Visible Listening: #ThePepperMindset in Action

Every band has a template for the creative process. These are the pivotal steps taken to either remain inside or outside the proverbial box. Recording a song for a band can take on many approaches and the path is not always the same. For The Beatles, there was one step they often took along the way in their studio recording creation. It involved auditioning a new song in the studio to George Martin, their producer and sounding board.

There are many pictures documented of The Beatles pitching their song ideas to their producer. Early studio session photos usually depict George Martin perched on a stool with his head bowed down and his hands placed on his knees. He is arrayed in a crisply starched white dress shirt and an immaculately thin tie dangling in time to the music. John Lennon and Paul McCartney are standing on either side of George Martin. Their guitars are slung over their shoulders with voices harmonizing. George Harrison may be slightly off to the side picking out lead guitar riffs and studying the chord formations on John and Paul’s respective guitars. Ringo Starr is in the background listening intently to the lyrics and perhaps imagining how his future percussive beats will compliment the lyrics of “Another Lennon-McCartney Original.”

Producer Martin would listen intently to the tune and then provide direct feedback to the songwriters. His opinion was highly valued by the band and they at first viewed him as a kind of schoolteacher. He may have suggested an arrangement idea or technical suggestion. Perhaps, George Martin was looking for a teachable moment for the band to take them down a new path in songwriting and recording. Perhaps, he was tuning into an innovative and whimsical idea a songwriter suggested and looking to build upon it.

The Beatles had a gift of being open to the best idea regardless of who shared it. Martin’s direct and timely feedback coupled with the songwriting genius of The Beatles led each song to embark on a creative journey that would eventually impact generations of listeners. The collaboration of The Beatles and George Martin was always rooted in this first step of auditioning a song before recording. It began with the simple act of listening.

In starting my new assignment as principal at Lexington Middle School, I find myself taking a few pages from George Martin’s playbook as a leader, educator and collaborator. It is easy for a principal to leap into a school full of vigor and ideas in the name of change and innovation. I made a similar move in my first principal assignment. Thinking I was going to single-handedly save the school with the simple wave of a smile and a quote from a well-thumbed book on change leadership, I stumbled hard over my ego and stubbornness. I am still learning and striving to hit the same universal notes as The Beatles did.

For the first two weeks in the new school, I am making an intentional effort to practice what I call Visible Listening. This practice takes on many permutations, but the aim is still the same in service and support of kids, teachers and the school community. Visible Listening means visiting classrooms and engaging with students and teacher. It means sitting down and being open to learning more about the pulse of the school. Visible Listening means sitting down with each team member (whether they are a student, teacher or family member) and setting up time for an intentional conversation by asking three simple questions:

  • What is great about our school?
  • What do we need to work on together to grow our school?
  • How may I serve and support you as your principal/lead learner?

I imagine myself as George Martin sitting on that stool in Abbey Road Studios and the teachers are my Beatles. I am listening to their words and music. Looking for ways to learn more about our school. I am in tune with those teachable moments and hoping to share what I can with them. In turn, I am looking for those teachable moments so they may edify me about our school. We are sketching out plans to build a masterpiece for our students so that they may add to the tapestry of our school culture. We are building the blueprint for our students to create their own respective masterpieces.

During one of these chats with my some of my new bandmates, I noticed that I was talking too much. My excitement for our collaboration was droning on too long and I could sense that I was spiraling into that nonsensical “Charlie Brown Teacher Voice.” Stopping immediately, I asked them what their dreams were for our time together. The barometer of the conversation changed and we were able to learn more on building our collaboration to new heights. I am so happy that I took the time to stop my ramblings so that I could tune into the dreams of my colleagues.

Beatles Producer George Martin knew that active listening to The Beatles was a crucial element in the recording process. Tuning into his clients provided a necessary foundation for the band to create the timeless and universal songs that still inspire us today. His simple act of Visible Listening led to a world-changing musical canon.

The creative and collaborative focus that is The Pepper Mindset helped The Beatles build an innovative album which still challenges and motivates. “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” could not have happened with dismissive or rushed listening. 50 years after its release, “Sgt. Pepper” still stands as a pinnacle of recording achievement.

Principals are called to practice Visible Listening in service and support of our students, teachers and families. Stopping for those intentional pauses and inviting those whom we serve into the collaborative marrow will lead to world-changing music in the schoolhouse. Visible Listening is a pivotal move in building The Pepper Mindset and we can adopt that same action to enact bold and creative innovations for our school communities. Visible Listening is one of many notes any educator can use to compose a majestic schoolhouse symphony.










Making the Impossible Possible: A Beatles Reunion in the Schoolhouse

It just so happens that I was born on the day and in the year that The Beatles released their final studio album. The “Let It Be” Album stands as my favorite Beatles album for many reasons. The fact that I share a birthday with the final bow of The Beatles as a band in their lifetime makes it even more poignant.

The dissolution of The Beatles in 1970 was a cultural event and it made global headlines. Their break-up was the result of many reasons from financial to personal. They had simply outgrown each other and were ready to forge individual paths. The break-up was very public and bitter. For the next ten years, John, Paul, George and Ringo were hounded and pressured to reunite. There were a few close calls for a reunion but all of that reunion speculation came to an end when John Lennon was murdered in 1980.

Surprisingly in 1994, the surviving Beatles reunited in the studio for “The Beatles Anthology,” a documentary they were producing on the history of the band. Putting aside years of acrimony and bitterness, they reunited and recorded two brand-new songs.

Somehow the Impossible was made Possible because not only did the three surviving Beatles reunite they were also able to include John Lennon in the event.

Taking two rough demos John Lennon recorded before his death,  the newly reformed Beatles added music, lyrics and vocals. The songs are entitled “Free As A Bird” and “Real Love.” Both songs were worldwide hits and received Grammy Awards. It was quite an innovative practice and it was arduous in terms of the technical and musical demands of the reunion project. Somehow the world got a Beatles Reunion amidst seemingly impossible odds.

I share this anecdote not as a proud music geek, but as someone who works in a school where we embrace the Impossible. Ours is a school where we proudly register students who have been retained at some point in their academic year. My school is seen as a haven for students who want a smaller class size and a caring teacher. The school where I am the proud Lead Learner is cast on a list of Title I Schools with poor achievement test scores. Despite all of those negative odds, ours is the school that exceeds achievement growth, possesses one of the highest increases in our district’s graduation rate and overpowered our $500, 000 college scholarship goal to almost $900, 000. Most importantly, the students at the school where I stand proudly as a servant-principal feel connected, safe and loved. In a way, I feel as if I am working with The Beatles. I believe that our school will exit Title I Priority School Status and stand as a true testament to an authentic turnaround.

Daily I strive to overcome the Impossible just like the surviving Beatles did with that battered, hiss-filled cassette of an unfinished John Lennon song. I am nowhere near the musical talent of The Beatles and what they accomplished with those 1994 Reunion Sessions.

How might we embrace the Impossible collectively as educators? Sometimes there is a negative default to those who stare the Impossible down and pursue seemingly absurd quests in the service of students. This mindset is sadly evident in our noble profession as educators. There are daily stories of #EduHeroes in schools everywhere overpowering the Impossible and creating a new paradigm of possibilities for our kids. We have to spread the sparks of those #EduHeroic Stories from the rooftops within social media venues and beyond. We have to value each victory over the Impossible in the schoolhouse as we did with The Beatles Reunion of 1994.

There are many variables to plug into as exemplars of the Impossible in the Schoolhouse. I invite the conversation to address and define them. Our challenge as educators is not to give permission for the Impossible to flourish. We do give too much power to the Impossible. Sometimes we have to take the time to recognize that the Impossible has morphed into the Possible. Taking stock of those examples such as The Beatles reuniting can spark inspiration into action.


During the mid-1990s, MTV aired a very popular series entitled “Unplugged.” The premise was to display the natural prowess of musicians in an acoustic setting. Famous artists from the Rolling Stones to LLCool J  stripped down their various hits and stadium anthems to its aural essence. It was like seeing a trapeze artist soar in the air without a net. I remember marveling at bands like Nirvana shift their musical paradigm sitting on stools amidst flowers and a cello player as they played hard-hitting tune like “All Apologies” without loud amplifiers and power chords. I garnered a new appreciation for bands like Kiss who placed a pause on Heavy Metal and emphasized harmony and acoustic rhythm guitars. It was inspiring to see Robert Plant and Jimmy Page reunite on “Unplugged” and re-discover their musical canon in a whole new setting. MTV’s “Unplugged” proved to be a good excuse for musicians to demolish their electric walls of their respective comfort zones and embrace a new audio challenge.

What if all schools had the “Unplugged” Mindset? I am not referencing powering down technology? In other words, what if we could strip away the distractions and create a culture where the focus is on the essence of teaching and learning in a positive and inviting school culture? This takes courage, support and leadership. Education sometimes succumbs to being a magnet for misguided initiatives and negative mindsets. The freedom to “unplug” and focus on what is essential is viewed as being an exercise in futility. With the constant and tired given of high-stakes accountability, low educator morale and unfunded mandates, taking giants steps to embrace the Unplugged in Education is easier said than done.

During Paul McCartney’s stint on “Unplugged,” he famously forgot the words to The Beatles’ classic, “We Can Work It Out.” He stopped the song with this wry comment, “Hang on, hang on. I got the words wrong.” At that moment the band  gently careened off course, but McCartney’s sincere and amusing transparency saved the day and he simply started the song again with the band. The band carried on and the audience cheered. How was this musical icon able to get away with this? I don’t think simply being a former Beatle gave McCartney a pass. He has been the subject of much critical ridicule and disdain over the year in some cases. (Check out the reviews of his album, “Press to Play to see what I mean.) I believe it was the positive culture that drove a mindset of support and acceptance to flub the pivotal opening of a classic Beatles song.

Imagine that happening in the classroom or schoolhouse as the norm. Envision a school or a district where it is accepted every day to focus on the essential in an atmosphere of  professional acceptance. I do not want to take away from the places where this does happen. It is inspiring to hear about the authentic experiences students and educators have thanks to things like STEAM, Mystery Skypes, SketchNotes, Makerspaces, etc. We hear about pockets of this happening in very visceral and valiant ways thanks to educators blogging, tweeting and connecting within the positive neighborhood of a PLN. How might we create a collective culture where it is acceptable to do this without fear as a whole profession of Educators?

Recently, I was reading Mike Schmoker’s latest book entitled Leading with Focus: Elevating the Essentials for School and District Improvement (ASCD, 2016). This book energized me with its clear, call to arms for a collective focus on the essentials in the schoolhouse. Schmoker contends that schools should simply focus on three things and become great at them in a relentless and cooperative fashion. These three things are a coherent curriculum, traditional literacy tasks embedded in every class and effective planned lessons (Schmoker, 2016). Although, these things may not sound like a hip episode of “MTV’s Unplugged,” it is the stripped down journey towards focus that matters most. A compelling focus is refreshing, renewing and necessary. Schmoker makes a convincing argument in this recent book. I highly recommend adding it your reading playlist. The book is truly a great conversation starter on what is essential in Education.

I believe it takes a shared, compelling vision where school administrators and teachers are placing students at the center of that focus for the common good. As a principal, I have to promote, model and encourage that mindset. It is important for me to pause and prevent as many distractions as possible for seeping into the marrow of the schoolhouse. Sometimes, we simply have to tune up and lean into a clear path of focus in a  bold, courageous and innovative manner.

These types of fearless steps encouraged Eric Clapton to unveil on “MTV’s Unplugged” his most poignant song. “Tears In Heaven” was written as an elegy to Clapton’s son. His four-year old son had died in a truly tragic accident. The song is unlike anything Eric Clapton had written and it was debuted in a live performance on “MTV’s Unplugged in 1992. The live album of this performance garnered three Grammy Awards for Clapton and it sold over 20 million copies worldwide. Literally, unplugging his electric guitar paid off for Eric Clapton and took his career into another renewed pathway. His courageous performance of “Tears In Heaven” is a healing anthem which still inspires and soothes today.

Being Unplugged in the Schoolhouse is risky, scary and daunting. It demands being fearless and focused within a supportive atmosphere. We can overcome the monoliths of mandates and initiatives if we all encourage each other to embrace being Unplugged in the Schoolhouse. A positive resonance awaits us moving forward within the Schoolhouse.



Why Remind?-Lead Learner Presence Matters

A couple of weeks ago, I was in attendance at yet another meeting. In this case, it was a required Title I Meeting. This particular meeting demanded my presence away from my school. I was an hour away. An hour away from connecting in real time with the people whom I serve led me to a path towards reflection. I felt removed in a room full of other school leaders and educators. I was missing that buzz occurs when things are happening within a schoolhouse: the teachable moment, the smile on a student’s face when mastering a concept, the invitational wave of a teacher as I walk into a classroom. The isolation I was experiencing in this particular meeting marinaded in my mind and I began to seek space for connecting back home. Simply put, I wanted to be present in the positive moments occurring in the schoolhouse.  

My role as principal requires me to present for many obligatory meetings. Now, all meetings are not necessarily a walk along the precipice of disaster, but this one felt like a barrier to my purpose as an educator.

In fact, I was feeling somewhat homesick for the school I serve. I wanted to be there and feel the synergy of our school community. I wanted to experience the inner groove of teaching and learning in our school. Meetings are important, but being present with my community is essential to my role as a lead learner.

Leading is service: That’s the core of my philosophy as a principal. To me, service means connecting meaningfully with the people I serve, and that’s one of my joys as a principal. On any given day, I can visit a classroom filled with collaboration and creativity. I have had the privilege of observing students engaged in a myriad of activities, from coding for a social studies research project to creating masonry monuments for an interdisciplinary unit on the Holocaust.

My mind was wandering to those moments during this meeting. Missing the joy of the schoolhouse, I reached for my phone and sent out this message to my staff via Remind:

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What followed was a cascade of positive tweets from an amazing team of #EduHeroes at John F. Kennedy High School. Although I was not physically present, I felt a sense of connection to the community—and this all started with a simple Remind message that all of our teachers at JFK received.

If you visit my office, you will be greeted by a doorplate with my name engraved along with my school role. Alongside the title of “Principal” is my true role: “Lead Learner.”

Lead Learner Door

It is my role to model, challenge, and encourage learning in the schoolhouse. That role demands for me to stay connected to the beat of the schoolhouse, even if being visible means moving beyond the wall of an office or meeting.

There are many tools that support the virtual connectivity we all need as educators, and Remind is one of the entry points that helps me stay connected and within the moment as a lead learner. I am grateful for the flexibility and ease Remind provides to support my efforts to stay connected with my school community. I am more grateful for the return Tweets I received showing the positive and meaningful things occurring in our school. For I am proud to be a small part of the inspiration happening for our kids at JFK. One simple text can be a game changer.