Archive for the 'Leaders’ Clarity' 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.”

Ideas that have shaped my life

Every important thing I know I have learned from other people or through conversations in which participants uncovered insights that were previously unknown to any of us.

But I often didn’t know at that time the significance of what I was learning. 

Some of those people I have encountered through books whose ideas affected me both personally and professionally. (Perhaps on another occasion I will recount the “right words at the right time” conversations that had a lasting effect on my life.)

Here are a few that made a lasting impression on me, some reaching back more than 40 years: 

Carl Rogers: Freedom to Learn and On Becoming a Person: Each of us has an impulse to grow and a sense of direction for that growth that has validity and can be trusted, particularly when explored with someone who offers “unconditional positive regard.”

William Glasser: Reality Therapy: Human problems ultimately have their roots in a lack of responsibility. An important goal in life and education is to learn how to behave responsibly. 

Parker Palmer: A Hidden Wholeness: Each of us has an inner self that requires attention and expression if we are to live a life that feels whole and satisfying.

Bruce Joyce and Emily Calhoun: Models of Professional Development: What Joyce and Calhoun offered me in this book and others was the explicit recognition of something I knew intuitively: Changing teaching practice is complicated. Training alone is insufficient to affect practice, or, as I eventually came to think of it, “Training without follow-up is malpractice.”

Thich Nhat Hanh: Peace Is Every Step: An unalterable attribute of life is impermanence, and one of the best ways of acknowledging it is to be fully present in each moment. (A close second in this category is Wherever You Go There You Are by Jon Kabat-Zinn who offers many practical suggestions for living a more mindful life.)

Peter Senge: The Learning Organization: The behavior of individuals is shaped by powerful and often invisible forces within the systems in which they live and work.

Alain de Botton: The Art of Travel: While, as the title implies, this book is about travel, it offers an approach to life which acknowledges that wherever we go we take our unique histories and emotional selves with us and suggests ways to be fully present in whatever we are doing.

What books (or articles) have had a lasting influence on your thinking and what you do each day?

How checklists can improve teaching and leadership

Even under the best of circumstances good teaching is an incredibly complex task which can appear almost effortless to the casual observer.

The intellectual, emotional, interpersonal, and even physical demands of teaching cannot, however, be underestimated.

Therefore, a “fundamental” of leadership is that teachers and principals use whatever tools are at hand to manage those demands. 

Checklists are just such a tool that when effectively used enable teachers to focus their cognitive abilities on the unexpected moment-to-moment changes in the classroom that make teaching an improvisational art.

That is why I’m bringing back an essay from April 2013 on the subject of checklists that also happens to be my most-viewed post.

The power and uses of checklists for teachers and administrators

Checklists are a simple but powerful way to improve individual and group performance. They are declarations of standards that ensure that important tasks are completed.

By routinizing certain procedures, checklists ensure that higher-order mental processes are available for complex, non-routine events, which is why they are regularly used by surgeons and airplane pilots, as well as by those engaged in other demanding occupations.

Physician Atul Gawande makes the case for checklists in his book, The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right. (An earlier post elaborates on the educational implications of this book and others by Gawande.)

While good checklists are precise, Gawande notes, “They do not try to spell out everything – a checklist cannot fly a plane. Instead, they provide reminders of only the most critical and important steps – the ones that even the highly skilled professionals using them could miss. Good checklists are, above all, practical.”

Checklists, Gawande adds, “… can help experts remember how to manage a complex process… They can make priorities clear and prompt people to function better as a team.” 

To illustrate the ways in which checklists can improve group functioning, Gawande explains how they can level hierarchy and distribute power in ways that can save patients’ lives when they require surgical team members to introduce themselves before surgery and to state their roles and unique perspectives regarding the procedure. 

Checklists have a number of important applications in school settings:

• Checklists could be used by teachers in preparing lessons, like this checklist for project-based learning.

• Checklists could be used by principals and teacher leaders in preparing for faculty or team meetings based on the ingredients of successful faculty meetings that I offered in this post.

• Checklists could be used to increase influence using the elements contained in the SUCCESS acronym as a guide (see my previous post).

• Checklists could be used in developing both long-range and short-term professional learning plans for schools and school systems. Here are a few things that might be included on such checklists:

___ Focuses on priority areas of student learning based on various sources of evidence, including but not limited to standardized tests;

___ Addresses core tasks of teaching such as the development of engaging student work and using assessments to promote learning;

___ Engages all teachers in learning, not just volunteers;

___ Occurs virtually every day as a routine part of teachers’ collaborative work on high-functioning teams—PLCs, grade level, department, or other structures;

___ Assesses effects of professional learning based on changes in instructional practices and improvements in student learning. 

The acronym CREATE could be used to help planners remember those ingredients: Core tasks of teaching, Results for students, Every day, All teachers, Team-based learning, Evidence-based decision making. 

What additional uses do you see for checklists in educational settings?

Our last good day

A hospice patient very near the end of her life after an extended illness told me that she regretted not having been aware of her last good day until it was well behind her.

That day went unnoticed because it was likely the same as many other days that also went unnoticed.

What she was sorting out for herself, I think, was that like most of us she had not really appreciated what she had until it was gone.

That conversation encouraged me to develop the habit of reflecting each day on the things for which I am grateful, a very simple exercise that draws my attention to the presence of many things I would otherwise take for granted.

Living in the moment with an awareness of appreciation requires vigilance and discipline.

Fortunately, when we drift away from the moment, as we inevitably do, each new moment is an opportunity to reclaim that awareness and gratitude.

What do you do, or might you do, to notice and appreciate the moments of your days?

The link between “deep thought” and solitude

Depth of thought matters in classrooms, in meetings for decision making, and in meaningful professional learning.

While depth requires time, a lack of time is not a sufficient excuse. There is always time to do what matters, and depth always trumps superficiality.

Depth requires:

Intentionality;

Habits of mind and behavior that value slowness over speed, focus over multi-tasking, nuanced understanding over superficiality, and problem-solving over complaining;

Protocols that keep participants focused on paying attention to both the accomplishment of tasks and the quality of relationships; and

• Solitude.

Most of all, solitude.

Cal Newport offers 2 “lessons” about solitude:

“Lesson #1: The right way to define “solitude” is as a subjective state in which you’re isolated from input from other minds.

“When we think of solitude, we typically imagine physical isolation (a remote cabin or mountain top), making it a concept that we can easily push aside as romantic and impractical. But as this book makes clear, the real key to solitude is to step away from reacting to the output of other minds: be it listening to a podcast, scanning social media, reading a book, watching TV or holding an actual conversation. It’s time for your mind to be alone with your mind — regardless of what’s going on around you.

“Lesson #2: Regular doses of solitude are crucial for the effective and resilient functioning of your brain.

“Spending time isolated from other minds is what allows you to process and regulate complex emotions. It’s the only time you can refine the principles on which you can build a life of character. It’s what allows you to crack hard problems, and is often necessary for creative insight. If you avoid time alone with your brain your mental life will be much more fragile and much less productive.”

What are the conditions in your personal and professional lives that enable depth of thought?

“Everyone can relate to a story”

“[O]ne of the best ways to relate to somebody is not to lecture them, but to tell them a story….” —Mitch Albom

“The reason that I never fear when they say journalism or print journalism is dead is that the world has always told stories, and it will always have to tell stories. The first thing I would say to leaders of any kind is everyone can relate to a story, and if you learn how to tell a story, whether that is your vision for a company, or just a way to be empathetic toward your customers or a way to just understand the world, if you put it in a storytelling form, as opposed to a didactic, factual PowerPoint presentation, everyone will be able to relate to it.” —Mitch Albom

A village was having a celebration on the banks of a river when someone noticed that a child was being swept past the picnic grounds in a torrent of water. A line of citizens was quickly formed, and the child was pulled to safety.

Moments later someone observed that several more children were being swept past in the river. Again a line was formed, and the children were rescued.

But soon more children filled the fast-moving river, so many in the fact that the villagers no longer had the strength to pull them out.

In their exhaustion a citizen of the village pointed out that aerobic and strength training should be offered in the village hall so that should this happen again they would be stronger and better prepared. Someone else said that a CPR class should also be scheduled.

A final voice was heard with the suggestion that the village should quickly make its way upstream to find out who or what was throwing the children into the river.

This story, which I heard told many years ago, illustrates at least two points:

  • “System problems,” that is problems that have their source in interacting variables larger than the current circumstance, cannot be solved by training alone.
  • The power of a story to make an important point about a complex idea. People tend to “lean into” stories and away from fact-laden lectures.

What is your experience in using stories to make important points?


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