Ch. 17: NSDC II: Settling in for 23 years

settle verb
set·tle | \ ˈse-tᵊl
to place so as to stay
to establish in residence
to furnish with inhabitants

It is hard to capture the essence of my almost 30-year association with the National Staff Development Council, my NSDC II. (In a previous post I noted that my previous employer was the Northwest Staff Development Council, NSDC I.)

In the late 1970s and early 80s I served the organization as a trustee and president. 

Then, in 1984, Pat Zigarmi, the Council’s executive secretary, decided it was time to move on, and the Board of Trustees sought a new executive secretary at an annual salary of $13,000. 

I was selected and immediately “promoted“ to Executive Director because the Board of Trustees wanted me to have a title on par with leaders of other professional associations. 

I maintained that job and title for the next 23 years before deciding, like Pat Zigarmi before me, that in 2007 it was time to move on. 

In 1984 NSDC had about 800 members. It published a monthly newsletter, The Developer, and a semi-annual journal, the Journal of Staff Development. It also sponsored an annual conference and offered institutes around the country on effective professional development.

The only other employee then was Shirley Havens, a part-time administrative assistant, whose office was in her Oxford, Ohio home. In that tradition, I established an office in my home from which I worked throughout my tenure with the organization.

That pattern of housing staff members in their homes continued for almost 20 years as Stephanie Hirsh was added in Dallas as deputy executive director, Joellen Killion in the Denver area managing special projects, and Joan Richardson near Detroit overseeing publications. Eventually, office suites were established in Oxford and Dallas. 

I learned many important things in my 23 years with NSDC, some of them looking inward at organizational leadership and others looking outward at the field of professional development.

About organizations, especially those with multiple work sites (not unlike school systems), I learned: 

• first and foremost, to hire well, as illustrated by the staff members mentioned above, and to follow that hiring with a generous amount of autonomy within a guiding structure. That hiring included a careful consideration of the complimentary strengths each person would bring to NSDC’s leadership team.

• that disciplined action required a thoughtfully conceived and ambitious strategic plan, the first of which was adopted in 1986 and updated every 5 years thereafter. This series of plans provided a blueprint for our work, and it also allowed for improvisation based on what we were learning in the process of implementation.

• that a meaningful strategic plan begins with a clear statement of beliefs; is motivated by goals so ambitious that they require individuals to leave their comfort zones to make deep changes in their beliefs, understanding, and/or habits; and concludes with strategies that guide staff members’ daily work.

It took many hours of serious, candid discussion to reach consensus among board members and participating staff regarding a relatively small number of beliefs that would serve as the foundation of the plan. 

While this extended discussion of beliefs meant that we moved slowly at the beginning of planning, we quickly picked up speed because many decisions were much easier to make with a solid foundation of shared beliefs.

The Council’s stretch goals took us into the realm of the highly improbable but remotely possible. These goals required that we think differently about our structures and processes, which is always challenging when current practices and results seem “good enough.”

• that teamwork among staff members and with trustees was essential to the achievement of the organization’s stretch goals. We continuously aspired to use team members’ strengths to their best advantage within a clear and focused strategic structure.

• about the power of consensus decision making that extended beyond the strategic plan to all important decisions made by the Board of Trustees and staff. 

We defined consensus as everyone being able to authentically say, “Although this decision may not be my first choice, I can live with it and will support it when I leave this room.” That definition meant that when someone said they could not live with a decision the group took those objections seriously and sought to find a win-win alternative. When such an alternative could not be found, which rarely happened, the group’s leader, sometimes me, would make the final decision.

• about the value to educators provided by professional associations that connect them to a larger purpose and to like-minded people. For many NSDC members the Council was one of the few places in which others “just got it” without a need to explain or justify the importance of their work.

Looking outward at the field of professional development I came to:

• more deeply understand the fundamental role of school and system leaders in continuous improvement. It is simply impossible to have professional learning that benefits all students in all classrooms without knowledgeable and engaged system leaders, principals, and teacher leaders, all equally involved in its planning and implementation.

• better appreciate the power of school culture to determine the quality of teaching and learning across classrooms. Culture truly does trump innovation.

During my final years with NSDC I became increasingly aware that I missed the sustained, direct contact I had previously experienced with teachers and administrators in their schools.

Much of my work at NSDC was with groups formed for a brief moment in time whose members I would likely not see again. While such groups are appropriate to introduce a topic for expanded study and practice, they are insufficient to change the quality of professional learning, improve teamwork, alter the culture of a school, and, most importantly, affect teaching and learning.

That awareness, after 23 years of employment with NSDC, led me to conceptualize the next phase of my professional life as one that would enable me to work directly with administrator and teacher leadership teams over time focused on a relatively small number of essential leadership skills. 

And so in 2007 I left the security of a job I enjoyed with people I admired for a new chapter in my professional life that I could only see in outline, much as I had done 35 years earlier with ALPHA and then with NSDC I.

Have there been times in your career when you knew it was time to move on, and how did you navigate that transition?

(I had the privilege for most of my employment at NSDC II to have as my colleagues Shirley Havens, Leslie Miller, Stephanie Hirsh, Joellen Killion, and Joan Richardson, who each in their own way strengthened our leadership team, contributed to the quality of Council work, and enriched my life. For all of those people I am appreciative and grateful, as well as for countless NSDC presidents, trustees, staff members, and volunteers too numerous to mention.)

[This post is one in a series from a memoir titled, “It Might Have Been Otherwise.”]

6 Responses to “Ch. 17: NSDC II: Settling in for 23 years”

  1. 1 Mike Ford February 12, 2020 at 7:42 am

    Thanks, Dennis, for these insights…and for a wonderful walk down Memory Lane. I’m honored to have been a part of those NSDC year…and to have had the incredible opportunity to learn from you.

  2. 2 Ann Delehant February 12, 2020 at 8:16 am

    Thank you Dennis. I’m grateful for your leadership. My affiliation with NSDC has deeply influenced my professional and personal life. I learned about learning, collaborative work, coaching, facilitation, decision making, leadership, strategic and action planning, and so much more. These issues guided my life’s work. And, some of my professional colleagues from NSDC (Learning Forward) have become my dear friends. I am forever grateful.

  3. 3 rickrepicky February 12, 2020 at 10:57 am

    Dennis, you have highlighted some great lessons for educators. Some resonating bullets are:

    – Value of teamwork . . . using strengths within a structure
    – Defining consensus & working toward “win-win”
    – Value of educators being connected with a larger purpose group
    – Equally involving leaders from district, admin & teachers in planning
    & implementation
    – Culture trumps innovation
    – Sharing credit – your gracious tip of the hat to your colleagues

    My later career “moving on” decisions were all in-district. They were motivated by two things: 1) an invitation, 2) a sense that “someone, who knows the district’s needs, should do this.” As an administrator, my contentment with each job was interrupted by district mentors asking me to consider taking the next step. The decisions to move—not the new jobs—were relatively easy because I sensed support for addressing needs from both higher admin & from peers in the trenches.

    • 4 Dennis Sparks February 13, 2020 at 8:56 am

      You were fortunate, Rick, to feel the support of both “higher” administrators and your peers as you moved to positions of greater authority and responsibility in your district. That was clearly a benefit not only to you but to your school system. As always, I appreciate the experiences and perspectives that you share.

  4. 5 Joellen Killion February 12, 2020 at 4:04 pm

    Your reflections and synthesis of learning are two of the attributes Invalue most in you, Dennis, My years as a member, board member, president, staff member, and now senior advisor are among the true highlights of my professional career for many of the reasons you named: collaboration, ability to be close to our members in all of my work, independence, real work that directly influenced educators’ daily work, and the opportunity to learn and grow each day. When I decided to Leave the comfort of the daily work to get closer still to those who facilitated learning each day. My reasons seem similar to yours, and I am and have been blessed to engage with educators close and far. Thank you for being the mentor, colleague, and leader who helped us keep our eyes on what mattered each day

  5. 6 Dennis Sparks February 13, 2020 at 9:02 am

    My thanks to Mike, Ann, and Joellen for both your comments here and your dedication and skillfulness in serving NSDC as trustees, presidents, and/or staff members. Learning Forward would not be what it is today without your significant and long-lasting contributions.

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