things you can do.  We must confront reality order to move beyond our current state.  Avoiding those tough conversations doesn’t help anyone and becomes a toxic elixir making people feel good about the status quo.  Compliments and encouragement are important, but they work in tandem with the courageous conversations that help organizations get their priorities in order.  Data speaks for itself.  Our job is to listen, regroup, and strategize next steps.  Exceptional teams get comfortable with the idea of being uncomfortable.  The discomfort comes from letting go of all of the excuses, all of the glory of past successes and embracing the urgency of now.  If everyone around you is comfortable with the status quo and pockets of mediocrity are becoming part of your culture, then it is time to reevaluate your impact on your surroundings.  Great teams challenge one another to be better.  They offer solutions to persistent problems, then revisit the issue to assess whether the proposed solution worked.

self-reflection_1024x768Look past the obstacles and see where you want to be. A few years ago I led a professional development for teachers about the power of visualization.  I found that so many teachers are in a state of perpetual negative self-talk that they undermine their own impact as teachers because of the negative scripts that run in their minds.  Rewiring your thought process and actually visualizing your own power is how we harness our inherent greatness.  The way we are inclined to think about problems is to find the one cause.  Who is the protagonist and who will play the antagonist?  That’s how novels and movies work.  But in schools and companies, there are multiple forces at play that drive down earning or drive up student achievement.  It is extremely rare to find simple solutions to complex problems. We have to get out the mindset of looking for the proverbial “straw that broke the camel’s back”.  Are we really ready to step out of our comfort zone to be peak performers in our professional lives?  High performance teams are always rethinking the way they do business and challenging themselves to outperform the competition.  They resist the blame game and focus on what “we” can do differently as opposed to pointing fingers at “who” caused a decline in performance.

It starts with our own self-talk.  If we aren’t willing to be honest with ourselves about where we need to improve, then it is unlikely that we will (a) challenge others to do better, or (b) receive feedback in a way that makes us grow.  I’ve seen it every year in my journey as an educator.  A parent receives a report from a teacher about student performance or behavior and the parent either supports the educator or makes an excuse for the child.  The support or lack thereof will determine if the child will improve or continue to make the same poor choices.  Why do we make excuses when confronted with difficult realities?  I believe those excuses are our way of averting any change in our own behaviors.  They are our way of negating our own self-efficacy over our own reality.

This concept of self-efficacy is so important if we are to be successful in any endeavor.  It is the secret ingredient for peak performance.  We must believe that we can have an impact on our reality and that we can be successful in the work we have undertaken.  It is the belief that is behind our words and actions.  Those who lack self-efficacy always point out the scapegoats that undermined their successes.  If I had more supplies…If I had more technology… If the parents would… If the district would… Those who possess self-efficacy approach those same challenges with a different mindset:  Regardless of…  In spite of….  Even though…  We can… They always seek out ways to improve their work or the work of their team to effect change with what’s in their hands.

I’ve already lost the war if my impact as a leader is at the mercy of my circumstances, my community, my school’s demographics, and my desire to remain comfortable.  Own this moment.  Mental toughness means that we get comfortable with being uncomfortable.