Don’s blog post: Teachers have the best job ever… when our administration empowers us
Don talks about coming from a family of educators and his unusual path to choosing the same career (2:27)
Taking to heart his dad’s response when Don told him he was going to school for a teaching certificate: “I don’t care if you teach for the next 20 years. Just promise me you won’t teach one year 20 times.” (3:20)
Switching from teaching middle school English for five years to teaching broadcasting and documentary film-making at a high school (3:50)
How a TED Talk changed his career focus (4:10)
The 20% Time principle explained (5:00)
How Don leads an innovation class (6:30)
How Don sees his role as a school leader (10:00)
Examples of why forming alliances is critical for edu-leaders (11:14)
Why you shouldn’t worry too much about getting credit for your innovative ideas (14:18)
Don talks about some of the difficult early moments as an education innovator (18:50)
Far too many of us are living artificial lives and we’re not fully alive (21:40)
What kept Don going in those early, discouraging days (23:20)
Some important lessons Don learned during those days (24:55)
Most teachers take one of three approaches when it comes to innovation (26:20)
Don’s advice for listeners who want to become innovation leaders at their school (27:55)
One of the most meaningful moments in Don’s career (32:00)
The best leadership advice Don ever received (35:45)
The importance of being passionate about educating kids (36:45)
Don’s top book recommendation (37:40)
Why Google Calendar is Don’s favorite app (38:25)
Why an old-fashioned whiteboard is Don’s favorite “technology” (39:40)
Don’s advice for admins on working with students (42:00)
Don’s advice for admins on working with teachers (43:00)
How to connect with Don (44:44)
Books mentioned in this episode
Apps and tools mentioned in this episode
Connect with Don Wettrick
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Podcast Session #10
Show notes: http://www.educatorslead.com/donwettrick/
This is the Educators Lead podcast with Jay Willis, Session #10. Let’s go!
Intro: Don Wettrick is the Innovation Coordinator at Noblesville High School, just outside of Indianapolis, IN. He is the author of “Pure Genius: Building a Culture of Innovation and Taking 20% Time to the Next Level.” Don has worked as a middle school and high school teacher; educational and innovation consultant; and educational speaker. Don is passionate about helping students find their educational opportunities and providing them with the digital tools they need to give them a competitive edge. That’s just a brief introduction Don, but tell us a little bit more about yourself?
Don: Ok. I guess, I think this is my 19th year in education. And yeah, I’ve been doing a little bit of this, and a little bit of that but I’ve recently and by recently I mean in the last 5 years have started an innovation class which you have to see to believe. But we tried to be transparent in everything so everyone can check out the NHS innovation channel on YouTube. My blog is innovationteacher.com and yeah just trying to move the needle forward on this buzz word we called innovation and try to showcase in what it looks like instead of just talking about it.
Jay: Great. So tell us a little bit about your career path.
Don: So, the path has been odd. Everybody in my family was in education. At some point, my sister was an elementary deaf education teacher. My dad is retired now but he was in education. He was both in the glory days of the shop class era in mechanical drafting and then was in guidance counseling. My mom was a stay-at-home mom which by definition makes her an educator and the one thing I promised myself was not going into education because everybody else in my family did. So it was kind of funny that after 3 years of being out of college and, I had a nice job and I just didn’t like it as much and I thought, “Oh no, what am I thinking?” and I decided to go into education. And it’s always funny that thing that sticks out to me in one of my favorite stories to tell is, what I told my dad who by the way, my mom and dad paid for every cent of my education. As in “hey mom, dad I’m not looking for money, but I just wanted to let you know that I wanted to go back and I’m gonna get my teaching diploma.” And my dad just took a deep breath and he says, “You know Donny, I don’t care if you teach for the next 20 years, just please promise me you won’t teach one year twenty times” so my teaching career has been kind of modeled after that, I try not to teach the same thing year after year and after teaching middle school English, I think 5 years in 6th grade and then 5 years in 7th. I decided to take a shot at doing broadcasting and documentary film making class at a high school and then the craziest thing happened, I saw Daniel Pink’s TED Talk maybe 5 years ago on freedom and autonomy and I thought, “Boy, that sounds, you know cool” we didn’t have a genius hour label yet, we didn’t have a 20% time label yet in education. So I decided let’s start that and that has been the real focus ever since on that great journey of learning how to innovate.
Jay: So tell us more about that 20%, I was curious about that in the book title?
Don: Yeah, so you know, so the term genius hour, I’m not sure who coined that but the 20% time model is what a lot of people are talking about when they talk about Dan Pink’s TED talk or the Google time or it’s also known as and so essentially what it was is that some businesses, most notably Google, they gave their employees 20% of their work week to work on what they were really jazzed up about. Right? So they said, we don’t care what you look to, just after that time frame is up we want to know what you found. Because Google especially back then was in the information business so if you wanted to look further into something and you really want to experiment, they just want to know how it came out. So I thought that’s a good thing. Let’s try that in education and the scary thing is that it doesn’t, doesn’t work out very well, not until you prepare, your students have to think and have to prepare that culture first. It’s kind of like when we fall in love with tech integration, we think that technology’s gonna be the answer for our kids. It’s not, it’s not ever going to be. It’s preparing the way for them to utilize technology because of great learning environments. But if you did say, “You know, hey we’re gonna learn great things. Here is an Ipad, use it” , but if you don’t have any idea what you’re doing, that’s not gonna work out so well. So same thing with the innovation class we in the first couple of years, it wasn’t going that well. And I hear this from a lot of people and I’m probably, I got to go around to a lot of different schools and work with the teachers and so on. People said, they want to do 20% time, you know the dirty little secret is, it’s working for about 20% of the kids. And then often times, the 20% of these kids are the ones that they shock you. It’s not necessarily the kid that has the A; it’s the kid that has the C or D. and then we kind of look into that at what that is.
Jay: So how do you prepare for that culture, I mean how do you prepare those students for the innovation?
Don: I’ll explain this the way I do this in high school and I’ll circle around to why I’m spending so much time working with elementary teachers. From a high school standpoint, you almost, you start off the year by unlearning them or unschooling them. I have them help me design what the class looks like. I don’t have a rigid set of rules on what the class is but I have a general rule. And case in point this year, we started off with all the things we did not like about school or education. And it’s funny because it’s like this echo chamber, everybody admits, you know, they say things like you know factory style, learning you know and other stuff. And everybody knows it’s not right. So after they had this huge list of what they didn’t like I’m “ok, you know what the exact opposite of all these things are? This class.” They talked about you know when things are relevant and you know how things can be applicable to them and if they had a time where they could learn the things they want to learn or that get advantages of networking with people but they really always wanted to work with and I’m like “Ok, all these things you mentioned, that’s my class, let’s go.”
So essentially I took away a lot of their complaints or a lot of their you know, things that they have problems with upfront and left them know that’s it’s on them. The other thing that I want them to know is you know, this is the paradigm shift. You’re not gonna work for me, I’m gonna work for you. The ultimate goal is this. Classes, I’m gonna teach you how to think and work through problems. And the 2nd part of this I want you to be the best person you can be. How can I help you get there? You said you always want to know about coding. Let’s learn coding. You said, you always want to start a nonprofit. Let’s start a nonprofit. You said you always want to start a business. Let’s form, let’s help you form an LLC. Once we can get those skills together, or that’s you know how we get going. Now, it takes a couple of what shall I say, a couple of months for them to get over that. Because high school kids have been told for years, sit down, shut up, learn these things and they don’t have a choice in that matter. So in the first couple of years I did this I’m like, “Hey, what do you want to learn? What do you want me to learn?” and now I’m “What are you really passionate about?” I’m passionate about getting an A so I can get in to my favorite college. No no no no no no. You’re missing the point.
So it takes a time for them to get over that. So my goal is what if we keep working with elementary school teachers. And then how these kids filter up to the middle school. A time like an innovation class will be natural. And by the way, I’m not bashing all of education. There are a lot of foundational things that we need. And sometimes school is not gonna be the most exciting. There’s just some foundational things you have to teach. But if there’s one time of the day that you can innovate and collaborate with people that you didn’t dare dream of in the past well that’s an innovation class. And where does that start? Honestly it starts in kindergarten. You know, like show and tell is among the most incredible things because it’s their time to share their knowledge on what they did except can we like can we incrementally make that better and better so that show and tell time and 1st and 2nd grade; they might start working with the couple of other kids in class and then all of a sudden you’re working with an outside expert. You just kind of expand that time for, for the lack of better term, to innovate.
Jay: So, obviously on this show we usually have you know, assistant principals, principals, superintendents, they’ll be on this show just talking about their transition to school leadership. So talk a little bit about your role and just your role as a school leader kind of share that with our listeners just so they kind of better understand you know, your position that you have?
Don: Yeah, you know I’m certainly glad that you asked and this is, if you could see me I’m metaphorically gonna stand up on my soapbox. So, I’m a school leader in the sense that I’m leading an innovation charge for sure. I want to work with as many school leaders as I can because they are the guardians right? The gate keepers, I’ve seen some really passionate educators that really want to start doing things that’re gonna involve risk. And if the superintendent and principal go No no no no no no, we don’t do risk…game over. So I have a leadership position in the sense that I’m still a classroom teacher, don’t want to do anything past that. But I want to show more education people that they can take leadership roles with in their own position.
Jay: That’s great. That’s great, so talk to us, talk to us a little bit about the journey to becoming, the journey that helped get you or that got you to that position that you’re currently in as a school leader.
Don: Oh, that’s easy – forming alliances. I’ve seen exactly one episode of Survivor and they used the term that I’m not really that familiar with on survivor but I remember when I first asked to do this class and I got a “No” and I pretended that he said, “Yes” because I knew that this was gonna be a great thing. Well I think the first step up in leadership is just having the arrogance of belief knowing that you’re… you know, if I know what I’m gonna do is right for kids then doggone it, I should plow through. And they said “No” but then I started making some phone calls and God bless them, I made some really great alliances with the two really great people at Stanford University, one at Duke, and most importantly with Daniel Pink. And I was totally naïve back then. I didn’t know that he was a big deal so I just got a hold of him, talked to him and “Hey, I’m starting this class and I’ve got you in mind, etc.” And so he started to agree, we did a couple of Skype sessions and then lo and behold, the principal’s like “Well that’s cool. And, oh, this class you wanted, oh this is maybe not a bad idea.” So, sometimes gathering people around you and building up alliances helps for sure and the other is…
Jay: And it didn’t hurt on your side right?
Don: Yeah, it didn’t hurt because I was completely naïve to the fact that you know I was just getting this taste of innovation right. I’ve seen exactly two TED talks and you know, I just thought that was a cool talk for everyone. Man, I didn’t appreciate who he was then yet but the other thing is just also being bold in your transparency. Leadership is never ever ever ever trying to keep things secret. Leadership is wanting to show everybody, “Hey this works or this doesn’t work” so you know we’ve done a lot of YouTube stuff. We update our kid’s blog. And we don’t really get arrogant about it so when we are onto something cool we will let you know, it’s cool. We’re on something terrible. We’re gonna sit there and go. Wow! Yeah don’t try to sit home. This was a terrible idea. And I think people have appreciated that because anybody and this is my 2nd soapbox moment, anybody can tell you that they’re innovative. I always see that you’re innovative. Any school leader can say that their school does great work. Ok great, we’ll see it. And I’m not saying that in a condescending way, I’m just saying that you could change people’s minds and you can win over hearts if we just saw what you’re talking about. So, I’m really really really skeptical of the innovation expert who you’ve never seen anything from. I’m really skeptical from that a school leader that said, “We have a great school” and you never hear from the students. And God forbid you got a chance to interview them and ok how’s it going over there. And if they have a totally different view, ok then we need to, let’s talk about transparency. Let’s talk about seeing your results instead of just talking about it.
Jay: So, how do you deal with that, I mean as a leader, just in general, with I think the natural thing would be to be concerned especially if you’ve had experience with this in the past? Concern that if we’re are just kind of, you know, wide open where you’re sharing and you’re not keeping things secret especially when it comes to innovation, you’ll be concerned that other people might take credit for your ideas or just you know speak to that, how do you get over those concerns like, you know because I know sometimes we have a tendency to want to keep things, you know be tight fisted and keep things closed. Maybe until you figured it out and then want to be able to take all the credit for it or especially if you have people on the team that maybe you’ve seen that have a tendency to want to try to take more credit than maybe necessarily they’re due. Can you speak to that for at least one?
Jay: Oh I sure can. So my mind was spinning just because I’m an audiophile, my 1st inclination is to start quoting John Lennon from “All you need is love” you know, there’s nothing you can say hasn’t been said. There’s nothing you can write that hasn’t been written. So I can’t take a credit for a lot of these things.. A lot of these ideas were not my own. They were Daniel Pink’s, who, ironically enough, Daniel’s Pink’s writing was based on other people’s writing. He read a lot of books and made some connections and said, “Hey, I‘m on to something here” I’m doing the same thing, so people want to take credit, go right ahead, you’re probably gonna look at an angle that I’m not considering. Secondly is that, this is the 1990 business model vs. 2015 or 16 whenever this is released. In the sense that the more I give away, good for everybody. If I’m transparent (by the way, I’m gonna lose half my audience), this is why I’m more of an Android person than an Apple person. I like open source. I like transparent. You know, who’s got the biggest set of cojones on the planet, that was Elon Muski when he said, “Hey here’s all the plan to my electric car – think you can build one? Go for it” you know it’s great.
Don: It’s those open source people that I’m just in love with which by the way; my class is called Innovation and Open Source Learning. The more we learn from each other, there’s nothing proprietary on what I’m doing. It’s just maybe in the approach there’s a little bit some settled differences. I mean, if you talk about what the primary role of school is. What I’m doing is the most basic fundamental thing. I’m providing time and space and some resources for kids to know how to think and follow passions and get interested by inquiry. I mean, this is the most foundational thing in the world so it’s nothing. Shocking and yet when people, you know, I meet people, the first question is, “How did you get away with this?” Well, actually the first question is “You are a private school right?” and like “No, I’m at the public school” “How did you get away with this?” like how did you get away with it. “How can you provide such a class that’s not hitting the standards?” “Oh, I’m hitting standards” “How are you doing that?” “I have the kids research what they want, you know, hey I want to learn to do blank” “Great, you take control of your own education and tell me what standards you’re gonna hit and the way we go?” “Oh I never thought of that approach” “Yeah, yeah imagine this, instead of me writing a standard on the board and say “Learn this” you tell me what you want to learn and then substantiate it. Oh ok, so yeah, I’m not worried at all about people stealing or borrowing or whatever so the more, the merrier. Go for it.
Jay: Yeah, so it sounds like you just feel like the best ideas gonna win in the end so the more people share, the better the ideas that gonna come out as a result of that.
Don: And it’s funny you said that because the best ideas do win. And here is the crazy thing. This class has been overhauled I think I’m on my, the 4th or 5th different way of grading because I listen to my customer base and my customer base is my students. So my students say, hey; I even have a kid, Jake Jordan the other day said, “You need to make me do the following things, I don’t like it but it’s gonna be good for me” that when you have kids that are at that level of thinking and so yeah, even my idea of what the class, it is transformed and mutated so many times and I’m ok with, going back to Chuck Wettrick 101. Don’t teach one year twenty times. This is my 5th year in the Innovation Class so we’ve gone through, I mean this is probably version 5.2, so it’s nutty. I mean it’ll always evolve.
Jay: So tell us a little bit about the journey, just I’m sure there were; you know there have been some ups and downs along the way especially kind of pioneering this thing. You know from the beginning so what talk about maybe one of your most difficult moments in the journey?
Don: Year one. You know, to get started off I thought I was gonna do the smart thing and I recruited some of the students I already knew when they were A students and the hardest part was; this was gonna be awesome, and they told me it’s gonna be awesome. I mean who wouldn’t want to take a class when the class is what you think is best for you? So I’m like I, sort of like, “Hey what are you passionate about?” “I don’t know” “No no no, what do you want to work on?” In the end a lot of them were like, look I thought this was gonna be fun. This is a lot easier if you just give me an essay. Give me a Scan-tron of some sort. I will ace that thing.
And so I realize that in a lot of cases, people prefer their present self. It’s an easy environment, we complain that it’s not interactive, we complain that it’s not relevant, we complain about a lot of things, but you know what, it’s easy. And it made me so depressed that I’m like ok, I see a better future for you and you don’t want to take it. I see some fun interactive things that you could have with a little effort. Or you could just rot away and memorize some stuff. It was heartbreaking because I thought I was gonna hang it up after year 1. Here’s my golf for metaphor. But just like when I go out and play golf and I don’t shoot that well, there’s like on the 17th hole I’ll put one like very close to the pin. And I’m like oh yeah, I’ll be back. I’ll be back and so I, it’s the same thing.
I had like two projects that were really good and I’m like alright, I’ll just go try this next year and the next year wasn’t that great either and then the year after that was incrementally better because I, as the students were learning what not to do and by the way this has been my lifelong learning you know, I’m learning along and talked about a fun environment by the way, these kids are so much smarter that I am. I just had a kid, he’s invented a solar panel; a transparent solar panel. Its amazing stuff and I mean amazing stuff. I’m over there I was like doggone it how did he do that? Could you show me what you’re doing? And it was so many things going on in that room I am so lost and I loved it so that journey from being completely hopeless to having some hope, to me being lost in awe has been, has been the journey and that thing was my last point.
I am infatuated with Joseph Campbell’s monomyth, The Heroes’ Journey. What I really want people listening to this to know a lot of us are living an artificial life. We’re watching everybody else achieve for us, we’re watching sports, we’re watching movies, we’re watching our favorite performer but what if we got out of our comfort zone and we took our own journey? What if the things that we are bothered by we actually took action? This class is that. I don’t want my kids to passively watch things you know, an awareness campaign means exactly nothing, if there’s no action and so a lot of times when we fall in love with something, we act on it, if we are bothered with something, and we act on it. And I’m begging people, I’m begging people. This needs to be an elective in every high school in America; No, in the world, eventually. Quietly sitting there and watching the world go by and us training them that way, is just, it’s heart breaking and once you unleash these kids and you can show them that their passion lies right there. It’s inspiring. It’s really inspiring.
Jay: Yeah, so just to back track, just yeah a minute, when you were going to some of these struggles and in maybe at the beginning where it seemed kind of hopeless because they didn’t see the vision and they were just kind of, like they were just kind of used to going along and doing what they are told and not thinking outside the box or maybe realizing there’s not a box at all. Or whatever but so what got you through that, when you were kind of it, you know at the trough at the bottom of your discouragement?
Don: That’s a great question. What kept me going? My own curiosity. Yeah, I never thought about that. I don’t know. I just, I just never thought it wouldn’t not work well. So, yeah you know, I was ready to give up but those moments of hope gave me hope but in the other end, it was this, I just knows this what we called the arrogance of belief and if it comes cross arrogant well, I’m sorry. But I know what I’m doing is right.
Don: Because it’s so fundamental. And it’s so true. I know what doing I’m is right and so when I get to see those nuggets of wisdom from the kids and just being in the healthiest environment possible. Learning along, we talk about lifelong learning, a lot of times we’re just saying that because it’s a cool buzz phrase or whatever. I’m learning all the time, and I think that keeps me going. And then lastly, I mean I have 3 kids of my own. And I want to make sure that they have a class like this. You know, my oldest is a freshman in high school. And I want to make that she can have this kind of environment and all the way down to my middle and youngest. It’s kind of funny how you’re in education. You want to change it at a young age but you really want to change it if you now have kids of your own you know. So I think that’s part of it as well.
Jay: Yeah, so what was some of the takeaways from that process like from maybe when you had the discouragement and I mean it sounds like maybe just a little bit of hopelessness. That maybe wasn’t horrible but just what did you learn I guess through that process was the biggest take a way?
Don: Biggest takeaway was, is that you can lead the horse to water. But it’s best to let the horse think that he had found some pond. When you tell kids, this is gonna be awesome, this gonna be great. Now do something amazing. There’s some resistance to you there but when you say, “Hey you know what I’ve got this crazy idea. I’ve got this idea for a class. I don’t know what do you think? How can we design this to be with? How can I be better?” How could, what we are doing here be even more and then giving them a say in choice; really really really opened it up because I hear from people all the time and I’m so blessed to hear back from so many people that they’re trying some of these things. And then number one I hear is, “Hey, I told them were gonna do some awesome things and I’m gonna give you this time to be you know, genius hour and go be geniuses” and daggone it, they won’t. Well, ok because did you tell them? Sit down and be genius? Was that really a different approach than what we’ve had in the past?
You know if we truly want to be innovative, we have to be open and you know someday I said, “Could you give me a worksheet on how to be innovative?” I’m like, man, you’re killing me. “Well, tell me how to be innovative and I will.” I just write a blog post on that, not too long ago about how school leaders, this is right up your alley. I said, you know how teachers have the best job ever when we have great leadership and but it usually falls under 3 categories on the teaching end of it. What the school administrator said is that we’re gonna be innovative. Teacher #1 always is the coaches coach and he says, “Yes, innovative can you give me a playbook on how to be innovative?” it’s a start right. Teacher #2 is I’m gonna shut my door and I’m gonna do whatever I please. If you can, a lot of times there’s teachers that would say I want to shut my door and teach the way I please. A lot of times they want some autonomy. So if you let teacher #2 know that you’re gonna get “Hey, I want to hear from you. You said you want to shut the door. Why are you bitter, why you want i…well because back when I used to get create, “Ok great, how can this what?” and lastly there’s the disrupter and honestly these are the people that might not be too popular in their own building because they challenge the status quo. My gosh, I still apologize to my principal that you know, he knew what he was getting into when I said, you know look, I’m rarely gonna ask for permission. I’m gonna…it’s easier to ask for forgiveness and you know, just kind of keep moving forward. So, that kind of leadership, allowing me to thrive, allowing us to grow, it’s all meant so much to me and other teachers.
Jay: So, that’d be a great question, how or what advice would you have for other people that maybe either want to be in a position similar to yours or you have had the privilege of being placed in the position similar to yours, just about leading up, and helping those around them especially those in leadership positons above them to be open to that.
Don: My heads flooding with ideas…First of all, if you would like to be like an innovation coordinator or director in school, I mean start by you being innovative in your own classroom. You know being known for that. Secondly, if and I mean this too I mean by listening, if I can be of any help, you know, email me, dwettrick(at)gmail.com, I love to help people that want to change and do some of these things and then lastly you know have a very very very transparent attitude of “look I’m not gonna be secretive. I want to do the following things”, because a lot of school administrators…I had the luxury of doing this once, I was leading a really big training session once and it had tons of people there from teachers, administrators, principals and then it had superintendents so we are talking about change. Some of these teachers are really nervous and looking at me and like motioning with their eyeballs like “ask him!”, and it was the principal. I’m like ok, like tell me about risk and the principal says “we want to take risk but you know were handtied you know, we’re not sure what the superintendent says.” And then of course me, being the pot stirrer, how many superintendents are here that day and there was like 5 hands well great, what about you, why aren’t you allowing for risk? And then one guy who was very brave, he’s like, well I would like to but you know the state legislature …. I’m like, ok ok here everybody is passing the buck. Just be brave. And the more you’re upfront, instead of being and this is why I said this is to the guy that shutting his door and does it the old way. Like be brave, open up the door, open up the windows because when you’re doing what’s right for kids and you’re challenging them to be awesome, you’re bullet proof. And by the way, once you get these things going, you know who wants to really quickly take credit, the politicians and then the superintendent is like yeah and this was really great and by the way, I don’t blame them because they should be rewarded by letting that disrupter do these thing, and it’s funny because the people are always afraid to take that first step. Once they do, they realize that everybody wants to support them. And so just do it then. Do it in a really really really visible way. And yes, again if I can be of any help to people listening and if by the way, if you’re an administrator and you want to talk to me about helping you work with your teachers or whatever, that’s what I, that’s what I’m jazzed up about. I love it and my gosh, students also help out too. We do these Skype sessions every now and then and talking to teachers and other students so, we’re here to help.
Jay: Yeah, that’s great. So the biggest take away I got from just kind of what you just said is just you know don’t tip toe. You know for that educator especially who’s listening who maybe has a tendency to be like a close-the-door and let-me-just-do-my-thing because I’m probably not doing it the way other people would prefer that I do it. So, biggest take away I got from that was just you know what, own it, own it because if you’re doing good things for the kids, other people are gonna catch on. And so, rather than you actually kind of doing them a disservice by trying to hide it because then they’re not gonna catch that same vision and passion for that, that you have and that can actually be a great thing for other people to catch that passion so that was the biggest take away I got from, I got from what you just said. That was good. And then also, along with that, I loved to get if you could do to email me or just send me after this interview just the, the post that you just alluded to about administration, the blog post that you just talked about.
Jay: So and we can put that on the show notes so other people can visit that because I’m sure there’s lots of people who would be interested in reading that.
Don: Very good.
Jay: So, very good, well so tell us about one because I know you’ve been in education for a while. Tell us about one of your most meaningful and significant stories. I’m sure you’ve got lots of amazing stories. If you could just share just one of those with us, one of the best.
Don: You know what, I was gonna go with something techie or maybe even socially entrepreneurish but I think of one of the stories that really caught fire and actually it’s one we started to experience. I had a student of mine that oh man, he was very obese and very depressed and…very long emotional story made very short, we had kind of a talk in the hallway and he indicated to me that he had lost hope and his father had passed away and from that he kind of spiraled out of control and while we sat out there and talked and kind of connected this kind of idea caught fire in my head. I had just started this innovation class and literally you know we talk about the mantra, “opportunities are everywhere.” We live by that. So a lot of times when you see a problem, that’s a great opportunity to serve and so all of a sudden I was like. “Wait a second, I can be, this could be a great opportunity”, so I asked the student and said, “Hey, what do you have first period in the morning” he says, “A nutrition class” and I said, “How’d you like to be a part of basically of an innovation project?” and I asked the student who was actually looking for a project if he would want to just work with the student because I’d read Dr. John Medina’s book, Brain Rules. As the body is in motion you, you know, become smarter, and brain activity fires.
So we devised a plan where these two students were just to walk and talk and gather ideas and then he is he’s gonna gather data and what came out of that was amazing. Friendships were formed; it ended spreading up to a couple of other students who saw what was going on. We tried to be very discreet about it. We didn’t exactly want get on announcements and talk about it, but some other people saw what was going on and so their students kind of got involved and it also taught me a lot about transparency because things started going a lot better for him and then one thing led to another and someone jokingly said, “You should blog about this” and mind you my Twitter following then was really pretty small and I’m like “Who will read it?” but they were like no, really, you should. So I put out a blog, I wrote it and I think it had 3,000 hits in the first evening and within a week The Today Show called and they did a thing about it online unfortunately they didn’t produce a package because they were doing a Socio Olympics. But it just kind of showed me great student stories will drive change. And being transparent and the student asked me to be transparent right? It showed what all can happen if you’re doing great work for kids, who want to get involved, who can you inspire, and what kind of call action is there? And it was just, it was a whirlwind of activity and just an awesome time and it also strengthened my resolve to, ok this innovation class is cool. It doesn’t have to be about app design, it doesn’t have to be about one to one initiatives, it can be about a student being depressed learning to lose some weight and finding a friend and that was a really transformational time for me.
Jay: That’s neat. So speaking of transitions, I’m gonna roll through some rapid fire questions, if you’re ready for this?
Jay: Alright. So what’s the best leadership advice you’ve ever received?
Don: Best leadership advice I’ve ever received, I think I witnessed it more than got it firsthand but basically, leaders, and I got this a lot from my family. Leaders empower other people; the more value you bring to other people, the more you’ll be celebrated. You know, great leaders in the past who were nice and lifted people up always achieved more and yeah there’s tales of some really mean awful company owners, but true leadership to me is you’re the last in line. You want to make sure that everybody else is succeeding along with you. It’s not about you, it’s about everybody else. So that’s always in my heart.
Jay: That’s great. What would you say is your biggest strength as a school leader?
Don: Passion. Man, I love what I do. And I think and even some of my students joke about that is that even on a bad day, I’m like come on this gonna be awesome! And I don’t know, I think I’m still in many ways a middle school student. My wife could probably agree to that, unfortunately on some days. But not, I’m really jazzed about what I do. And I love what I do. And definitely passion and that enthusiasm I think is infectious with you know, when I’m around really happy upbeat people, I’d become upbeat and happy. That’s why I try to avoid really negative down people because who has time for that.
Jay: Is there a book or two that you’d recommend for other school leaders?
Don: Yeah, Leaders Eat Last by Simon Sinek. It was amazing and it has nothing to do with education and everything to do about education. I like his no nonsense thing especially there the end where he was kind of talking about you know buzz words and awareness campaigns and all these other things. Things with that action don’t mean anything. And that leaders eat last mentality was, “Look if you’re in-charge, everybody should be empowered by you and feel safe by you not be fearing you”, and I loved that book.
Jay: It’s great. Is there a tool or you know kind of like a technology tool or an app software something that you’ve recommend to other school leaders.
Don: I’m never overly in love with the latest app. I got to be honest with you. My favorite app is probably Google Calendar. Because I have so many nutty things going on at one time, I mean yeah there’s some cool apps out there.
Jay: Well, how do you use just to talk about Google Calendar because I used that? How do you used that maybe different, you know more innovative.
Don: Well that’s one of our planning things I liked for my students. All of our projects are in two week increments. And I want to see in the calendar what they’re doing. Just like when you give and heck, we all went to college right? When you had a big project, and you said, “The due date is May 15th“ When did you start on it? May 14, so I like to use Google Calendar. I want to see daily like what your daily goals are. I like Google Docs and the sense that you know, when we truly like brainstorm with some people and then I hear some of my kids will start a Google Doc. We will contribute to it. “Oh my gosh, that’s so cool.” You know, although I will insist and as soon as I say that, “The most important piece of technology I have in my room without a doubt, without a doubt. Actually the two most important pieces of technology I have in my room” and you’re gonna laugh because they’re not technology, is a whiteboard. And a forum to which we can brainstorm, everything flows from that, everything. So now, so when we have great white boarding sessions. Those things that we do jot down first then we can go to Google Docs and then we can go to Google Calendar and fill things out but I’m a fundamentalist. I like conversations. I like collaborating. I like bouncing off ideas, I love collecting, connecting that kind of stuff.
Jay: So do you have like, do you share calendars, I mean how does that work with multiple users or how do you use that?
Don: Yeah, this depends if the students are, if they’re not collaborating with each other then I prefer to look at their calendar. But a lot of times, I’m just asking them to fill out their calendar for their own benefit. They do proposals and they do reflections and then their proposal, they’re gonna tell me what they’re gonna do on Monday, Wednesday and Friday this week, what are they gonna do on Tuesday and Thursday of next week? Physically looking at their calendar isn’t a benefit to me. It’s benefit to them so I’m really trying to get them to use it for their planning purposes.
Jay: Yeah, that’s great. It’s a great thing for them to learn later in life. So maybe they won’t do their paper on the 14th Wednesday to 15th in college, you know.
Don: Right. If you do want me to get techy like Bi-board. I think it’s really cool. It’s a whiteboard app. They can collaboratively white board sessions on ipad’s. But I’m just saying that to impress you.
Jay: So what you’re favorite if you had, what would be your favorite educational quote?
Don: My dad’s “I don’t care if you teach for 20 years, just don’t teach 1 year twenty times.” That has stuck out with me throughout my career. My 1st year of teaching… and really, when my dad said it I kind of just nodded my head and said “OK, Dad.” I didn’t know what he meant, really, until I saw some people that didn’t love their jobs. And they’re bored with it you know, they’d done it so long that there is nothing new to them and so they’d bust out same worksheets they’d always had. And then they have the audacity to say that the students don’t like their class. I was like “Hey buddy, YOU don’t like your class. You’re bored with yourself.” Spice it up. You know, add something new. And hearing those words in my head over them and from my dad has always stuck with me.
Jay: What advice do you have for working with the students that you serve in the school?
Don: That ultimately it’s on you. Look, this is probably a sore point with me because every now and then I’ll bust my hump making sure I’ve got the best environment. I’m trying to find them great collaborators. I’m trying to, I’m trying to, I’m trying to, and when they don’t try that really that hurts me. I’m not gonna get political. We have an entitled society. From a lot of standpoints and when we do everything for our kids, we’re doing them a huge disservice. So after I’ve set the foundation, “It’s up to you man” and this is what bugs me when I see kids know that it’s just easy to be lazy and you’ll just get by, so my best piece of advice is “Look, I am here to work for you, but if you don’t work for you, then we’re done.”
Jay: That’s great. What advice could you have for working with the other teachers, other educators, and the administration?
Don: Just do it man, just do it, if you have, now I’m gonna quote Steve Winwood , if you see a chance to take it. Just do it you know. Enough of this talk you know, let’s try things and if you don’t know what to do, ask your students. Have a conversation with them. Tell them that their opinion is valid. Tell them you want to grow with them. Tell them that they’re the educational experts in a lot of cases. You know, I guarantee there are a lot of 3rd grade teachers out there that are, that don’t know really how to design really cool Minecraft stuff. Ask your kids, “How would I do that?”, and watch them thrive. You know just just try something out of the ordinary and give them some freedom. Give them some time to show what they know and inspire them to be better, the choice boys thing. And just go man and don’t be afraid of being scolded by a principal. And if you do and this is you know, if you are that principal…but if you’re listening to this podcast you’re probably not that principal anyway, you’re probably the risk taker and the innovator guy anyway. Because this is a great podcast but If you’re the teacher that’s afraid or if you’re an administrator that knows teachers that are afraid to take some risks you know, have them call me or have them talk to my students. Just inspire them to have fun. This is the greatest…we’re living in the greatest time ever. I’m so inspired by Peter Diamandis he had this thing on abundance and we live in the greatest time ever. All the resources in the world, they’re all right here. Everything is just fantastic so well let’s bring that kind of spirit and enthusiasm to the classroom and get those teachers to just get innovating.
Jay: Yeah, I love it. So you mentioned before your email address, if you’d mention it again for our listeners and then also is there any other way to connect with you, maybe Twitter or anything else that you’re consistently on?
Don: Sure, my email is dwettrick(at)gmail.com, and I am pretty robust on Twitter, I get back, I follow back, I want to know, I see opinions. I’d like to see latest things in education. The only time I don’t follow back is if you don’t have a profile or whatever like let me know you’re a teacher or let me know that you got some cool things and if I can be of service and help retweet things your students are doing or whatever you happen to do it. And then last, I have a website. I need to be more prolific but theinnovationteacher.com.
Jay: Ok. I’ll put that on the show notes too so people can find you there. So, this question is our last question is a little bit different. So if you could go back to just when you were beginning as a teacher and you could give yourself one piece of advice, if you could just you know get on time machine and go back, what advice would you give to your younger self?
Don: Act with some urgency. I wish I would have done these kinds of things 10, 15 years ago. The time is now, act with some urgency.
Jay: What do you think kept you from acting sooner?
Don: Fear, fear and maybe a tinge of complacency, you know, even though I said, you know my dad inspired me not to do it. I was always wanting to mix things up but in a similar way. Right, I didn’t ever envision myself completely blowing up this much of the curriculum. I didn’t expect to start an entirely new class. But once I saw what were the deficits and I saw basically the sense of urgency to start creating some change and creating environments where our students wanted to go to learn. Then I kind of was doing that call to action kind of things. So I wish I have been more urgent then.
Jay: That’s great, fantastic. Thank you Don! Edu-leaders this has been a great interview today. For the show notes of today’s show and other resources visit educatorslead.com and type the word don into the search tool to find his show notes. Don, thank you for sharing your journey with us today! And that represents another episode of Educators Lead.
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Educators Lead is a podcast created to help launch educators into the next level of leadership. This show is for you if you are interested in educational leadership as an assistant principal, principal, superintendent, teacher or someone who hopes to be a school leader one day. Educators Lead offers inspiration and practical advice to help you lead more effectively. Jay Willis interviews school leaders weekly to discuss why and when these educators made the decision to move into school leadership, challenges along the journey, and stories that made it all worthwhile. Educators Lead is a great resource for any educator looking to make a greater impact.
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