Posts Tagged 'Dennis Sparks'

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”? 

Say yes “to the subject that arouses a terrifying longing”

Dennis Sparks

“The lesson…then, is that if you want to win the war for attention, don’t try to say ‘no’ to the trivial distractions you find on the information smorgasbord; try to say ‘yes’ to the subject that arouses a terrifying longing, and let the terrifying longing crowd out everything else.” —David Brooks

Distraction is widely viewed as a significant problem in society and in schools. It dissipates energy at work and in our personal lives, and it is truly dangerous when we are behind the wheel of a car.

But perhaps the problem is not distraction, but rather the absence of a compelling purpose—a “…subject that arouses a terrifying longing”—as David Brooks describes it.

Cal Newport thinks about it this way:

“Distraction, from this perspective, is not the cause of problems in your work life, it’s a side effect. The real issue comes down to a question more important than whether or not you use Facebook too much: Are you striving to do something useful and do it so well that you can cannot be ignored?”

What useful thing are you striving to do that cannot be ignored?

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 doesn’t professional development improve?

Dennis Sparks

I am deeply puzzled about why decade after decade professional development remains at unacceptably low levels for far too many teachers and administrators.

More precisely, why do school system and school leaders continue to inflict on teachers the very practices they themselves often complained about when they were teachers?

Two fundamental reasons come to mind:

1. Professional development is not expected to lead to professional learning that significantly changes what educators believe, understand, and do on their jobs every day. It is simply a box to be checked or hours to be counted, preferably in the easiest, most entertaining way possible.

2. School leaders have antiquated views about what is essential to affect the hearts, minds, and behavior of educators. Consequently, they significantly underestimate the amount of deep conversation, practice, reflection, and coaching that is almost always required to change important instructional and leadership practices.

Perhaps my views are unfairly negative and out of touch with the reality of professional development as it is experienced today by most educators. While I don’t think so, I am open to that possibility.

What do you think—is professional development in your setting meeting its potential for improving teaching and learning for all students, and, if not, why not?

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 challenge of developing your point of view

Dennis Sparks

The most difficult work many professionals do… is getting someone else to agree with their point of view and take action. The second most difficult work professionals do is developing a point of view in the first place. – Seth Godin

In my experience, Seth Godin has it exactly right. It is common sense: Without clarity regarding one’s point of view it is virtually impossible to get others to agree with it. If we don’t know what we think and cannot express it clearly, it is very difficult to influence others.

Many leaders do not know and therefore cannot clearly express what they think about many important educational issues because:

  • they devote more time and attention to developing the clarity of others than they do to their own clarity;
  • developing clarity requires time and attention, both of which are in short supply in the daily lives of leaders, and
  • developing clarity is an intellectually demanding task that is easy to postpone.

It is essential that leaders sufficiently value clarity to make it a daily priority. To that end they:

  • clarify their thinking through writing, often in multiple drafts, before sharing their thinking with others, and
  • further refine their views by explaining them to others with an openness to having their views refined and even altered in those conversations.

What processes do you use to develop your clarity, and in what ways do you interact with others that you find most influential?


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