Striving Beyond Excellence

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No matter the sphere nowadays, whether in education or business circles; the phrase ‘Culture of Excellence’ is tossed around as the desired target for our organizations. Doing a quick Google search using that phrase will reveal results such as:

-‘3 key steps for building a culture of excellence’

-‘5 ways a culture of excellence boosts your bottom line’

-‘top 10 factors in creating a culture of excellence’

While pursuing excellence sounds like a good and noble goal, the burning question that should cross our minds is: What excellence are we actually striving for? Excellence generally becomes distilled down to a set of measurable stats that get tracked by upper management and is utilized as both a carrot and a stick. Yet, what if the change we want our organizations to be a part of transcends those confining stats? What then? What if the excellence we press for and seek is not understood by our team or even worst does not advance or align with our purpose?

Too often deeper questions of purpose within our organizations are overlooked in our constant demand to address the issues bearing down upon us. We search for silver bullets and our pursuit of “excellence” is quickly becoming a quick fix, feel-good slogan.

Excellence does not make an organization great; rather, I would contend excellence is one of the fruits of a visionary, outward focused organization. Becoming that organization requires a tenacity that goes beyond striving for excellence. It requires a deep-rooted series of convictions (WHYS), the non-negotiables, that the entire organization buys into.

Next year we will begin an in-depth feedback, review, and updating process of our Blue Valley Agricultural Education program’s five year strategic plan. As we start gearing up for stakeholder conversations, formulating survey materials, and selecting focus groups; our leadership team is trying to keep in mind clearly our core non-negotiables that have arisen through conversations and retreats since our last five year strategic review:

  1. Prepare and equip all program students with qualities of self-leadership.
  2. Foster connections within the community through service-learning both inside and outside our classrooms.
  3. Provide courses and programming that cultivates a dynamic mindset (21st Century Skills) coupled with expansive career exposure for our students.

Program excellence is but one fruit we hope will come from these rooted convictions. We envision that our former students find themselves returning to our communities when they are prepared to settle and raise a family. We desire they bring with them a hunger to invest in our communities, a mindset that was planted and took root in their hearts through our program. These are just a few of visions we hope will come to fruition, years down the road.

In its essence, we intend our program to be a difference-maker for our community.

To do this, we cannot bet on excellence alone. We must strive for more.

As leaders and members in our respective communities/organizations let us see beyond excellence by engaging in a hard look at the convictions that guide us. It is then we can live and act on those with excellence, but if we don’t have a clue as to what we strive for than excellence will simply be another false fruit.

Excellence will speak, only if we find its voice and heart in our shared convictions! 

Start Right, Finish Left

Start Right,Finish Left

This past Saturday evening was an experience. I had never volunteered for an event quite like it and I certainly had never done what was being asked of us…waiting a table.

Feast of the Fields is an annual event that serves as a culinary experience with local flavor and provides a dash of agricultural education. They were searching for volunteers and I couldn’t resist the opportunity. The task, waiting tables and serving patrons a full four-course meal.

As said earlier I never served as a waiter in a restaurant, but I was eager to learn! During our brief training primer the summation of good table waiting was described in a simple phrase: Start Right, Finish Left.

When we brought out plates we would place them down using our right-hand from the right side of the patron. Anytime we came to fill waters, it was to be done on their right side, again using our right-hand to collect the glasses. As plates became cleared at a table we would collect silverware doing so from the left side, this time using our left-hand.

Though it might seem as a small, unimportant gesture in being purposeful of which hand to use when serving on which side, but this simple action did one powerful thing: it kept the focus of our serving on the patron before us. By serving with my right-hand on the right side it kept my body open towards the one I served, never turning my back to them.

This allowed me to quickly engage with patrons with a smile if they turned to thank me and I could also ensure they felt welcomed to converse with me about their needs. Again this climate was established by a simple act of being aware to which hand I served from and on which side of the patron.

As I look at my teaching a few lessons from this experience became startling clear:

  1. Simple Acts Do Make A Difference- That smile and quick welcome you gave to the student as they entered the room does make a difference! Picking up a piece of trash on the sidewalk leading up to the school when no one is looking, does make a difference!
  2. Be Aware, Be Present- As a teacher we need to be attuned to the climate of our classroom. Not just in the physical sense, but also emotionally and intellectually. Students can tell when we are just going through the motions; we must be willing to engage our full spirit in the art of teaching.
  3. Keep the Focus on Them- Distractions are abundant, but let those not prevent us from putting first things first while in the classroom and that is the students before us. While, they are engaged in independent practice, let’s not spend our time just getting caught up in shooting off an e-mail or grading papers. Let’s take the time to cruise around the room, checking work for understanding. Students appreciate this and are in most cases more than eager to engage with you in a question on the material they are grappling with.

Hope that everyone is having a wonderful start to their year, we wrapped up a great first full week of school and are geared up for a new one starting today! Remember while in our classrooms: Start Right, Finish Left!

Dear School Bus Driver

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Dear School Bus Driver,

Thank you for waking up well before daylight to get ready for the day.

Thank you for checking (and rechecking) every bit of the bus each morning for a safe ride.

Thank you for being the first smile our children see each day.

Thank you for ensuring a safe form of travel for all our students no matter their zip code.

Thank you for enduring the unpredictable weather in either rain or snow.

Thank you for being the last smile our children see each day.

Thank you for being a bus driver.

As a new school year begins we can never say thank you enough to our bus drivers. Each day over 25 million students will ride a school bus (that’s more than 50% of the U.S. student population). Last year I became a full-time route bus driver and it has totally reframed the way I think about education of the whole child. So many students would struggle to attend school if it were not for the services provided by school bus transportation.

Let’s challenge ourselves throughout the year to share our appreciation to bus drivers’ tremendous daily efforts! Safe travels this year!

Good Work Happens Here

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As we prepare for another great year of teaching and learning across the country it is important to place ourselves in proper perspective.

Our classrooms are one of the hundreds of thousands that dot our country. Last year alone there were over 90,000 high schools, middle schools, and elementary schools. Over 4.5 million classified themselves as a K-12 Educator.

Yet, it is easy to lose the scale of our collective efforts once the first bell rings for the start of school. We drill down and hunker into our respective classrooms and put the blinders on. We become so focused on the good work that is happening in front of us, we forget about the good work happening all around us:

It could be the new teacher down the hall who is connecting with students and lighting their passions.

It could be the veteran teacher fifty miles down the road who is starting their 40th year of teaching and keep their classrooms alive with the buzz of student learning.

And these are only the tip of the iceberg. The point here is not to compare or envy the work of others, it is a recognition that we are not alone. Our efforts are not in isolation.

Twitter and blogging have been tools to help me connect with educators across my home state of Kansas and across the globe. Through these platforms my eyes have been opened to the incredible work going on around me and fills my emotional bucket brimming of hope; even in the midst of a burdened and unsure world.

I challenge us in these upcoming weeks of school to break out of our classroom or office shells, look around at the good work happening and drop a quick note or e-mail to someone who’s making good work happen in our schools. Through the years I’ve kept every, single little note that my co-workers or students have left me! These small gestures speak volumes and will be long cherished.

We are not alone. Education, teaching, and learning are team sports that should know no boundary. Let’s all deliver a strong start to the year; while also not forgetting to look around and see that Good Work Happens Here!

Into the Wilderness

Into the Wilderness

When I was 19 years old I embarked on my first retreat into the wilderness. This first wilderness adventure took me to Big Bend National Park in the dead of winter.

After, four cold nights, a few water scares, and plenty of rolled ankles I was hooked.

Backpacking offered the test I had been searching for. It doled out through countless unexpected challenges the toughest test of my mental and physical resolve I had ever experienced. Since then, eight years have flown by and I have backpacked in the Tetons, Rockies, Zion NP, Black Hills Badlands, and as of yesterday the Ouachita National Forest! Each one offering its own unique set of tests that have pushed me beyond my limits.

Besides, these experiences of physical and mental growth; the greatest benefit that these trips have provided me was the opportunity to wrestle with my mind and journal…lots of journaling.

When hiking hours on the trail it allows ample time for self-reflection. Thinking of the year that has been, that could have been, and especially what this upcoming year will be!

Some have asked me, couldn’t you just do this at home? In a coffeeshop? Someplace a little less exotic?

My answer, sure.

I could take an afternoon and retreat to the Radina’s Coffeeshop. Heck, I could plug in some music, to drown out that pesky, distracting mind of mine. I definitely will not look at that pressing e-mail message…okay maybe I can type out a response real quick. Hey look there is one of my former students, it would be rude not to stop and say hello.


The wilderness offers refuge from the distractions that bear down. The total disconnect afforded by no reception/contact forces me to grapple and reckon with the thoughts that flood my mind. This is where the goals that guide my year arise.

The four areas of my life that I dedicate these hours of thoughts and goal-setting are: Spiritual Growth, Family Connectedness, Personal Discipline, & Professional Development.

Focusing my goals through the lens of these four areas have helped ground me throughout the year and serve as daily reminders to my WHY.

Escaping into the wilderness for my annual personal retreat is something that has transformed the way I operate. I feel strongly that each of us would find great value in doing so at least once a year. We are never too old or too young to start connecting with who we are in the depths of the wilderness; away from technology, away from the demands of the world.

The following quote by Benjamin Disraeli whispers from the wilderness, “Nurture your mind with great thoughts, for you will never go any higher than you think.”

This year let us enter Into the Wilderness and discover ourselves!