Archive for the 'Creation/invention' Category

What Mother Teresa can teach school leaders

Dennis Sparks Knowing my interest in leadership, a friend gave me Mother Teresa, CEO, whose authors, Ruma Bose and Lou Faust, extract eight principles from Mother Teresa’s work:

1. Dream it simple, say it strong.

“Mother Teresa is one of those humans who had a simple dream that profoundly changed our world. Her dream was helping the poorest of the poor. She began with that vision, then developed a clear plan for making it come true. Everything Mother Theresa did in her life stemmed from defining her vision and aligning and rallying all of her resources and supporters to her goal….

“‘Saying it strong speaks to the constant need for a leader to consistently speak with passion and conviction about her vision for her organization. She also must act in ways aligned with that vision.”

2. To get to the angels, deal with the devil.

“Leaders need to know where to draw their lines. Sometimes you have to compromise. You need to have the courage to decide which compromises are acceptable and which are not. You will not always make the right choices and you will get criticized for them. Mother Teresa was criticized about many of her choices. Her response was to stand by her beliefs and focus on getting her job done.” 

3. Wait! Then pick your moment. 

 “A balance between action and reflection is critical to keep focused during the emotional ups and downs of leadership. When reflecting, ask yourself if you’re moving toward your vision, laying the groundwork to ensure you are ready once the time is right.” 

4. Embrace the power of doubt.

“Doubt isn’t necessarily a crisis of faith. Obstacles are a daily part of life. You can have faith that something good is going to happen, but doubt how you were ever going to get there. When we embark on journeys into the unknown, it is important to acknowledge and process our feelings of doubt. Unprocessed doubt can lead to paralyzing fear, but using doubt to question yourself can strengthen your beliefs and free you from that fear.”

 5. Discover the joy of discipline.

“In leadership, as in life, discipline is about doing…. Discipline is about the long-term benefit. There is no shortcut or miracle pill. It takes effort and willpower to succeed at business and in life. Procrastination is the enemy of discipline. Mother Teresa believed that if you took care of your small responsibilities, life would reward you with bigger responsibilities.”

6. Communicate in a language people understand.

 “Many people approach communication as a matter of consistency, clarity, and presentation style.… Mother Teresa took the opposite approach. To her, communication was often more about listening and observing than about speaking.… She used this information to adapt her language, naturally but intentionally, to that of other people, while paying close attention to their responses. Did they understand what she was really saying? Were they open to her words and intentions? Did she need to stop and listen some more?”

7. Pay attention to the janitor.

 “One reason Mother Teresa touched people so deeply was that she made them feel heard and valued. She understood that at the most basic level, we all want to feel valued in what we do, whether by our families, our friends, or our colleagues….

“How do you make people feel valued? Pay attention to them! Acknowledge who they are. Ask them questions. Know their names.” 

8. Use the power of silence.

“For a leader, applying the power of silence means clearing your mind and listening to your inner voice. Silence of the mind – stopping your mind – is critical.…

“To silence your mind, begin by eliminating all distractions. If you are in your office, close the door and turn off all devices that would be distracting, such as your cell phone.… 

“If you take time to silence your mind regularly, your mind will find the answers you need for every aspect of your life.”

“You don’t have to be a saint to benefit from Mother Teresa’s leadership principles…,” Bose and Faust conclude. “Start today by picking one principle that resonates with you. Implement it and begin to change how you lead your life or your organization. It will make a difference.”

Which of these principles most resonates with you? 


5 ways to create energy for continuous improvement

Dennis Sparks A perennial challenge of school leadership is creating and sustaining energy for the demanding work of the continuous improvement of teaching and learning.

Fortunately, we know a great deal about creating and sustaining energy. Here are a few suggestions:

Have compelling purposes that stretch the school community outside of its comfort zones. Fortunately, because education is at its heart a moral endeavor, teachers, administrators, and parents have such purposes built into their daily responsibilities.

View the solving of important problems as a creative process (inventing solutions appropriate to your context) rather than a technical one (following a formula or script). People are energized when they create solutions—drawing on research and the best thinking of others—to the meaningful challenges they face.

Make professional learning and intellectual stimulation an integral part of each day. Such learning, of course, not only occurs on “PD days,” but is embedded in teachers’ work as a regular feature of faculty and team meetings.

Create strong teams infused with trust and interpersonal accountability that are charged with the responsibility of achieving stretching student learning goals. People are motivated by relationships that matter.

• Cultivate physical, emotional, and spiritual health within the school community. Leaders’ emotional health is particularly infectious.

What have I missed?

When you’re stuck, grab an envelope and begin planning


Here’s the sum and substance of a conversation I had with a friend of my neighbor. Given that we are both introverts, it was brief and to the point:

Bob: I don’t believe in planning.

Dennis: Hmm… What do you do instead?

Bob: I create options and see where they take me.

Dennis: It sounds like your way of planning is creating options to see what opportunities they provide.

Bob: That could be true.

That conversation reminded me that planning need not always feel overwhelmingly complex. At its essence, planning simply means having a worthy goal and always knowing the next step you will take to achieve it.

While strategic planning can provide a sense of overall purpose and direction, it sometimes inadvertently creates inertia and resignation rather than a sense of possibility, urgency, and energy.

That’s why it’s important that ambitious long-term plans be supplemented by simple methods that create and sustain momentum.

A common form of such planning is a “back-of-the-envelope” method in which a conversation or moment of insight causes us grab a piece of paper and quickly sketch a simple plan, usually just a goal and an action step.

When that step is completed, adjustments are made and the next step is taken, and so on until an important goal is achieved.

So, the next time you are feeling stuck, write your goal and the next step or two you will take on the nearest piece of paper.

You may be surprised how far that simple process may take you.

What methods do you use to maintain clarity and momentum regarding your goals and actions steps?

What is your story: Why did you become an educator?

Dennis Sparks Here’s a story told by a principal that has stuck with me since I first read it in 2001:

“When I was in 3rd grade my father died. I was greeted at school the following day by my principal who held me in his arms and told me in a voice I believed, ‘You are going to be okay.’ That’s when I knew I would be. I’m a principal today because I wanted to be someone who could make such a powerful difference for a child.” ***

Most teachers and principals have a story that explains why they became an educator. Sometimes their stories are about exemplars who inspired them to follow their example, like in the story above.

Sometimes their stories describe a strong desire to improve conditions or remedy a wrong they experienced as students or earlier in their educational careers.

Reminding ourselves of our stories—and hearing the stories of our colleagues—can reinforce or reacquaint us with the motives that first drew us into teaching and leadership.

Sharing such stories in faculty meetings—which in small groups may only take a few minutes—increases staff cohesion as teachers develop a deeper understanding and appreciation of one another.

The collective content of such stories can also inspire and guide the creation of schools in which everyone thrives, adults and young people alike.

What is your story?

***This story was recounted by George Manthey in the October 2001 issue of The School Administrator. It’s a story that undoubtedly had special resonance coming just a few weeks after the events of September 11.

Why it’s essential for educators to connect to purposes larger than self interest


The most effective way to forge a winning team is to call on the players’ need to connect with something larger than themselves. — Phil Jackson

One of educators’ most important responsibilities—whether they are classroom teachers, instructional coaches, principals, or district administrators—is to co-create with the school community a stretching, morally compelling vision that guides the daily life of the school, particularly the quality of teaching, learning, and relationships that occur within it.

Do you agree? If so, what are the steps leaders can take to ensure such visions?

To plan or not to plan? Is that the question?


I’ve heard it said, “Plan as if you will live forever, and live today as if you will die tomorrow.” Of course, if we live today as if there is no tomorrow we will not do a very good job of taking care of forever.

That is but one of the tensions between living an intentional  life and one that is more spontaneous and lived in the moment.

Here is another:

“Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans,” John Lennon wrote in his song, “Beautiful Boy.”

True. Life has a way of confounding our best-laid plans.

It’s also true that life happens to us when we make no plans. But it may not be the life we want.

Here’s how I reconcile those seemingly competing views that play themselves out in both our personal and professional lives:

Make plans, but hold them loosely. Our lives are generally better when we have goals and make plans, although life has a way of surprising us.

Our lives are more in tune with our values and goals when we make plans, as long as we remember that we don’t always get everything we want.

How do you reconcile the tension between the value of planning and the uncertainties of life?


Why scripts and formula cannot continuously improve teaching and learning


Each week this summer I’m introducing a blog theme that connects popular and important posts from recent years. Each theme offers a number of perspectives on a perennial challenge of school leadership.

This week’s theme is “creating the future of your school.”

Most problems faced by K-12 teachers and administrators require adaptive solutions—that is, solutions for which there is no one-right answer or script.

Viewed from this perspective, educators’ work is more like the improvisation of jazz musicians than the adherence to a musical score of performers in a symphony orchestra. That means that educators must continuously invent their way forward while keeping foremost in their minds the ambitious goals for student success that inspire and guide their work.

I encourage you to scroll through articles in this thread to find those that match your interests.

In addition, I encourage you to take a closer look at these essays:

Choose stretch goals over modest, achievable targets”

“Your answer to these two questions could change your school forever”

“The importance of thinking very big and very small”


Choose stretch goals over modest, achievable targets


Successful leadership can sometimes be reduced to a small number of fundamental choices. Once those choices are made, they guide decisions and behavior in dozens of situations each week.

One of those choices is between “stretch goals” and modest, achievable outcomes.

A stretch goal, as its name implies, is so ambitious that its achievement almost always requires individuals to leave their comfort zones to make deep changes in their beliefs, understanding, and/or habits.

Like all big goals, stretch goals are achieved through many small daily actions over time.

Modest, achievable goals are attractive because most people prefer almost certain  success to the risk of failure inherent in stretch goals.

In addition, modest, achievable goals typically allow us to work within the comfort of our current beliefs, understandings, and practices.

Stretch goals have several benefits:

• Because stretch goals are almost always by their very nature inspirational, they create energy and bring out the best in ourselves and the school community.

• Because of the significant changes demanded by stretch goals, they typically produce outcomes that far exceed those originally thought possible.

• Because stretch goals are achieved through the accumulation of countless daily actions, they offer many en route milestones, each of which provides an opportunity to celebrate progress.

Stretch goals are risky, and they are demanding. But they also hold out the prospect of possibilities that far exceed those we usually imagine.

That prospect makes the pursuit of stretch goals worth the risk, particularly when students are the beneficiaries of our extraordinary efforts.


How to spread “demonstrably successful but uncommonly applied practices”


“We need to look at how individuals and organizations within our own systems achieved stellar results using the resources available to the system (and then duplicate then learn from that individual or organization),” reader Frances Miller said in a recent comment on  one of my blog posts. “Many times we spend our energy looking for outside experts when they are right there within our organization; we just have to learn how to develop a culture where others support their use.”

Miller’s comment brought to mind a 2004 JSD interview I did with Jerry Sternin. Sternin and his wife, Monique, had applied the concept of “positive deviance” to life-saving work they did for Save the Children in the villages of Vietnam and to solving other seemingly intractable problems, and I was curious about the implications of the practice in educational settings.

“Positive deviants are people whose behavior and practices produce solutions to problems than others in the group who have access to exactly the same resources have not been able to solve,” Sternin told me. “We want to identify these people because they provide demonstrable evidence that solutions to the problem already exist within the community.”

In the same way that villages in Vietnam had positive deviant parents who had found ways to support the health of their children with the same resources available to other parents, so, too, do schools have positive deviant teachers who are successfully and often quietly solving problems that others in the school community declare to be unsolvable.

Likewise, some schools within a school system have been more successful in solving problems that other schools had declared unsolvable.

Here are some important things to keep in mind about the positive deviance approach.

• Positive Deviance inquiry begins with an assumption that solutions to most problems of teaching and learning can be found in the school community rather than imported through consultants and other experts. If principals and teacher leaders do not share this assumption, the approach will predictably fail.

“Positive Deviance inquires into what’s working and how it can be built upon to solve very difficult problems,” Sternin told me. “It requires that experts relinquish their power and believe that solutions already reside within the system. Our role is to help people discover their answers.”

Later in the interview Sternin noted, “My experience in over 12 years of working with this particular approach and more than 30 years of experience in the development field is that improvement may occur when an external agent brings new resources and ideas to a community.  But as soon as that external agent leaves, the problem returns because the recipients were essentially passive. This is why best-practices approaches usually fail.”

Positive Deviance inquiry is far more complex than principals identifying teachers who produce above average test scores and asking them to explain to their colleagues how they did it.

As Sternin explained it to me, the process has four steps: “define, determine, discover, and design.  The group begins its work by defining the problem and describing what success would look like—which is the inverse of the problem statement.

“Next, the group determines if there are individuals who have already achieved success.  If there such people, they are the positive deviants.

“Next, the group discovers the uncommon but demonstrably successful behaviors and practices used by the positive deviants to solve the problem.

“And finally, the group designs an intervention which enables its members to practice those demonstrably successful but uncommonly applied practices.

“The process is beautifully simple because it’s strength lies in the solutions that are discovered and owned by people in the community,” Sternin concluded.

A school’s culture will determine it’s success in implementing Positive Deviance inquiry. I have said more about the qualities of such cultures in other posts.

A Positive Deviance approach requires that principals and teacher leaders think about professional learning in new ways. It taps the strengths of the school community

In a deeply respectful and honoring way it taps the strengths of the school community and emphasizes behavior change above “learning about.”

“Knowledge doesn’t change behavior…. Practice changes behavior,” Monique Sternin said in a recent New York Times article. (Readers interested in a deeper understanding of this approach will benefit form reading this article.)

Tomorrow’s post will explore the practices of Positive Deviant school leaders.

Successful leadership requires effective management


How different our lives are when we really know what is deeply important to us, and keeping that picture in mind, we manage ourselves each day to be and do what really matters. –Stephen Covey

My simple definition of school leadership is creating with the school community that which does not now exist for the benefit of students.

But it’s also essential that principals and teacher leaders be able to manage, which I define as getting things done for both what now exists and for what is being created. It involves both management of self and of the complex system that is the schoolhouse.

From my experience, here are a few essential things that effective managers do:

Effective managers are intentional. They think about what they want to accomplish today and in the future and have a fool-proof system in place for ensuring that those things get done.

• Effective managers are diligent about keeping promises both to themselves and to others. Promise keeping is a hallmark of leaders’ integrity, which, in turn, is the touchstone for trust within the school community.

• Effective managers consistently practice “next action thinking.” Meetings and learning events never conclude without clarity about what will be done next, by whom, and to what standard.

• Effective managers reserve time for quiet reflection regarding their practice and the well-being of the school community. They use this time to recall their values and goals, to consider the effectiveness of their actions, and to establish short and long-term priorities.

• Effective managers know when and how to say “no.” They consciously minimize obligations on themselves and on the school community that would distract from the achievement of important goals.

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