Archive for the 'Teamwork' Category

8 “trim tabs” to significantly improve performance

Dennis Sparks

Some things leaders do matter a lot more than others. However, exactly what those activities are may vary from setting to setting.

Determining the best mix of high-impact activities comes from:

  • reflecting on experiences,
  • conversations with colleagues,
  • and professional reading, among other sources.

Peter Senge’s book, The Fifth Discipline, introduced me to the metaphor of the “trim tab.” Senge wrote:

“[S]mall, well-focused actions can sometimes produce significant, enduring improvements, if they’re in the right place. System thinkers refer to this principle as ‘leverage.’ Tackling a difficult problem is often a matter of seeing where the high leverage lies, a place which – with a minimum of effort – would lead to lasting, significant improvement.”

Here are my suggestions for administrators and teacher leaders regarding areas of particularly high impact. (Please note that none require additional financial resources.)

1. Having integrity, in particular consistently keeping promises and telling one’s truth.

2. Having crucial, often difficult conversations (closely linked to #1). Whenever possible, those conversations will be based on evidence.

3. Participating in high-functioning teams (or PLCs or “communities of practice”) rather than working in isolation. Teamwork is not only important for all teachers but for administrators and teacher leaders as well.

4. Consistently applying “next action thinking.” Always know the specific next action that you will take at the conclusion of a meeting or learning experience.

5. Developing and consistently applying high levels of emotional intelligence, particularly empathy (seeking first to understand, which has committed listening at its core).

6. Having a growth mindset that underscores the importance of effort and persistence as well as “intelligence.”

7. Saying “I don’t know” when you don’t.

8. Practicing new skills in public settings so that others appreciate and understand the challenges and risks that typically accompany important professional learning. There are few things more influential than leaders doing what they ask others to do.

What high-leverage activities would you add to this list?

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?

Shaping a culture of continuous improvement

Dennis Sparks

Building an improved professional culture is possible by developing teachers’ capacities to work with teacher teams on shared beliefs, academic focus, and productive relationships. — Jon Saphier, Matt King, & John D’Auria

Jon Saphier and colleagues have condensed a great deal of meaning into one sentence.

  • Administrators and teacher leaders have a fundamental responsibility to create a professional culture that continuously improves teaching and learning for the benefit of all students and ensures that all members of the school community — students, parents, teachers, and administrators — are surrounded by supportive relationships.  Culture building is a challenging and never-ending task that cannot be delegated nor ignored.
  • Leadership and teaching practices are shaped and sometimes determined by shared beliefs about students’ capacity for learning and teachers’ ability to successfully teach them.
  • The primary means of continuous improvement is strong teamwork founded on trusting, productive relationships. Those relationships require constant tending to avoid the decline that is inevitable if they are ignored.

What, If anything, did Saphier and his colleagues overlook?

The essential ingredients of a wonderful job…

Dennis Sparks

Some educators feel like they have the best jobs in the world. Others find that their work drains rather than sustains them.

In my experience, “best jobs” have several essential ingredients:

• A compelling, stretching purpose that demands the best of us and our colleagues each day,

• Talents that are well used and continuously developed,

• Clear expectations for performance,

• Open and honest communication with colleagues and supervisors within trusting relationships, and

• Colleagues who support and challenge us as they encourage us to bring our best selves to work each day.

What have I missed?

The powerful and often invisible force of school culture

Dennis Sparks

School culture is a powerful but often invisible force that promotes or thwarts the continuous improvement of teaching and learning.

Because culture is often experienced as “just how things are,” its negative effects are often only indirectly felt:

  • Parking lot conversations are more meaningful than those that occur in meeting rooms.
  • School community members do not expect that others will be honest with them and keep their promises.
  • School goals are often vague and unclear and give little direction to classroom or school practices.
  • Meetings are unproductive.
  • Teachers and administrators are resigned to the status quo, believing that their individual and collective efforts can do little to improve teaching and learning.
  • Professional development is perfunctory with no expectations that it will meaningfully affect teaching and learning.
  • Teamwork in which participants depend on one another to achieve important, stretching goals is weak or nonexistent.

To what extent does the culture of your school or school system promote or interfere with the continuous improvement of teaching and learning?

“Total radical transparency”

Dennis Sparks

Strong teamwork is the engine that enables continuous improvements in teaching and learning.

High-functioning teams have compelling, stretching goals that require sustained, meaningful collaboration for their achievement. They also have sufficient time to meet and skillful leadership that promotes both the attainment of goals and trusting relationships. (I elaborate here on the qualities of effective teams.)

High-functioning teams also demonstrate the “total radical transparency” that director James Cameron describes in a September 2014 Fast Company interview in which he discusses the development of a submersible vehicle for his documentary, “James Cameron’s Deepest Challenge 3-D”:

The process I used was called “total radical transparency.” Everyone working on the vehicle had to sit around the table every morning at 8:15 – not 8:14 or 8:16 – and we’d air out our problems. There would be no offline conversations about things that were going wrong. You bring your problems to the group, and we as a group would solve them. People thought I was crazy, but after about two weeks, we started really working as a team. They started to understand that you don’t hide your problems – you bring your problems to the group.

Instead of hiding problems, members of teaching and leadership teams bring them to the group, which is the ultimate test of high-functioning teams and a prerequisite for the achievement of the compelling goals that guide and motivate their work.

What is your experience working with or on teams that manifest “total radical transparency”?

Happy Holidays and best wishes for a wonderful 2015!


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