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Lois Easton describes how “Design Teams” can lead to productive meetings

Dennis Sparks

Too often the meetings that educators attend feel purposeless and unproductive.

With that perennial problem in mind, I asked Lois Easton to suggest a remedy, which she did in the form of a “Design Team.”

Here’s what Lois had to say:

Done with meetings that are torturous in the first place and lead to nothing? Disappointed in professional learning that robs resources (time, energy, and usually, money) and lead to no substantive change?

These gatherings of educational professionals may seem purposeless—and may, indeed, be purposeless in the sense that purposes are unspecified or unclear. Or, these gatherings may be minimally motivating.

In either case, there’s no action, and there are no results and, once again—reflecting onwasted resources—educators become cynical about meetings and professional learning.

Even if they are motivating, meetings and professional learning may lead to little or no action simply because no one has seriously thought about the support and accountability required to making change. It’s almost as if no one really expects that these processes will lead to action which leads to results.

One solution to this dilemma is the Design Team.

You can call it anything you want, but this team of people inside the group labors before,during, and after the meeting or professional learning to consider purposes, desired action, support, and accountability. These are people who, themselves, are engaged in making the changes—in their classrooms, schools, and districts.

The philosophy is that those affected by—and effecting—the change should have some say in how the change is made, how to support it, and how to be sure that the change is making a difference for student learning.

The Design Team: 

Meets before the meeting or professional learning to determine the need for a meeting or professional learning. Though they may work with a facilitator from within or outside the organization, the Design Team has a huge say in what happens.

Collects and analyzes data before they begin planning, using the question, “What leads us to want a meeting or professional learning?”

Circulates the results of their data discussions with their colleagues: “Here are the dataresults. Are these data important? For instance: Is it okay for 20% of our students not to graduate? Is it okay for 4th graders to dislike reading? Is it okay for girls to steer clear of math? Should we do something about these data? What do you recommend?”

Requests feedback and use responses to modify their work. They continue to use this feedback cycle throughout the work (ideally throughout a school year or more).

Drafts outcomes—what people will know and be able to do as a result of the meeting or professional learning—as well as overall purposes. They request feedback, even if only thumbs-up or down on the outcomes.

Continues to request and get feedback—and adjust accordingly—on everything else they do before the meeting or professional learning.

Considers the support that educators will need to make changes as a result of the meeting or professional learning. The Design Team advocates for appropriate resources for the work. It also identifies indicators for change at all levels. The team thinks about how the whole organization will know that the outcomes have been achieved.

Who serves on the Design Team?

1. The role should be voluntary. Anyone impacted by the contemplated change should have a chance to participate on the Design Team. Although it’s tempting to invite representatives from grade levels or subject areas to participate, don’t. Representatives tend to do what they are asked to do—that is, represent their factions. They may not see the “whole school” or the “whole district” as they deliberate. Invite everyone to participate.

2. To achieve continuity, ask members to serve a minimum time period (perhaps 3 months). Allow new members any time, as long as they will serve the requisite number of months.

3. Acknowledge that each time a new member joins the Design Team, the team is a new team and new members need orientation. This is not all bad; new members help continuing members deepen their understanding of the work. As they explain it, continuing members become clearer about what they are doing—or not. If not,new members give the Design Team a chance to repurpose or re-plan what they are doing.

4. Keep the team as large as it is, naturally—if it is too bulky, have meetings for all team members so they can all keep the “big picture” in mind, and then smaller action team meetings to get the work done.

5. Communicate, communicate, communicate. Even if there is no doubt about an strategy or outcomes, run it by the whole group (everyone else in the school, for example). Keep things transparent.

6. Consider providing released time for Design Team members so they can meet.

During the meeting or professional learning, the Design Team provides a way for afacilitator or convener to keep tabs on what’s working and what’s not and to make adjustments.

After the meeting or professional learning (that is, if we can consider professional learning “over”), the Design Team monitors the indicators of change and the outcomes, reporting to everyone how the change is proceeding.

Design Teams—when well designed themselves—ensure that meetings and professional learning are carefully considered and consequential.

This post is adapted from Lois Easton’s book, Professional learning communities by design: Putting the learning back into PLCs, published by Corwin Press andLearning Forward.

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? 

 

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? 

“Every encounter matters”: An interview with Chris Kennedy

Dennis Sparks

When I am asked to name a school system leader who is an exemplar in the use of blogging and Twitter to further educational purposes, Chris Kennedy is the first person that comes to mind.

Chris is superintendent of schools in the West Vancouver School District in British Columbia. Chris’  blog, the “Culture of Yes” and tweets (@chrkennedy) are a model of of how school leaders can use social/learning media to teach, encourage, celebrate, and link educators within and beyond West Vancouver. As a result, Chris’ influence is felt not only in British Columbia but throughout North America and around the world.

So I was particularly eager to see Chris’ responses to these questions.

What are the two or three most important things you’ve learned about school change from participating in it, observing it, or studying it?

I have learned that every school needs to go through its own process.  It can’t be speeded up because we need to have the conversations. We can’t microwave school growth and evolution.

Context really matters – from where schools are located, who is on the staff to what the history is of a school.  In particular, we need to honour a school’s history.

I would also say that every little encounter matters.  As a school leader a meeting might be a low priority for you, but it may be the most important meeting for the person you are with.  You build credibility with the little things.

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

Smile and listen.  As nervous as you might be in the new role, others are also anxious about what it will be like to work with you.  The first thing you need to do is reach out and build relationships.

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

They are continually curious and comfortable with ambiguity.  They understand that doing things differently is not a sign of weakness, nor does it mean that we were doing things “wrong” in the past. Instead, it’s part of the rapid change we are seeing in education and our society.

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

I think leaders need to step back and consciously let go of control.  This can be terribly difficult, but something that can be practiced.  Leaders need to consciously give up control – even over small things to start – and to be curious rather than focused on trying to be right.

There seems to be agreement that experimentation and risk-taking on the part of leaders is desirable. In what ways were you encouraged to step out of your comfort zone, and what was it like for you to do so?

Risk-taking and experimentation are absolutely part of what we need in our leaders.

I have been fortunate to be surrounded by people that encouraged a culture of risk taking.  As a new teacher I was encouraged to take on new courses and teacher leadership, then encouraged to take on new roles. In turn, I have tried to do this for others and model it through my “Culture of Yes” blog.

It is terribly scary to take risks. I tell leaders to remember how risk makes us feel as we encourage our students and those we work with to take risks.

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?

I think teachers are willing to engage in new practices if they believe the practices will make a difference for students.  I don’t know any teachers who do not want to improve the life chances of their students, and teachers are willing to go above and beyond when they believe doing things differently will be better for those they work with.

I think we need to keep the focus on students – how will using technology in the classroom benefit students?  How will an inquiry-based approach better engage those in our classrooms?  How will a commitment to self-regulation better prepare students to be ready to learn?  We can get caught up in bigger conversations around new practices, but we should always come back to students.

From your experience, what are the most important things a leader can do to influence teaching and learning?

School leaders should focus on being learning leaders themselves.  They should position themselves as the lead-learner in the school.  Principals and teacher leaders should model learning and be continually focused on improving learning for students.

It sounds obvious and simple, but we often get distracted.  That’s why I encourage school leaders to focus on a small number of things that resonate with teachers across subject areas, such as using inquiry.  It doesn’t mean this is all that is important, but it is crucial to have a focus.

I am also curious about what you regard as the areas of greatest leverage in your own work as a system leader.

I think the greatest power I have is as a connector and a storyteller.  I have the amazing benefit  of being in all of our schools and talking with students, teachers, administrators, trustees, parents, and the community.

Sometimes teachers and schools feel like they are on their own – I can help connect them and remind them they are part of something bigger.  As we move in the same direction with a fair bit of flexibility and autonomy we are far more than independent contractors who share a geographic region.

 

A professional responsibility to continuously improve teaching

Dennis Sparks

My previous post highlighted the problem of “either/or thinking” when it’s applied to professional development.

Such thinking is also a problem when educators discuss their responsibility for improving student learning in the face of poverty and other challenging economic and social conditions.

Some say that poverty is too strong a force for schools to overcome. Others believe that there is ample evidence that schools can teach all students to high levels no matter what their socio-economic status may be.

For me it is not either/or, but both/and.

I am fully convinced the poverty affects student learning and the overall quality of children’s lives. That seems irrefutable.

Poverty has a profoundly negative effect on the quality of life for young people and their families. I hope that educators join with others to do everything in their power to blunt its impact if not eliminate it.

And:

We know a great deal about the kind of teaching that engages all students in meaningful learning, no matter their socio-economic status. And we know a great deal about the kinds of structures (professional learning communities, for instance) and the attributes of school cultures that enable such teaching.

As a result, educators have a professional responsibility to continuously improve the quality of teaching and learning for the benefit of all students, particularly those facing daunting life challenges.

Do you agree or disagree? What are the individual and collective responsibilities of educators in the face of serious social problems?

 


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