A plague on the educational landscape…

Dennis Sparks

Bad meetings. Bad professional development. They are a plague on the educational landscape.

How is it possible that after decades of complaints so many educators continue to experience boring, unproductive meetings and mind numbing professional development?

More specifically, why is it that:

• so many teachers who complain about poorly-run meetings become administrators who conduct poorly-run meetings?

• so many teachers who protest meaningless, ineffective, and often demeaning professional development continue to offer the same kinds of professional development when they become administrators?

Cynics might say that it’s a process akin to fraternity hazing—if I had to endure it, so should you. I don’t think that is the reason, though.

Here are some possible reasons:

* Many leaders do not know what they do not know. Having never experienced well-run meetings or well-designed professional development themselves, they simple repeat what was done to them.

• Leaders who have experienced the processes and benefits of well-designed professional development are not clear about what made it effective. They cannot repeat what they do not deeply understand.

• Leaders do not deeply understand the principles of good teaching. Those who do may not appreciate that those principles apply to adults as well as children. As a result, the least engaging and effective “teaching” methods are used—lectures, endless PowerPoint slides, and so on.

The solution: Whatever the cause, things will not significantly improve until leaders are explicitly taught how to design and implement meaningful, engaging meetings and professional development.  And, of course, that means they have the will to do the demanding learning and planning that are required to ensure high-quality professional learning for all educators so that all students experience high-quality teaching every day.

What is your diagnosis? How is it possible that after decades of complaints so many educators continue to experience boring, unproductive meetings and mind numbing professional development? Or do you disagree with my premise, believing instead that meetings and professional development for most educators are efficient and effective?

Strong opinions, weakly held

Dennis Sparks

Learn how to fight as if you are right and listen as if you are wrong: It helps you develop strong opinions that are weakly held. —Bob Sutton

“The world is divided into people who think they are right,” a wise person once said.

While it is essential that leaders have clear, well-defined beliefs and ideas that guide their work, it is also essential that those beliefs and ideas are open to influence by respected colleagues.

That means that leaders do both the intellectually demanding work of forming clear, well-considered points of view and the interpersonally demanding work of holding them loosely.

Because our views are often influenced by psychological and emotional forces of which we are not fully aware, both their formation and alteration is seldom fully rational.

That means that altering our views based on evidence and logic rather than vigorously defending them until death typically requires a high level of emotional intelligence.

How do you decide when to maintain your point of view and when to surrender it?

At school, everyone’s job is to learn

Dennis Sparks

“At school, everyone’s job is to learn” has been a Learning Forward motto for many years.

It reminds us that continuous improvement in student learning requires that teachers, principals, and system leaders learn. Such learning is both team based and individualized.

That’s what it means to be a “learning organization.”

At school it’s everyone’s job to learn everyday by:

• reflecting on the effectiveness of his or her work, using various sources of evidence, and

• by engaging with colleagues to improve it.

In learning-focused schools, teachers and administrators:

• learn from students,

• learn from colleagues, and

• learn from supervisors.

What essential sources of professional learning have I missed?

Words matter

Dennis Sparks

Words matter.

They create energy or destroy it. They can produce an upward flow of possibility and energy or a downward spiral of resignation and hopelessness.

The language that administrators and teacher leaders use affects the ability of the school community to solve problems and to achieve its most important goals.

It is essential that leaders cultivate discernment about the words that create upward or downward spirals of energy and then to carefully choose the words that they use.

Which words increase your energy and which ones deplete it?

Why it’s important to value “inward participation” in learning

Dennis Sparks

I tell my students that much as I value dialogue, I affirm their right not to participate overtly in the conversation – as long as I have the sense, and occasional verbal reassurance, that they are participating inwardly. This permission not to speak seems to evoke speech from people who are normally silent… – Parker Palmer

It makes sense that teachers of students of all ages value the outward, verbal participation of learners in class discussions.

Unfortunately, inward participation, which often occurs in the “spaces” during which learners are encouraged to slow down and to think more deeply about the subject at hand, is often less valued.

Fast-moving conversations often leave some participants (particularly introverts) far behind as they continue to ponder points that were made several minutes before.

Inward participation in learning is the difference between “raw opinion,” which is often evoked in “instant polls,” and “considered judgment,” when individuals are given an opportunity for extended deliberation regarding the meaning and implications of various courses of action.

Unfortunately, opportunities for considered judgment are rare in many classrooms and professional development activities. (I write more here about using “white spaces” to improve learning and relationships.)

Everyone benefits when participants in professional conversations or learning activities are provided with opportunities to formulate a point of view on the subject at hand, particularly if it is something to which they previously had not given much thought.

When leaders validate and provide generous amounts of time for inward participation, the more deliberative, thoughtful, and sometimes reticent individuals in a group are more likely to share their unique and often significant contributions.

When it is important for individuals and groups to explore a topic in depth—which is often the case in significant matters of teaching, learning, and leadership—everyone benefits from “think time” which enables the inward participation in learning that Parker Palmer recommends.

What types of participation in learning are most helpful to you as a learner, and how do you encourage, support, and demonstrate to your students—of whatever age—a respect for their inward participation in learning?

The creation of a collaborative culture requires skillful leadership

Dennis Sparks

Teacher isolation is so deeply ingrained in the traditional fabric of schools that leaders cannot simply invite teachers to create a collaborative culture. They must identify and implement specific, strategic interventions that help teachers work together rather than alone. —Richard DuFour

If the goal is quality teaching in all classrooms for the benefit of all students, then it is essential that principals and teacher leaders create a high-performance culture which has professional learning and meaningful teamwork at its core.

The creation and maintenance of such a culture against the forces of entropy require intentional, skillful leadership. It does not happen by accident.

Successful principals and teacher leaders are clear about the attributes of such cultures and take daily actions to promote them.

They understand, for instance, the importance of:

  • and promise keeping (we understand that continuous progress requires making and keeping our promises to one another).

In your experience, what specific, strategic interventions help teachers work together rather than alone?

Just do it…

Dennis Sparks

School communities, like all organizations and individuals, sometimes have difficulty generating and sustaining energy to maintain a collective course of action over many months and years.

For the most part, a school community’s energy and momentum is determined by the energy and momentum of its leaders.

Compelling goals that touch the head and heart are essential to sustaining energy, as is strong, interdependent teamwork that generates a stream of continuous actions to achieve those goals.

Well-targeted and well-executed actions, in turn, generate more energy. “Feedback is the breakfast of champions,” someone once observed. That’s particularly true when those actions are followed by an analysis of their effectiveness and appropriate adjustments are made.

Because initiating action is a major challenge for many individuals and groups, Skip Prichard in a blog post offers a number of tips for individuals who are challenged by getting started, among the most important of which is:

Stop, get up, and do it. Turn yourself into a doer. A doer is someone who has an idea and moves forward with it immediately. Have you ever said to anyone, “It is a great day to go to the beach,” and then sat around and watched TV? Next time stop, get up, and go do it. Do you want to begin exercising or present a new idea at work? Do it today. When we pause and wait, we lose the will to move forward and allow doubt to creep into our minds.”

Pritchard concludes: “The simple truth is that one average idea put into action is far more valuable than 20 genius ideas that are being saved for some other day or the right time. When you have an idea or make a decision, get into the habit of taking action.”

What methods do you use to initiate and sustain goal-directed action over time?


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