Archive for the 'School Culture' Category

Getting better at getting better

Dennis Sparks

In a recent issue of the New Yorker James Surowiecki wrote about performance improvement in a number of fields, including teaching:

“…the biggest problem is that we’re in thrall to what [Elizabeth] Green [in Building a Better Teacher] calls “the idea of the natural-born teacher,” the notion that either you can teach or you can’t. As a result, we do little to help ordinary teachers become good and good teachers become great. What we need to embrace instead is the idea of teaching as a set of skills that can be taught and learned and constantly improved on. As both Green and Goldstein detail, school districts in the United States that take teacher training seriously have seen student performance improve, often dramatically. More accountability and higher pay for teachers would help, too. But at the moment most American schools basically throw teachers in at the deep end of the pool and hope that they will be able not only to swim but also to keep all their students afloat, too. It’s a miracle that the system works as well as it does.”

In response to the article I wrote this letter to the editor:

“James Surowiecki (“Better All The Time,” November 10, 2014) correctly notes the generally low quality of teacher preparation and ongoing professional development for teachers. He does not acknowledge, however, that inadequate compensation and poor working conditions in many schools discourage talented individuals from becoming teachers. Nor does he explicitly acknowledge, although he cites examples of it, the importance of sustained collaboration among teachers in continuously improving teaching and learning, a quality that has been undermined by ill-considered reforms that encourage unproductive competition among teachers and schools.

“The reason the education system works as well as it does is because of the often heroic efforts of hundreds of thousands of dedicated teachers and administrators in the face of immense and unrelenting challenges.”

What’s required for teachers and administrators to continuously “get better at getting better” so that “ordinary teachers become good and good teachers become great”? 

Almost everyone has the same two problems…

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In the view of many observers, teachers’ dissatisfaction is … closer to passive resignation than to active indignation, closer to dejection that deflates energy than to anger that inspires action…. There is much research to confirm the importance of a sense of efficacy—the sense of making a meaningful difference…—in teachers’ motivation and performance. —Robert Evans (my emphasis added in bold)

Almost everyone has the same two problems.

The first problem is whatever problem we are experiencing at the moment – a technical problem related to teaching or leadership, a relationship problem, a health problem, or whatever it may be.

The second problem, which is often as or more significant than the first problem, is the way we think about the first problem.

How we define a problem and what we believe about it often determines whether we think it can be solved and whether we have the ability to solve it.

Resignation—that is, not believing there is anything we can do to improve the situation—is the most common of those energy-destroying mental barriers. 

Believing that a problem is unsolvable is, after all, the first step in ensuring that it won’t be solved.

In Leading for Results I wrote: “Resignation is an intellectual and emotional state in which educators come to believe that their individual and collective actions cannot improve teaching and learning, particularly given the large and serious problems that affect the lives of many students and their families…. A profound consequence of this belief is that teachers and administrators act as if they have a very small, or perhaps even nonexistent, circle of influence related to student learning.”

Do you agree that resignation is a powerful, often unrecognized barrier to solving the challenging problems of teaching, learning, and leadership? 

When we are committed to being our best selves…

Dennis Sparks

When people make a fundamental choice to be true to what is highest in them, or when they make a choice to fulfill a purpose in their life, they can easily accomplish many changes that seemed impossible or improbable in the past. – Robert Fritz

My personal experience and observations of others tell me that Robert Fritz is correct – that is, when we more consistently act in ways that are aligned with our most important purposes and best selves, we can often accomplish things that previously seemed impossible.

While there are no guarantees, being true to what is highest and best in ourselves and recognizing it in others enables the “extraordinary,” not only in ourselves but in everyone with whom we interact.

What can you do today to enable the highest and best in yourself and others?

Why schools are in trouble when the most honest conversations occur in parking lots

Dennis Sparks

Parking lot conversations usually mean that people are not saying what they really think in meetings, which means the school community is deprived of their perspectives and experience.

Parking lot meetings usually mean that important problems remain unsolved and the school community is deprived of an important source of professional learning.

Parking lot meetings usually mean that there is a low level of trust in the school community.

Parking lot conversations also undermine trust.

What can be done to address this problem?

1. Name the elephant in the room. Begin a crucial conversation about this important subject, a conversation that will likely be the first of many. Ignoring or minimizing the problem only feeds the elephant.

2. Establish meeting agreements in which participants agree to have important conversations within meeting rooms. The agreement also specifies what will be done if it is violated.

3. Use protocols to engage everyone in the conversation to ensure productive meetings.

4. Include professional learning as an agenda item in most meetings, if even for a few minutes. Ideally, such professional learning will be closely linked to the meeting’s primary purposes.

What processes do you use or have you experienced to address the problem of parking lot meetings?

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.

 

Seeing what is invisible to others…

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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”?

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”?

 


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