Posts Tagged 'Dennis Sparks'

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?

Meetings add energy or deplete it…

Dennis Sparks

Meetings add energy to the school community or they deplete it. They seldom have a neutral effect.

Meetings that energize:

• Have clearly stated purposes that community members care about, with agenda items and outcomes matched to those purposes,

• Produce learning that is likely to alter participants’ beliefs, understandings, and behavior for the benefit of those purposes,

• Engage all participants in intellectually-stimulating conversations that spiral deeper into important issues,

• Conclude with clear “next actions” — everyone knows exactly what will be done, by whom, and by when, and

• Have high levels of interpersonal accountability to ensure that tasks are completed on time in the agreed upon way.

Meetings that deplete energy:

•  Lack one or more of the above,

• Focus on administrivia, and/or

• Consist of serial speechmaking, often dominated by meeting leaders, during which predictable views are expressed and remain firmly held. As a result, nothing of consequence changes during or after the meetings.

What would you add to these lists?

Believing is seeing

Dennis Sparks

Most of view ourselves as rational, so it makes sense to believe that we and others make or should make decisions based on logic and evidence.

In reality, though, beliefs and feelings play a large role in our decisions, often without our conscious awareness. Our beliefs and feelings, in fact, often determine the “facts” we see.

So, instead of “seeing is believing,” in many circumstances “believing is seeing.”

That’s why  logical, fact-laden attempts at persuasion are less effective than direct experiences, stories, and images.

That doesn’t mean that research, evidence, and logic have no purpose in faculty meetings and other venues where important professional learning occurs and decisions are made.

But it does mean that while these methods may be necessary to persuade others to commit to a new course of action and to sustain their commitment, they are seldom sufficient.

Can you think of times when decisions (either good ones or not) were more influenced by anecdotes or experiences than by evidence and logic?

Aren’t leaders supposed to know all the answers?

Dennis Sparks

Here’s something that’s counterintuitive for many leaders: Admitting that you don’t know something (which is usually obvious anyway) helps others become more skillful in identifying and solving problems.

Leaders who pretend to know everything disempower others. As a result, problem-solving abilities atrophy rather than grow.

Ellen Langer explains it this way in her book Mindfulness:

“Of all the qualities in a manager conducive to innovation and initiative, a degree of uncertainty may be the most powerful. If a manager is confident but uncertain—confident that the job will get done but without being certain of exactly the best way of doing it—employees are likely to have more room to be creative, alert, and self-starting.”

If my goal as a leader was to deplete energy in the school community, I would:

• Tell people what the problem is,

• Tell them the solution,

• Tell them it was their job to implement my solution, and

• To make certain that I was 100% successful in discouraging them, I would label as “unprofessional” those who disagree with me.

In what ways have you seen leaders meaningful engage others in the school community in finding and solving important problems so that their problem-solving skills grow rather than decline.


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