More Than a Feeling, an Indicator of Success

I recently had the opportunity to author a piece for Education Week magazine titled, “The Four Steps to Becoming a ‘Leadership Artist.’” I embarked on the journey at a time when  many in educational roles were feeling downtrodden and exhausted by the experiences of the last two years, yet I was observing the educational landscape  from a different perspective. Through that article, I sought to provide my colleagues with clear steps to move forward and offered a look inside what we have been doing in Lake Forest Schools over the past year. 

As I dug deeper into why I felt optimistic about the future amidst the many hurdles and contentious clashes while others were not, I struggled to put my finger on what made my outlook vastly different from my peers. While attending a conference with EdLeader21 and Battelle for Kids, a partner in the District 65, 67, and 115 Portrait of a Learner work, I found my ah-ha. My “why” was a deep, driving, and enduring sense of Hope. 

By definition, Hope is “the feeling that what is wanted can be had or that events will turn out for the best.” And to my core, I felt, and still feel, Hope for the future. I feel it for my own children; I feel it for the students in our districts; and, I feel it for the field of education as a whole. As Frank Sinatra warbles, “the best is yet to come.”

More than a Feeling

At the conference, I was reminded of the science behind Hope. There, Battelle for Kids and EdLeader21 reviewed research findings that indicate Hope is more than a feeling. There are dozens of scientific studies demonstrating why a driving sense of Hope can make all the difference — not only for adults but more importantly for our students. 

One study shows Hope is a more robust predictor of future success than the ACT, SAT, and a student’s GPA. Let that sink in — Hope is a better predictor of future success than today’s gold standard measurements of knowledge or academic performance in the collegiate environment. 

Going Beyond Success with Hope

We know that academic success is not the only predictor of the well-lived lives that we desire for our students and children. That is where the research shared in Hope Rising: How the Science of Hope Can Change Your Life, by Casey Gwinn, J.D. and Chan Hellman, Ph.D., caught my attention. 

In their book, the researchers write, “In every published study of hope, every single one, hope is the single best predictor of well-being compared to any other measures of trauma recovery.” 

Pre-pandemic schools saw about one-third of students living with trauma. Today, most in the field believe that number is likely far higher. Each community, including ours, finds itself in the race to ensure our students are and feel safe, secure, and mentally, emotionally, and physically well. That is why, to me, now is the time for us to dig deeper in our understanding of the role of There has never been a more important time for us to understand the role of Hope in student growth.

Nurturing Hope 

Hope is more than wishful thinking and, despite what some may believe, it is not a personality trait or genetic predisposition. According to C.R. Snyder’s Hope Theory, there are three components associated with having Hope: 1. Having goal-oriented thoughts, 2. Developing strategies to achieve goals, and 3. Being motivated to expend effort to achieve goals. 

Think back to a success you have had in your life. Did the achievement come by way of someone else’s hard work? I am guessing not. It was most likely the result of your goal setting. Your careful planning. And your ability to overcome obstacles — because you believed you could — or that the outcome you desired was still possible, despite the hardship. It’s only through having Hope and working hard for what we have that we can truly appreciate our successes.

Our challenge today is to provide those same opportunities for our students to nurture a sense of Hope in age-appropriate ways. I could (and likely will) write more on the topic of allowing our students to struggle without rescuing them — it is a critical piece of being able to feel, have and grow a driving sense of Hope. 

Becoming Cultivators of Hope in Lake Forest, Lake Bluff, and Knollwood Schools

In summary, Hope is a predictor of long- and short-term success for students. Moreover, a sense of Hope is directly linked to the ability to overcome difficulty or trauma, a necessity to continue moving onward and upward. Therefore, we must pursue how we nurture Hope in ourselves and our students — and that is precisely what we intend to do.

In the coming weeks, we will unveil our Portrait of a Learner, which comes after many hours of work and input from parents, staff, and students in Districts 65, 67, and 115. Hope is interwoven throughout. It will be an illustration of what we want and expect our students to learn in our public schools. It is predicated on a belief that our students will be able to overcome barriers and rise to new challenges with the Hope that the best is yet to come — and they can be the ones to lead us there. 

WIP Citations: 


Additional References:

Busteed, B. B. (2022, March 24). Make a Difference. Show Students You Care. Gallup.Com. https://news.gallup.com/businessjournal/178118/difference-show-students-care.aspx

Definition of hope. (n.d.). Www.Dictionary.Com. https://www.dictionary.com/browse/hope#:%7E:text=the%20feeling%20that%20what%20is,no%20hope%20of%20his%20recovery.

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2022, April 22). Understanding Child Trauma. Retrieved May 1, 2022, from https://www.samhsa.gov/child-trauma/understanding-child-trauma.


The Four Steps to Becoming a ‘Leadership Artist’

After more than two years of leading our districts through the pandemic, many superintendents are faced with the reality that there is no “returning to normal.” Instead, we have a remarkable opportunity to pick up the pieces around us and build something new.

I am feeling optimistic about the future and what could come of rebuilding, but I empathize with how overwhelmed many leaders in education feel about the work ahead. The pieces around us right now can often feel more like sharp, broken shards than neat, stackable building blocks.

Superintendents are still navigating the effects of the pandemic, community division, staff burnout, and a growing talent gap. On top of that, the strategic plans, visions, and goals we once imagined for our schools, agencies, and educational institutions have shifted dramatically. So, now what?

I believe the answer is in an ancient Japanese art form, kintsugi, the art of purposefully reconstructing broken pieces of pottery with gold lacquer to create an even stronger, more beautiful piece of art.

One of the most significant impacts of pursuing the kintsugi art form is the personal journey of the artist. Through the process, artists realize that although cracks can be painful, they provide opportunity for reconstruction and a stronger and more beautiful result. I think the same is true for us; each leader who has served during the pandemic is stronger than when we began.

Each flaw is an opportunity in the art of kintsugi, and every imperfection is embraced for its possible potential to be reimagined. What I believe education needs now are leaders with the fortitude to make something beautiful out of the pieces we are currently holding.

Think of the pieces on your table: curriculum, DEI, remote learning, critical race theory, contentious board elections and meetings, innovation, LGBTQ+ students, COVID-19, social-emotional needs, widening achievement gaps, greater economic disparity.

Yes, many of us are tired beyond imagination, but we have made tough decisions and continued to show up day in and day out. Pandemic superintendents are defined by our resilience. And we must continue to tackle this next season as sage leaders who inspire trust and can proceed forward with clarity and bravery, guided by the keys to kintsugi.

How do we superintendents begin to become leadership artists of kintsugi?

1. Acknowledge it is time to reevaluate our vision and goals.

How, where, and when education happens has been challenged and changed over the past two years. We cannot simply go back to the plans we put on hold in March 2020. The world we are working desperately to prepare our students for has shifted tremendously, and we must respond accordingly.

We can value where we have come from, keep what is working, and look for ways to strengthen the parts of our education system that are broken. As we acknowledge the broken pieces, it is vitally important that we maintain connection to others, emulate a positive mindset, and stay resilient through the changes ahead.

2. Cultivate, connect, and care for internal staff and teams.

Our ability to reenvision the future of our schools relies on the health of our teams. Kintsugi teaches that every piece has value and that there is inherent worth in stopping or slowing a process to show care for others and display gratitude. We cannot afford to skip this step of the reconstruction process.

Building a pipeline of leadership artists within our organizations will also assist in the future stages of the rebuilding process because they will also be poised to ensure the reenvisioned future becomes a reality by taking the helm when it is time. As a profession, we cannot undervalue the expertise and the potential in our buildings today.

3. Engage the community in our reconstruction efforts.

Gone are the days of presenting a packaged visionary plan with a bow on top. Our communities want a seat at the table. Our parents have become partner educators throughout the pandemic. Our stakeholders have new insights to offer. They want, need, and expect us to take them seriously and value their opinions.

We will have to artfully facilitate difficult conversations in which people may have competing views and priorities while maintaining value, caring for others, and having a positive mindset. Our primary goal of this step is to assiduously ensure the best interest of students is at the core of the community discourse.

4. Seize the moment to begin constructing something new.

Teachers and superintendents today are facing the single most transformative time in modern-day educational history. Now is the time to lead truly transformational work in an institution that has long been resistant to change. It is time to make some changes that we know are needed for our students to succeed.

The students I speak to are begging the adults to listen—they want independence in their learning, flexibility to take their learning beyond the traditional classroom environments, and acknowledgement that they are capable thinkers.

As for me and my community, we have chosen not to miss this moment for innovation, working together and reimagining the future of our schools.

In the Lake Forest school district I lead, we have launched new community-engagement opportunities where open discussions focus on the future of our students. Our rebuilding process may take time, but as long as we maintain a positive mindset and remain resilient, we will build a version of K-12 education that is stronger than what existed before.

The last two years have shattered long-held traditions and beliefs in our industry, and education is now uniquely primed for reinvention. Innovation and the beauty of reconstruction will only be possible if you and I can step into our roles as leadership artists and rebuild our broken system into one that is stronger, more beautiful, and more resilient.

Winds in the East, Mist Coming In

July and August are often where the winds of school leadership are in a state of flux. The pandemic weather pattern has meant countless changes in school leadership across the country. There were planned and accelerated retirements, fresh starts, and even some departures for careers outside of education. I am one of the many “pandemic leaders” who is now beginning a new journey in new schools.   

Deciding to move was far from easy for me and my family. Some people wondered why we would leave a district when things were going so well on most fronts. As a family, we were “all-in” and cherished established friends and routines. The kids were in activities, clubs, and sports all of which enabled our family to truly be a part of the school community.   

This brings me to a viewpoint or philosophy on leadership that is rooted in the belief that each leader plays a role or serves a specific need within an organization. This role is time-sensitive and evolves during one’s tenure. If you are lucky enough, you can have the rare gift of serving your role to completion. Then, you must have the humility to realize another leadership style could better meet the needs of the organization.  

While this makes logical sense in my head, it is often far more challenging for my heart to comprehend. Being a leader requires giving your whole self to do it well. In other words, you must lead with your mind and heart. My family and I strive to become interwoven into the fabric of the school community. This makes the decision to seek new challenges exceptionally difficult for my family and can leave some community members wondering why or even feeling betrayed. I am reminded of one of the scenes from Walt Disney’s Mary Poppins (1964), where the children ask how long will their beloved nanny stay with the family. Mary Poppins lovingly responds, “I’ll stay until the wind changes.” I truly believe great leaders come into organizations and stay until they serve their purpose. Hopefully, we create lasting positive changes for the children of the community. When we leave it is often with a smile on our face, but sadness in our hearts. 

But remember the rest of Bert’s introduction to Mary Poppins:

Winds in the east, mist coming in,

Like somethin’ is brewin’ and about to begin.

Can’t put me finger on what lies in store,

But I fear what’s to happen all happened before.

While change can be painful for everyone, it also signals a beginning, filled with hope, possibility, and opportunity. I can’t wait to see where the next leader takes my former school and, with the wind in my sails, I’m looking forward to the new challenges in my new schools.  

Vision of a Minuteman

I was humbled to play a small part in this publication with Battelle for Kids regarding our work on the Portrait of a Graduate. The development of a shared vision has never been more important than now.


by Stephen Fujii, in partnership with Matthew Montgomery, Ph.D., Superintendent of Revere Local Schools

Revere Local School District (Revere) boasts a strong history of academic excellence. With four schools and one preschool, Revere serves approximately 2,800 students and attributes their success to their student-centered approach and strong relationship with community members. The district leadership team is working with the community to develop a Portrait of a Graduate and articulate the competencies necessary for all students to thrive. 

The Vision of a Minuteman will be the first step of Revere’s strategic planning process. This critical step called for close collaboration between the district and the broader community. As the previous strategic plan was sunsetting, the district wanted to ensure the new strategic plan would center on the 21st century learning experiences to prepare their students to become leaders in a rapidly changing and complex world. Both district and community stakeholders were poised to engage in purposeful conversations with stakeholders as they collectively designed the Vision of a Minuteman that would steer the district’s work moving forward. Throughout the process, students have provided a critical voice as they advocate for their education.  

Revere’s superintendent, Dr. Matthew Montgomery, understood the importance of engaging with the community in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic and the social justice resurgence. The Vision of a Minuteman design process created a forum that catalyzed these critical and courageous conversations and channeled them into an exploration of the skills and competencies students needed to navigate the realities of today and tomorrow. At times of political strife, misinformation, public health crises, it was paramount to bring the community together in service of students. More importantly, the Design Team meetings centered on asking themselves: how can our schools prepare Revere students to become leaders who tackle our society’s challenges?

Community engagement done well allows for the democratization of voice and invites a diverse group of community perspectives to elevate the needs of different stakeholders. Leadership at Revere intentionally established a Design Team that represented a cross-section of their community—students, parents, educators, administrators, business leaders, and community leaders. Each Design Team meeting was formulated to ensure all stakeholder groups contributed to the Vision of a Minuteman in a meaningful way. The overall goal was to empower Design Team members—to become change agents within the education system. 

“The community is important, and we should work with people from all over the school and community—students, bus drivers, and even the administration,” explained Portrait Design Team member and high school student Elisha Dennis-Brinson. “Leaders should always be willing to listen to the people around them.”

Revere students played a strong leadership role in the development of the Vision of a Minuteman. They are, after all, the central focus of the Vision of a Minuteman. Young people are positioned to lead and take action on our society’s critical challenges—they are passionate about equity, empathy, and diverse views as the pandemic has deeply impacted them.

Dr. Montgomery affirms that “it was inspirational for stakeholders to hear student leaders speak to the future of their school.” Student discussions were rich and robust because students were keenly aware of what they needed. 

Middle school student Avery Stein said, “Being part of this group, I’m able to talk […] about what I think needs to be changed and what the student body as a whole wants for the future.” Students focused on the importance of finding their voice and building their confidence to become leaders in their community. As stakeholders weighed different considerations and decisions, they relied on students’ voices as a litmus test. Giving students a voice is empowering.

Mr. Dennis-Brinson shared that he felt “proud to be able to share from my perspective and see my ideas be taken into consideration by creating a discussion on how we as a school can improve.” As a result, the Vision of a Minuteman articulates that Revere students embody empathy and confidence, which students had advocated early in the process.

Student participation in the Design Team allowed them to model agency. Ms. Stein explains that “being 14, I didn’t think I would play a part in how I can change my future, but my voice is being heard. I’m able to talk to principals, teachers, and people who are working in the schools. They want to know my opinions and they want to know the pros and the cons and what I think could shape a better future.” 

Outside the Design Team, students further demonstrated their investment in this vision that would guide their future and their peers’ future. Students interviewed Dr. Montgomery and collaborated with Battelle for Kids to write a story on the Vision of the Minuteman, which will be featured in the student newspaper, the Lantern. This initiative demonstrates that they want to advocate and raise awareness of this important endeavor.

The Vision of a Minuteman precedes the upcoming strategic planning process, where students and other stakeholders will continue to play a leadership role. District and community stakeholders will develop a strategic plan that sets forth bold strategies and measurable objectives that will bring the Vision of a Minuteman to life. This process will be founded on quality stakeholder engagement, unity of voice, and ensuring the broader community is invested and committed to student success. 

Dr. Montgomery’s aspiration is, “all stakeholders in the community live the Vision of a Minuteman every day, spurring meaningful change, helping students find their voice, and preparing them to become the leaders of the future.

Don’t Want Enemies…Don’t Choose Leadership

I was recently watching an episode from season six, episode two, of The CrownSpoiler alert: stop reading if you are a loyalist to the show and haven’t watched this far.  The episode focuses on the relationship between the Queen and then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.  Towards the end of the episode the Queen cautions Mrs. Thatcher about making enemies, whereas in response the Prime Minister recites the following poem by the Scottish poet Charles Mackay:      

You have no enemies, you say?
Alas! my friend, the boast is poor;
He who has mingled in the fray
Of duty, that the brave endure,
Must have made foes! If you have none,
Small is the work that you have done.
You’ve hit no traitor on the hip,
You’ve dashed no cup from perjured lip,
You’ve never turned the wrong to right,
You’ve been a coward in the fight.

After doing some research, according to a 2019 BBC documentary, Margaret Thatcher was fond of the poem and kept a copy of it on her desk. 

This was the first time I heard of the poem and candidly it took me off guard.  I re-watched the clip several times letting my mind marinate in the words.  I thought about how this poem related to my own experience as an educational leader.  Most importantly, I reflected on how Mackay’s message deeply resonated with my experience of leading during the pandemic.

Never I have experienced the level of vitriol we have seen in 2020.  Much of the scornfulness, coming from a place of hopelessness and despair, rather than personal attacks.  I have seen my fellow school superintendents across the country weather hurricane-level-five storms throughout this year fighting for what they believe to be the best for the students.  While each definition of what is best is intricately dependent on the communities in which they serve, nevertheless the intention remains constant to protect and educate our students. 

School leaders have undoubtedly created foes along 2020’s pathway, whether through in-person, hybrid, or remote learning environments.  We have analyzed countless data points from our district, community, state, and nation to find a way to fulfill our purpose of teaching children. 

As a new adjunct faculty member teaching future principals, I have this to say: if you want everyone to like you, don’t choose leadership.  To lead, we have to be courageous in our decision making.  We have to hit the traitor on the hip, dash the cup from the perjured lip, and most importantly, turn the wrong to right.   

Finding Joy

As I sit here and write this last Friday message of 2020 to staff there are countless memories of the year running through my mind.  Of course, some of them are wonderful and others are not so wonderful.  When I reflect on the year, it is not any different from other years in terms of the tally of good and bad, however, the pandemic does add a certain flair.  

The holidays are a time of remembering the past, celebrating the present, and dreaming of the future.  My sincerest hope is you take the much deserved time to be still and enjoy your families.  Even though this season may look a little differently from the past, I am confident we can create memories that will last a lifetime.

As an example, last night we finished watching “A Christmas Story” together as a family, and afterward, we played model trains.  For those of you who don’t know, “playing trains” consists of me running the train sets and filling the room with smoke while telling the kids “don’t touch that”.  While the night was simple, the evening was filled with smiles and laughter.  We made a memory that hopefully, many years from now when I am no longer around, my babies will look back fondly upon.  Perhaps they will share with their families about their own crazy Dad who played with trains or merely has a quiet moment remembering a holiday when the world was different, but how we still found joy.


We should be teaching our children…

As some of you know, I am a bibliophile.  I just finished the book Factfulness (2018) by Hans Rosling.  Towards the end of the book, Rosling wrote about the importance of teaching our children critical thinking.  I found that interesting because critical thinking shows up in our work with student engagement.  In fact, the high school used critical thinking as the area of focus for our recent instructional rounds.  Moreover, critical thinking is rising to the top of the characteristics that the Design Team is gravitating towards for the Vision of a Minuteman (Portrait of a Graduate).  
I think this week in our nation is a perfect example of the importance of critical thinking skills.  Here are a few of the suggestions from Rosing (2018) that we should be teaching our students that I thought were timely:

  • We should be teaching them what life was really like in the past so that they do not mistakenly think that no progress has been made.
  • We should be teaching them how to hold the two ideas at the same time: that bad things are going on in the world, but that many things are getting better.
  • We should be teaching them how to consume the news and spot the drama without becoming stressed or hopeless.
  • We should be teaching them the common ways that people will try to trick them with numbers. 
  • We should be teaching them that the world will keep changing and they will have to update their knowledge and worldview throughout their lives.

As educators, we have a rare gift and opportunity to shape the future.  As Rosling (2018) explains, teaching the above, “would protect the next generation from a lot of ignorance” ( p. 248).  I want to congratulate you on your work and to challenge you to continue to focus on critical thinking skills for our students and for our nation.  

Rosling, H., Rosling, O., & Rönnlund, A. R. (2018). Factfulness: Ten reasons we’re wrong about the world – and why things are better than you think. First edition. New York: Flatiron Books.

Jump…off social media

The partnership between community, parents, and school has never needed to be stronger than in present times.  Our children and students are faced with many challenges that are unique from what today’s adults were faced with in their own time of adolescence.  As a district leader and parent of four, I often wonder what proactive steps we should take to ensure our youth are properly equipped to face today’s challenges.  One of the greatest concerns I have had recently is around social media.  The most frightening aspect is I worry for not only children but also adults and wonder about the psychological and emotional effects of this technology.  As a leader, I see firsthand the number of students and adults who are benefiting from social-emotional support.

The above is true, all while perhaps paradoxically, I am a fierce proponent and advocate of technology integration in the modern classroom.  I believe the key is to strike a balance between education around the technology tools and both the benefits and potential risks.

I recently watched the 2020 Netflix documentary, The Social Dilemma.  The documentary attempts to lift the veil of the social media giants i.e. Facebook, Twitter, etc. and their use of our data for profit and to shape our viewpoints again resulting in enterprise.  The documentary notes that according to the American Journal of Epidemiology (2017), “A 5,000-person study found that higher social media use correlated with self-reported declines in metal and physical health and life satisfaction”.  I imagine people are not surprised by this statistic; however, I am curious how many of those same individuals reflect on how their social media use is impacting themselves and their children.  I am often surprised when district leaders and teachers have to remind parents that their children do not HAVE to have a phone with social media capabilities.  Moreover, I am left wondering as some parents do not feel as if they can search/monitor their student’s devices.

As an educational leader and parent, I think social media use should be at the forefront of our minds for both our children and ourselves.  With the risk of sounding “old”, perhaps we could benefit from putting down the phone/device and interacting with each other.


The Power of Vision

Revere began our journey to create a Portrait of a Graduate (Vision of a Minuteman). Some people may wonder why we would dedicate the resources and time to invest in creating a vision instead of merely proceeding with everyday work.

I have had the pleasure and honor of being a district superintendent for over seven years and I have seen firsthand the power of vision in uniting and coalescing a group. When considering vision I am drawn to the work of Margaret Wheatley (1999) who described vision as an energy field and encouraged individuals to use it as a formative influence.  She wrote, “We would start by recognizing that in creating a vision, we are creating a power, not a place, an influence, not a destination” (Wheatley, 1999, p. 55).  

Oftentimes vision statements are not inculcated into an organization, but rather written in seclusion and shared to the masses by a few individuals expecting all stakeholders to embrace the direction decided by a select few in a position of power.  Wheatley suggested vision statements should move off the walls “and into the corridors, seeking out every employee, every recess in the organization” (p. 57).

I have never been more passionate about the importance of vision given the pandemic and how it has shaken nearly every aspect of our world. This is especially true in education, which up until the pandemic has been an institution largely resistant to societal changes. As an educational leader, I look forward to having meaningful conversations around what school can be and how it can truly support our students to find success in their lives regardless of their chosen pathway. The time is now to reimagine and reinvent.

Wheatley, M. J. (1999). Leadership and the new science : Discovering order in a chaoticworld. San Francisco, CA :Berrett-Koehler.

I love me…

I don’t know about you, but the stress and anxiety I have experienced since March have been monumental.  Too often we can be hardest on ourselves.  

This week I was listening to the podcast, Let’s Talk Soon, and Tricia Williford Lott said, “You can either look healthy or be healthy.”  She continued by explaining you can work hard to look or appear healthy when you actually are covering up a lot of mess in your life.  On the flip side, you can be healthy, which requires vulnerability and acknowledgment that others can see you aren’t perfect and that you are working to improve.  

This message resonated with me as we all have been thrust into a new world that exposes our fears and anxieties.  Let’s take a moment to acknowledge we are trying our best and that is okay to not be perfect all of the time.  Each day we show up to school, regardless of our role and in spite of our imperfections, we are striving to meet the needs of our students and colleagues.  I would welcome you to take it easy on yourself and just breathe.  We are in this together!       

“I love me” (Clean Version)

Lott, T.W. & Lott, R.A. (2020, May 15). The One About Rocks [Audio podcast]. Retrieved from https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/episode-11-the-one-about-rocks/id1509091203

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