Archive for the 'Leaders Change First' Category

Influential leaders think, speak, and write with clarity

Clarity is a fundamental leadership skill. 

One of the best ways to achieve and maintain clarity is by formulating through writing and dialogue “teachable points of view” about topics of importance to the school community.

This post from February 2010 describes the benefits of this process.

Gain clarity by developing “teachable points of view”

I need to become a well-educated person, as opposed to a well-trained person. This means reflecting upon and deepening my own ideas, and giving greater value to my own  thinking…. We each have our own theories and models about the world and what it means to be human. We need to deepen our understanding of what we believe. —Peter Block

Leaders increase their influence when they express their ideas in simple, accessible language and share those ideas with others in the spirit of openness to learning and mutual influence. 

The result is a shared understanding of important ideas and practices throughout the school community, the development of leadership in others, and improved relationships.

My thinking in this area was influenced by Noel Tichy’s book, The Cycle of Leadership: How Great Leaders Teach Their Companies to Win.

Tichy recommends that leaders create “teaching organizations” formed around Virtuous Teaching Cycles in which “… a leader commits to teaching, creates the conditions for being taught him or herself, and helps the students have the self confidence to engage and teach as well.”

Leaders begin Virtuous Teaching Cycles, Tichy says, when they craft a “teachable point of view,” which is “… a cohesive set of ideas and concepts that a person is able to articulate clearly to others.” 

A TPOV reveals clarity of thought regarding ideas and values and is a tool that enables leaders to communicate those ideas and values to others, Tichy says.

Some possible topics for leaders’ TPOVs include their aspirations for students, the nature of human learning and the type of teaching that promotes it, the meaning and value of professional learning communities, how assessment can contribute to student learning, and the role of parents and other community members in improving teaching and learning.

“The very act of creating a Teachable Point of View makes people better leaders…,” Tichy writes. “[L]eaders come to understand their underlying assumptions about themselves, their organization and business in general. When implicit knowledge becomes explicit, it can then be questioned, refined and honed, which benefits both the leaders and the organizations.”

But developing a Teachable Point of View “requires first doing the intellectual work of figuring out what our point of view is, and then the creative work of putting it into a form that makes it accessible and interesting to others,” Tichy observes. 

He strongly recommends writing as a tool to achieve clarity. “The process of articulating one’s Teachable Point of View is not a one-time event. It is an ongoing, iterative and interactive process,” Tichy writes.

Strengthen your leadership practice by . . .

• describing a time when you were clear about your views related to a particular educational issue and how your clarity affected the thinking and actions of others,

• identifying a topic of importance to you and/or your school community and setting aside time to clarify your views on this subject in writing, perhaps redrafting your view several times to gain clarity.

Words matter

We need look no farther than current news headlines to see that leaders’ words can cause harm by inciting hatred and provoking fear.

But we can also can find examples of words that uplift and inspire.

My February 2016 post spoke to this issue, and my next post will address what administrators and teacher leaders can do to create and sustain civil school cultures.

Here’s what I said in 2016:

Words can injure, or uplift and inspire

A hospice patient in her 60s whose life story I was videotaping told a sad story from her childhood about an adult who had said cruel things about her, words that produced a depth of pain that was still sufficiently strong that she felt compelled to talk about it at the end of her life.

“Some people say that sticks and stones may break our bones, but words can never hurt us,” the patient told future generations of her family. “I want everyone who sees this to remember that that is not true. Words can hurt us.” 

Words matter not only because they affect our feelings but because they can alter how we view ourselves—whether we see ourselves as valued or unimportant, respected or disrespected, competent or incompetent, included or excluded.

While words can injure, they can also uplift and inspire. Most of us can recall things that significant adults in our lives said that encouraged and sustained us—the right words at the right time.

The words spoken by teachers, principals, and parents can have a particularly strong resonance across a lifetime, for good or for ill.

Which words encourage and sustain you? Which words disempower?

What’s the biggest problem in professional development?

What would you say is the biggest problem in professional development?

• Leaders do not provide sufficient time and other resources for it because they do not understand its importance?

• Teachers lack motivation for professional learning for a variety of reasons?

• Administrators and teacher leaders don’t know enough about effective professional development to plan and implement meaningful programs?

Here’s how I answered that question in May 2014, an answer that seems as valid today as it did then:

The biggest problem in professional development is…

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

One of the best and most accessible explanations of the challenges of shaping human understanding and practice is provided by Alan Deutschman in Change or Die: The Three Keys to Change at Work and in Life in which he explains that people are influenced to change through three linked elements he describes as relate, repeat, and reframe. 

Relate underscores the importance of sustained relationships that inspire and sustain hope and provide support.

That means that:

• Teachers work in teams rather than in isolation and are accountable to one another for continuous improvement rather than to district offices or state education agencies. 

• Teachers relationships exhibit high levels of trust and appreciation rather than distrust, blaming, and negativity. 

• Teachers speak with candor and courage rather than evading discussion of important issues. 

• Teachers are hopeful and energetic rather than victims of a “slow-death spiral” of distrust, anger, and stress.

Repeat means learn, practice, and master new skills until they become habits.

The cultivation of new habits requires intention, attention, and persistence across many weeks or months until mastery is achieved, a task often complicated by the tenacity of old habits. 

The development of new habits begins with an initial learning that explores new ways of thinking and acting. It continues with the repetition of those thoughts and behaviors (often in the face of opposition from people who prefer the old habits) until new ways of thinking and acting have become routine.

An example of what may be required for leaders to alter their own behavior—which is almost always a precursor to influencing the behavior of others—is provided here.

Reframe means providing new ways of thinking about a situation. Because established frames resist facts and reasoned arguments, deep-rooted beliefs and conceptual frameworks must be identified and altered to support desired changes.

Conceptual frames are the mental organizers we use to think about things. Our thinking, and hence our ability to change, is limited by these deeply rooted, beneath-the-surface system of beliefs and ideas. While often difficult to alter, frames can be changed. The process begins with awareness of the dominant frame and its influence on practice, and continues by identifying alternative frames that better serve student learning.

Strategies for promoting reframing can be found here.

Although Change or Die is not explicitly about education, it explains why well-intentioned innovations more often expire than thrive.

A problem, Deutschman says, is that leaders too often rely on relatively ineffective change strategies—facts (human beings are not as rational as we think we are), fear (at best it’s a short-term motivator), and force (there are many ways it can be resisted) to promote change.

Instead, successful change efforts in schools:

• offer a sense of hopefulness that student learning can be improved through a genuine sense of community and teamwork that supports the implementation of new practices (relate), 

• provide sustained learning with practice to enable the acquisition of new habits of mind and behavior (repeat), and

• enable the development of new conceptual frameworks aligned with the innovation (reframe).

Do you agree that administrators and teachers often underestimate the intensity and duration of learning that is required to meaningful influence thinking and behavior?

Better together than alone

We are better together than alone is a pretty good maxim for life. 

There are exceptions, of course, but those exceptions would not include the power of well-functioning teams of teachers working together over time to improve student learning.

But what exactly is a team, and how is it the same or different from a committee or task force?

And, what are the qualities of a well-functioning team?

Leaders’ deep understanding of those qualities and their skillfulness in implementing them in complex interpersonal environments are hallmarks of schools that continuously improve teaching and learning for the benefit of all students.

This post from March 2010 offers guidance regarding this complex subject.

In addition to creating effective teamwork, a separate but related “fundamental” of leadership is the ability to speak or write concisely about important ideas or practices when the situation requires concision. 

A “Six-Word Leadership Tool” is a device I invented in the spirt of “6-word novels” and “6-word memoirs” to help me be concise and to encourage others to do the same. 

This post closes with my 6-word tool on teamwork (“Effective teamwork requires intention and persistence”) and an invitation to readers to create their own personally meaningful statement.

Here is my post from 2010:

Be clear about what teamwork is and why it’s important

If you want to go quickly, go alone; if you want to go far, go together. — African Proverb

You must undertake something so great that you cannot accomplish it unaided. — Phillips Brooks

Schools rise and fall based on the quality of the teamwork that occurs within their walls. Well-functioning leadership and teaching teams are essential to the continuous improvement of teaching and learning. That is particularly true when schools have clearly-articulated, stretching aspirations for the learning of all their students. Effective teams strengthen leadership, improve teaching and learning, nurture relationships, increase job satisfaction, and provide a means for mentoring and supporting new teachers and administrators.

Schools will improve for the benefit of every student only when every leader and every teacher is a member of one or more strong teams that create synergy in problem solving, provide emotional and practical support, distribute leadership to better tap the talents of members of the school community, and promote the interpersonal accountability that is necessary for continuous improvement. Such teamwork not only benefits students, it creates the supportive leadership and the process and time for  meaningful collaboration which enable teachers to thrive and are better able to address the complex challenges of their work.

In Leading for Results I wrote: “A widely-held view of instructional improvement is that good teaching is primarily an individual affair and that principals who view themselves as instructional leaders promote it by interacting one-on-one with each teacher to strengthen his or her efforts in the classroom. The principal is like the hub of a wheel with teachers at the end of each spoke. Communication about instruction moves back and forth along the spoke to the hub but not around the circumference of the wheel.”

Such a form of instructional leadership, however, fails to tap the most important source of instructional improvement in schools—teacher-to-teacher professional learning and collaboration. “[S]ome of the most important forms of professional learning,” I observed in Leading for Results, “occur in daily interactions among teachers in which they assist one another in improving lessons, deepening understanding of the content they teach, analyzing student work, examining various types of data on student performance, and solving the myriad of problems they face each day.

Defining effective teamwork

Simply labeling a group of people a team (or a professional learning community) rather than a committee or task force does not, however, make them a genuine team. To address this issue the Rush-Henrietta Central School District near Rochester, NY developed a rubric based on Patrick Lencioni’s The Five Dysfunctions of a Team to enable it to better understand teamwork and to chart their progress in developing effective teams.

The Rush-Henrietta rubric lists four key characteristics: clarity of purpose, accountability, effective team structures, and trust. Each key characteristic 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.”

Leading for Results “Six-Word Leadership Tool”:

“Effective teamwork requires intention and persistence.”

Strengthen your leadership practice by . . .

• assessing the quality of teamwork in your setting using the Rush-Henrietta “Key Characteristics of Effective Teams” rubric, the “Team Assessment” provided by Patrick Lencioni in The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, or other tools you may have available to you. Better yet, to stimulate professional learning and teamwork, develop a rubric with your team using the Rush-Henrietta document as a starting point. (You may want to make separate assessments for the leadership team of which you are a part and teachers’ instructional teams, which may go by other names like “professional learning community.”)

• determining a next step to strengthen teamwork in your setting.

• developing a “six-word leadership tool” to summarize your learning or to express an action you will take as a result of this essay. Please add your tool to the comment section of this blog and share it with one or more colleagues “back home.”

Taking a fresh look at the fundamentals…

I started this blog in 2010. 

Since then I have published 452 posts that have produced hundreds of thousands of views and more than 1,500 comments that have enriched and deepened our collective understanding of those topics.

Readers are system and school administrators, teacher leaders, and “retired” educators who often continue to contribute to schools and their communities in a variety of ways. They share a desire for intellectual engagement, contrarian ideas, and a deep concern for the well being of children and public education now and in the future.

Perhaps most of all, they are resilient, at least those I know personally—that is, many have been challenged by and learned important lessons during difficult times and persisted in their work in the face of often daunting obstacles. One way they demonstrate that persistence is reading this and other blogs, among many other activities that stretch their thinking and practice.

Over my career as a teacher leader, school and school system leader, and executive director of NSDC (now Learning Forward) I have worked with thousands of individuals and teams in a variety of settings—among them K-12 schools and system offices, universities, teacher unions, and non-profits.

No matter the setting or decade (or even century), several common leadership themes emerge in that work: 

• establishing trust and productive teamwork in cultures of continuous improvement,

• being persons of integrity, 

• solving complex problems that have no straightforward solutions, 

• influencing colleagues who may not wish to be influenced, and

• engaging others in ways that produce meaningful, sustained professional learning and commitment to long-term purposes and goals.

What are the implications of these experiences and my 452 posts as I think about the future of this blog?

In the course of my work with groups a number of “fundamentals” inevitably arise: planning and conducting effective meetings, having candid conversations about important topics, influencing beliefs, creating respectful and productive relationships, deepening understanding of new ideas and practices, and developing new habits of mind and practice.

As I review blog posts from previous years I am aware that particular essays have addressed those topics in ways that resonated with readers who continue to return to them many years after their publication. 

A primary focus this school year will be bringing back some of those posts to new readers and others who may benefit from considering these ideas again from a fresh perspective. In addition, new posts will be added to the mix as important issues arise in the months ahead.

I look forward to taking this journey into the known and unknown with you as we reprise the fundamentals and explore emerging ideas and practices. 

Find micro-moments of positivity

[W]ell-being can be considered a life skill. If you practice, you can actually get better at it. —Barbara Fredrickson

Psychologist Barbara Fredrickson advocates nurturing everyday “micro-moments of positivity” to increase our overall well being.

According to a New York Times article, “Activities Dr. Fredrickson and others endorse to foster positive emotions include:

Do good things for other people. In addition to making others happier, this enhances your own positive feelings. It can be something as simple as helping someone carry heavy packages or providing directions for a stranger.

“Appreciate the world around you. It could be a bird, a tree, a beautiful sunrise or sunset or even an article of clothing someone is wearing. I met a man recently who was reveling in the architectural details of the 19th-century houses in my neighborhood.

“Develop and bolster relationships. Building strong social connections with friends or family members enhances feelings of self-worth and, long-term studies have shown, is associated with better health and a longer life.

Establish goals that can be accomplished. Perhaps you want to improve your tennis or read more books. But be realistic; a goal that is impractical or too challenging can create unnecessary stress.

Learn something new. It can be a sport, a language, an instrument or a game that instills a sense of achievement, self-confidence and resilience. But here, too, be realistic about how long this may take and be sure you have the time needed.

Choose to accept yourself, flaws and all. Rather than imperfections and failures, focus on your positive attributes and achievements. The loveliest people I know have none of the external features of loveliness but shine with the internal beauty of caring, compassion and consideration of others.

Practice resilience. Rather than let loss, stress, failure or trauma overwhelm you, use them as learning experiences and steppingstones to a better future. Remember the expression: When life hands you a lemon, make lemonade.

Practice mindfulness. Ruminating on past problems or future difficulties drains mental resources and steals attention from current pleasures. Let go of things you can’t control and focus on the here-and-now. Consider taking a course in insight meditation.”

Which of these positive activities is most appealing to you, and how might you incorporate them into the “micro-moments” of your day?

Break the script of small talk

“Break the script” in some part of your life that has grown too routine. —Dan Heath 

Resilient people often “break the script” of expected behavior, which is a recommendation offered by Dan Heath In an interview with author Gretchen Rubin in which Heath encourages us to alter parts of our lives that have grown too routine.

One of the script-breaking practices he recommends is to “push beyond small talk with someone in your life.”

Heath adds: “When someone asks you ‘How are you?’, and you’re just about to give the automatic answer, ‘Fine, how are you?’, take a breath. Then give the actual answer. Share something real—maybe something you’re struggling with. Trust that the other person will care and reciprocate with something real from their life. You may be amazed at how such a simple moment can deepen a relationship.”

While small talk has its benefits, including increasing our comfort during routine social encounters and easing us into deeper conversations, it also has its limitations.

The benefits of “big talk” include more intellectually and emotionally-engaging conversations, deeper relationships, and the possibility of learning important things about ourselves and others.

In what situations and with what people have you or might you break the script of small talk for the benefit of others and yourself?


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