Archive for the 'Leaders Change First' Category

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?

Strong opinions, weakly held

Dennis Sparks

Learn how to fight as if you are right and listen as if you are wrong: It helps you develop strong opinions that are weakly held. —Bob Sutton

“The world is divided into people who think they are right,” a wise person once said.

While it is essential that leaders have clear, well-defined beliefs and ideas that guide their work, it is also essential that those beliefs and ideas are open to influence by respected colleagues.

That means that leaders do both the intellectually demanding work of forming clear, well-considered points of view and the interpersonally demanding work of holding them loosely.

Because our views are often influenced by psychological and emotional forces of which we are not fully aware, both their formation and alteration is seldom fully rational.

That means that altering our views based on evidence and logic rather than vigorously defending them until death typically requires a high level of emotional intelligence.

How do you decide when to maintain your point of view and when to surrender it?

Words matter

Dennis Sparks

Words matter.

They create energy or destroy it. They can produce an upward flow of possibility and energy or a downward spiral of resignation and hopelessness.

The language that administrators and teacher leaders use affects the ability of the school community to solve problems and to achieve its most important goals.

It is essential that leaders cultivate discernment about the words that create upward or downward spirals of energy and then to carefully choose the words that they use.

Which words increase your energy and which ones deplete it?

Say yes “to the subject that arouses a terrifying longing”

Dennis Sparks

“The lesson…then, is that if you want to win the war for attention, don’t try to say ‘no’ to the trivial distractions you find on the information smorgasbord; try to say ‘yes’ to the subject that arouses a terrifying longing, and let the terrifying longing crowd out everything else.” —David Brooks

Distraction is widely viewed as a significant problem in society and in schools. It dissipates energy at work and in our personal lives, and it is truly dangerous when we are behind the wheel of a car.

But perhaps the problem is not distraction, but rather the absence of a compelling purpose—a “…subject that arouses a terrifying longing”—as David Brooks describes it.

Cal Newport thinks about it this way:

“Distraction, from this perspective, is not the cause of problems in your work life, it’s a side effect. The real issue comes down to a question more important than whether or not you use Facebook too much: Are you striving to do something useful and do it so well that you can cannot be ignored?”

What useful thing are you striving to do that cannot be ignored?


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