Archive for the 'School Culture' Category

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 We are shy, withdrawn, and may even have social phobias.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?

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?


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