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?

Three essentials for creating energy through planning

Dennis Sparks

To a large extent, school leadership is about creating and focusing the energy of the school community on a small number of important priorities.

Carefully-designed and well-executed plans are obviously a key factor in providing that focus and maintaining enthusiasm for the work across many months and perhaps years.

But plans that cannot be altered when alterations are warranted discourage those affected by the plans and dissipate energy.

In my experience there are three essentials for creating energy through planning:

1. Making a plan: The process of planning creates energy. Even simple “back of the envelope” planning can create a sense of direction and motivation.

2. Changing the plan: Almost always the implementation of a plan will produce learning that appropriately leads to adjustments in the plan.

In addition, conditions often change from those that were present when the plan was made, particularly when it is a multi-year plan.

A useful mantra is, “Make plans, but hold those plans loosely.” Persevering with a plan that is clearly not working depletes energy.

But it is also true that frequently and capriciously changing plans depletes energy. Knowing when to stay the course with a plan and when to change it is an essential aspect of the artistry of skillful leadership.

3. Consistently applying “next action thinking: Plans that don’t produce and maintain momentum are bound to fail.

An essential ingredient in the successful implementation of a plan (and for that matter of professional learning) is the ability and discipline to determine the specific next action when a current activity comes to an end. Once momentum is lost, it may never be regained.

What have you learned about successful planning and the implementation of those plans?

Well-designed professional development solves problems

Dennis Sparks

“I hope I die during an inservice because the transition between life and death would be so subtle.” Unfortunately, that old joke can bring as appreciative a laugh among teachers today as when I first heard it several decades ago.

Professional development is viewed by many educators as demeaning and irrelevant, an obligation that has to be endured if it cannot be avoided. It is perceived as a problem in itself rather than a problem-solving tool, and rightly so given the negative experiences of many educators.

As a result, some critics propose eliminating professional development, at least the “one size fits all” variety that is often the source of so much frustration. To that end they propose differentiating professional development with each teacher independently pursuing his or her own unique learning goals.

But many important schoolwide, grade level, or department goals related to student academic success and their emotional and social well-being can only be achieved through well planned and implemented team-based professional development that occurs within schools.

One of a leader’s most significant and demanding responsibilities is to create consensus in the school community regarding meaningful, stretching goals and the means that will be used to achieve those ends. Put another way, leaders assist the school community in a never-ending cycle of identifying and solving increasingly complex problems, problems that can only be solved through professional learning and teamwork.

The real solution to the problem of low-quality professional development, then, is not to eliminate it but to make certain professional development is well designed and well implemented so that it enables individuals, teams, and the school community as a whole to achieve their most important goals and to solve problems that are unique to their settings.

How do you see it: Is professional development itself the problem or is it an essential part of the solution?

Why doesn’t professional development improve?

Dennis Sparks

During the four decades that I have been involved in the field of professional development my aspiration was that every teacher and principal in every school would learn every day from their colleagues, students, and supervisors.

I wasn’t thinking of the kind of professional development in which an “expert” speaks to teachers, although that might have been a small part of it, but the kind of rich professional learning that arises from the close observation of students, meaningful collaboration with colleagues, and deep, sustained evidence-based conversations about important subjects.

Unfortunately, as I have listened to successive generations of teachers and administrators complain about the poor quality of their “inservice” experiences it is clear that we remain a long way from achieving that goal.

For 40 years I have attended dozens of local, state, and national meetings in which solutions to this problem were sought. But in spite of those good intentions the quality of professional development remains at an unacceptably low level as it is implemented in the vast majority of schools and school systems.

There are exceptions, of course. 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:

1. Some leaders’ have antiquated “mental models” regarding learning and change that impede progress.

• Some leaders, for example, believe that teaching is “telling” and that leading is “directing.” Therefore, “good” professional development, they believe, only requires a “speaker” who tells teachers what to do.

• Or, some leaders believe that the best way to improve teaching is through a combination of fear and incentives.  As a result, they use various carrots and sticks to “motivate” teachers. “Inservice” provided by motivational speakers often appeals to these leaders.

2. Some leaders don’t have a sufficiently deep understanding of the attributes of high-quality professional learning nor a carefully crafted “theory of action.”

• Administrators and teacher leaders often replicate the past because it is difficult for them to create what they’ve never experienced.

• Some leaders have not done the deep analysis required to create a “theory of action” that explains the steps that will be taken to achieve important goals and the assumptions behind those actions that lead leaders to believe they will produce the desired outcome. Without such an analysis continuous improvement efforts typically fail.

3. Some leaders are resigned to the status quo.

• Some leaders believe that they have little influence on the quality of teaching and learning in their schools.

• Some leaders believe that teachers’ engagement in meaningful professional development is someone else’s responsibility and that nothing can be done until those people assume their responsibility.

4. Some leaders lack the will and/or skill to engage in the challenging conversations that are almost always required to continuously improve teaching and learning.

Leaders are often reluctant to engage in such conversations because they:

• fear conflict,

• have a strong desire to be liked by others, and/or

• lack skill and experience in engaging in such conversations.

Do you agree that professional development for most teachers continues to be of low quality? 

If so, do you agree that these are the primary leadership barriers to significant improvement, or do you have others to suggest?

Leaders write to learn

Dennis Sparks I thought of how often as a writer I had made clear to myself some subject I had previously known nothing about by just putting one sentence after another—by reasoning my way in sequential steps to its meaning. I thought of how often the act of writing even the simplest document—a letter for instance—has clarified my half-formed ideas. Writing and thinking and learning were the same process. —William Zinsser

Writing is a potent and underused learning tool that provides a method for leaders to acquire a deeper understanding of important subjects and to give shape to their ideas.

Because writing is “frozen thought,” it enables leaders to examine the clarity and logical consistency of their thinking and reveals areas for further exploration and learning.

Writing can also help busy leaders separate the essential from the nonessential.

Today I will use writing to teach myself about a subject of importance and to clarify the next actions I may take related to that subject.

[This “meditation” is one of 180 (one for every day of the traditional school year) provided in Leadership 180: Daily Meditations on School Leadership, my most recent book, published by Solution Tree.]

 


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