Beliefs matter

Dennis

Beliefs matter because they have a profound and often invisible effect on what teachers and administrators say and do each day.

Beliefs are also habitual, which means they are often applied to new situations without a full understanding of their consequences.

My three previous posts addressed professional learning, school culture, and teamwork, each of which has implicit beliefs that channel them in productive or unproductive ways.

For example:

• If school leaders believe that good teachers are born, not made, high-quality professional learning will have a low priority.

• If school leaders believe that new ideas and research-based practices should be sufficiently compelling in themselves for their full adoption, they will ignore the influence of school culture on innovation.

• If school leaders believe that professional learning and instructional improvement are the sole responsibility of teachers, they will fail to create the necessary structures and incentives that enable strong teamwork.

Left unexamined and unaltered, some beliefs may have a profound negative effect on student learning.

Here are several such beliefs I proposed in a previous post:

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

• Teaching is delivering, “telling,” and performing. Leadership is directing and motivating.

• 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.

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

• The best means of “delivering” professional development “content” is through speakers, workshops, and courses. PowerPoints are essential to such delivery.

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

Another example is leaders’ beliefs regarding teachers’ capacity for growth, which I wrote about here:

“Just as it’s essential for principals and teacher leaders to believe that student learning can be improved by skillful teaching, it’s essential that principals and teacher leaders believe that through well-designed professional development and teamwork virtually all teachers can become effective, if not masterful.

“Believing in the capacity of students to learn at higher levels without a parallel belief in the capacity of teachers to successfully teach them — given appropriate support — can only lead to frustration and failure.”

Yet another example is leaders’ beliefs regarding the qualities that are important in new teachers, a subject I address here.

(Other posts on the subject of teaching can be found here.)

Administrators and teacher leaders are not powerless to affect colleagues’ beliefs. In a post on “frames” I wrote:

“Put simply, frames are the mental frameworks we use to think about things. Our thinking, and hence our ability to change, is limited by these deeply rooted, beneath-the-surface systems of beliefs and ideas. While difficult to dispel, frames can be changed. The process begins with awareness of the dominant frame and its influence on practice and the ability to conceptualize alternative frames that better serve student learning.”

In that post I suggested two frames that I believe interfere with change and offer alternative ways to conceptualize them.

I closed that post by inviting readers to identify an existing frame that may be unconsciously preserving the status quo in in their setting.

I encourage you to do the same.

Teamwork matters

Dennis

For the past decade or longer “teamwork,” “collaboration,” and “professional learning communities” have been advocated by almost every knowledgable person who favors continuous improvement in teaching and learning.

It simply makes sense that a school community is stronger when its members work together.

While creating truly interdependent teams is demanding, it is an essential responsibility for school leaders who desire quality teaching for all students every day.

Building strong teams is demanding because many teachers were either attracted to teaching because of its perceived independence or were hired into schools where they seldom worked with other adults.

An important first step for leaders who wish to strengthen teamwork is creating clarity within the school community about the qualities that distinguish a team from other groups, such as departments or committees, which may or may not function as teams.

Here’s a post that addresses this confusion by providing a rubric used by the Rush-Henrietta Schools in New York that lists four key characteristics of teamwork: clarity of purpose, accountability, effective team structures, and trust.

“‘Each key characteristic,’ the rubric explains, ‘is defined by a number of indicators. For instance, “effective team structures” includes as indicators “use protocols to help guide the group work and provide a consistent framework’ and ‘has agreements in place that are clear, purposeful, and understood.” ‘Accountability’ asks team members to be ‘committed to decisions and plans of actions’ and asks them to ‘hold one another accountable for delivering against the plans agreed to and feels a sense of obligation to the team for its progress.’”

Teamwork requires that productive relationships not only be developed but that they be sustained over time in the face of the predictable challenges that confront all long-term relationships.

In a post on managing inevitable dips in relationships I observed that:

“Things start out strong, with everyone seemingly committed and energized, only to have that commitment and energy fall off over time.”

In that post I proposed “five fundamental questions” that teams should ask and answer if they are to perform well over time. I encourage you to think deeply about your responses to those questions.

Leaders obviously play a key role in developing supportive and productive relationships. In a post on that subject, I noted:

“Strong teams are the foundation of school cultures infused with interpersonal accountability, experimentation, and the continuous improvement of teaching and learning. Effective teamwork requires that leaders do three things:

1. Believe in the importance of teamwork. Teamwork is based on the assumption that the school community can accomplish more when its members work together than alone. If leaders don’t truly believe that teams are the building blocks of continuous improvement, “teamwork” will be perfunctory, at best.

2. Have a deep understanding of the attributes of effective teamwork. Strong teamwork begins with principals and teacher leaders understanding the qualities that distinguish effective from ineffective teams and from other task-related groups in schools.

3. Have a plan to continuously improve the functioning of teams. Planning begins with a clear sense of the current functioning of each team and of its next level of development.”

You can see more posts about teamwork here.

School culture matters

Dennis

School culture is an incredibly powerful but often invisible force that shapes a school community’s work. It is more powerful than new ideas and innovative practices.

Administrators and teacher leaders who ignore school culture or underestimate its influence will almost certainly fail in improving teaching and learning for all students.

While school culture may be largely invisible, some of its qualities can be discerned by observers who are attuned to them.

In an earlier post I suggest 9 symptoms of a problematic school culture.

Among the most common of those symptoms are that:

• the most honest conversations happen in parking lots rather than meeting rooms,

• in just a few years new teachers begin to sound and act like veterans who are resigned to the status quo and deeply entrenched in their ways, and

• educators feel more professionally connected to followers on social media they have never personally met than to grade-level, department, or PLC colleagues with whom they share students and common purposes.

In another post that focused on desirable cultural shifts I wrote:

“[N]ew cultures [cannot] be created by leaders acting alone. Indeed, a primary characteristic of high-performing cultures is that leadership is distributed throughout the school community. That means that new, more effective cultures are co-created by leaders and community members, especially teachers.

In that post I identified several shifts that occur when school cultures move in a positive direction:

confusion and incoherence regarding important goals, ideas, and practices to clarity and coherence;

leadership centered on a single individual to leadership developed and distributed throughout the school community;

resignation and powerlessness to hopefulness and collective sense of efficacy;

low levels of trust to high levels of trust;

• a focus on deficits, negativity, and complaint to strengths, positivity, and appreciation;

professional isolation and dependence on outside authority to results-oriented experimentation founded in teamwork and community;

accountability to external authorities to accountability to one another for achieving important goals; and

episodic, superficial professional development to team-based learning embedded in the planning, assessment, and continuous improvement of teaching and learning for the benefit of all students.

I encourage you to read and study these essays and to have candid conversations with colleagues about the culture of your school or school system and to determine what can be done with urgency to strengthen it.

You can read more about school culture here.

High-quality professional development matters

Dennis

The bad news is that professional development for most teachers has never been very good. The same is true for administrators, which may explain the low-quality of teacher professional development.

The good news is that professional development can get a lot better quite quickly.

All that’s required is that administrators and teacher leaders commit themselves to high-quality professional learning and engage the school community in an extended study (but not too long) of the professional development literature that includes generous amounts of honest conversation about current reality and meaningful next steps.

Here are a few important and still relevant posts from recent years on professional development:

“The biggest problem in professional development is…”

“The biggest problem in professional development is that administrators and teachers significantly underestimate the amount of effort and time required to create the new habits of mind and behavior that are necessary to provide high-quality teaching and learning for all students.”

“Finding the third way…”

“The third way involves finding the appropriate blend of team-based learning/collaboration within the school in which all teachers participate and individualized approaches, including the use of social/learning media, for improving the knowledge and skills of teachers to provide tailored solutions for their unique challenges.”

“Mindless professional learning…”

“In my experience, the kinds of teaching/learning processes used in professional development have a profound effect on the teaching/learning processes used in the vast majority of’ classrooms. Put another way, mindless professional learning produces mindless teaching. And vice versa.

The remedy is simple, but not easy: It’s essential that teachers’ professional learning resemble as closely as possible the kinds of teaching and learning desired in all classrooms.”

“Why the distinction between professional learning and professional development is important”

“Professional development in schools refers to the processes used in promoting professional learning and the context and other resources that support it.

Professional learning refers to the outcomes – what is learned, how deeply it is learned, and how well it is applied in classrooms. It is about changes in what teachers and leaders think, say, and do on a consistent basis.”

“Why professional development without substantial follow up is malpractice”

“‘[H]ead learning’ abstracted from practice without abundant opportunities for supportive on-the-job feedback and trouble shooting wastes the organization’s resources and squanders teachers’ good will. Such malpractice is not only an ethical lapse, but is immoral when students’ learning and well being are negatively affected.”

“6 fundamental ingredients of robust professional development”

“Powerful professional development has as its primary and overarching purpose the creation of professional learning that affects what teachers believe, understand, say, and do on a daily basis for the benefit of all students.”

“Why doesn’t professional development improve?”

“Some schools are exemplars of high-quality professional learning and teamwork, but they remain the exceptions rather than the rule. While barriers such as lack of time and other resources are often cited as problems, I think there are four deeper, more fundamental explanations for why professional development has not fulfilled its essential role in the continuous improvement of teaching and learning.”

Practice the habit of self-reflection

Dennis Sparks

[A]s leaders, we all have an obligation to engage in self-reflection lest we lead unconsciously or mindlessly. . . . Socrates said that the unexamined life is not worth living. Now that I am old enough to amend Socrates instead of merely quoting him, I want to add one thing, for the record: if you decide to live an unexamined life, please do not take a job that involves other people. —Parker Palmer

School leaders do not have the luxury of living unexamined lives, as Parker Palmer points out.

The creation of schools in which both young people and adults thrive requires that leaders frequently reflect on their most important purposes and the methods they use to reach those goals.

Leaders and the schools they lead benefit when leaders examine, preferably in writing, the alignment of their broader purposes and values with the daily activities of both their personal and professional lives.

Leaders who think deeply about what they are doing, why they are doing it, and the effects their actions have on others not only improve their effectiveness but model for the school community the value of such reflection.

Because of the cyclical nature of schooling, each new school year offers the possibility of a new beginning. That means that the summer months provide an extended opportunity for many educators to engage in deep reflection on their values, goals, and methods.

Take a moment today to reflect on the congruence between your values and actions. Consider making it a daily habit, if it is not one already, and use whatever opportunities the summer provides for extended reflection.

8 “trim tabs” to significantly improve performance

Dennis Sparks

Some things leaders do matter a lot more than others. However, exactly what those activities are may vary from setting to setting.

Determining the best mix of high-impact activities comes from:

  • reflecting on experiences,
  • conversations with colleagues,
  • and professional reading, among other sources.

Peter Senge’s book, The Fifth Discipline, introduced me to the metaphor of the “trim tab.” Senge wrote:

“[S]mall, well-focused actions can sometimes produce significant, enduring improvements, if they’re in the right place. System thinkers refer to this principle as ‘leverage.’ Tackling a difficult problem is often a matter of seeing where the high leverage lies, a place which – with a minimum of effort – would lead to lasting, significant improvement.”

Here are my suggestions for administrators and teacher leaders regarding areas of particularly high impact. (Please note that none require additional financial resources.)

1. Having integrity, in particular consistently keeping promises and telling one’s truth.

2. Having crucial, often difficult conversations (closely linked to #1). Whenever possible, those conversations will be based on evidence.

3. Participating in high-functioning teams (or PLCs or “communities of practice”) rather than working in isolation. Teamwork is not only important for all teachers but for administrators and teacher leaders as well.

4. Consistently applying “next action thinking.” Always know the specific next action that you will take at the conclusion of a meeting or learning experience.

5. Developing and consistently applying high levels of emotional intelligence, particularly empathy (seeking first to understand, which has committed listening at its core).

6. Having a growth mindset that underscores the importance of effort and persistence as well as “intelligence.”

7. Saying “I don’t know” when you don’t.

8. Practicing new skills in public settings so that others appreciate and understand the challenges and risks that typically accompany important professional learning. There are few things more influential than leaders doing what they ask others to do.

What high-leverage activities would you add to this list?

Emotions are contagious

Dennis Sparks

Emotions are contagious. Leaders’ emotions are particularly contagious.

That’s why I read with great interest a sign posted in a long-term care facility:

“Emotional Contagion is the transferring of emotions from one person to another. Residents with Alzheimer’s Dementia have a heightened sensitivity to emotional contagion. They tend to mimic the emotions of those around them. This is a way for them to connect with others even if they’re not able to understand their current situation. If we as caregivers are anxious or upset, residents will pick up and copy the same emotions even if we think they are not aware. Being calm and happy while providing care may go a long way in keeping our residents calm and happy as well.”

Like Alzheimer’s patients, individuals in high stress environments have a “heightened sensitivity to emotional contagion.”

And, unfortunately, many schools, for a variety of reasons, are pressure cookers of stress.

That means that it is essential that administrators and teacher leaders pay special attention to whether they are anxious or upset and do all that they can to bring their best selves to school each day so that they spread positive emotions rather than negative ones.

I offer 8 suggestions here for leaders on ways they can bring positive energy to their school communities.

What have you found helpful in bringing your best self to school each day, whatever your role may be?


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