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Dr. Jim Detwiler  @JimDetwiler1

Dr. Jim Detwiler @JimDetwiler1

Jim Detwiler is the Assistant Superintendent for Learning Support Services in the Boone County Schools, Kentucky. He is a former elementary school principal and music teacher, and frequent Magic Bean Buyer. Jim promotes developing students' 21st century skills through engaging project based learning and innovative teaching & learning. He is often heard telling students, #GoMakeStuff! He holds an EdD in Education Leadership with interests in parent engagement and effective teacher dispositions. Jim is most happy when he is with his beautiful wife and two children lost in Orte, Italy. He is a 2014 Bammy Award Nominee and a 2014 Kentucky PTA Outstanding Educator. Follow Jim's school district on Twitter using #Boone2020.  Two fun facts about Jim: He walked a tightrope in his High School production of "Barnum", and he enjoyed 15 minutes of Andy Warhol fame when he and friend Chad made the viral YouTube video "Snowhemian Rhapsody" Nutty School Closing. Contact Jim on Twitter @JimDetwiler1 and on Voxer at jdetwi691.

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This blog post has been surprisingly difficult for me to write. I have wanted to write it for a long while, but every time I started, my thoughts wandered all over the page. I found myself becoming defensive, grasping at straws for evidence to support my position that the arts are essential to every child’s education because ___________.

You fill in the blank. How would you fill in the blank?

artssIf you and I were ever to meet at a conference or other venue in the future, and if you were to ask me about this post, you should be prepared for an ear full. I cannot promise any of what I might say to you is rational. I am passionate about arts education. Some of my colleagues have noted that I sometimes get angry or overly boisterous when I talk about this subject. Do I have a chip on my shoulder about how we often justify arts education in schools? Maybe. I am a musician and former music teacher, and I am married to an opera singer, so the topic hits very close to home. I’m not sure that I would call it a chip, but something IS there. It feels more like disappointment. Or, maybe it is a regret that as a musician and as a leader in education I have not been more vocal about what I think. Maybe I am disappointed that I have not meant what I said and I have not said what I meant.

The feeling is not unlike a disappointment I experienced as a teenager over a Psalm we sang weekly in my church to conclude worship. My parents were (and still are) members of a small conservative protestant church that practices Exclusive Psalmody during worship – the singing of Psalms from the Bible in four-part vocal harmony without musical accompaniment. In many ways, this practice strengthened my love for music and made me a better musician, training my ear to listen to worshipers around me and to join them in harmony and praise. The sound of the congregation singing acapella boldly in four-part harmony was simply awesome. From a young age, I developed a keen appreciation for God’s craftsmanship in building human vocal mechanisms that could in one unified breath praise God with such a beautiful and convicted sound. (An example of Psalm singing can be found HERE.arts)

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His alarm clock has been blaring since before 6:00 AM. From the upstairs back corner of the house, it loudly screams a rhythmic and determined, "Get up! Buzz! Get up! Buzz!" My son couldn't care less. There is not the slightest hint of movement behind his closed bedroom door. Although I am annoyed, I do marvel at how my 15 year-old can sleep right through that nagging alarm. How can he remain so calm, so comfortable in his bed?  He defies the science of psycho-acoustics!  Buzzers, sirens, horns - they should arouse some sense of urgency. Not for my son.  I'm not even sure he hears that alarm. Or, maybe he does hear it and simply chooses to ignore it. Either way, I don't like it.
I sit there listening to the alarm bounce from wall to wall throughout the house. Do I climb the flight of stairs to his bedroom and pull him out of his comfortable place? My efforts will likely be met with a heartfelt teenage, "Dad, don't harsh on my Saturday mellow," followed by a swift brush-off roll over in his bed.  Maybe I should just hit the snooze button for him, and allow him a few more minutes of sleepy comfort? I am annoyed, but at the same time envious that he can remain so comfortable with that cacophony of loud buzzing just inches from his ear.  Amazing!
I don't sleep through alarms, and I never hit the snooze button. That alarm yells at me one time and I am up, out of bed, and making a bee line to my Keurig. Alarms, bells, whistles, and sirens: they all put me on edge.
I grew up just a few miles from the Shipping Port Atomic Power Station in western Pennsylvania. Eastern P.A.'s Three Mile Island meltdown and an exaggerated speculation that Cold War Soviet missiles might be pointed at our nuclear reactor made the daily emergency siren tests impossible to ignore.  When those practice sirens were tripped, every townie stopped, young and old, even if just for a second, to quietly ask themselves if this was IT, if this was THE siren calling the alarm for imminent nuclear disaster. Nobody would dare hit the snooze button on that alarm.
There are few alarms I would dare to ignore as a school leader. Some alarms are blatantly conspicuous, like an angry parent reporting an inconsistent grading practice, or a disengaged student who flat out tells me she doesn't like school. There are also more subtle alarms, cued by the voice in my head warning, "I don't think they are following anymore" or "I'm not sure teachers fully buy-in to the vision." Hit the snooze button on any one of these alarms, and even the most seasoned of school leaders may find themselves dealing with a big hot mess down the road.
Sometimes alarms are covert and disguised as "EASY" buttons. Sometimes, like my son's non-reaction to his morning alarm, the presence of comfort in what should be a challenging and difficult situation can serve as a quiet alarm that "something is rotten in the state of Denmark."
We recently adopted a new English Language Arts (ELA) curriculum and program for grades K-5 in my school district. Instructional coaches from several schools have contacted me daily over the past couple of weeks with a variety of concerns and questions. Teachers are struggling with the new ELA framework, because it is a departure from the way many of them have been teaching. I am relieved that teachers are struggling, because it is a strong indication that they are knee-deep in in this paradigm shift, and they are getting messy with these new instructional strategies and materials. It means that they are demonstrating an urgency to change, to move away from ineffective teaching practices. They are making noise, because change hurts. Don't get me wrong; I want everyone to feel comfortable with the new program. However, this early in the game, nobody should feel comfortable. Implementing any new program with fidelity should be challenging, disorienting and disruptive. 
It sure is tempting to fall back on our love of comfort in the face of disruptive change. However, our love of comfort can be the enemy to greatness. In Louder Than Words: Harness the Power of Your Authentic Voice, author Todd Henry (@ToddHenry) writes, "...growth demands that you push yourself to your limits. A piano virtuoso will not continue to improve if she practices only the chords and scales that are easy for her, nor will a writer improve his craft if he stays in his comfort zone." For great things to happen for students in our schools, we have to step outside of our circles of comfort, take risks, shake some feathers, rattle some chains. Comfort in the face of disruptive change should be alarming to any school leader. 
I went to a meeting last week where a group of educators were mulling over a rare opportunity to re-imagine job descriptions to better meet the needs of children. Change, that ugly word, drove many in the group grabbing for their love of comfort.  I was alarmed that their love for comfort might become a barrier to great potential for changing kids' lives. The discussion focused on "what I like to do" rather than "what we must do to help kids". Choosing comfort over student needs; choosing comfort over potential impact: these are mighty loud alarms.  
What should I do as a school leader? Do I hit the snooze button and leave them be, resting in the familiar and comfortable?  Or, do I turn the alarm off, "harsh on their mellow" and shake them out of their sleep and into momentary discomfort in the names of change and potential for student greatness?
The alarm is sounding. Are we choosing comfort over impact? Many educators are willing to leave the comfort and work through discomfort if they can clearly see the higher purpose. It is our job to lead them through the discomfort in the name of that higher purpose.  What discomfort are you leading today that propels your school forward toward that higher purpose and the potential for student greatness? 


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He arrived at my school a disheveled first grader. Severely disabled with mental illness, devoid of emotion or affect, like an automaton, and lacking any semblance of a moral compass. If you are an educator, you undoubtedly have taught one or two students at some point in your career who were difficult to reach, but who profoundly touched you. Jonathan was that student for me.  I recently learned that Jonathan had taken his own life at the age of 16. Hearing of his passing, I immediately thought of the unpublished blog post below.  I started writing it just under a year ago, but didn't finish it and decided to bury it.  At the time, I wondered if it was too honest, too vulnerable.  I am posting it now, because I'm fed up. Enough is enough...


Glancing at the flight attendant... for the 50th time...
Does she look worried?
Maybe a little...

Several years ago while on a flight with my wife from Pittsburgh to St. Kitts, I experienced a major panic attack.  As the plane bounced about through a bad storm and turbulence, my facility to perceive threats misfired: We are surely going down...God help us. White-knuckled and paralyzed with fear, I looked to my left for some re-assurance from my wife.  I remember feeling irritated that, in dramatic contrast to my terror, my wife could not have appeared less concerned, comfy-cozy in the seat next to me, a beautiful peaceful smile betraying her deep dreamy sleep.

Counting as slowly as possible for the last hour, just trying to hold on to whatever shred of machismo I can muster…
God, just land this thing already...

We landed somewhere around number 1,207 in my silent counting.  On two subsequent occasions, overwhelmed with irrational thoughts and concern, I dramatically refused at the last minute to get on flights that had been booked for months.  

Abnormal anxiety was my nemesis when I was a boy. I had become so afraid of sitting in a dentist’s chair at age 8, that I was routinely given a strong sedative hours before each dental appointment.  The drug had little to no effect on me, and in fact, seemed to boost my adrenaline and anxiety to such high levels that I once physically attacked the dental hygienist and had to be restrained. My parents, mortified by my outburst of disrespect and clueless about abnormal anxiety, grounded me for two weeks as a consequence for my behavior.  

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They are words parents pray they will never hear: "Jim, you have to go meet the ambulance at the hospital. Now! Katelyn's coach just called. She said Katelyn fell from the uneven bars and that it is bad! I'll meet you there." Click. The voice of my wife disappeared from the car phone speaker overhead. Wait. Bad? What does that mean? I tried to ignore the frightening images forming in my head, and I quickly turned the car around. Injured on the uneven bars? She’s the State Champion in that event. This does not make any sense. Please, God. Please let my little girl be okay.

The ambulance beat me to the hospital. An attendant whisked me to an area at the back of the emergency room, and I spotted Katelyn sitting up in a bed. As I walked toward her, I was overwhelmed with relief. Swallowing the large lump in my throat, I smiled. But, then I looked at her mangled and swollen arm, then her face, and I froze. Sobbing, Katelyn took a deep breath and whimpered to me, "I'll never bounce back from this." Heartbreak.

I’ll never bounce back. Defeat in the face of adversity. Isn't that how we feel sometimes as educators and school leaders? We encounter barriers or unexpected setbacks that we perceive in the moment as devastating to our purpose or vision. Wrapping up my first year as an assistant superintendent, I feel it now. As I sit here and reflect on the past year, I regretfully acknowledge that many of my plans and goals for the year were thwarted by unintentional disruptive change or simply by my own inability to get the job done. Like a raging river or a surging train, I feel myself being pulled and pushed, hurled forward, dragging alongside me all of the half-baked projects, unexecuted or poorly executed plans, and unfinished reports whose deadlines have either passed or wait impatiently for me on my summer calendar. "How will I ever bounce back from this?" The answer may be simple: don’t. Instead, bounce forward.

Bouncing back will return me to the path on which I initially started. Is that what I want? Do I want to bounce back to how it was ten months ago? Honestly, it did not turn out in the end as well as I had hoped. In many cases, I misjudged. I overestimated. I underestimated. Don’t get me wrong, there were many high points and successes, and I am happy and grateful for those accomplishments and new challenges. But, for some reason the successes are pushed aside by palpable regret. I regret that I am nowhere close to being as effective as a leader as I thought I would be at this point. Nor am I the leader I want to be. Nor am I the leader I need to be. Am I resilient enough to catapult myself forward AND lead my team toward something bigger and better? According to author Elle Allison-Napolitano, what I need in the face of this challenge is extraordinary resilience that grows, not from bouncing back, but from bouncing forward.

In her book, Bounce Forward: the Extraordinary Resilience of Leadership, Elle Allison-Napolitano (@elleallison) describes three capacities that enable leaders to be extraordinarily resilient in times of disruptive change, adversity, and challenges. These capacities are relationship, resonance, and renewal. Do I have these capacities? Okay, so I am going to be crazy transparent here. Truth is, I am struggling with all three. As a building principal, I honestly believe I demonstrated each of these capacities with some measure of proficiency. In fact, I would have probably included them among my areas of strength. But, as a first year assistant superintendent, I’m not sure. My work relationships are new, I lack the level of knowledge required to support and sustain resonance, and my opportunities for renewal are taking a back seat to a Herculean effort to navigate a steep learning curve. So, what should I do? Next month, I will join the other administrators in my district for an opportunity to work with Elle Allison-Napolitano and reflect upon our individual capacities for relationship, resonance, and renewal in search of extraordinary resilient leadership. I look forward to sharing my reflections about this professional learning in a future blog post.

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That's the score? Seriously? That is the best we can do? I'm stunned, and frankly, a little disappointed. With one day to go in the Bammy race, a campaign that honors all that is great in American education, we educators can find only 7 parent leaders to honor? Really?! Come on! Where would we be without our parent leaders? They defend us, support our work, fund our programs, and most importantly, they are #GameChangers for American education. They join us in telling our school stories, drowning out the all too frequent jeers from our biggest critics. They are our raving fans.  I thought we were their raving fans as well, but the score 143-7 suggests otherwise.  Actually, the 143 is only counting nominations for teachers and principals.  If we add in all of the other categories, that score becomes even more lopsided. 

I know you all love and respect your parent leaders.  I’m not questioning that.  I’m just trying to figure out a way to compel you to honor them with a Bammy nomination.  I mean, the nomination category is there for a reason, right?  Let’s try this…Let me take you on a tour of your school campus. Close your eyes...Okay - that wasn't very smart of me - now you can't see to read my post. Scratch that. Just suppose you have closed your eyes. Now, imagine you are standing in your school lobby. What do you see around you? Now pretend you are standing on your school playground. What do you see? What do you see at the school field day or carnival? Chances are you see several things that would not have been possible without parent support and/or fundraising lead by a hardworking and dedicated parent leader.

American education is ONLY at its greatest when we build true partnerships with parents. We preach at parent-teacher conferences "your student will soar in school and in life if you are an engaged parent", which is true - there is plenty of research to support that.  Parent leaders are sometimes more engaged in teaching and learning than we are! Do we value our parent leaders? Of course we do. But to non-educators keeping an eye on the Bammy nominations, to the naysayers keeping score, 143-7 doesn't reflect that sentiment. Worse yet, what does that lopsided ratio say to our parent leaders, and to all of our parents for that matter?

Here's the good news - it's not too late. What if every teacher, principal, and superintendent nominated for a Bammy this year rallied on this last day of the campaign and nominated the parent leader they proudly call their “partner in education”? If you do the math, that would settle the score at Educators 143, Parents 150. In my mind, that better reflects the balanced family-school partnerships we value and boast. A score of 143-150 better reflects what is truly great in American education: the collaborate efforts of educators and parents. In that spirit, I challenge you, fellow educators. Nominate a parent leader for a Bammy today, here and now at the finish line. Even the score. 


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