Archive for the 'Motivation/creating energy' Category

Ch. 10: Euphoria fades as reality sets in

re·al·i·ty noun
/rēˈalədē/
the world or the state of things as they actually exist, as opposed to an idealistic or notional idea of them

In August 1972 the Board of Education in Livonia, Michigan approved a small, experimental alternative high school that a team of 3 teachers and a counselor, myself included, had spent the summer designing. 

Our excitement about creating a school of which we were proud, at least on paper, was immediately tempered by the start-up problems we were now facing in September.

Two of us, an English teacher and me, a social studies teacher, would staff the school in its first year.

An opening date of October 1 had been selected which gave us a month to find a location for the school, to equip it with furniture and other necessities, and to select books that “disaffected” students would find so compelling they would not be able to put them down, the start-up task I most enjoyed.

Most important of all, we selected our first 40 students, 20 of whom in the first month of school were already in trouble with the school system’s new, more stringent attendance policy (as I recall, a school could drop students from classes after 7 unexcused absences), and 20 who had not run afoul of the policy but were attracted to the school’s design and opportunities. 

The approach we chose to use regarding various behavioral issues that would arise with students throughout the school year was based on William Glasser’s book, Reality Therapy.

While we didn’t see our school as “therapeutic,” we did agree with Glasser’s view that many problems in life were caused by “irresponsibility,” and that the solution required focusing on specific plans for future responsible behavior for which students would be held accountable rather than extended discussions during which students sought to excuse their misbehavior.

As a result, there was no “blaming and shaming” regarding rule or agreement violations, but instead a repetition of the question, “What is your goal and your plan?” Which meant that because many of our students had well-established habits of irresponsibility, it was a process that we applied until students (and sometimes their parents) understood that it was easier to be responsible than to repeatedly meet with their teachers to make new plans.

“Reality” was always the agreements students made with staff members and the unwavering expectation that they would keep their promises, that is, to behave responsibly.

This approach was applied to a wide range of problems and behaviors, beginning with attendance.

Prior to enrollment we met individually with students and their parents to explain the program’s features and our attendance policy—there would be no unexcused absences without consequence, a surprising policy to many students and parents given student problems with absenteeism in their home high schools.

We asked students and parents to sign an agreement stipulating that they understood the policy and would abide by its terms.

In the event of an unexcused absence students were required to meet with teachers, and perhaps their parents as well, to determine ways to address the problem and to create a new plan.

Our view was that because students were given a great deal of flexibility about when and how they learned, they could not unilaterally forfeit on the promises they made regarding their academic goals and daily participation in a tightly-focused two-hour skill development “workshop” designed to create a cohesive and mutually-supportive community of learners. 

For us, the attendance policy was a means to teach students about responsibility and integrity—that is, to consistently do what they said they would do.

But those were only our initial challenges, with new ones arising from unexpected sources, problems for which we as staff members proved to be ill prepared.

What methods did you or do you find most effective in addressing chronic behavior problems?

(In 1978, Mike Abbott joined the ALPHA staff where he taught until his retirement in 1994. Our decades-long friendship began then and has grown over the decades as we continue to meet on Saturday mornings for long walks and breakfast.)

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

Ch. 8: Inventing a school

in·vent verb
/inˈvent/
create or design (something that has not existed before); be the originator of

The 1960s and 1970s were a time of experimentation, both socially and educationally. 

The book Summerhill about an experimental British school was popular, “open classrooms” were becoming more common, and high schools like my own were experimenting with teaming and various forms of scheduling. 

Nonetheless, the boundaries of what could be done were always being pushed.

By my 4th year of teaching I was being introduced as the “local irritant” by the principal to the frequent visitors who came to see our school’s innovations,

I took that as a compliment, both in that he wanted visitors to meet me, and because he took my frequent “suggestions” with a grain of humor.

So when my principal was asked by system administrators to select two teachers to join two teachers from another high school to plan a vaguely-formulated “alternative school” for students who were likely to run afoul of a new, tighter, and more punitive attendance policy, my name came to mind.

In the summer of 1972 our team of four—a social studies teacher (me) and a guidance counselor from my school, and an English and math teacher from the other school—began to design a school with just two “givens”—that it would serve at least 20 students from each of the two sending high schools and that it would require school board approval before opening in the fall.

We were minimally supervised by two district administrators who put no restrictions on what we would create, and we were paid for our time, with no limits placed on the number of hours we worked.

In one sense, we were in way over our heads. We had no experience in designing anything larger than a course, and we were relatively inexperienced, with three of us in our 20s and another in his mid-30s. 

But our lack of experience also meant that we weren’t weighed down with tradition about how things should be done.

And we were free to invent with few restraints.

Imagine that you were given such an opportunity, to create a school without any restrictions other than the political reality of school board approval.

How would you begin, and what would you write on the blank slate you were handed?

For reasons I don’t recall now, but perhaps because of my experience the previous school year with the power of my principal’s beliefs, our team of four began by listing our most important beliefs about teaching and learning and their implications for our school. 

That discussion took several days, but it was time well spent because once we had reached a deep and shared understanding of our common beliefs and their implications for our work, all the other decisions were much easier to make.

Now, decades later, I am disappointed that I cannot find this list, but it likely included statements such as these:

Because we believe that students learn best when they feel known and respected, we will create a close-knit community of learners who will support one another in meeting high school graduation requirements and in achieving other important goals.

Because we believe that classrooms are not the only place in which important learning occurs, we will incorporate the larger community into the curriculum through independent study and community service.

Because we believe that students have unique learning interests and strengths, we will offer a variety of options to meet high school graduation requirements.

And, in retrospect, the most important belief of all:

Because we believe students learn significant lessons from one another, we will ensure through our selection process a diverse student body, particularly in their attitudes about learning and school.

That belief was included because we knew that there was little chance of success if the school’s student body was composed entirely of students removed from the traditional school due to poor attendance, which was the primary impetus for our work.

As a result, we stipulated that no more than half of our students could enroll due to the new, more restrictive attendance policy. The others would volunteer to enroll, we hoped, because they would be attracted to the school’s learning goals and methods.

While inexperienced, we knew that should the school board approve our plan the biggest challenges lay ahead—filling in the program details that would make the school appealing to a broad cross-section of students and enable them to meet graduation requirements.

What would you write on the blank slate of a school you were charged with inventing?

[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?

Expanding the boundaries of our best selves

Occasionally I find myself in uncomfortable situations over which I seemingly have little control. 

“Do the best that you can with what you have where you are right now” is an idea I draw on to improve both how I am feeling in that moment and the situation itself.

“Do the best that you can…” is an empowering thought that enables our resourcefulness by reminding us of the options available to us to change things for the better, as this April 2017 post reminds us.

Do the best that you can…

Do the best that you can with what you have where you are right now. — a poster in a high school science teacher’s classroom

That’s wonderful advice for all of us that applies in many situations. 

And it’s an approach to life used by many resilient people.

But because resilient people are resourceful, consider these additions to it:

Do the best that you can by expanding what you know and can do through lifelong learning

With what you have, and with what you can acquire through learning and by using your resourcefulness to provide additional tools to more effectively accomplish your goals

Where you are right now, and, when appropriate, by changing your environment or your mental perspective about the place where you are.

What do you do to continuously expand the boundaries of your best self?

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? 


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