Archive for the 'Effective meetings' Category

Together we can achieve what none of us can accomplish alone

Without a community, it is nearly impossible to achieve voice: it takes a village to raise a Rosa Parks. Without a community, it is nearly impossible to exercise the “power of one” in a manner that multiplies: it took a village to translate Park’s act of personal integrity into social change. In a mass society like ours, community rarely comes ready-made. But creating community in the places where we live and work does not mean abandoning other parts of our lives to become full-time organizers. The steady companionship of two or three kindred spirits can kindle the courage we need to speak and act as citizens. —Parker Palmer

Resilient people understand that sustaining a commitment to significant change requires the support, guidance, and inspiration of a community.

But not all groups are created equal in their resilience and effectiveness.

Groups that make a difference:

• have skillful, committed leaders who maintain focus and momentum over time,

• ensure that group time is used productively to achieve the group’s goals,

• have a stable core membership,

• engage in high-impact activities,

• follow through on plans with accountability for results, and

• train group members to successfully complete agreed upon activities.

In schools such collective work requires strong teamwork which can take a variety of forms.

In the area of social justice and political change the group RESULTS sets the standard for grass roots advocacy. Its purpose is to end poverty by “improving access to education, health, and economic opportunity” through advocacy and education of policy makers.

More recently “Indivisible” groups are forming and beginning to take action in many communities throughout the United States. Their purpose is to create local pressure on members of Congress to counter the most destructive policies and actions of the new administration, and even at this early date it appears that they are beginning to have some success.

Indivisible’s advocacy is based “…on a simple idea: Donald Trump’s agenda doesn’t depend on Donald Trump. It depends on your elected members of Congress and whether they go along with him—or whether they fight back.”

If any or all of these approaches are appealing, I encourage you to get involved.

Remember:

• that demagogues win when citizens feel overwhelmed and become resigned to the status quo, and

• that together we can achieve what none of us can accomplish alone.

Deep work matters

Dennis

I’ve attended countless meetings during which some variation of the following happens:

Person A makes a point about a topic.

Person B comments on Person A’s statement.

Person C brings up another subject.

Person D returns briefly to person A’s comment and then makes a point on a totally different subject.

And so on as participants skate across the surface of important topics.

This type of “superficial work” is all too common in meetings, even those where important decisions are being made.

Likewise, professional learning can be deep or superficial.

So, too, professional reading and writing can be deep or superficial.

Deep work is obviously essential when decisions are being made and when learning is the goal, either for adults or young people.

While deep work typically takes time, a lack of time is not an adequate excuse for superficiality because there is always time to do what matters.

Deep work requires:

Intentionality. It is essential that we are committed to deep work when we examine our individual and collective beliefs, values, ideas, and practices.

Habits of mind and behavior that value slowness over speed, sustained focus over multi-tasking, problem solving over complaining, and meaningful professional learning over “sit and get.”

Protocols that help participants pay attention to both task accomplishment and the quality of relationships.

What other things promote deep work?

Conversations for learning

Dennis

Some of our most important learning occurs in conversations. And because learning is a prerequisite to sound decision making, good decisions are often preceded by good conversations.

Conversations for learning matter so much that virtually all meetings and even one-to-one discussions with colleagues, parents, and students within the school community should be designed to maximize learning.

Unfortunately, some leaders believe that effective leaders make decisions independently. Such decision making, they think, is a sign of decisiveness and strength.

For these leaders the purpose of meetings is to tell others about their decisions.

Their subordinates are so accustomed to a passive role in which they simply receive what their bosses tell them to think, say, and do that it may be hard for them to even imagine participating in conversations for learning and decision making.

But not all conversations are created equal.

Conversations for learning require: 

• Intentionality;

• Deeply-attentive listening;

• A willingness to go beneath the surface of conventional assumptions and understandings;

• Slowness that provides space for thinking and elaboration (think “wait time”);

• An openness to learning based on a deep respect for the experiences and perspectives of others; and

• A belief that everyone has something worthwhile to contribute….

How is it in your setting— are conversations for learning an essential part of professional learning and decision making, or are “conversations” more often monologues that communicate what has already been decided?

Deep work

Dennis

A man sits alone in a courtyard with a pad of paper in front of him.

He writes and then pauses, looking off into space. He writes again.

As I watched I realized that those are the essential ingredients of “deep work” – solitude, a process that allows us to externalize, clarify, and elaborate our thinking (in this case, writing); thinking about what we think (metacognition); and then beginning the cycle again. Deep work is essential in classrooms and meeting rooms. It is also an essential ingredient of professional development that leads to professional learning.

Because focused conversation enables us to externalize, clarify, and elaborate our thinking, it is important that schools provide generous opportunities for well-designed group work in classrooms and among teachers.

But it is also important that schools value the solitary activities that are often a prerequisite to the deep work that is the foundation of meaningful learning, teaching, and school leadership.

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?

We are introverts…

Dennis Sparks

We are anti-social. We are “in a shell.” We are shy, withdrawn, and may even have social phobias. At least that’s what others often think of us.

Who are “we?”

We are introverts, and according to various estimates we compose one-third to one-half of the population. (When I ask educators in various groups how many of them consider themselves introverts, a third or more typically raise their hands, although sometimes a bit reluctantly as if they were admitting a character flaw.)

As an introvert, I was eager to read Susan Caine’s Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Won’t Quit Talking, which helped me understand why I prefer the types of conversations I described in my previous post.

“Introverts,” Caine writes, “… are drawn to the inner world of thought and feeling” and “extroverts to the external life of people and activities. Introverts focus on the meaning they make of the events swirling around them; extroverts plunge into the events themselves.”

A primary distinction between the types is that introverts recharge themselves in solitude while extroverts restore their energy in social activities.

“Extroverts are the people who will add life to your dinner party and laugh generously at your jokes,” Caine observes. “They tend to be assertive, dominant, and in great need of company. Extroverts think out loud and on their feet; they prefer talking to listening, rarely find themselves at a loss for words, and occasionally blurt out things they never meant to say….

“Introverts, in contrast, may have strong social skills and enjoy parties and business meetings, but after a while wish they were home in their pajamas. They prefer to devote their social energies to close friends, colleagues, and family. They listen more than they talk, think before they speak, and often feel as if they express themselves better in writing than in conversation…. Many have a horror of small talk, but enjoy deep discussions.”

Caine describes how the notion of the “extrovert ideal” evolved over time, a perspective that promotes “winning personalities” who are outgoing, dominant, forceful, and charismatic. This ideal has influenced  parents’ and teachers’ views regarding desirable personality traits, how job applicants present themselves in interviews, and common perceptions about the desirable attributes of successful leaders.

Because many educators are introverts, and because introversion is often maligned, it is important that both introverted and extroverted administrators and teacher leaders appreciate the strengths that introverts bring to their work and to the school community and the problems that can occur when it is suppressed in classrooms and schools.

For example, because the notion of the “extrovert ideal” is so strong, many introverts try to fake extroversion, which almost always causes problems.

“[M]any people pretend to be extroverts,” Caine writes. “Closet introverts pass undetected on playgrounds, in high school locker rooms, and in the corridors of corporate America. Some fool even themselves, until some life event—a layoff, an empty nest, an inheritance that frees them to spend time as they like—jolts them into taking stock of their true natures.”

Caine contends that there can be unintended consequences of this charade, though: “Some people act like extroverts, but the effort costs them in energy, authenticity, and even physical health.”

While many school leaders are introverts by nature, they have learned how to excel at the one-to-one and group social interactions required in their work.

In addition, effective leaders who are introverts have learned how to cultivate within the school community their best qualities—slowing down and deepening conversations, listening carefully, thinking before they speak, creating a rich interior life through solitude, and being quietly influential.

These leaders do so through personal example, the careful selection of protocols and learning designs for use in meetings and professional development that tap the strengths of all participants, and by recognizing and honoring individual differences.

Successful leaders—whether they are introverts or extroverts by nature—help shape school communities in which everyone is encouraged to bring their best selves to school each day and to continuously develop qualities that enrich their lives.

Do you view yourself as an introvert, and, if so, how have you used the strengths of this disposition to make you a more effective administrator or teacher leader?

I prefer conversations that…

Dennis Sparks

Long ago I realized that I quickly lost interest during meetings that are essentially serial monologues — speaker after speaker pontificating at great length with few if any opportunities for meaningful, engaging conversations.

As a result, I resolved that whenever possible I would help create professional conversations in meetings and elsewhere that would be meaningful and intellectually stimulating for me and others.

As a starting point to creating such conversations I reflected on my own preferences. I prefer conversations:

• that deeply examine a small number of subjects to those that skate across the surface of many topics,

• in which participants spend at least as much time listening as they do talking,

• in which there is openness to the perspectives of others rather than defensiveness about one’s point of view,

• in which participants learn something important about themselves and each other,

• that strengthen relationships through candor and celebration rather than undermine them through obfuscation and negativity, and

• that use professional literature, research, and other forms of intellectual stimulation as a starting point rather than relying solely on personal opinion and experience, although they may help inform the discussion.

What have I missed?


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