Archive for the 'Leadership' Category

Stretch yourself

Dennis

Forty-seven years ago this month I began my teaching career. Over those years the challenges and opportunities of teaching, learning, leadership, and public education gradually became a part of my daily consciousness, whether I was “on the job” or not.

I started teaching in 1968 in a high school with team teaching and modular scheduling that allowed for the flexible grouping of students, which by their very nature immediately engaged me in collaboration and job-embedded professional learning, although both terms would have been foreign to me at that time.

In 1972 I was invited to participate in designing and implementing a public alternative high school for “disaffected youth.” I had not heard the term “teacher leader,” nor was I aware how rare it was for a teacher to be meaningfully engaged in creating such a school.

In 1978 I became director of a teacher center, again as a teacher leader. A year later I became a member of the National Staff Development Council (now Learning Forward).

I did not then know how my career was being subtly and irrevocably shaped by this succession of important and rare opportunities.

And in 1984 I became executive director of NSDC, a part-time position with an organization that at that time had just a few hundred members. For the next 23 years I had  the privilege of meeting outstanding educators from around the world and abundant opportunities to think deeply about professional learning.

What all of these things had in common is that they stretched me in ways I could not have anticipated and often did not desire. And, because I often worked outside my comfort zone, the fear of failure was a constant companion.

While I had not yet heard of the “impostor syndrome,” I lived it daily.

And in each setting —an innovative high school, an alternative program, a teacher center, and NSDC — I benefited from the support of respected colleagues who offered encouragement and mentoring along the way.

So what would I say to a teacher near the beginning of his or her career?

Look for and be open to opportunities and mentors who will challenge and stretch you. If you do, I predict that you will have a rich and fulfilling professional journey. I wish you well wherever you may be along that road….

High-quality professional development matters

Dennis

The bad news is that professional development for most teachers has never been very good. The same is true for administrators, which may explain the low-quality of teacher professional development.

The good news is that professional development can get a lot better quite quickly.

All that’s required is that administrators and teacher leaders commit themselves to high-quality professional learning and engage the school community in an extended study (but not too long) of the professional development literature that includes generous amounts of honest conversation about current reality and meaningful next steps.

Here are a few important and still relevant posts from recent years on professional development:

“The biggest problem in professional development is…”

“The biggest problem in professional development is that administrators and teachers significantly underestimate the amount of effort and time required to create the new habits of mind and behavior that are necessary to provide high-quality teaching and learning for all students.”

“Finding the third way…”

“The third way involves finding the appropriate blend of team-based learning/collaboration within the school in which all teachers participate and individualized approaches, including the use of social/learning media, for improving the knowledge and skills of teachers to provide tailored solutions for their unique challenges.”

“Mindless professional learning…”

“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.”

“Why the distinction between professional learning and professional development is important”

“Professional development in schools refers to the processes used in promoting professional learning and the context and other resources that support it.

Professional learning refers to the outcomes – what is learned, how deeply it is learned, and how well it is applied in classrooms. It is about changes in what teachers and leaders think, say, and do on a consistent basis.”

“Why professional development without substantial follow up is malpractice”

“‘[H]ead 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.”

“6 fundamental ingredients of robust professional development”

“Powerful professional development has as its primary and overarching purpose the creation of professional learning that affects what teachers believe, understand, say, and do on a daily basis for the benefit of all students.”

“Why doesn’t professional development improve?”

“Some schools are exemplars of high-quality professional learning and teamwork, but they remain the exceptions rather than the rule. While barriers such as lack of time and other resources are often cited as problems, I think there are four deeper, more fundamental explanations for why professional development has not fulfilled its essential role in the continuous improvement of teaching and learning.”

Well-designed professional development solves problems

Dennis Sparks

“I hope I die during an inservice because the transition between life and death would be so subtle.” Unfortunately, that old joke can bring as appreciative a laugh among teachers today as when I first heard it several decades ago.

Professional development is viewed by many educators as demeaning and irrelevant, an obligation that has to be endured if it cannot be avoided. It is perceived as a problem in itself rather than a problem-solving tool, and rightly so given the negative experiences of many educators.

As a result, some critics propose eliminating professional development, at least the “one size fits all” variety that is often the source of so much frustration. To that end they propose differentiating professional development with each teacher independently pursuing his or her own unique learning goals.

But many important schoolwide, grade level, or department goals related to student academic success and their emotional and social well-being can only be achieved through well planned and implemented team-based professional development that occurs within schools.

One of a leader’s most significant and demanding responsibilities is to create consensus in the school community regarding meaningful, stretching goals and the means that will be used to achieve those ends. Put another way, leaders assist the school community in a never-ending cycle of identifying and solving increasingly complex problems, problems that can only be solved through professional learning and teamwork.

The real solution to the problem of low-quality professional development, then, is not to eliminate it but to make certain professional development is well designed and well implemented so that it enables individuals, teams, and the school community as a whole to achieve their most important goals and to solve problems that are unique to their settings.

How do you see it: Is professional development itself the problem or is it an essential part of the solution?

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?

Just do it…

Dennis Sparks

School communities, like all organizations and individuals, sometimes have difficulty generating and sustaining energy to maintain a collective course of action over many months and years.

For the most part, a school community’s energy and momentum is determined by the energy and momentum of its leaders.

Compelling goals that touch the head and heart are essential to sustaining energy, as is strong, interdependent teamwork that generates a stream of continuous actions to achieve those goals.

Well-targeted and well-executed actions, in turn, generate more energy. “Feedback is the breakfast of champions,” someone once observed. That’s particularly true when those actions are followed by an analysis of their effectiveness and appropriate adjustments are made.

Because initiating action is a major challenge for many individuals and groups, Skip Prichard in a blog post offers a number of tips for individuals who are challenged by getting started, among the most important of which is:

Stop, get up, and do it. Turn yourself into a doer. A doer is someone who has an idea and moves forward with it immediately. Have you ever said to anyone, “It is a great day to go to the beach,” and then sat around and watched TV? Next time stop, get up, and go do it. Do you want to begin exercising or present a new idea at work? Do it today. When we pause and wait, we lose the will to move forward and allow doubt to creep into our minds.”

Pritchard concludes: “The simple truth is that one average idea put into action is far more valuable than 20 genius ideas that are being saved for some other day or the right time. When you have an idea or make a decision, get into the habit of taking action.”

What methods do you use to initiate and sustain goal-directed action over time?

Overcoming professional isolation

Dennis Sparks

Instead of inviting teachers to watch one another teach, to debate best classroom practices, and to pool resources, the school culture walls them off and parcels out their time. It actually promotes professional distance. —Mary Ann Smith

Meaningful collaboration will not occur unless administrators and teacher leaders address common structural barriers such as lack of:

• time,

• meeting space conducive to extended conversation,

• data and other forms of evidence to use in making decisions and assessing progress toward goals, and

• skillful facilitation of team meetings.

Common cultural barriers to successful collaboration include:

• confusion about important goals and methods of achieving them,

• a lack of focus and motivation regarding those goals and methods,

• the absence of shared beliefs regarding students’ ability and the school’s capacity to achieve those goals, and

• low levels of interpersonal trust among educators.

What structures and attributes of school culture have proven essential in overcoming professional isolation in your setting?

The powerful but often invisible influence of school culture…

 

IMG_1365“Big Idea”: School culture trumps innovation. 

The impact of school culture on the continuous improvement of teaching and learning cannot be ignored by administrators and teacher leaders.

Its influence may be overlooked, however, because it is often invisible to the school community.

Nonetheless, school culture determines whether:

  • honest conversations about teaching and learning take place in meeting rooms or in parking lots,
  • teachers participate in high-functioning interdependent teams or dutifully and resentfully attend meaningless meetings, and
  • teachers focus on ways they can continuously improve teaching and learning or blame students and parents for lack of progress.

Here are several popular posts from the past year that address the elements of school culture that enable continuous improvement.

“Why bad things happen to good people when we withhold our truths”

“Managing inevitable dips in relationships”

“Set a compelling vision for your future: An interview with Stephanie Hirsh”

“Supporting ‘wary and weary teachers’: An interview with Kent Peterson”

More posts on “school culture” can be found here.

 


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