Archive for the 'School Culture' Category

Beliefs matter

Dennis

Beliefs matter because they have a profound and often invisible effect on what teachers and administrators say and do each day.

Beliefs are also habitual, which means they are often applied to new situations without a full understanding of their consequences.

My three previous posts addressed professional learning, school culture, and teamwork, each of which has implicit beliefs that channel them in productive or unproductive ways.

For example:

• If school leaders believe that good teachers are born, not made, high-quality professional learning will have a low priority.

• If school leaders believe that new ideas and research-based practices should be sufficiently compelling in themselves for their full adoption, they will ignore the influence of school culture on innovation.

• If school leaders believe that professional learning and instructional improvement are the sole responsibility of teachers, they will fail to create the necessary structures and incentives that enable strong teamwork.

Left unexamined and unaltered, some beliefs may have a profound negative effect on student learning.

Here are several such beliefs I proposed in a previous post:

• Some students cannot be expected to learn very much because of their families, economic status, or race.

• Teaching is delivering, “telling,” and performing. Leadership is directing and motivating.

• Because teaching is telling/performing, content is “delivered,” leadership is directing, and the primary challenge of leadership is motivating teachers, continuous improvement results from telling/delivering/directing/motivating.

• Most significant questions and problems of teaching and learning have one right answer, and an “expert” knows it.

• The best means of “delivering” professional development “content” is through speakers, workshops, and courses. PowerPoints are essential to such delivery.

• It takes years to make significant and demonstrable improvements in the quality of professional learning, teaching, and student achievement.

Another example is leaders’ beliefs regarding teachers’ capacity for growth, which I wrote about here:

“Just as it’s essential for principals and teacher leaders to believe that student learning can be improved by skillful teaching, it’s essential that principals and teacher leaders believe that through well-designed professional development and teamwork virtually all teachers can become effective, if not masterful.

“Believing in the capacity of students to learn at higher levels without a parallel belief in the capacity of teachers to successfully teach them — given appropriate support — can only lead to frustration and failure.”

Yet another example is leaders’ beliefs regarding the qualities that are important in new teachers, a subject I address here.

(Other posts on the subject of teaching can be found here.)

Administrators and teacher leaders are not powerless to affect colleagues’ beliefs. In a post on “frames” I wrote:

“Put simply, frames are the mental frameworks we use to think about things. Our thinking, and hence our ability to change, is limited by these deeply rooted, beneath-the-surface systems of beliefs and ideas. While difficult to dispel, frames can be changed. The process begins with awareness of the dominant frame and its influence on practice and the ability to conceptualize alternative frames that better serve student learning.”

In that post I suggested two frames that I believe interfere with change and offer alternative ways to conceptualize them.

I closed that post by inviting readers to identify an existing frame that may be unconsciously preserving the status quo in in their setting.

I encourage you to do the same.

School culture matters

Dennis

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.

You can read more about school culture here.

We are introverts…

Dennis Sparks

We are anti-social. We are “in a shell.” We are shy, withdrawn, and may even have social phobias. At least that’s what others often think of us.

Who are “we?”

We are introverts, and according to various estimates we compose one-third to one-half of the population. (When I ask educators in various groups how many of them consider themselves introverts, a third or more typically raise their hands, although sometimes a bit reluctantly as if they were admitting a character flaw.)

As an introvert, I was eager to read Susan Caine’s Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Won’t Quit Talking, which helped me understand why I prefer the types of conversations I described in my previous post.

“Introverts,” Caine writes, “… are drawn to the inner world of thought and feeling” and “extroverts to the external life of people and activities. Introverts focus on the meaning they make of the events swirling around them; extroverts plunge into the events themselves.”

A primary distinction between the types is that introverts recharge themselves in solitude while extroverts restore their energy in social activities.

“Extroverts are the people who will add life to your dinner party and laugh generously at your jokes,” Caine observes. “They tend to be assertive, dominant, and in great need of company. Extroverts think out loud and on their feet; they prefer talking to listening, rarely find themselves at a loss for words, and occasionally blurt out things they never meant to say….

“Introverts, in contrast, may have strong social skills and enjoy parties and business meetings, but after a while wish they were home in their pajamas. They prefer to devote their social energies to close friends, colleagues, and family. They listen more than they talk, think before they speak, and often feel as if they express themselves better in writing than in conversation…. Many have a horror of small talk, but enjoy deep discussions.”

Caine describes how the notion of the “extrovert ideal” evolved over time, a perspective that promotes “winning personalities” who are outgoing, dominant, forceful, and charismatic. This ideal has influenced  parents’ and teachers’ views regarding desirable personality traits, how job applicants present themselves in interviews, and common perceptions about the desirable attributes of successful leaders.

Because many educators are introverts, and because introversion is often maligned, it is important that both introverted and extroverted administrators and teacher leaders appreciate the strengths that introverts bring to their work and to the school community and the problems that can occur when it is suppressed in classrooms and schools.

For example, because the notion of the “extrovert ideal” is so strong, many introverts try to fake extroversion, which almost always causes problems.

“[M]any people pretend to be extroverts,” Caine writes. “Closet introverts pass undetected on playgrounds, in high school locker rooms, and in the corridors of corporate America. Some fool even themselves, until some life event—a layoff, an empty nest, an inheritance that frees them to spend time as they like—jolts them into taking stock of their true natures.”

Caine contends that there can be unintended consequences of this charade, though: “Some people act like extroverts, but the effort costs them in energy, authenticity, and even physical health.”

While many school leaders are introverts by nature, they have learned how to excel at the one-to-one and group social interactions required in their work.

In addition, effective leaders who are introverts have learned how to cultivate within the school community their best qualities—slowing down and deepening conversations, listening carefully, thinking before they speak, creating a rich interior life through solitude, and being quietly influential.

These leaders do so through personal example, the careful selection of protocols and learning designs for use in meetings and professional development that tap the strengths of all participants, and by recognizing and honoring individual differences.

Successful leaders—whether they are introverts or extroverts by nature—help shape school communities in which everyone is encouraged to bring their best selves to school each day and to continuously develop qualities that enrich their lives.

Do you view yourself as an introvert, and, if so, how have you used the strengths of this disposition to make you a more effective administrator or teacher leader?

I prefer conversations that…

Dennis Sparks

Long ago I realized that I quickly lost interest during meetings that are essentially serial monologues — speaker after speaker pontificating at great length with few if any opportunities for meaningful, engaging conversations.

As a result, I resolved that whenever possible I would help create professional conversations in meetings and elsewhere that would be meaningful and intellectually stimulating for me and others.

As a starting point to creating such conversations I reflected on my own preferences. I prefer conversations:

• that deeply examine a small number of subjects to those that skate across the surface of many topics,

• in which participants spend at least as much time listening as they do talking,

• in which there is openness to the perspectives of others rather than defensiveness about one’s point of view,

• in which participants learn something important about themselves and each other,

• that strengthen relationships through candor and celebration rather than undermine them through obfuscation and negativity, and

• that use professional literature, research, and other forms of intellectual stimulation as a starting point rather than relying solely on personal opinion and experience, although they may help inform the discussion.

What have I missed?

Catching people being right…

Dennis Sparks

The world would be a better place, I think, if we spent more time “catching people being right” than criticizing them when we believe they are wrong.

I thought about that recently when I attended a retirement ceremony for a colleague who was retiring from a very demanding job in an Ann Arbor-area service agency. I used the occasion to describe a few specific things I had observed her doing over the years that I thought had made a big difference for me and others. She seemed genuinely surprised and touched, and I immediately regretted that I had not mentioned those things when they initially happened.

Competent people are often unaware of their competence. They may think that everyone does things the way they do. That’s true for teachers, administrators, and parents.

That lack of awareness makes sense given how seldom educators are given timely, specific feedback on what they are doing and how it affects others.

Sometimes we are reluctant to provide such feedback because we assume that others already know about and appreciate their competence or we question whether it is appropriate for us to offer it.

Taking even a minute or two to concretely describe someone’s behavior and its positive effects on others can strengthen relationships, build trust, and contribute to an upward spiral of positive emotion within the school community.

That’s true for students, colleagues, and (even) our bosses. I’ve personally experienced the power of such feedback as both a recipient and a provider.

I encourage you this day and every day to be attentive to such opportunities. It only takes a moment, and it will be time exceptionally well spent!

At school, everyone’s job is to learn

Dennis Sparks

“At school, everyone’s job is to learn” has been a Learning Forward motto for many years.

It reminds us that continuous improvement in student learning requires that teachers, principals, and system leaders learn. Such learning is both team based and individualized.

That’s what it means to be a “learning organization.”

At school it’s everyone’s job to learn everyday by:

• reflecting on the effectiveness of his or her work, using various sources of evidence, and

• by engaging with colleagues to improve it.

In learning-focused schools, teachers and administrators:

• learn from students,

• learn from colleagues, and

• learn from supervisors.

What essential sources of professional learning have I missed?

The creation of a collaborative culture requires skillful leadership

Dennis Sparks

Teacher isolation is so deeply ingrained in the traditional fabric of schools that leaders cannot simply invite teachers to create a collaborative culture. They must identify and implement specific, strategic interventions that help teachers work together rather than alone. —Richard DuFour

If the goal is quality teaching in all classrooms for the benefit of all students, then it is essential that principals and teacher leaders create a high-performance culture which has professional learning and meaningful teamwork at its core.

The creation and maintenance of such a culture against the forces of entropy require intentional, skillful leadership. It does not happen by accident.

Successful principals and teacher leaders are clear about the attributes of such cultures and take daily actions to promote them.

They understand, for instance, the importance of:

  • and promise keeping (we understand that continuous progress requires making and keeping our promises to one another).

In your experience, what specific, strategic interventions help teachers work together rather than alone?


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