Archive for the 'Leaders Change First' Category

Why “crazy busy” is, well, crazy

 

Dennis Sparks

In a culture that venerates overwork, people internalize crazy hours as the norm.  —James Surowiecki

I have heard people say they are “crazy busy” with a kind of pride that indicated they viewed it as a badge of honor. Exhaustion is viewed as a status symbol, and productivity and self worth become dangerously intertwined.

There are only two things wrong with “crazy busy.”

The first is ‘crazy,” which is self evident. Administrators and teacher leaders who are stressed are toxic. Not only does that stress negatively affect their performance, it infects the emotional lives of others and undermines their performance

The second is “busy.” Many of us—me included—thrive when our lives feel full and rich. We would rather have too much to do than be bored with too little to do.

However, busy also carries with it the possibility that there is no down time in one’s professional or personal lives, that we move from one activity to another without opportunities for restoration or reflection.

So, the next time you hear someone say that he or she is “crazy busy” or some variation of that theme, invite that person into a dialogue about whether that state of affairs is good for them and for others.

And don’t allow “I don’t have choice” to put an easy albeit superficial end to the conversation.

Go deeper, without judgment, to help your colleagues consider the effects of such craziness on themselves, their families, their colleagues, and their students.

What do you do to avoid feeling “crazy busy”?

 

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 essential skills for every leader…

Dennis Sparks

I have seen leaders rise or fall based on the presence or absence of one or more of the following skills:

1. The ability to discern and paraphrase the assumptions, values, and points of view of others with sufficient skill that those with whom they interact would report that their leaders accurately understand their perspectives.

2. The ability to effectively manage one’s feelings and to discern and respond appropriately to the feelings of others.

3. The ability to manage one’s responsibilities efficiently and with integrity, which includes but is not limited to email and social media, short and long-term planning, and task and project management.

4. The ability to effectively delegate meaningful responsibilities to others in the school community without micromanagement by providing appropriate support and skill development to ensure success.

5. The ability to facilitate meetings (or when appropriate delegate their facilitation) that achieve their stated purposes and are satisfying to participants.

Do you agree that these are essential skills? What skills have I missed?

Why it’s essential for school board members to be intentional learners

Dennis Sparks

First among many superb ideas to be found in A School Board Guide to Leading Successful Schools: Focusing on Learning by Stephanie Hirsh and Anne Foster is this one:

“Exemplary school boards are made up of members who come to the board for the right reason–to provide quality public schools for the children of their school system.… They are committed to serving and learning, and their example can become a model for the entire school system and community.…

“Each person on the school board brings a unique set of experiences and knowledge that can be valuable to the group as a whole. But regardless of the knowledge and viewpoint that each member brings, the entire board is on a continuous learning curve. Board members can grow together in their knowledge of public school issues, school system business, and their role as board members. How they go about learning and continually upgrading their knowledge will determine to a large degree how successfully they will work together and lead the school system. How deeply they are willing to learn about important issues will determine the quality of their decision making, their attempts to reach consensus, and their ability to support the superintendent and staff. (bold mine)

In my experience, a system of learning schools requires a school board and superintendent who are intentional and public learners.

There are no exceptions to this requirement if the goal is high-quality teaching for all students in all classrooms in all schools.

Do you agree?

If so, I encourage you to read and pass on Hirsh and Foster’s book to a school board member who seeks to better understand the importance of Board learning and teamwork. Better yet, if you are in a position to do so, provide copies for the entire Board and ask members to devote as many sessions as possible to its study.

 

4 fundamental practices for cultivating professional literacy

Dennis Sparks

Generous amounts of close purposeful reading, rereading, writing, and talking, as underemphasized as they are in K-12 education, are the essence of authentic literacy. These are simple activities are the foundation for a trained, powerful mind. . . .” —Mike Schmoker

Many years ago in an interview for a NSDC (now Learning Forward) publication Phil Schlechty told me, “If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have time to lead.”

For my own purposes I amended his adage to read, “If you don’t make time to read, write, speak, and listen in ways that promote professional learning, you don’t have time to lead.” 

Just as we desire to cultivate literacy among K-12 students, it is essential that education leaders take the time—even just a few minutes a day—to cultivate their own  professional literacy and that of others for the benefit of all their students.

Professional literacy means the development of intellectual depth and fluency regarding values, beliefs, ideas, and practices that guide day-to-day decision making. Its acquisition requires cognitively-demanding processes, in contrast to the minimal engagement of the “sit and get” sessions that continue to dominate too large a share of “professional development.”

While professional literacy can be acquired through various means, my experience has taught me that four particularly powerful learning processes—speaking and listening with the intention to learn, reading, and writing—are the fundamental practices for cultivating leaders’ professional literacy.

Speaking isn’t often thought of as a source of learning for the speaker. But leaders can learn from their own speaking when they pay close attention to both their own words—a kind of metacognition in which the speaker monitors his or her own thinking for unexamined assumptions, logical inconsistencies, and so on—and the effects of those words on others.

Committed, attentive listening by leaders deepens their understanding of the subject at hand and the  perspectives of others. It is also an essential first step in influencing the views of others, an orientation that Stephen Covey described as “seek first to understand.”

Careful reading promotes leaders’ learning when they not only take in information but respond actively to it by making comparisons with what they already understand and believe and by raising new questions for exploration. Such reading enables leaders to be engaged with the minds of individuals who they may never meet.

Because writing is thought made visible, it promotes learning by enabling leaders to refine their ideas, examine their logical consistency, and determine the most concise and precise means for their expression. Journal writing and blogging are two common and especially powerful means for such reflection. And blogging also enables leaders to actively engage with the perspectives of readers who offer their comments.

Taken together, these four learning processes are fundamental, interconnected means for cultivating’ professional literacy.

What would you add to this list?

“Set a compelling vision for your future and outline a path for getting there”: An interview with Stephanie Hirsh

Dennis Sparks

Stephanie Hirsh and I worked together for 20 years at the National Staff Development Council (now known as Learning Forward) where in 2007 she followed me as executive director.

Because I know Stephanie thinks deeply about improving the quality of professional learning in schools, and because I have deep respect for her views, I was eager to explore and share with readers her latest thinking about the issues I raise in the questions below.

In addition to her work at Learning Forward, Stephanie previously held a number of positions in the Richardson (Texas) Independent School District, including serving as a school board trustee. You can follow her on Twitter at @HirshLF.

What would you say to a principal or teacher leader in his or her first year on the job?

Hirsh: The first year sets the tone for your tenure. Think about how you want people to perceive you and what kind of leader you want to be. Consider what you think you know and what you need to learn more about. Make it a priority to do a lot more listening than talking. It may sound trite but it is true — people don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.

As a new leader, you will want to demonstrate why you are in this position of responsibility, but at the same time you’ll need to temper the desires for immediate change — yours and others’ — with the need to practice listening and understanding your new context.

I suggest you use your time as a new leader to:

• Clarify your vision and values, including your values about children and your staff;

• Share your ideas for changes and for the future a bit at a time, and gauge peoples’ reactions carefully;

• Stand for significant ideas, engaging others in the process; and

• Stand for professional learning.

During your first year, be careful about drawing any lines in the sand. Make sure any lines are values driven and worth potential consequences. Be willing to let the small stuff slide.

From your perspective what seem to be the qualities of leaders who thrive in their work?

Hirsh: Leaders who I admire have several characteristics that I strive to develop and advocate.

First and foremost, they put student learning first. They are driven to do all they can in their sphere of responsibility and influence to advance it.

They are inspirational; they can clearly articulate their vision, beliefs, values, theory of action, and strategic priorities. They are consummate learners, which further advances their knowledge, insights, and actions.

The leaders I admire are people of integrity, they are authentic, and they practice what they preach.

Finally, these leaders treat people the way they want to be treated.

What thoughts do you have about how leaders might develop those qualities?

Hirsh: I think if you are committed to being a great leader, one of your first steps to growth is to identify other leaders who have the qualities that you admire. Set out to learn more about these leaders, watch them as they work, and read what they write. If at all possible, see if you can engage them in a relationship to support your own growth.

Gain clarity and write your own vision statement for the kind of leader you aspire to be. From there, create a plan for becoming this person. Seek feedback along the way, and learn to respond to it with appreciation. Always look for opportunities where you can learn some of the skills you admire in others.

As I encourage for all educators, extend your learning and growth circle to colleagues, mentors, and coaches. Each brings a different perspective and will contribute to your growth in different ways.

A common concern expressed by both new and experienced principals and teacher leaders is that some teachers are reluctant to engage in new practices. What ideas or practices would you offer to those leaders

Hirsh: While educators are motivated by their commitment to their students, substantive and sustained change is really difficult. While educators must think big for the kinds of improvement schools need, I encourage them to start “small” in their actions. To do so, leaders can:

• Select those practices that are the highest leverage;

• Articulate your theory of action behind new practices;

• Provide opportunities for practice and feedback before educators use new strategies in front of students or in an evaluative context;

• Build a safe and supportive learning culture by being a model, encouraging team teaching, and engaging the use of coaches; and

• Reflect on changes openly and often, celebrating successes and encouraging revisions to advance further.

I encourage principals and teacher leaders to “work smart” – that is, to apply their energy to a small number of areas or activities in which they are likely to make the largest difference for students and the school community. From your experience, what are those few areas/activities in which school leaders would have the biggest impact on the continuous improvement of teaching and learning?

Hirsh: For principals, I consider the following to be high-leverage areas for focus if their goal is to create a learning-focused culture in their schools:

• Align all professional learning decisions to Learning Forward’s Standards for Professional Learning. This stance positions you to explain the decisions you are making and the outcomes you intend to achieve.

• Make sure every educator in the school is a member of at least one high-functioning learning community, including yourself. Be a model learner; find, and if necessary, create your own learning community that will give you honest feedback and hold you accountable for achieving your goals

• Be an advocate for continuous improvement with stakeholders in the district office and the community. Be prepared to explain professional learning’s critical role in your theory of action and tell others how you will assess its quality and ongoing impact.

For teacher leaders, I suggest these high-leverage activities:

• Be an expert in your field. Invest in your own learning to ensure your students get what they need. It is difficult to advocate for change when you aren’t continually – and visibly – improving your own practice.

• Find or build a great learning community, just as I urge principals to do. Surround yourself with people who you respect and who will learn with you, and meet with them regularly for feedback and support

• Set a compelling vision for your future and outline your path for getting there.

Likewise, I am also curious about what you regard as the areas of greatest leverage in your own work.

Hirsh: I believe my highest-leverage work is similar to what I suggest for principals and teacher leaders.

It is important to me to clarify my values and vision regularly and to articulate it within my sphere of responsibility.

I immerse myself in the field of professional learning to be a content expert.

I also stress the importance of continual learning, seeking opportunities for my growth, asking for feedback, and providing opportunities for my staff to do the same.

Effective leaders nurture the soul

Dennis SparksGrowing our souls could be defined as the steady accretion of empathy, clarity, and passion for the good. —Mary Pipher

Schools possess “souls,” an awareness that struck me when I heard someone describe a school she obviously admired as “a place with soul.”

Schools full of soul:

• are places that members of the school community experience as authentic, profound, personally meaningful, and emotionally stirring, 

• have a uniqueness and integrity based on the principles and moral imperatives that guide their efforts, and

• possess aspirations, commitments, and a “passion for the good” that are both informed by and expressed in their symbols, rituals, ceremonies, and spirit.

Soulful schools exist because leaders welcome, honor, and nourish the souls of all members of the school community.

In A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward An Undivided Life, Parker Palmer describes such leaders as individuals who make “a commitment to act in every situation in ways that honor the soul.”

Consequently, leaders cultivate soul when they:

First and foremost nourish their own souls through practices such as journal writing and solitude. They then engage with the community to hone and test their commitments. Such leaders are more likely to display the generosity of spirit, empathy, and profound respect for others that calls forth the soul of the organization.

Promote teamwork focused on clear and compelling purposes and principles that enable individuals to link their own heartfelt intentions to the common good. Leaders keep these purposes and principles foremost in community members’ minds so that they inform every decision and action.

Cultivate and value the whole person, not just his or her intellect or technical skills. To that end leaders use faculty and team meetings and other venues to provide opportunities for individuals to reveal the events that have shaped their lives, underscoring that community members are not replaceable parts of an “education machine.”

Value the unique perspective and wisdom that that each person brings to the school community and encourage the expression of those qualities. Leaders do so when they promote relationships that are honest, trusting, compassionate, and cooperative. Such relationships provide the emotional safety in which individuals can express the most soulful aspects of themselves, qualities that are the most precious and closely guarded against judgment and criticism.

Use stillness and silence when appropriate to create opportunities for individuals to listen to their “inner teachers” and discern their own truths.

Leaders  who nurture their own souls and the collective soul of the school community have a profound affect on the community and all those whose lives are touched and shaped by it.

Effective leaders listen with empathy

Dennis Sparks

When we move out of ourselves and into the other person’s experience, seeing the world with that person, as if we were that person, we are practicing empathy. —Arthur Ciaramicoli & Katherine Ketcham

Civility is the bedrock of productive and supportive relationships within schools.

An essential building block of  civility is leaders’ ability to demonstrate empathy for the experience and perspective of others within the school community.

“Being aware of others is where civility begins,” P. M. Forni writes in The Civility Solution: What to Do When People Are Rude. “To be fully aware of them, we must weave empathy into the fabric of our connection. . . . The empathy of strangers is good for us not just because it makes us feel better about ourselves and about life, but also because it encourages us to be better persons. Empathy is wonderfully contagious.”

In my experience, leaders’ lack of empathy is a leading cause of interpersonal problems in the workplace, which, in turn, undermines a school community’s ability to achieve it’s most important goals.

Empathic leaders:

fully and deeply hear what others say, 

• convey both verbally and nonverbally that they understand that person’s perspective and experience, and 

• communicate respect for the individual who is speaking.

Through their words and demeanor empathic leaders communicate to others the value of both the message and the messenger

Too often leaders inadvertently communicate disrespect by cutting off speakers because they assume they know what the speakers will say, “hijacking” speakers’ stories to focus on things the listener regards as more worthy of discussion, or demonstrating inattention and disinterest by glancing at their computer screen or smart phones.

On the other hand, leaders who listen with empathy demonstrate respect for what the speaker is saying through such simple but often neglected practices as making eye contact, tolerating periods of silence during which speakers can reflect on their own words, and demonstrating through their demeanor an appreciation of speakers’ feelings.

“[T]he quality of our listening is as good a measure of our humanity as any. . .,” P. M. Forni notes. “[W]hen we find the strength to engage in considerate listening we are in fact expressing ourselves. At our best.”

Leaders with high levels of emotional intelligence listen attentively to deeply understand the experiences and perspectives of others and demonstrate that understanding through their words and demeanor. It is the bedrock of civility and meaningful collegiality within the school community.

Effective leaders exemplify positive attitudes and respect

Dennis Sparks

Positive emotions such as compassion, confidence, and generosity have a decidedly constructive effect on neurological functioning, psychological well-being, physical health, and personal relationships. —Richard Boyatzis & Annie McKee

Civil school cultures are those in which community members think the best of one another, display positive attitudes, speak with kindness, respect others’ opinions, and disagree graciously while candidly expressing their views.

Those qualities are unlikely to exist and persist without school leaders who embody them in their day-to-day interactions with staff members, parents, and students.

In The Civility Solution: What to Do When People Are Rude  P. M. Forni writes, “Whether positive or negative, attitude is destiny. . . . Positivity makes relationships better, and better relationships reinforce positivity. So, if you are inclined to perceive what happens to you through the fog of negativity, make a change of attitude your number one priority.”

Changing habits of mind and behavior, however, requires that leaders be intentional and persistent in approaching these changes, beginning with themselves.

To establish civil school cultures, leaders:

Hold positive expectations for others by setting high standards for conduct and learning and by living those standards on a day-to-day basis. And when leaders stumble, as they sometimes do, they acknowledge the lapse and set about resolving whatever problems it may have caused.

Display a generosity of spirit which assumes that others are honest, trustworthy, and capable unless there is abundant evidence to the contrary. Assuming the best is a key attribute of hopefulness, which, in turn, is a critical attribute relationships that nurture and support continuous improvement.

Speak with compassion and kindness, which Forni believes is at the heart of civil behavior. In another book, Choosing Civility: The Twenty-Five Rules of Considerate Conduct, he writes, “Never embarrass or mortify. . . . Always think before speaking. . . . With your kind words you build a shelter of sanity and trust into which you welcome others for much-needed respite.”

Speak truthfully. Civility recognizes that people look at the world differently and are entitled to a fair hearing of their views.

Civil school cultures are places in which ideas and beliefs are vigorously and respectfully expressed in meeting rooms. Sarcasm, disparaging gossip, and “parking lot meetings” have no place in such cultures.

These cultures have at their core leaders who display positive attitudes and deep respect for the abilities and perspectives of everyone in the school community and who interact with and speak about others in that spirit.

Effective leaders speak from the heart

Dennis SparksThat which is spoken from the heart is heard by the heart. —Jewish saying

Emotions trump facts in motivating human behavior. That was an awareness I acquired only after many years of frustration trying to persuade others to change based on research and logical discussion.

This understanding means that in addition to providing evidence to support new practices, leaders will speak from their hearts to the hearts of those they lead to sustain a steady flow of energy for doing the demanding work of continuously improving teaching, learning, and relationships in schools.

John Kotter and Dan Cohen elaborate on this perspective in The Heart of Change: Real-Life Stories of How People Change Their Organizations. “People change what they do,” they observe, “less because they are given analysis that shifts their thinking than because they are shown a truth that influences their feelings.”

Because emotions underlie lasting change, leaders’ ability to evoke and channel the energy they create is essential in overcoming inertia and providing the commitment necessary to establish new habits of mind and behavior.

Leaders evoke feelings when they:

Speak with passion about the values that guide their lives and of the values shared by the school community. They do so whenever appropriate in faculty meetings, team meetings, and one-to-one conversations with colleagues, parents, and students.

Tell stories that touch the hearts of those they lead. For example, leaders touch hearts when they speak authentically from their hearts about the incidents and events that shaped them as human beings and led them into teaching and school leadership. They can also invite others to share the influences that shaped their lives and professional choices in faculty meetings or other appropriate venues (my next column will have more to say on leaders’ use of stories).

Provide learning experiences that affect the heart as well as the mind. The use of well-chosen poetry and video clips are two such methods. Another is to form panels of current or former students in which participants reveal salient aspects of their lives, their experiences in the school, and/or how well prepared they felt they were for the next phase of their lives.

While research and professional literature are important tools in stimulating meaningful and lasting change, they are usually insufficient.

That’s why it is essential that whenever possible leaders speak from their hearts to the hearts of others in ways that promote a sense of possibility and commitment to important goals and encourage others in the school community to do the same.


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