Archive for the 'Leaders Change First' Category

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?

What is resilience, and how do we get it?

“The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places. That line of Hemingway’s is famous for good reason. What sticks in most people’s minds is the phrase “strong at the broken places.” It’s also important to remember his qualifier: many. Not all. Not all of us are strong at the broken places. To be strong at the broken places is to be resilient. Being broken, by itself, does not make us better. Hardship can create a helpless person or a heroic one. – Eric Greitens, Resilience: Hard-Won Wisdom for Living a Better Life

Is resilience simply a synonym for perseverance or strength in the face of hardship? Or is it just another way of looking at concepts like grit or emotional intelligence?

Is resilience something we are born with, inherit from the early modeling of elders, or acquire as a result of challenging life events?

Does it mean “recovery” to a previous way of being after a disrupting event, or does it mean “growth” to a stronger, more resourceful way of life?

Can we cultivate resilience in ourselves in preparation for life challenges by intentionally stretching ourselves into a new and even transformative way of being?

What is resilience?

The Resilience Research Centre defines resilience as a return to normalcy:

“Most commonly, the term resilience has come to mean an individual’s ability to overcome adversity and continue his or her normal development,” the organization says.

Andrew Zolli and Ann Marie Healy in Resilience: Why Things Bounce Back, see resilience as learning how to live effectively in a “new normal”:

“[A]ny number of sudden and serious disruptions might cause you to be ‘flipped’ over the threshold separating your present context and a new one…. Unfortunately, many of these thresholds may be crossed only in one direction: Once forces have compelled you into a new circumstance, it may be impossible for you to return to your prior environment. You’ll have entered a new normal.”

An example: Individuals who have lost a loved one to death often use the term “new normal” to describe their lives after the loss.

On the other hand, Eric Greitens, in Resilience: Hard-Won Wisdom for Living a Better Life, views resilience as an expression of growth:

“Resilience is the virtue that enables people to move through hardship and become better. No one escapes pain, fear, and suffering. Yet from pain can come wisdom, from fear can come courage, from suffering can come strength—if we have the virtue of resilience….

An example: After a traumatic life event such as a divorce or loss of a job some people say in retrospect that “it was the best thing that ever happened to me” because it enabled possibilities that were not previously seen.

For my own purposes I have synthesized this working definition:

re·sil·ience\ri-ˈzil-yən(t)s\ noun: the ability to become strong, healthy, or successful after misfortune or disruptive change

That is, resilience is the ability to bounce back from adversity, sometimes in a new and stronger form, to not only survive, but at least in some circumstances to thrive.

In many ways resilience is an organizer for understanding and integrating the qualities that enable individuals and organizations to persevere and sometimes thrive in the face of change and even hardship.

Those ideas and practices include but are not limited to emotional and social intelligence, positive psychology, a growth mindset, and grit, ideas and practices that can be found in many of my posts.

Perhaps the most important question is: Can we develop resilience in preparation for life’s inevitable challenges?

The Mayo Clinic says we can:

“Resilience won’t make your problems go away — but resilience can give you the ability to see past them, find enjoyment in life and better handle stress. If you aren’t as resilient as you’d like to be, you can develop skills to become more resilient.’

In Resilience: Why Things Bounce Back Andrew Zolli and Ann Marie Healy reach a similar conclusion:

“New scientific research suggests that personal, psychic resilience is more widespread, improvable, and teachable than previously thought. That’s because our resilience is rooted not only in our beliefs and values, in our character, experiences, values, and genes, but critically in our habits of mind—habits we can cultivate and change.”

Perhaps resilience is no more complicated than this:

• In life we have hard times. Sometimes we recover from them, sometimes we don’t. Sometimes when we recover we are as strong or even stronger than before.

• Resilience may stimulate growth. Such growth requires reflection on our experiences and perhaps actively seeking and acquiring new ways of thinking and behaving.

• If we are fortunate, we learned along the way from role models—for instance, family members or mentors—who teach us through example and provide encouragement and hope.

As you think about your own resilience or the resilience of those close to you, do you see examples of growth to new levels of strength and competency? 

In your experience, can resilience be intentionally cultivated?

The challenge of changing ourselves and influencing others

A quality shared by most resilient people is the ability to see the world as it is rather than as they wish it to be.

As a result, they understand that:

• Changing ourselves is hard, even when our health and lives may depend on it.

• Changing others is harder.

• Changing organizational culture and practices is even harder because it combines the difficulties of changing ourselves and others with the challenge of overcoming institutional inertia and active resistance.

In addition, most of us significantly underestimate what’s required to alter long-standing habits of mind and behavior in ourselves and others and to create organizational cultures of continuous improvement.

And, at the same time, we significantly overestimate the extent to which humans are rational and motivated to change because of evidence and logic.

That’s why reading a book, listening to an inspiring speaker, or attending a “research-based” workshop are almost always insufficient to produce long-term, meaningful change.

The essential elements of change

The most compelling explanations of what’s required to produce significant change are offered  by Alan Deutschman in Change or Die: The Three Keys to Change at Work and in Life and by Chip Heath and Dan Heath in Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard.

Deutschman explains that people make significant and lasting changes by “relating,” “repeating,” and “reframing.”

Relate underscores the importance of sustained relationships with individuals and groups to inspire hope and provide support.

Repeat involves learning, practicing, and mastering new skills until they become habits.

And reframe means finding others ways to think 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.

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 offer a sense of hopefulness that problems can be solved through a genuine sense of community that enables the acquisition of new habits.

In Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard Chip Heath and Dan Heath explain that our behavior is shaped by three forces—our intellect, our emotions, and the situations in which we find ourselves.

To explain their ideas the Heaths offer the metaphor of an elephant with a rider:

The rider is our intellect. Although modest in size compared to the elephant, it plans and directs.

The elephant is emotion. It provides the energy that creates and sustains movement.

The path is the situation or environment in which the rider and elephant find themselves. that either supports improved performance or hinders it. (For example, strong teamwork requires a “path” that includes regularly-scheduled meeting time, relevant data to make decisions and assess progress, and training in group skills.)

We promote change, the Heaths say, when we:

• create clarity of purpose and direction (influence the rider),

• engage people’s emotions (motivate the elephant), and

• create environments (shape the path) that enable rather than hinder the desired performance.

What, in your experience, are the essential elements of change in individuals and organizations?

I will be taking a sabbatical during the next few months to refresh and renew. Best wishes for an enjoyable summer (or winter if you happen to be Down Under).


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