Archive Page 2

How to manage inevitable dips in relationships

Dennis Sparks

There’s never been a relationship that didn’t start off strongly and that didn’t then run off the rails at some stage. This is actually not the problem. This is just life. Success for you lies in managing these dips when they occur… It’s about laying foundations for resilient relationships from the very start. – Michael Bungay Stanier

In “Building Resilient Relationships,” a chapter in Maximize Your Potential: Grow Your Expertise, Take Bold Risks & Build an Incredible Career, Michael Bungay Stanier recommends “social contracting” as a means for managing these inevitable relationship dips.

Stanier is describing a problem that is common and vexing for school-based teams or Professional Learning Communities. Things start out strong, with everyone seemingly committed and energized, only to have that commitment and energy fall off over time.

“At the heart of social contracting,” Stanier says, “is spending time upfront talking about the How – the relationship and how we’ll work together – rather than being seduced by the What, the excitement and urgency of the content…. Just understanding that you should talk about the How will immediately make a difference in your working relationships.”

Stanier proposes five fundamental questions that such teams should ask and answer:

1. What do you want? (Here’s what I want.) “This is a question that almost always stops people in their tracks,” Stanier writes. “It’s deceptively difficult to answer and incredibly powerful when you can clearly define what exactly it is you want from this relationship.”

2. Where might you need help? (Here’s where I’ll need help.) “This turns the ‘What do you want?’ question over and comes out it from a different angle,” Stanier says.

3. When you had a really good working relationship in the past, what happened? (Here’s what happened for me.) “Tell a story,” Stanier recommends, “of a time when you were in a working relationship similar to this one, and it was good, really good. What did they do? What did you do? What else happened?”

4. When things go wrong, what does that look like on your end? How do you behave? (Here’s how I behave.) Stanier again recommends telling a story, “this time of when a working relationship like this one failed to soar.”

He also recommends articulating missed opportunities, unilateral actions you are likely to take when things start going wrong, and your own “hot buttons” that get you going.

5. When things go wrong – as they inevitably will – how shall we manage that? “Things will go wrong,” Stanier says. “Honeymoons end. Promises get broken, expectations don’t get met. By putting that on the table, you’re able now to discuss what the plan will be when it goes wrong.”

Stanier  concludes: ”[B]y asking these questions you now have permission to acknowledge the situation between you both when things get off track (as they inevitably will…). If you’re just beginning a new working relationship, then you’re in the perfect place to build and resilience through social contracting right now.”

About relationships that have already begun, Stanier says, “… you’re also in the perfect place to build in resilience. Step back for a moment from the What you’re absorbed with, and invite them to have a conversation with you about the How.”

What has been your experience in addressing early in the life of a team the common relationship issues that are likely to arise? And what challenges have you faced in making explicit those understandings by establishing “meeting agreements” or other processes that establish group norms?

 

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?

Lois Easton describes how to deepen professional conversations

 Dennis SparksIn my experience, too many conversations in professional meetings, including professional development, involve “talking about” complex subjects rather than moving progressively deeper into the substance of ideas and practices. Such conversations are often random, superficial, unproductive, and, for all of those reasons, unsatisfying.

To better understand how this problem might be addressed I asked Lois Brown Easton to offer her perspective and to describe how protocols and other strategies could be used to deepen professional conversations.

I have known and respected Lois’ work since I visited Eagle Rock School and Professional Development Center in Colorado in 1997, at which she was then the Director of Professional Development. These days Lois is a writer, coach, and consultant.  (Additional information about Lois’ books and professional contributions are provided at the end of this essay.)

Here’s what Lois Easton has to say:

Sometimes the best-intentioned professional discussions seem to go nowhere.  Polite to the last word, people leave them unsatisfied and uncommitted to making any changes in their daily practice.

Or, perhaps they ARE satisfied.  After all, a discussion that has no repercussions, requires no one to do much of anything, may be a lot easier than a discussion that goes somewhere.

And, perhaps they ARE committed, even if only subconsciously, to stay the same.  After all, what has worked for X years (you put in the number, including the years simply being a K-14 student), will certainly go on working, won’t it?

At the best, such discussions may yield only the most cynical of statements, “Well, another one done.  Back to work.”

Why do such discussions go nowhere? It seems to me that there are three reasons for “Nowhere Land” in terms of professional discussions:

1. The discussion is predictable.  It is not exploratory; there are no surprises.  These people will argue for Point A; these people will argue against Point A and offer Point B.  These people will go along with either one.  These people don’t really care.  One of the solutions will “win,” Point A or B.  Some people will take action accordingly; some people won’t.  Next week (month/year), there will be other discussions and other decisions, and they’ll go the same way.  It’s all politics and power… not new ideas, innovative solutions, or out-of-the box thinking.  Ho-hum!

One solution to predictable discussion is dialogue, real dialogue.  Dialogue is different because people slow down the pace of talking rather than race towards a conclusion or decision.  They consider each idea that is presented, building on ideas through comments and sincere questions, until they reach understanding.  The uncover assumptions, explore ramifications, project possibilities.  The language of dialogue is iterative and probing, as in, “Here is what I think you’re saying: ______.  I’m wondering about the assumptions that you have about that idea.”

Dialogue is a skill that needs to be learned and practiced, consciously.  Dialogue works for any topic that needs creative thinking, innovative solutions, and choices among surprising possibilities.  Effective leaders know that juicy dialogue can be sufficient unto itself or lead to productive discussion and awesome (in the original sense of the word) decisions.

2. The discussion lacks prompts or protocols that take people deeper into the subject.

Especially when people in a discussion are speeding down the highway of decision, discussion tends to be shallow.  Discussants deal with the basics in order to make the decision.

Prompts or protocols can take people deeper into discussion and, usually, into dialogue that lets them probe ideas.  One protocol that seems to work well for deepening discussion is the “Peeling the Onion Protocol.”

In one version of this protocol, a presenter (anyone who can present the issue) describes what a group will study.  The presenter also presents one or two key questions, such as “On what basis will we be able to make decisions about this issue? What should be our guidelines?

Everyone writes freely on the issue and the key question(s)—partly to get focused on the issue and partly to have something to contribute in the next steps.

Then there are three rounds, during which the presenter is silent and taking notes that reflect what the other participants have said.

In round one, the focus is on clarifying the issue.  Participants may say things such as, “What I heard the presenter say is . . . ” or “I’m wondering how we would describe this issue to [someone else]” or “I’m not sure I understand what we mean by [X].”

In round two, the focus is on probing the issue.  Participants may say, “One assumption that we seem to be making is…,” or “A question this raises for me is …,” or “I understand this issue as….” Others listen carefully to understand what others say and rephrase, comment, or ask questions before moving on to another probing statement.

In round three, the focus is on deepening the probing process through “What if” questions:  “What would happen if we…?” or “How would it work if we…?” or “What’s the worst/best that would happen if….?” As in round two, others listen carefully to understand before moving on to another probing question.

After the third round, the group is silent while the presenter reflects aloud (consulting notes taken during the rounds), further deepening the dialogue.  The presenter might say something such as, “I heard you say X, and that made me think further about this issue.”

Finally, the whole group debriefs both the content and the process.  At this point, the group has deeply explored the issue and may be ready for making a decision that all understand, approve, and can be accountable for.

3. The discussion does not lead to social accountability.

Decisions that come out of shallow discussions may result in accountability in the sense that someone is going to do something.  Others, especially when they feel the decision is preordained—already decided in some way by those with power—may feel no sense of accountability for the decision.  Since they have not really participated, probed, and pushed deeper into ideas to determine which solutions are really the best, they may feel no ownership of the issue and, likewise, unaccountable for the results.

In “Fist to Five” (with people holding up fingers on one hand to signal their commitment to an idea or decision; a fist representing no commitment and five fingers full commitment and active participation in carrying out the decision), people might show two fingers, meaning they’ll not interfere with the decision, but they will not work actively towards carrying it out.

Peer or social accountability occurs when people deeply understand an issue and its ramifications, and how they can be addressed.  They have had an active role in dissecting the issue and choosing the best solution. They have “owned” the issue and feel accountable for what happens as a result of the dialogue in which they have participated.  When the outcome really matters, people are willing to go deeper and stand behind the results.

Peer or social accountability means that people hold each other accountable for acting upon a decision. People expect others to take action and, therefore, will take action themselves. Peer or social accountability is critical when decisions are being made about whole-school (or whole-organization) change.

So, in a circular way, in order for people to feel accountable for substantial and lasting change—such as improving learning conditions for students or adults—they must engage in deeper discussions, such as dialogue, using protocols to guide those discussions, and making decisions as a result of them that hold each one of the participants accountable.

Lois Easton is the author of Powerful Designs for Professional Learning (which is being published in 2014 in its 3rd edition), Professional Learning Communities By Design: Putting the Learning Back Into PLCs (2011), and Protocols for Professional Learning (2009).  She writes a regular online column for Phi Delta Kappan, providing professional learning activities for articles in each edition.

Why teacher development isn’t the solution to all performance problems

Dennis Sparks

When “teacher training” is the default solution to all performance problems, its inevitable failure to improve teaching and student learning will be blamed on the professional development, not the faulty diagnosis that lead to the training.

Early in my professional development career I was asked by a principal to provide a workshop on classroom management for teachers. As we discussed the need for such a workshop, he admitted that only a few teachers had problems in that area. I also learned that he had never talked directly with the teachers about whom he was concerned because, as he put it, that wasn’t his leadership style. Instead, he hoped the workshop would communicate to them that there were better ways of doing things. Fortunately, we eventually agreed that a workshop was not the most appropriate solution to his problem, and we designed a more personalized strategy for the identified teachers.

Workshop-based professional development is not a substitute for:

• Candid, solution-oriented conversations regarding performance problems;

• Supervisory practices and school structures that ensure frequent, observation and evidence-based conversations about teaching and learning among teachers and between school leaders and teachers;

• A high-trust, collaborative school culture that enables continuous improvement; and

• A clear, results-oriented student learning agenda for the school system and school.

What have I missed?

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

 Dennis Sparks

Change the way you think, and you are halfway to changing the world. —Theodore Zeldin

You may call them beliefs, assumptions, conceptual frames, mental models, or world views.

While for the most part they may be invisible to us, they are likely to have a profound effect on leadership and teaching.

And, as a result, when left unexamined, some of our beliefs may have a profound negative effect on student learning.

Here are 11 such disabling beliefs that provide an often unspoken subtext in countless professional conversations:

1. Some students cannot be expected to learn very much because of their families, economic status, or race.

2. Teaching is a non-intellectual, low-skilled, primarily nurturing activity.

3. Good teachers and leaders are born, not made.

4. Teaching is “telling” and performing.

5. Content is “delivered”; learning is demonstrated by repeating what one has been “told.”

6.. Leadership of change means giving directions. Teachers who do not do as they are directed are “resistant.”

7. For the most part teachers know what to do and how to do it; they just have to be motivated to do it.

6. Because teaching is telling/performing, content is “delivered,” leadership is directing, and the primary challenge of leadership is motivating teachers, continuous improvement results from telling/delivering/directing/motivating.

9. Most significant questions and problems of teaching and learning have one right answer, and an “expert” knows it.

10. Therefore, the primary means of “delivering” professional development “content” is through speakers, workshops, and courses. PowerPoints are essential to such delivery.

11. It takes years to make significant and demonstrable improvements in the quality of professional learning, teaching, and student achievement.

Are there any dysfunctional beliefs that you would add to or subtract from 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.

6 predictions I made about “staff development” in 1990: How have they stood the test of time?

Dennis Sparks

In 1990 I boldly made six predictions for the future of “staff development,” and even more boldly, and perhaps foolishly, published them in The Developer, which at that time was the newsletter of the National Staff Development Council (now Learning Forward).

Here is what I predicted:

1. Staff developers will be highly-regarded planners and facilitators as well as trainers and coordinators. 

2. Staff development in the 1990s will be results oriented. 

3. A deepening understanding of the interrelatedness of all aspects of school improvement will mean the phasing out of instruction, curriculum, and staff development departments as we now know them.

4. The responsibility for staff development will be spread among all school leaders rather than viewed as the exclusive domain of a small of people in central office. 

5. Staff development will play its part in preparing teachers and administrators to help students live in a more diverse world. 

6. Because change will be a constant, staff developers will be adept at helping teachers and administrators deal with both the affective and cognitive aspects of change. 

I concluded by saying: “Staff development (or whatever it may be called) must be at the forefront of education’s efforts to prepare all this nation’s youth for life in the twenty-first century. That means that individuals who believe that staff development must play a central role in improvement efforts will need to make their voices heard as important decisions are made about reform in their schools.”

From your perspective, how have my predictions stood the test of time? What did I get right, and where did I miss the mark?


Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 3,625 other followers

Archives

Categories

Recent Twitter Posts


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 3,625 other followers