#12 The Year of Self-Discipline: Part 2 – Weekly Plan


1 in a 3 Part Series on Self-Discipline

1 – Effective Email
2 – Weekly Plan
3 – Life Planning

1 Week = 168 Hours.
Better plan intentionally to make them count.
You don’t get them back. 

Six Step Weekly Planning Process

Six Steps to Plan Your Week For Success

Seven Steps to Plan You Week

The Perils of Step by Step Planning  😉

 Weekly Planner Template

What are your tips for making the most of your 168 hours each week?

#11 Empty Gmail Inbox Daily


1 in a 3 Part Series on Self-Discipline

1 – Effective Email
2 – Weekly Plan
3 – Life Planning

Each year for the past several years, our school has declared a theme. The year of story. The year of design. The year of celebration and innovation. The year of collaboration. I have decided to have my own personal theme this year: the year of self-discipline.

I want to be healthier. This includes goals I keep putting off such as going to bed earlier, exercising more consistently in the morning, eating more natural foods, drinking less coke. I need to practice greater self-discipline in this area.

I want to make better use of my time at home. This includes spending more time with the people I love, making a greater impact in the lives of those around me, watching less tv, playing less Oregon Trail, planning more dates with my wife, reading more books to my kids.

Identifying obstacles is a good place to start. Email is one of my biggest, time-consuming obstacles. It can also be an emotional de-railer if you check it before going to bed. My goal is to have an empty gmail inbox at the end of every day. Not an easy feat.

The topic of how to manage one’s email effectively has been covered by more people in better ways than I could begin, so in this post I’ve compiled the best resources I have found. I have tried a few of these and they have helped, but I’m still not satisfied with my current level of effectiveness…

HBR: A Super Efficient Email Process

Farnam Street: The Tyranny of Email – 10 Steps to Save You

Edudemic: Set Up a Gmail Meter

Michael Nichols: You Can Keep 

Up With Your Email

Office Coach: 10 Things You Should Never Do With Email

Effective Email Communication

What resources can you share related to effective email usage?

The Front Lines of Customer Service in Schools

What would it look like if we applied the concept of customer service to the classroom? The term is more frequently associated with business and sales rather than education.  For independent schools, customer experience must be a wildly important goal, though the word ‘customer’ falls short of describing a school’s relationship with students and parents. Partnership is closer.


Teachers and their direct communication with students and parents are the front lines of customer experience in a school. There are many other levers that teachers have control over that directly impact customer experience. We will focus on one for now: communication. There are a few non-negotiable ‘Do’s’ that teachers must commit to and administrators must support/inspect to guarantee a positive customer experience.

1. Update the Grade Book – Open 24/7 online to students and parents, this is the first place parents go for information about their child’s progress in your class. The teacher committed to exceptional customer experience will not only update the grade book frequently and consistently, but they will pay close attention to the labels and descriptions they write in the grade book so that the wording precisely matches the labels and descriptions they write on the assignment, rubrics, and LMS posts. The keys are timely, descriptive, and accurate.

2. Post Classwork and Homework Accurately to Blog – We use Schoology as the platform for teachers to communicate each day’s assignments. There are many platforms, but the important thing is for a student or parent to be able to quickly and easily access what happened during class each day (in case of absence). Teachers need some flexibility in case a lesson takes longer than anticipated or students take a particular interest in an unexpected area, yet students and parents need accuracy and timeliness. We ask our teachers to update their pages each Sunday night by 6:00 p.m. for the upcoming week. Teachers know to update their page the same day that they alter the plans.

For the average teacher, updating one’s page can be viewed as a tedious chore, but the teacher committed to exceptional customer experience realizes this is one of the first and best chances to communicate the quality of their practice. Compare two examples…

Example 1
Classwork: Ch 5 – The Columbian Exchange
Homework: Work on project

Example 2
Classwork: Essential Question – How do the ideas, goods, and technology traded on the Columbian Exchange compare/contrast to international trade today? 

Homework: Read article ‘The Columbian Exchange’ and article ‘What is International Trade?’ and write down 5 questions. Bring questions to class discussion tomorrow.

Example 1 communicates ambiguity, dependence on a textbook, and lack of thoughtful planning. Example 2 is clear, specific and leads to learning even if read by someone on the other side of the planet. Which class would lead to a better customer experience for a student and parent?

3. Notify Customer When Grades Drop Below 73 – Although customers have 24/7 access to their grades, they still expect the teacher to communicate early warning flags. Teachers expect middle school students to take ownership and responsibility for their grades. Parents expect teachers to inform them every time a homework assignment is not turned in. Strike a happy balance by making a quick call or email approximately whenever a student’s overall average dips below 74. Every 3 weeks, we check student progress in all grades and notify parents along with recommendations for how a student can improve their performance. Usually, this involves attending tutorials, making up missing assignments, changing habits, or scheduling a conference.

Communication is essential between stakeholders in a school. Teachers cannot control everything that happens in a classroom, but these are three things they can absolutely control and use to their advantage to accelerate student learning and create an exceptional customer experience.


#9 How to Challenge Gifted Students: An Interview with Dr. Arianna Shirk

A key challenge at Mount Vernon (and every school I have worked in) is how to challenge those students who score 100 on everything. Often, the teacher’s energy and focus goes to the “lower performing” students. The high achievers often do not receive the challenge they deserve because teachers think, “Oh, they’re fine. They’ve already got it. They get everything. They can help tutor the others.” This is a myth in need of busting. All students deserve and need to be challenge beyond their current ability, including and especially the ‘gifted’ students.

A key approach to solving challenges at Mount Vernon is Design Thinking. One important component of design thinking is learning to empathize with people who are or have experienced the challenge you are trying to solve first hand. In my attempt to gain empathy for the gifted, yet unchallenged students in our middle school as we seek to design better and more challenging programs, I have interviewed my sister-in-law, Dr. Arianna Shirk.

 shirk family

Dr. Shirk is family and she is extremely intelligent, motivated, creative, and high-achieving. Allow me to brag about her for a moment. She earned scholarships to high school in NC, Furman University for undergrad, and Wake Forest University for Medical School. At Furman, she was allowed to make up her own major as part of their Engaged Learning initiative and graduated with a Bachelor of Science in Perspectives on Poverty and Health. She studied the interaction of eastern and western medicine for a year as a Luce Scholar in Taiwan. She scored a 1580 on SAT, twenty points shy of perfect. Currently, she is a Pediatric Emergency Medicine Fellow at University Alabama at Birmingham and plans to move to Tanzania to help build one of the first free standing children’s hospitals in Eastern Africa.

How old were you when you first became aware of your need to be challenged beyond the typical classroom?

I was pulled out for enrichment learning classes in 1st grade where I wrote a play, learned chess, and did science field trips.

What most challenged you in middle school?
They gave me creative challenges with room for creativity.  A term paper on the Japanese Industrial Revolution. Special projects –  We did an election notebook in 7th grade 1992. We had to volunteer for the party of our choice. We wrote a report on a candidate at every level (county, state, and national) of government and studied the election process. We created a piece of election propaganda. I was assigned to be the debate coach which included watching the debates and prepping a fellow student candidate for a mock election. And I was a spelling bee nerd – I spent a few too many hours study Webster’s dictionary and running words with my parents.

What bored you the most?

When I had to regurgitate the book. I disliked one of my freshman high school classes because we never covered anything in class that wasn’t in the book. I did my homework and was bored to tears in class because nothing was new in class – I could memorize but wanted to learn to see it in a new way I couldn’t figure out myself.

What advice do you have for gifted students who want to be challenged?

If you have an idea, ask your teacher if you can do it. I’m still doing it – working on adapting my fellowship next year and plan to prepare myself better to practice medicine and maneuver the healthcare system in Africa.  If possible, choose writing topics that are more complex and require more research to write so you have the chance to learn more.  Figure out what you love and figure out how to make it part of your education every step of the way.

What advice do you have for educators who seek to differentiate for gifted students?

Show interest in them as people. Treat them as more than just students. Know more about them than just their grades or their ability to memorize things. My teachers that became mentors  made me feel confident and that I could do more than people expected middle schoolers to do.

Students rise to the challenge when they have ownership – when it engages passion or imagination. If they are doing something to check a box or get a grade it can limit their potential. I’m very good at checking boxes, but I had mentors along the way that made me create my own boxes.


Thank you Dr. Shirk!

For the readers, what strategies do you recommend for challenging the students who need a bit more?

Commitment Is Better Than Compliance

Commitment Is Better Than Compliance

Adopt this philosophy and you will live long in the land. Great leaders know the difference and how to achieve it.

One can apply this philosophy to any team, organization, group, family, etc. Today, let’s apply it to the discipline philosophy of a school. When the goal is simply to get kids to follow the rules in the handbook a specific culture is created. It is a culture of law. Teachers spend their time nagging students to stop chewing gum, tuck in their shirts, get in line, and hush up. The nature of the teacher/student relationship becomes authoritative and diametrically opposed to the alternative…

When the goal is to connect with kids, take a keen interest, love them and meet them where they are in life, a different type of culture is created. It is a culture of relationship. There are still high expectations and standards of behavior, but the difference can be found in how the kids respond to those leading them. Life as an educator is significantly more fun and fulfilling when we strive to build relationships rather than submission. We have a huge opportunity to influence lives when we build a culture of commitment.  When we enforce a culture a compliance, we might be able to keep students in line for a brief period of time, but we lose our influence.


#7 What is the #60Challenge?

I’m feeling good about my new blog and recent posts. I want to take a minute to clarify a few housekeeping items…

1. I have started several blogs over the years, but most didn’t last longer than a few posts. So far, I feel like this new blog is a win. Thanks for those who have retweeted or given enthusiastic feedback. It keeps me going. Really.

2. I was intending, and even in the process of planning, a relaunch of this blog when Bo Adams (@boadams1) shared the idea of the 60-60-60 Challenge with me. From his own blog, here is the challenge…

“I will post 60 ideas for educational change in the form of “what if” questions, I will do so for 60 days straight, and I will constrain my posts to around 60 words each (and maybe an image, an embedded TED talk, etc.).”

The Original 60-60-60 Challenge on @Boadams1 blog: It’s All About the Learning

3. I have already lost the challenge. Though I have blogged consecutively for 7 days now, I have far surpassed 60 words and not every post is about ideas for educational change. (Guess I should’ve read the challenge more carefully.)

4. I’m okay with that. I have renamed the hashtag attached to this 60 day experience (thanks @scitechyedu – Mary Cantwell!) simply #60Challenge. My goal is to blog consecutively for 60 days with a minimum of 60 characters and no constraints on my topics, format, or amount of media attached. (I’m already at 205 words in this post. yikes!)

Thanks for reading! Please continue to follow and to share.

What Swimming Taught Me About Leadership

What Swimming Taught Me About LeadershipWhat Swimming Taught Me About Leadership

Be the first one off the blocks
“Swimmers take your mark. Bang!” Any swimmer will tell you that in a race, every detail matters. The start, the turn, the position of your body are all critical to keeping the edge you need to win a close one. Swimmers are fanatics. We shave our arms, legs, and heads just to shave one second of our fastest time. Your first and best chance to win a race is to be the first one off the blocks and into the water. It takes a lot of practice, planning, and preparation to be ready for this moment. It lasts less than one second. If you false start, you get disqualified. If you hesitate, you’ve lost. You must be ready to seize the earliest opportunity to win.

What Swimming Taught Me About Leadership
Freshman swimmer at Marymount

Your goggles will come off. Don’t panic
After my embarrassing failure in the 100 IM, I learned how to dive in so that my goggles were less likely to come off upon entry. In subsequent races, I became adept at pulling the goggles down around my neck, ripping them up off my head, and even breathing with my mouth half obstructed. Despite vigilant preparation, unexpected moments still occur. You must be able to remain calm and adapt quickly.

At MU, Coach Clark had a bucket of goggles that were painted with opaque, black paint. We learned how to count our strokes and swim without sight. He had us practice on Sunday nights. With the lights out. I knew precisely how many strokes it took to get across 25 yards of water with my eyes closed. Eleven.

What Swimming Taught Me About Leadership

Finish strong
As a coach, I hammered this into the hearts and minds of my swimmers. The end of the race is when we are most tired. I trained myself and others to push hardest at precisely this moment. Get there first. Put your head down and don’t even think about turning your head to take a breath. Leave it in the pool. Picture swimming beyond the wall 10 yards through the concrete. Coach Clark used to say, “Swim past the pain.”

What Swimming Taught Me About Leadership
Finishing strong in my last home meet as a Leafmore Dolphin.

Be coachable
After winning county, I couldn’t fathom that I had more to learn about swimming. Coach Clark showed me I was wrong. As cliche as it sounds, I truly learned that hard work pays off. I adopted the belief that growth beyond what you can imagine is possible. You have to be open to what others can teach you from their wisdom and experience if you want to be the best. Seek wisdom. Seek mentors.

Be a Coach
The scales are balanced between my fulfillment as a swimmer vs. swim coach. I wouldn’t be good at one without the other. I learned as much in my role as coach as I did swimming. Sharing your unique knowledge and skills is a gift. Teach others. Celebrate when they surpass you.

What Swimming Taught Me About Leadership
Giving a swim lesson in 2001 in the same spot where I learned in 1983 at Leafmore.

Late bloomers should not be underestimated or counted out
Sometimes they go the farthest.

Since the summer of 1983, swimming has been a huge part of my life. The pool was located beyond the woods at the end of our neighborhood cul-de-sac. My first official lessons were at Leafmore Creek Park.

What Swimming Taught Me About Leadership
With my Dad and sister in 1982

Two summers later I joined the swim team as a wide-eyed newcomer. Most kids my age joined the swim several years earlier. I had some natural ability and a lot of fun at the pool, but I cried when the coach put me in the 100 IM (Individual Medley – one lap of each stroke) because I was not confident about swimming butterfly or the distance of four laps.

What Swimming Taught Me About Leadership
Showing off our ribbons the morning after a swim meet.

The coach and my parents gave me a pep talk and convinced me to get in the race. They saw potential in me that I did not yet see. I choked on my goggles and they had to pull me out midway through the first lap. It was embarrassing, but I didn’t quit.

In 1993, I was hired as an assistant coach. I joined Dynamo and committed to life as a ‘year round’ swimmer. In 1994, I was the fastest 15 & over in Dekalb County in 50 yard freestyle and 50 yard breaststroke at the championship meet. I was a late bloomer.

I continued swimming in college at Marymount University my freshman year. Coach Clark completely changed my stroke technique and I became much faster. I broke 3 individual school records and 4 relay records. After one year, I transferred to UGA and my career as a swimmer was over. My career as a swim coach was just beginning.

I coached the Leafmore Dolphins from 1993 to 1999. Our team was undefeated 5-0 in 1999, a feat that had not been accomplished at Leafmore in 30 years. The last time the Leafmore Dolphins were undefeated was in 1969. They were coached by another UGA graduate, Phil Houston, my Dad.

What Swimming Taught Me About Leadership
Coach Houston (my Dad) in red shorts on right 1969.
What Swimming Taught Me About Leadership
Coach Houston (me) on left in blue shorts 2009.

I returned to coach the Dolphins from 2006 to 2009. Once again, the team was undefeated 5-0. Leading the swim team at Leafmore was my favorite job.

Swimming led to many great opportunities including the chance to volunteer at the 1996 Olympics where I had full access to the pool deck and met some incredible athletes and people.

What Swimming Taught Me About Leadership
Meeting President Jimmy Carter at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. Swimming gave me countless opportunities.



#5 Why Conduct Student Surveys?

Why should teachers solicit feedback from their students at the end of the semester?

The answer is simple. Growth.

Our team and our school promote this practice in our five year strategic plan as well as the standards of professional excellence by which we coach and evaluate our teachers.

Seek feedback and measure attitudes, perceptions, and beliefs of students about their work and contribution within the classroom environment. -iPlan17

We also highly value the idea and posture of Carol Dweck’s Growth Mindset. (For more on this concept, see post #6 of the #60-60-60Challenge tomorrow.)


Here are some key thoughts for educators and teams to consider…

Students should be invited to reflect and share feedback about their learning in each class at the end of each semester.

Teachers participate in writing the survey questions.

Phrase questions to elicit specific, constructive feedback.

Discard destructive comments and personal attacks or matters of personal taste vs. good practice. (ex: Kids may not like the practice of a daily essential question, but if done properly, it is good practice and should be continued.)

Pay attention to patterns of consistent, recurring comments.

Pay attention to comments that describe specific behavior.

Filter every comment through the perspective that kids are honest, yet they are still kids.

Ask why.


What has caused you to grow the most in your field? What are your thoughts and experiences with end of course student surveys?

The Team You’re On vs. The Team You Lead

The Team You’re On vs. The Team You Lead

Last summer our leadership team read The Advantage by Patrick Lencioni and the quote below has stuck with me ever since. I will confess, I have not been as strongly committed to this ideal as I feel I should be.

“The team you belong to must come ahead of the team you lead: this is putting team results (e.g., organizational needs) ahead of individual agendas (e.g., the team or division you lead).” – Patrick Lencioni 

I love the people I work with. I love my team and my teammates. I feel a close connection with the team I lead because that is where I spend most of my time and energy in a typical week. I want to see this continue. We have big plans ahead. Yet at the same time…

I would like to demonstrate and develop a greater commitment to the team of division heads and the leadership council to which I belong. I would like to break down silos. I want to be a unit rather than a collection of individuals. I would like to see the potential of a group of incredibly committed and high-performing people fully unleashed.

To quote Michael Jackson, I’m starting with the man in the mirror. Yes, I just said that.

Here are 3 ways I plan to move in the direction of being a better teammate…

* Be more disciplined and effective in managing my time – so I have more time to…

* Be selfless and willing to help others – and simply be available and engaging to…

* Foster relationships by taking a greater personal interest – Life in a school is very busy. Life at my school is extremely busy. Weeks go by and though I may meet with the team I lead daily, I often do not see other teammates until the next leadership council meeting. Even when I see them, I feel that I don’t have a clear sense of what they are struggling with/working on and how I could help them. We are each doing our own thing, even though we are each working towards a common mission. We can improve our alignment, communication, commitment, and thus our impact.

Organizational_Health the-advantage-lencioni

Characteristics of Great Teammates by Brad Lomenick