Archive for the 'Leaders Change First' Category

Good advice


In Louise Penny’s mystery, Bury Your Dead, a senior police inspector tells a junior colleague that he will benefit in his career if he learns to say: “I’m sorry. I was wrong. I need help. I don’t know.”

With the U.S. Thanksgiving Day on the near horizon, I would add: “I am grateful.”

Many problems in our personal and professional lives would disappear or be significantly diminished if we learned to regularly say those things, one at a time or in various combinations.

What do you think—good advice?

Skillful leadership


Early in my professional development career I spent a great deal of time talking with teachers about teaching. I enjoyed those conversations except when…

Teachers were angry, cynical, or otherwise emotionally unsuited to have such conversations. Without exception, those teachers were…

Poorly led. They were poorly led by principals or system administrators or union leaders. Or all three. Over time that led me to…

Focus my work on leaders, particularly principals and teacher leaders because their skillful leadership was essential to meaningful teacher professional learning, particularly the kind of professional learning that would benefit all students in all classrooms.

School leaders to a very large degree determine:

• The emotional tone of a school.

• Whether the school’s culture focuses on the continuous improvement of teaching and learning for all students or on maintaining the status quo.

• Whether teachers primarily work in isolation or benefit from strong, effective teamwork.

What is your experience? Is it possible to have continuous improvements in teaching and learning for all students without skillful leadership?

Beliefs matter


Beliefs matter because they have a profound and often invisible effect on what teachers and administrators say and do each day.

Beliefs are also habitual, which means they are often applied to new situations without a full understanding of their consequences.

My three previous posts addressed professional learning, school culture, and teamwork, each of which has implicit beliefs that channel them in productive or unproductive ways.

For example:

• If school leaders believe that good teachers are born, not made, high-quality professional learning will have a low priority.

• If school leaders believe that new ideas and research-based practices should be sufficiently compelling in themselves for their full adoption, they will ignore the influence of school culture on innovation.

• If school leaders believe that professional learning and instructional improvement are the sole responsibility of teachers, they will fail to create the necessary structures and incentives that enable strong teamwork.

Left unexamined and unaltered, some beliefs may have a profound negative effect on student learning.

Here are several such beliefs I proposed in a previous post:

• Some students cannot be expected to learn very much because of their families, economic status, or race.

• Teaching is delivering, “telling,” and performing. Leadership is directing and motivating.

• Because teaching is telling/performing, content is “delivered,” leadership is directing, and the primary challenge of leadership is motivating teachers, continuous improvement results from telling/delivering/directing/motivating.

• Most significant questions and problems of teaching and learning have one right answer, and an “expert” knows it.

• The best means of “delivering” professional development “content” is through speakers, workshops, and courses. PowerPoints are essential to such delivery.

• It takes years to make significant and demonstrable improvements in the quality of professional learning, teaching, and student achievement.

Another example is leaders’ beliefs regarding teachers’ capacity for growth, which I wrote about here:

“Just as it’s essential for principals and teacher leaders to believe that student learning can be improved by skillful teaching, it’s essential that principals and teacher leaders believe that through well-designed professional development and teamwork virtually all teachers can become effective, if not masterful.

“Believing in the capacity of students to learn at higher levels without a parallel belief in the capacity of teachers to successfully teach them — given appropriate support — can only lead to frustration and failure.”

Yet another example is leaders’ beliefs regarding the qualities that are important in new teachers, a subject I address here.

(Other posts on the subject of teaching can be found here.)

Administrators and teacher leaders are not powerless to affect colleagues’ beliefs. In a post on “frames” I wrote:

“Put simply, frames are the mental frameworks we use to think about things. Our thinking, and hence our ability to change, is limited by these deeply rooted, beneath-the-surface systems of beliefs and ideas. While difficult to dispel, frames can be changed. The process begins with awareness of the dominant frame and its influence on practice and the ability to conceptualize alternative frames that better serve student learning.”

In that post I suggested two frames that I believe interfere with change and offer alternative ways to conceptualize them.

I closed that post by inviting readers to identify an existing frame that may be unconsciously preserving the status quo in in their setting.

I encourage you to do the same.

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?

When leaders’ egos grow too tall

Dennis Sparks

“There’s an ego looking for a place to inflate,” my table mate at a Washington, DC meeting of high-level officials whispered to me as a prominent member of the education establishment entered the room, a prophecy that unfortunately soon proved itself to be true.

I was reminded of that meeting when Jean, a patient I was visiting in my role as a hospice volunteer, shared with me a simple but profound poem she had recently written:

“The long, dark corridor of life narrows at the end./ And those whose ego grew too tall will have to learn to bend.”

While Jean was describing the “long, dark corridor” of her own life as it narrowed in her 90s, her warning regarding egos that grow too tall without learning to bend also obviously applies to education leaders.

Signs that a leader’s ego has grown too tall include:

• Enjoying hearing himself or herself talk, usually at great length, rather than listening to others.

• Believing that he or she generally knows more than others, including being the only one with the wisdom to understand problems and how to solve them.

Ways in which leaders can learn to bend:

• Maintaining a “learner’s mind.” Leaders with such mindsets assume that they may not know what they don’t know.

• Recognizing that the perspectives of others are essential in identifying and solving problems.

That means that they seek first to understand by spending far more time listening than speaking.

• Remembering that while leaders have unique roles and responsibilities, those who are successful cultivate a community of equals rather than one of  privilege and hierarchy.

What have I missed?

A plague on the educational landscape…

Dennis Sparks

Bad meetings. Bad professional development. They are a plague on the educational landscape.

How is it possible that after decades of complaints so many educators continue to experience boring, unproductive meetings and mind numbing professional development?

More specifically, why is it that:

• so many teachers who complain about poorly-run meetings become administrators who conduct poorly-run meetings?

• so many teachers who protest meaningless, ineffective, and often demeaning professional development continue to offer the same kinds of professional development when they become administrators?

Cynics might say that it’s a process akin to fraternity hazing—if I had to endure it, so should you. I don’t think that is the reason, though.

Here are some possible reasons:

* Many leaders do not know what they do not know. Having never experienced well-run meetings or well-designed professional development themselves, they simple repeat what was done to them.

• Leaders who have experienced the processes and benefits of well-designed professional development are not clear about what made it effective. They cannot repeat what they do not deeply understand.

• Leaders do not deeply understand the principles of good teaching. Those who do may not appreciate that those principles apply to adults as well as children. As a result, the least engaging and effective “teaching” methods are used—lectures, endless PowerPoint slides, and so on.

The solution: Whatever the cause, things will not significantly improve until leaders are explicitly taught how to design and implement meaningful, engaging meetings and professional development.  And, of course, that means they have the will to do the demanding learning and planning that are required to ensure high-quality professional learning for all educators so that all students experience high-quality teaching every day.

What is your diagnosis? How is it possible that after decades of complaints so many educators continue to experience boring, unproductive meetings and mind numbing professional development? Or do you disagree with my premise, believing instead that meetings and professional development for most educators are efficient and effective?

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