Archive for the 'Leadership' Category

The powerful but often invisible influence of school culture…

 

IMG_1365“Big Idea”: School culture trumps innovation. 

The impact of school culture on the continuous improvement of teaching and learning cannot be ignored by administrators and teacher leaders.

Its influence may be overlooked, however, because it is often invisible to the school community.

Nonetheless, school culture determines whether:

  • honest conversations about teaching and learning take place in meeting rooms or in parking lots,
  • teachers participate in high-functioning interdependent teams or dutifully and resentfully attend meaningless meetings, and
  • teachers focus on ways they can continuously improve teaching and learning or blame students and parents for lack of progress.

Here are several popular posts from the past year that address the elements of school culture that enable continuous improvement.

“Why bad things happen to good people when we withhold our truths”

“Managing inevitable dips in relationships”

“Set a compelling vision for your future: An interview with Stephanie Hirsh”

“Supporting ‘wary and weary teachers’: An interview with Kent Peterson”

More posts on “school culture” can be found here.

 

The similarities between successful teaching, professional development, and leadership

 

Dennis Sparks“Big Idea”: The practices of successful teaching, successful professional development, and successful leadership are remarkably similar.

In my view, a common set of principles regarding human learning and relationships underlie teaching, professional development, and leadership that intends to continuously improve teaching and learning.

Good teaching, as I see it, is an intellectually-rich science and a psychologically demanding improvisational art that is practiced in an ever changing landscape of relationships with students, colleagues, and parents. And like other endeavors that blend science and art, it can be improved through years of practice with frequent reflection on the effectiveness of one’s efforts.

The same description could be applied to skillful school leadership and to professional development that leads to professional learning.

Because I view teaching, leadership, and professional development as closely linked, I frequently ask administrators and teacher leaders who face daunting challenges in their work to imagine how a good teacher would think about and respond to those challenges.

The following posts highlight the understandings and processes that inform effective practice in these three areas. They were among the most widely distributed and read posts of the past year.

“Learning by doing while thinking about it”

“11 dysfunctional beliefs that profoundly undermine leadership, teaching, and learning”

You can peruse all posts in the “teaching” category here.

 

Seeing what is invisible to others…

IMG_1365

The only true voyage… would be not to visit strange lands but to possess other eyes, to see universe through the eyes of another, of a hundred others, to see the hundred universes that each of them sees, that each of them is. – Marcel Proust

I recently read a fascinating book by Alexandra Horowitz, On Looking: 11 Walks with Expert Eyes. 

In each chapter Horowitz takes a walk around her Manhattan block or in other neighborhoods with different experts to understand what they see that escapes Horowitz/s conscious awareness. She walks with a geologists, a biologist, a researcher in pedestrian behavior, a sound technician, skilled medical diagnosticians, and so on.

Each walk revealed to Horowitz a world that was previously invisible to her and provided experiences through which she believes she will be forever changed.

Horowitz writes: “There is a certain bias in everyone’s perspective that has been named, by the French, deformation professionnelle: the tendency to look at every context from the point of view of one’s profession.”

What do expert teachers and principals see that I would not?

As I read the book I found myself wondering what expert teachers  and principals see each day in their classrooms and schools that would be invisible to me. A great deal, I suspect.

But my experience in spending time with such educators has revealed that they are often not as skillful as Horowitz’s experts in explaining what they observe and what it means.

While accomplished teachers and principals see patterns and details that escape my notice, they may or may not be able to explain it in the complex and nuanced way that, say, an expert on pedestrian behavior offered his running commentary to Horowitz as they strolled down a Manhattan street.

Here are two fundamental reasons why I think that’s true:

• Teachers’ and principals’ expertise has not been acknowledged and appreciated within and beyond the school community. As a result, they might think that everyone sees what they see and does what they do. These teachers and principals often find it hard to imagine that not everyone thinks and acts as they do.

• They have had few opportunities to polish that expertise by sharing it with others.

Such fine-tuning and collegiality benefit both the individual teacher or administrator and the broader school community and are hallmarks of outstanding schools.

The continuous improvement of teaching and learning for the benefit of all students requires that accomplished teachers and principals share their expertise — which begins with what they are observing and thinking.

Three things are required to develop and tap that expertise:

1. Developing expertise through experience and reflection on the effects of one’s practice on student learning and other valued outcomes. Years of such practice are essential. (10,000 hours is an oft-cited number of hours required to develop expertise.)

2. Honing one’s descriptive abilities through conversation such as those that occur in team meetings and writing in journals and blogs.

3. Sharing that expertise within a culture of continuous improvement. (Creating such a culture, I believe, belongs among the highest priorities of principals and teacher leaders.)

I encouraged  teacher leaders and principals who wish to take their performance to another level to invite others into their classrooms and schools and to explain to them in close to real-time what is observed and the thought processes behind the countless management and instructional decisions made during a particular lesson or throughout the day.

Effective instructional coaches and principals, of course, enable such mindful professional learning processes.

Horowitz concludes, “An expert can only indicate what she sees; it is up to your own head to tune your senses and your brain to see it. Once you catch that melody, and keep humming, you are forever changed.”

What do skillful school leaders do to enable the school community to “catch the melody, and keep humming”?

When professional learning is a barrier to continuous improvement…

 

Dennis SparksIn my experience most of us already know enough to make a much larger difference. 

While additional knowledge and skills may be helpful, a significant barrier to continuous improvement is the “default setting” of many educators to learn more before acting.

I value learning. I have always enjoyed learning how to do my work more effectively and efficiently. I enjoy learning about a diverse range of subjects that interest me. And I appreciate learning about things that I didn’t know interested me, like when my eye travels from shelf to shelf in a library or bookstore or when I follow a series of hyperlinks wherever they may take me.

But the endless pursuit of new professional learning can also be a barrier, and even a form of procrastination or avoidance, to diligently applying what we already know to improve leadership and teaching for the students who are in our classrooms today.

Sometimes the search for “perfect” knowledge prevents us from acting on the “good enough” knowledge that will benefit students now.

How do you distinguish between “I already know enough” and “New learning is essential?”

 

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?

Can teachers give away what they don’t have?

Dennis Sparks

• Is it possible for teachers to create classroom cultures of high-cognitive engagement if their own meetings and professional development require little intellectual engagement?

• Is it possible for teachers in a school with incoherent, fragmented improvement efforts to create coherent, focused instruction in their classrooms?

• Is it possible for teachers who work in professional isolation to create classrooms with high-levels of student cooperation?

The answer to all of these questions is “yes.” But, it’s a qualified yes.

Within every school—not matter how problematic its culture and structures may be—there are teachers who rise above the circumstances of their environment.

But if the goal is quality teaching and learning in all classrooms for the benefit of all students, then the bar for intellectual engagement and meaningful collaboration in faculty meetings, school culture, and professional development is set much higher.

Put another way, a school faculty cannot give away what it doesn’t experience on a regular basis in the professional culture of the school.

Do you agree? 

Kent Peterson suggests ways to support “wary and weary” teachers

Dennis SparksKent Peterson was one of the first educational thought leaders to recognize the power of school culture in shaping teaching and learning, an influence he explored with co-author Terrence Deal in Shaping School Culture.

So I was particularly eager to see how he would respond to the questions I put to him.

Kent is an Emeritus Professor from the University of Wisconsin-Madison who has spoken to school leaders across the U.S. and internationally about shaping positive and transforming toxic school cultures. He may be contacted at
kpeterson@education.wisc.edu.

What are the two or three most important things you’ve learned about school leadership from observing and studying it?

Over the past decade I have visited hundreds of schools and talked with thousands of school principals and teacher leaders, and in all cases there are several important things that they school leaders do.

First, they work to make school culture and environment a positive one, where all are respected, there is a sense of purpose in the school that is clear and focused on students, and the contributions of everyone are celebrated.

Second, they build trusting relationships by being consistent, following through, and caring about the learning of teachers and students.

Third, work in the classroom is supported and celebrated—the administrative side of the school is well organized and dependable.

They also say that school leaders connect with all staff and community—food service workers, secretaries, custodians, parents, and teachers—fostering energy and commitment.

In short they make the school an enjoyable place to work with positive relationships and a clear, shared direction.

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

When a new principal enters the building many expectations, issues, and demands confront them—some positive, some quite difficult; some obvious and some hidden. While the regular administrative issues need to be addressed, it is key to learn about the culture of the school.

Every school has a culture—that set of norms and values, traditions and ceremonies—that shape everything that occurs.

Early on, a new principal needs to do several things right away.  First, learn about the current culture.  Find out what are the ways teachers interact, work together (or not), and share ideas.  Ask about the important traditions of the school and the ceremonies and celebrations that give the school life from August to June.

Second, delve into the history of the school and find out what shaped the culture.  Who were the prior principals and what were they like?  What were the ways previous principals interacted with teachers, students and parents? Ask yourself how you are different from these prior leaders.  Consider the history of change in the school—was it a positive experience or a grueling trudge?

Finally, talk to teachers about what they like best about the school, aspects that really make them proud and happy to work there.  Consider nurturing and celebrating these in the early months in the school year.

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

School leaders who both enjoy their work and who are successful at helping teachers and students learn seem to exhibit several characteristics.  They have:

• A clear set of values focused on students.

• The ability to build positive relationships with staff and between staff.

• An understanding of the administrative side of schools, with a strong sense of the how to foster a positive school culture.

• A clear knowledge of how to enhance the learning of staff.

• The ability to do complex problem solving.

• A healthy balance in their own lives that fosters positive relations within and outside school.

• A sense of humor.

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

There are many ways to build skills and knowledge about leading and about oneself.  Leaders have told me that they have developed deeper understandings and knowledge through:

• Great professional development that engages their minds and hearts.

• Good colleagues who ask tough questions, offer interesting or complex ideas, and who deeply understand school leadership.

• A personal approach to gaining insights, sometimes called experiential learning.  This involves analysis of one’s actions and the reactions or consequences followed by building new insights about what happened, and then experimenting with a new approach based on these insights.

• Reading.  And not only educational or leadership sources but novels, short stories, blogs, plays, and personal reflections on life.  These can push and expand understanding of schools, people, and oneself.

A common concern expressed by both new and experienced principals and teacher leaders has to do with teachers who are reluctant to engage in new practices. What ideas or practices would you offer to those leaders?

Paradoxically, leaders in all organizations need to find a balance of change and stability.  Pacing a change means that movement forward does not unbalance the boat.

But if the needs of children are not being addressed, a red light should come on and leaders need to develop a sense of urgency and commitment to the changes needed to serve children.

Change is never easy and in schools, with so many years of changes, some staff may be reluctant to jump into new curricula or teaching approaches.  While some of these changes were perhaps “bandwagons” and disappeared, others are useful trains to jump aboard (such as job-embedded staff development and the use of data for decision making, to name two).

But teachers have become both wary and weary at times, resistant to trying new approaches. Here are some suggestions from teacher leaders, principals, and those who study schools.

•  Connect the change to existing values and purposes.  Most new techniques exist to accomplish existing goals—but one needs to be clear how they do.

•  Provide the needed resources, support, and time to make the implementation of new ideas smooth and (relatively) easy.  Most classroom or school level changes have to be fit into existing routines—it takes time, professional learning, and materials to do this.  Leaving one of these out can crash any new initiative.

•  Understand and acknowledge the concerns of teachers.  The history of change for seasoned staff is not always a positive one.  Some of the concerns and resistance come from the reality of other failed reforms.  Acknowledge these past efforts that raise concerns and show how the new efforts will be different.

•  Fullan talks about seeking small successes; I agree.  Identify the small successes along the way but also celebrate the larger victories months if not years into the implementation.

In what ways do you recommend principals spend their time, energy, and resources to improve schools?

I would suggest that principals think about their time as an investment in school improvement. As we know, principals engage in hundreds of different activities in a day, work on a large set of problems and issues, and have interactions with dozens if not hundreds of different people.

Principals should see each of these activities as an investment of their time and energy, an opportunity to make the school better.  Where principals spend their time is one of the largest single investments in any school.  Here are some things to consider:

•  Each activity communicates a message about the values and the mission of the school.  These foster a clearer focus on what’s important. What messages are you sending?

•  Every problem that is solved—from working with a disheartened teacher to insuring that buses are available for a field trip—increase the successes of the school.  Which problems are you choosing to address?

•  Every positive interaction—with a student, staff member, or community member—is a way to shape the school culture, to enhance motivation, and to build commitment.  Are you aware of every interaction?  Or do you slide through the day unaware that this one interaction may be important to the other person?

Using time wisely, focused on the right activities, problems, and interactions fosters school improvement.  All of these—small and large, are investments in success.


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