Archive for the 'Leaders Change First' Category

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.

The consequences for students of settling for too little

IMG_1365

The biggest human temptation is to settle for too little.   – Thomas Merton

Temptation to settle for too little must be a well-established part of the human condition if Thomas Merton finds it worthy of comment.

What might that temptation mean for educators?

• We may settle for too little from ourselves.

• We may settle for too little from our students.

• We may settle for too little from our colleagues and the school community.

Like in all things, the remedy begins with us—with intention and commitment we move beyond comfortable beliefs, goals, habits, and routines to attempt things which may seem impossible.

• We envision schools in which every student experiences quality teaching every day.

• We envision schools in which all teachers continuously improve throughout their careers.

• We envision schools in which teachers and students are surrounded by supportive relationships.

Taken together, we envision schools in which everyone learns and thrives, and we do all that we can each day to enable their creation.

And should we fall short of that aspiration, I am confident we would have accomplished far more than we would have if we had pursued more modest goals.

And I’m confident no one will have accused us of settling for too little.

Successful leadership requires cultivating the problem-solving abilities of others

IMG_1365 If you treat an individual as he is, he will stay as he is, but if you treat him as if he were what he ought to be and could be, he will become what he ought and could be.  —Goethe

The good news is that the given the right conditions teachers can solve the vast majority of their own problems.

The bad news is that schools leaders too often willingly assume responsibility for teachers’ problems and feel overwhelmed by the additional work they have taken on. As a result, they have little time or energy to devote to the tasks that only they can can do and that are essential to the achievement of their organizations’ goals.

When leaders solve problems for others they create dependency, cause atrophy in teachers’ problem-solving abilities, and diminish important opportunities for professional learning that can only occur when staff members assume responsibility for their problems, grapple with solutions, and experience the consequences of their actions.

David Rock addresses this issue in Quiet Leadership: Six Steps to Transforming Performance at Work: “When we try to think for people it takes a lot of mental energy on our part…. Some leaders think it’s their job to tell people what to do or have all the answers…. Managers often complain about how they have to constantly solve their people’s problems—sometimes I sense it is the manager more addicted to this than the staff. Giving people an answer does little but continue their dependence on you.”

On the other hand, leaders strengthen problem-solving “muscles,” Rock argues, by inviting others to do the intellectual work of clarifying problems and identifying solutions. Telling people what to do, he believes, should be leaders’ last resort.

Leaders who wish to address this “addiction” can:

• Believe (or act as if they believe, in the spirit of “fake it until you make it”) that teachers already possess or can acquire the skills to solve most of their problems. (Leaders attitudes about staff members’ ability to solve problems may be shifted in a positive direction when they see them successfully stepping up to the challenge.)

• Determine what role they will play in assisting teachers’ in solving their problems. I encourage leaders to first and foremost serve as committed listeners whose attention supports teachers in thinking more deeply about their problems and in generating possible solutions.

While they may also provide necessary resources or professional development opportunities, leaders seldom offer advice, which can be a subtle way of reinforcing dependence on the leader.

When leaders use these and other practices to develop and tap teachers’ problem-solving abilities, they distribute leadership in ways that increase the school community’s capacity to solve its most pressing problems and to continuously improve teaching and learning.

Why it’s essential to focus on high-impact activities

Dennis Sparks

Much of our present struggles with our organizations have to do with remembering what is essential and placing it back in the center of our lives.  —David Whyte

“I’m so overwhelmed that I have no time to really think about what I do,” is a common lament of educators who face unprecedented responsibilities.

That’s why it is essential that administrators and teacher leaders maintain a relentless focus on and disciplined action in a small number of areas they believe will have the greatest impact on teaching, learning, and relationships in schools.

A key to success in high-pressure educational environments is leaders’ ability to increase the amount of time spent on the relatively few categories of activities that have the greatest impact in the achievement of important goals, which, in turn, requires reducing time spent in areas that make little difference.

A helpful tool in making this distinction is the “80/20 Principle” which asserts that a small proportion of our actions produce a disproportionate share of the results we intent.

“For the 80 percent of activities that give you only 20 percent of results, the ideal is to eliminate them,” writes Richard Koch writes in The 80/20 Principle: The Secret to Success by Achieving More with Less. “You may need to do this before allocating more time to the high-value activities.”

Because administrators and teachers who feel overwhelmed often feel powerless in the face of rising demands, it’s important that they acknowledge that they have the discretion to do at least some things differently and to recognize that the real enemy is the use of their time in unproductive ways.

Koch explains it this way: “There is no shortage of time…. The 80/20 principle says that we should act less. Action drives out thought…. It is not the shortage of time that should worry us, but the tendency for the majority of time to be spent in low-quality ways.”

Administrators and teacher leaders can:

1. Set aside a few minutes to identify actions that are likely to have the greatest impact and those that make little or no difference. Most leaders can quite quickly identify those activities that produce a disproportionate share of the results they value and those that have little effect.

2. Carve out time for the high-impact activities by eliminating or minimizing one or more time consuming but less-effective activities. If leaders think their colleagues will view them as derelict in their duties if they neglect those activities, they may well be surprised to find that they are far less important to others than they thought.

3. Practice “next action thinking” by identifying the next action step and making a commitment to complete it on a to-do list or calendar.

4. Complete that action, determine its effects, and commit to the next action to maintain momentum.

When leaders focus their attention and energy on those activities that make the largest difference and encourage others to do the same, they lead through example and provide a fundamental tool for continuous improvement.

What are those activities in your work which produce a disproportionately large positive result?

 


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