Archive for the 'Leadership' Category

Ch. 18: Becoming a “thinking partner” to teams

think verb
\ ˈthiŋk
to form or have in the mind
to have as an intention
to have as an opinion
to determine by reflecting

partner noun
\ ˈpärt-nər
one associated with another, especially in an action 

In 2007 after 23 years as executive director of the National Staff Development Council (now Learning Forward), I was ready for a change in responsibilities and new challenges that would enable me to apply what I had learned over the decades about school leadership, teamwork, and school culture.

In my years at NSDC I came to believe that the most powerful leverage point for continuous improvement was the professional learning of principals, teacher leaders, and system administrators.

I also knew that that work had to be intense and sustained for at least a year, if not longer, and to be focused on teams as well as individuals.

In addition, I had learned from several experiences with videoconferencing, which was fairly new in the early 2000s, and telephone-based leadership coaching, that I did not have to be physically present for every meeting. That process would mean that I could meet two goals simultaneously—maintaining relationships and momentum over time, and reducing my travel schedule, which had proven overwhelming in my final years at NSDC.

My book, Leading for Results, which I intended as a text on leadership development, had just been published, and I saw that it had a central place in the work I wanted to do.

I described myself as a “thinking partner” for educators, a kind of relationship in which we used the skills I taught to improve relationships, strengthen teamwork, create cultures of continuous improvement, and sustain momentum over time.

I would visit each site early in the school year for a 2-day workshop with the team or teams I would be supporting that school year. The workshop was followed by monthly videoconferences which were led by a local facilitator and to which I contributed.

The facilitator and I would prepare that month’s agenda based on the challenges team members were facing, what seemed to be the logical next steps, and the learning that would enable those actions.

Even the discussion of a relatively common practice like, say, teamwork, became very complex when we moved into the details of what that meant. A deep conversation about teamwork, for instance, inevitably led to a discussion of trust, which led to the subject of promise keeping and speaking honestly and respectfully with teammates. Each one of those subjects could take one or more videoconference sessions as we worked through the nitty-gritty of what that meant for their team.

My timing was not superb with the Great Recession beginning the following year, but I had a sufficient number of client schools and school systems to keep me gainfully employed doing satisfying work.

While I was enjoying the work and felt like I was making a positive difference, I knew that there was still something missing, a kind of connection with my community that had previously alluded me.

That missing piece proved to be volunteering at a local hospice where I was able to carve out a unique niche for myself by inventing a previously nonexistent service for patients and their families, which will be the subject of a later post.

What work for which you are uniquely qualified do you think would make the greatest difference?

(I want to express my appreciation to Corrie Ziegler of the Edmonton, Alberta schools who encouraged and funded my first videoconferencing experiments with administrators in Edmonton, which led to similar long-term work in her district and many others.)

[This post is one in a series from a memoir titled, “It Might Have Been Otherwise.”]

Ch. 15: An unexpected opportunity, and an impasse: NSDC I

op·por·tu·ni·ty noun
 /ˌäpərˈt(y)o͞onədē/
a set of circumstances that makes it possible to do something
a chance for employment or promotion

im·passe noun
/ˈimˌpas,imˈpas/
a situation in which no progress is possible, especially because of disagreement; a deadlock.

By the summer of 1978 I had been teaching for 10 years. 

I had helped found and implement a successful alternative high school (ALPHA) at which I had worked for 6 years.

I had earned two graduate degrees.

I had failed to get jobs I had sought and turned down one that I sensed would not be right for me.

And I felt the emotional fatigue of working with at-risk students whose academic, family, mental health, and addiction problems often felt overwhelming.

So I was ready for something different with new challenges and problems to be solved.

Such an opportunity came from an unexpected source.

In the late 1970s, during the administration of Jimmy Carter, education saw important advances. Teacher unions were influential in Washington, the Department of Education had recently been created, and federal teacher center legislation was passed which in 1978 awarded competitive 3-year grants to about 30 school systems or consortiums of systems.

My district was part of one such consortium that included seven school systems in Northwest Wayne County near Detroit. 

A central feature of that legislation was the view that teachers should have a larger say in their own professional development.

To that end, the legislation required that the teacher centers be governed by policy board with a majority of teachers. (In 1979 the consortium also began receiving state funds with similar requirements.)

Because of my professional development work as a teacher leader in an innovative alternative high school and in leading workshops on teacher stress and burnout, I was encouraged to apply for the center’s executive director position.

I was selected, and in late September 1978 I went from my high school classroom to a 3-day meeting in Washington, DC for teacher center directors and board members, plus dozens of representatives of the federal government and of national and state organizations who had a variety of supportive roles. 

I quickly realized that the world of high school teachers and that of Washington, DC policymakers could not have been more different.

On Friday I was thinking about my lesson plans for the following week. On Saturday, in Washington, I heard speeches filled with terms and acronyms I didn’t understand about the specifics of the legislation whose requirements seemed baffling.

And that is how I became the teacher leader of the Northwest Staff Development Center (NSDC) which served about 4,000 teachers and administrators. It was called “Northwest” because of the location in Wayne County of the seven consortium districts, and “staff” development center rather than teacher center because one of the first decisions the policy board made was that it should serve administrators as well as teachers. 

(I later would think of it as NSDC I because a few years later I would be employed by the National Staff Development Council, NSDC II.)

The policy board selected an elementary teacher as an assistant director, and we immediately began translating the abstract language of proposal writers intended to please proposal readers into concrete programs that would begin within weeks. 

The center offered a variety of short and long-term workshops both during and after the school day. Mostly they were based on subjects identified through “needs assessments” in the seven districts.

One of my first professional development surprises was that while some topics, such as classroom management and motivating students, were overwhelmingly identified as “high need,” just a handful of the 4,000 educators would enroll in workshops or courses on those topics.

The center also provided mini-grants to individual teachers or a group of teachers who wanted to create innovative programs or curricula and individual grants to teachers for conference attendance or purchasing professional materials for a school or school system, among other uses.

We developed a monthly newsletter that listed upcoming events and described our evolving ideas about professional development.

It was an exciting time because both researchers and practitioners were seeking ways to understand, describe, and disseminate effective teaching practices.

And they were also thinking more deeply about professional development that would spread those teaching practices. 

I attended my first annual conference of the National Staff Development Council (now Learning Forward) in 1979. While there were just 125 educators in attendance, it was the organization’s largest conference to date, and my participation would prove to have a profound influence on my career.

At that conference I learned about the research of Bruce Joyce on effective training, which placed classroom follow-up and coaching front and center, features that were missing from all of our teacher center programs.

And perhaps most importantly, for the first time I engaged in deep conversations with others who shared the challenges and rewards of our often lonely work.

What did I learn in my 3 years at the teacher center before it closed in 1981?

• That teacher-planned professional development isn’t necessarily superior to that planned by administrators, and that the best decisions were made collaboratively.

• That “needs assessments” based on teachers’ perceptions were insufficient in planning programs that would make a difference in teaching and learning. 

• That our emphasis on finding the best presenters for workshops rather than designing programs intended to produce lasting changes in teaching and leadership that would benefit all students was wrongheaded, but it was all that we knew to do at the time.

• That a “presenter’s” charisma or ability to inspire were not a substitute for the use of effective teaching methods with educators—that is, that the presenter/teacher would be an outstanding model of the recommended practices. 

• That focusing primarily on individual development, not team development and creating school and district cultures of continuous improvement, was insufficient.

• That while federal and state policy-making and the daily work of teachers often resided in separate worlds, I learned how political decisions have important effects on schools and classrooms.

When Ronald Reagan defeated Jimmy Carter in 1980 one of his first actions was to eliminate the Teacher Center Program.

And so in 1981 I was unemployed, and while I could return to the classroom in a yet to be determined placement, I knew that I wanted to find a way to continue to use the important things I had learned at both ALPHA and NSDC I. 

But first I would have to invent a way to do so when no ready-made possibilities presented themselves.

Have you ever felt that your career was at an impasse? If so, how did you manage that period of your life?

[This post is one in a series from a memoir titled, “It Might Have Been Otherwise.”]

Ch. 11: The unexpected

un·ex·pect·ed adjective
/ˌənəkˈspektəd/
not regarded as likely to happen

In the fall of 1972 I was a teacher on special assignment at ALPHA, a small alternative high school which a team of four, including myself, had spent the summer planning.

Our start-up challenges were both expected and unexpected.

The anticipated challenges were with our students, many of them with long histories of academic failure and disengagement from school, as we oriented them to new approaches to learning and to school.

At the same time we were designing and implementing all the school’s processes and procedures.

The list of unexpected challenges was much longer.

The district administrators who oversaw our program thought that it would be a good idea for us to explain our school at faculty meetings in the two high schools from which we drew our 40 students, both experiences I remember as being quite contentious.

Some teachers felt strongly that students who broke attendance rules and had various behavioral problems should not be “rewarded” by a school that offered them more choices.

Most surprising was the resentment of some school counselors who thought that “problem students” were their domain, although many of them were in the group that thought such students should be punished rather than rewarded by undeserved opportunities.

That tension with teachers and counselors dissipated during ALPHA’s first year, but it never totally disappeared.

Another unexpected, but stretching challenge, was engaging with the broader educational community in unfamiliar ways.

Almost immediately, even in the midst of these start-up challenges, we had visitors from around Southeast Michigan and occasionally from farther away. Rather than simply observing we asked them to participate in the daily “workshop” and other meetings with students.

In addition, for the first time in my 4-year teaching career I was regularly invited to participate in district, regional, and state committees and administrative meetings.

It was also the first time I experienced what I would later describe as the “serial monologues” of such meetings with the discussion quickly shifting from topic to topic.

At one of those meetings I noticed Dolores Pascal, a woman who I would come to greatly admire, saying something I thought was similar to what I had just said (after summoning the courage to speak among my “elders”), but receiving a more favorable response. I observed her closely at several meetings, and over time tried to emulate both her positive tone and the clarity with which she spoke. It was a form of just-in-time on-the-job professional learning that served me well throughout my career.

Over the next several years I gradually became viewed as an “expert” on alternative education, a status with which I was distinctly uncomfortable because I knew how much we still had to learn to help our ALPHA students be more successful.

Several times a year I was invited to make presentations at regional and state conferences for administrators where I soon learned that older “learners” could present challenges not unlike those I experienced with my high school students.

I remember on one occasion a “participant” in a group of administrators who would not engage in a small group discussion as I requested because, as he put it, “If I had wanted to work I would have stayed in my office.” I didn’t know what to say other than to repeat my invitation to participate, which he again refused, sitting off by himself in a corner of the room.

During that time, and since, I marveled at how far I had come from the Western Michigan village in which I had grown up. Even more, I marveled that I had found success as a teacher after being at best a mediocre high school student.

I have heard it said that teachers who struggled with school themselves often better understand their students’ learning challenges.

I doubt that I became the teacher I aspired to be, but I do know that I had a kind of empathy for my students born of my own school experiences that helped me be a better teacher.

I will have more to say on that subject in my next post.

What is your experience with “one thing leading to another” in your work or life?

[This post is one in a series from a memoir titled, “It Might Have Been Otherwise.”]

Ch. 7: The power of beliefs

be·lief noun
/bəˈlēf/
something one accepts as true or real; a firmly held opinion or conviction

In 1972, during my fourth year of teaching, the curriculum department of my school district offered a two-day workshop on “mastery teaching.”

As I recall I was the only teacher from my high school to attend, but I remember little else about the workshop other than that by its conclusion I was convinced that student learning would improve if I changed a few things in my classroom.

Basically, I came away from the workshop convinced that if I gave students more opportunities to learn in different ways and multiple opportunities to demonstrate that learning, almost all of my students would learn virtually everything I wanted them to know.

I remember telling my students about what I had learned and of my newfound belief that they could become more successful in my class than any of us had previously thought possible.

I also remember one of my more astute students asking if their improved learning would be reflected in better grades, say As or Bs. Because I couldn’t recall grading being discussed in the workshop, I made up an answer on the spot – yes, they would receive As and Bs if they learned the appropriate amount of content. Put another way, I would be grading based on demonstrated competence rather than on “the curve” or any variation of it.

But by the end of that day I realized I had a problem, and that problem was my principal’s belief that the job of a teacher was to shift the normal curve of distribution (“the curve”) in a positive direction, which meant that there would be more As and Bs than Ds and Fs, but that there should continue to be some students who received low grades.

These low grades, my principal believed, would reflect a teacher’s high standards.

So I made an appointment with my principal to discuss the problem. He expressed skepticism that all students could learn enough to pass no matter what methods teachers used, but he allowed me to experiment for the few remaining months of the school year if I agreed to bring him samples of my students’ quizzes, tests, and other work so that he could be assured I had not lowered my standards.

And that’s the way it was for several months until the conclusion of the school year. I brought him my students’ work, and he grudgingly let me continue, at least until our next meeting.

That was the first time, but not the last, I would experience the power of leaders’ and teachers’ beliefs to positively or negatively affect teaching and learning in their schools or classrooms.

But in June an unexpected and once-in-a-career opportunity arose when that same principal invited me to join three other teachers in creating an alternative high school, which I’ll say more about next time.

What was or is your experience with the power of beliefs to positively or negatively affect student learning?

[This post is one in a series from a memoir titled, “It Might Have Been Otherwise.”]

Addressing the “final 2%”

Learning produces physical change in the brain. —James Zull

I once read a critique of strategic planning that said it too often failed in its “final 2%,” that is, the part of the plan during which new ideas and practices are implemented by the people who do the frontline work of the organization.

That critique seemed equally valid for large-scale efforts to improve professional learning in schools.

Here’s a metaphor that may be helpful:

Imagine the United States investing trillions of dollars on a new and massive interstate highway system. 

Imagine all the time and energy and resources required to create legislation to authorize and fund the project and to pay engineers to design it and surveyors to lay out its course. Land would have to be purchased, contractors selected, and the roadway constructed.

Now imagine after years of planning and construction, the highway is complete, east to west and north to south in every state in the land.

But only one thing is missing—the off-ramps into the tens of thousands of towns it bypasses. It is essentially a highway to nowhere.

Those off-ramps are the final 2% of the highway project, the part that if not successfully executed negates the value of all that preceded it.

Like the first 98% of the illustrative highway system, schools and schools systems do a great many things in the name of professional development that may be important and even essential but in and of themselves do not affect learning and relationships in schools. 

Among these activities are establishing policies, forming planning committees, creating new positions, hiring individuals to fill those positions, and adapting union contracts to promote professional learning.

Unfortunately, leaders are often so exhausted by these activities that little energy remains for the most demanding work of all—implementing the new ideas and practices that are the final 2%.

In addition, leaders may underestimate the demands of designing and conducting the cluster of sufficiently robust learning activities that, as Zull points out, literally change the brains of teachers and administrators for the purpose of continuously improving teaching and learning.

These activities engage teachers and school leaders in solving challenging problems within the unique context of their schools and deepening their understanding of new practices.

The final 2% also includes the day-to-day demanding work of principals and teacher leaders in shaping school culture, meeting by meeting and conversation by conversation. These activities address the interpersonal challenges of leadership—the unpredictable and often emotionally-laden experiences that have a significant effect on human performance and relationships.

Four particularly powerful learning processes—speaking and listening with the intention to learn, reading, writing, and having critical conversations—are fundamental in both promoting professional learning and in creating cultures of continuous improvement.

While speaking isn’t often thought of as a source of learning for the speaker, teachers and school leaders can learn from their own speaking when they pay close attention to both their own words (a kind of metacognition in which the speaker monitors his or her own thinking for confusion, unexamined assumptions, and logical inconsistencies) and the effects those words have on others. 

Committed, attentive listening by educators deepens their understanding of the subject at hand and the perspectives of others. It is also an essential first step in influencing the views of others, an orientation that Stephen Covey described as “seek first to understand.”

Careful reading promotes educators’ learning as they make comparisons with what they already understand and believe, raise new questions for exploration, and thoughtfully consider implementation challenges. Such reading enables leaders to be engaged with the minds of individuals they may never meet. 

Because writing is thought made visible, it promotes learning by enabling teachers and school leaders to refine and examine the logical consistency of their ideas and to determine the most concise and precise means for their expression. Journal writing and blogging are two common and especially powerful means for such reflection. And blogging also enables leaders to open their minds to the perspectives of readers who offer their views in response.

Critical conversations are the means by which respect and civility are practiced, trust is established, diverse perspectives are shared, and cultures shifted. Without them, it is impossible to initiate and sustain continuous improvement efforts.

The goal of these learning activities is to produce complex, intelligent behavior in all teachers and leaders, to enhance professional judgment, and to create school cultures that enable quality teaching for the benefit of all students.

In your experience, what activities produce lasting and meaningful change in the brains of educators and in their professional relationships?

What to do when you feel like an impostor

I have sometimes felt like an impostor, particularly when taking on new, more demanding responsibilities.

Over time I learned that many leaders also have felt like frauds whose incompetence might be revealed at any moment, and that there was a name for such a feeling—“the impostor syndrome.”

Here’s what I had to say on that subject in January 2013.

When leaders feel like impostors

A surprising number of us feel like impostors. Even people who appear confident and in charge may be experiencing what some have termed “the imposter syndrome.” 

Those who suffer from it may appear to know what they are doing. They may appear confident, or even superbly confident. But deep inside they fear the moment when their incompetence will be revealed.

Here’s an example in which Ben Affleck describes what it felt like to direct his first movie, “Gone Baby Gone”: “I was very, very scared. I just didn’t know if I could do it. . . . And every day I was scared, and I probably stayed that scared throughout … and not sure of myself at all.”

So, if you sometimes feel like you have risen above your level of competence, here are some things you might do:

1. Admit it to yourself and to trusted confidants. Because this is a very common feeling, they are likely to disclose the same feelings to you, and together you will experience the relief of knowing that you’re not alone.

2. Read what experts have to say about the syndrome and what can be done to address it.

3. In those small number of areas in which there may be reality-based knowledge or skill deficits, engage in the process of professional learning to remedy the deficits.

If you have felt this way, what strategies have you used to counteract the impostor syndrome when you felt it arising within you?

Meaningful change begins with ourselves

A theme that has run through many of my posts for the past 8 years is the importance of administrators and teacher leaders changing themselves before trying to change others.

This post from February 2013 makes a succinct case for that point of view. Next week’s post will talk more specifically about what those changes might be.

Change yourself first 

One key to successful leadership is continuous personal change. Personal change is a reflection of our inner growth and empowerment. Empowered leaders are the only ones who can induce real change. —Robert Quinn

Important, lasting improvements in teaching, learning, and relationships in schools occur when leaders adopt new beliefs, deepen their understanding of important issues, and consistently speak and act in new ways. It is a common human tendency to see others’ shortcomings before noticing our own complicity in maintaining the status quo. It’s also human for leaders to believe that the primary barriers to change reside outside themselves. Leaders who understand these dynamics begin the change process by making significant and deep changes in themselves. 

Today I will reflect on an important school goal to determine a belief I want to modify, an understanding I want to deepen, a skill I would like to acquire, or a habit I want to develop.

[This “meditation” is the first of 180 (one for every day of the traditional school year) provided in Leadership 180: Daily Meditations on School Leadership.]

 

An example of educational malpractice 

While some important things are very complex and difficult to explain, others are clear and straightforward.

Here’s an example of such simplicity from November 2013.

Why professional development without substantial follow-up is malpractice

If a primary goal of professional development is to affect what teachers and administrators believe, understand, and do on a daily basis, then . . . .

Offering “presentations” or “training” without intensive and sustained small-group dialogue, in-classroom coaching, and just-in-time problem solving is educational malpractice.

Put another way, “head learning” abstracted from practice without abundant opportunities for supportive on-the-job feedback and trouble shooting wastes the organization’s resources and squanders teachers’ good will.

Such malpractice is not only an ethical lapse, but is immoral when students’ learning and well being are negatively affected.

Of course, the presence or absence of many other things in classrooms and schools is also malpractice.

What would you put on your “educational malpractice” list? 

What leaders can do to ensure strong teamwork

One of a leaders’ most important responsibilities is to ensure strong teamwork within the school community.

This post from February 2013 lists three “essentials” for the development and maintenance of effective teams.

Effective teamwork requires that leaders do 3 things

Strong teams are the the foundation of school cultures infused with interpersonal accountability, experimentation, and the continuous improvement of teaching and learning.

Effective teamwork requires that leaders do three things:

1. Believe in the importance of teamwork. Teamwork is based on the assumption that the school community can accomplish more when its members work together than alone. If leaders don’t truly believe that teams are the building blocks of continuous improvement, “teamwork” will be perfunctory, at best.

2. Have a deep understanding of the attributes of effective teamwork. Strong teamwork begins with principals and teacher leaders understanding the qualities that distinguish effective from ineffective teams and from other task-related groups in schools. 

3. Have a plan to continuously improve the functioning of teams. Planning begins with a clear sense of the current functioning of each team and of its next level of development.

The Rush-Henrietta School District near Rochester, New York developed a helpful rubric that explains the attributes of effective teams and what they look like in practice. A more complete explanation of the three requirements discussed above and the Rush-Henrietta rubric can be found here. 

Question: What has your experience taught you about effective teamwork and how to develop and support it?

Why it’s important for leaders to maintain a “learner’s mind”

Over the past decade as a hospice volunteer I have supported dozens of patients in telling their life stories and preserving them for future generations.

More often than not, patients were energized by the process of reviewing their lives. In addition, as they reflected on their experiences they often discovered an overarching sense of purpose that was previously invisible to them. 

And almost always they would tell stories that were meaningful to me, such as this one I offered in an April 2015 post.

When leaders’ egos grow too tall

“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?


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