Archive for the 'Leaders’ Clarity' Category

The challenge of shaping school culture

The power of school culture in shaping continuous improvement and the challenges leaders face in creating and sustaining such a culture is a subject of perennial interest to readers of this blog.

Here is a post on that subject from August 2015 with links to frequently-read essays on that topic.

School culture matters 

School culture is an incredibly powerful but often invisible force that shapes a school community’s work. It is more powerful than new ideas and innovative practices.

Administrators and teacher leaders who ignore school culture or underestimate its influence will almost certainly fail in improving teaching and learning for all students.

While school culture may be largely invisible, some of its qualities can be discerned by observers who are attuned to them. 

In an earlier post I suggest 9 symptoms of a problematic school culture.

Among the most common of those symptoms are that: 

• the most honest conversations happen in parking lots rather than meeting rooms, 

• in just a few years new teachers begin to sound and act like veterans who are resigned to the status quo and deeply entrenched in their ways, and 

• educators feel more professionally connected to followers on social media they have never personally met than to grade-level, department, or PLC colleagues with whom they share students and common purposes.

In another post that focused on desirable cultural shifts I wrote:

“[N]ew cultures [cannot] be created by leaders acting alone. Indeed, a primary characteristic of high-performing cultures is that leadership is distributed throughout the school community. That means that new, more effective cultures are co-created by leaders and community members, especially teachers.

In that post I identified several shifts that occur when school cultures move in a positive direction:

confusion and incoherence regarding important goals, ideas, and practices to clarity and coherence;

leadership centered on a single individual to leadership developed and distributed throughout the school community;

resignation and powerlessness to hopefulness and collective sense of efficacy;

low levels of trust to high levels of trust;

• a focus on deficits, negativity, and complaint to strengths, positivity, and appreciation;

professional isolation and dependence on outside authority to results-oriented experimentation founded in teamwork and community;

accountability to external authorities to accountability to one another for achieving important goals; and

episodic, superficial professional development to team-based learning embedded in the planning, assessment, and continuous improvement of teaching and learning for the benefit of all students.

I encourage you to read and study these essays and to have candid conversations with colleagues about the culture of your school or school system and to determine what can be done with urgency to strengthen it.

Happy Holidays and best wishes for a wonderful 2019….

Eliminating mindless professional development 

It’s essential that teachers’ professional development resemble in its learning processes the kinds of teaching and learning desired in all classrooms.

I made that point in a February 2013 post, and it is worth repeating here.

Mindless professional learning produces mindless teaching

The notes of the lecturer are passed to the notes of the listener – without going through the minds of either. – Mortimer Adler

Mortimer Adler succinctly describes the mindless learning that follows mindless teaching.

Visualize a continuum with that form of teaching and learning at one end. At the other end place the kind of teaching that produces high levels of engagement, meaningful involvement with the subject matter, and the acquisition and exercise of complex cognitive skills. (A good share of the teaching students experience each day falls between those two extremes.)

The professional learning of teachers and administrators can be placed along a similar continuum.

To update Adler’s description, at one end of the continuum the PowerPoint slides of the presenter are passed to the tweets of the students without going through the minds of either. 

At the other end is professional learning with qualities that closely resemble those described above for students—high levels of engagement, meaningful involvement with the subject matter, and the acquisition and exercise of complex cognitive skills.

In my experience, the kinds of teaching/learning processes used in professional development have a profound effect on the teaching/learning processes used in the vast majority of classrooms. Put another way, mindless professional learning produces mindless teaching. And vice versa.

The remedy is simple, but not easy: It’s essential that teachers’ professional learning resemble as closely as possible the kinds of teaching and learning desired in all classrooms.

That means that teachers will:

• spend much of their time in small, interdependent groups collaboratively solving important instructional problems;

• gain a deep understanding of important educational issues and their significance through intellectually-demanding learning processes—the close reading of professional materials, writing that extends learning, and dialogue;

• acquire and regularly apply complex cognitive skills in identifying and solving meaningful problems; and

• experience firsthand the value of the methods they are expected to use with their students.

Through mind-full experiences like those, teachers will continuously improve their practice for the benefit of all students.

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.

“What looks like a people problem is often a situation problem”

I like ideas that absolve people of blame. That’s the most consistent theme in all of my work. I don’t like blaming people’s nature or behavior for things. I like blaming systems and structures and environments for things. — Malcolm Gladwell

I like ideas that cause me to question conventional wisdom, to think more deeply about my own often unexamined cultural assumptions.

Malcolm Gladwell’s perspective is just such an idea, one that I am willing to grapple with because of the respect I have for his work even though I don’t immediately agree with the idea.

Gladwell recognizes the influence of environment and of systems and structures, powerful forces that are often invisible to those who are profoundly affected  by them.

Chip Heath and Dan Heath extend that line of thought in this essay I first published in May 2010. 

“Shape the path” to influence change

“What looks like a people problem is often a situation problem.” — Chip Heath & Dan Heath

Chip Heath and Dan Heath explain the change process this way in Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard: “For individual behavior to change, you’ve got to influence not only their environment but their hearts and minds.” To explain their ideas they offer the metaphor of an elephant with a rider, with the intellect represented by the rider and emotions by the elephant. 

The rider plans and directs; the elephant provides the energy. They extend the metaphor by including “the path,” the situation or environment in which the rider and elephant find themselves. Leaders’ work, then, is to guide the change effort through clarity of purpose and direction, motivate the elephant by engaging people’s emotions, and “shape the path” to enable the desired performance. Previous essays described ways to affect “the rider” and “the elephant.”

To help us understand the power of the path, the Heath brothers ask readers to note how many times a day someone has tweaked their environment to shape their behavior (examples include lane markers on roads, the location of displays in groceries stores, and ATM machines that made it difficult for you to leave your card or cash).

The Heaths stress the power of culture and habits to shape behavior. “People are incredibly sensitive to the environment and the culture…,” they write. “Because we instinctively try to fit in with our peer group, behavior is contagious…. To change yourself or other people, you’ve got to change habits….” 

Noting that even small environmental changes can make a difference, they suggest “action triggers” in which you create a mental plan that includes a time and place in which you’ll engage in a particular action. “Action triggers simply have to be specific enough and visible enough to interrupt people’s normal stream of consciousness,” the Heaths note.

Chip and Dan Heath also suggest the development of habits and routines as ways to shape the environment because they create a kind of “behavioral autopilot.” In addition, they encourage the use of checklists to remind people of important behaviors that might otherwise be overlooked.

The Heaths use the phrase “rally the herd” to describe ways in which organizational culture and peer influence can be used to promote the desired behavior, citing efforts to promote “designated drivers” in the 1980s as an example of cultivating cultural influence to shape behavior. Meeting agreements and group protocols are examples of ways leaders shape habits and routines and cultivate high-performance cultures.

Ways school leaders might shape the path:

Meeting agreements: Establish meeting agreements (some people call them “norms”) that establish group expectations regarding meeting behavior (for instance, arrive on time and stay until the meeting’s conclusion, be fully engaged, and do not say anything outside the meeting you have not said in it).

Protocols: Use protocols to shape meeting behavior, whether the meeting is for the primary purpose of professional learning, problem solving, or decision making.

Action triggers: To establish new behaviors/habits, imagine yourself in a future situation doing a desired behavior. Trigger the behavior through a notation in your calendar, to-do list, or post-it on your bathroom mirror.

Take a moment now to…

• select one of the methods above to “shape the path” regarding improvements in your own leadership practice or for a significant change effort in the school community.

What qualities should be required of all new teachers?

Are there some qualities that are so important that individuals who don’t possess them shouldn’t be teachers?

And, if those qualities are essential, should they be required of all beginning teachers?

Or, can those qualities be acquired through experience and professional development after teachers are hired?

Since I pondered the first of those questions in May 2013, the compensation and working conditions of many teachers have deteriorated, which has made teaching a less attractive profession. 

That, in turn, has meant that it is harder for many school systems to be as selective in the hiring process as they may once have been.

Nonetheless, I continue to stand behind these “non-negotiables,” although I understand the reality of placing teachers in every classroom may require unfortunate compromises.

6 non-negotiables that I would want to see at the beginning of a teacher’s career

On the subject of “highly effective teachers,” Kappan Editor-in-Chief Joan Richardson wrote in her “editor’s note”  for the April 2013 issue:

“During practice teaching, we should be watching closely to determine if these candidates have a deep interest in how children learn. The best teachers aren’t just content experts. They not only understand how children learn; they are intrigued by the way that children learn. Content experts may get really excited about sharing their knowledge. But expert teachers get really excited because students are making it their knowledge. That’s a crucial distinction.”

Richardson’s recommendation got me thinking about the things that I think are essential to see at the beginning of a teacher’s career, in addition to a solid foundation of classroom management and instructional skills. Because I agree with Joan, I started with her suggestion for beginning teachers:

1. I would want evidence that new teachers are intrigued by the way children learn. Which would mean that they want to know in real time if and what students are learning. 

2. I would want evidence that new teachers believe in the potential of all students to learn and grow.

3. I would want evidence that new teachers appreciate and enjoy the qualities of students at the level they are teaching.

4. I would want evidence that new teachers value and tap the strengths and resources provided by families and the broader community.

5. I would want evidence that new teachers believe they can always improve the quality of their teaching and of student learning.

6. I would want evidence that new teachers believe that working with others is essential to continuous improvement and that they are committed to the process of becoming effective collaborators.

What would you add to or subtract from this list? Are these qualities essential for all new teachers, or can they be developed over time?

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.”


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