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Do the best that you can…

Dennis Sparks

“Do the best you can with what you have where you are right now,” a large poster in a high school science teacher’s classroom said.

Whenever a teacher-dependent student required it, the teacher would point to the sign as a reminder to consult the student’s notes, text materials, and/or other students as initial steps in finding an answer to his or her question.

I have often cited this poster as a succinct but powerful philosophy of life, a reminder that we already possess the knowledge and resources to live a richer life.

But as I have thought more about this “philosophy” over the intervening decades, I have realized that there are times when it is important to change what we have (for instance, our belief system or professional understanding), the relationships with which we surround ourselves, and/or where we are (for instance, the job we have) to improve the quality of our lives.

Put another way, we need not be resigned to “what is” when seeking solutions to important problems or in achieving significant goals.

We can learn new ways of thinking and acting, we can form supportive relationships, and we can change the path upon which we are walking.

So, in this moment do the best that you can with what you have where you are right now.

But if this is not creating in the long term the work or life you want, you need not be resigned to the status quo. All of us have options….

The power of stories to influence

Dennis Sparks

Here are three things I think are true.

1. Human beings like stories and are often profoundly affected by them.

2. When school leaders attempt to influence others they almost always rely on “facts” to change minds.

3. A well-told story or two can be more influential than a tall pile of research reports or an endless procession of PowerPoint slides. (That does not mean, of course, that professional literature cannot be influential when judiciously used.)

Here are some examples of stories that can be influential:

• a story about a student who learned something because of a new teaching method he or she was previously unable to grasp,

• a teacher who had reservations about a new practice, experimented with it in her classroom, and is now enthusiastic about its benefits for students,

• a personal story about learning something important and challenging, a story in which you move from initial resistance to experimentation to mastery, and/or

• a time during which you struggled and failed to learn something and the lessons you drew from the experience.

While personal stories are usually more effective, generic stories can sometimes be useful in making an important point.

Here’s an example provided by Lolly Daskal, the details of which could be tailored to fit many circumstances.

What kinds of stories do you find most effective in influencing students, colleagues, and supervisors?

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?

When leaders’ egos grow too tall

Dennis Sparks

“There’s an ego looking for a place to inflate,” my table mate at a Washington, DC meeting of high-level officials whispered to me as a prominent member of the education establishment entered the room, a prophecy that unfortunately soon proved itself to be true.

I was reminded of that meeting when Jean, a patient I was visiting in my role as a hospice volunteer, shared with me a simple but profound poem she had recently written:

“The long, dark corridor of life narrows at the end./ And those whose ego grew too tall will have to learn to bend.”

While Jean was describing the “long, dark corridor” of her own life as it narrowed in her 90s, her warning regarding egos that grow too tall without learning to bend also obviously applies to education leaders.

Signs that a leader’s ego has grown too tall include:

• Enjoying hearing himself or herself talk, usually at great length, rather than listening to others.

• Believing that he or she generally knows more than others, including being the only one with the wisdom to understand problems and how to solve them.

Ways in which leaders can learn to bend:

• Maintaining a “learner’s mind.” Leaders with such mindsets assume that they may not know what they don’t know.

• Recognizing that the perspectives of others are essential in identifying and solving problems.

That means that they seek first to understand by spending far more time listening than speaking.

• Remembering that while leaders have unique roles and responsibilities, those who are successful cultivate a community of equals rather than one of  privilege and hierarchy.

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!

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?


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