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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!

Professional learning by doing

Dennis Sparks

The notes of the lecturer are passed to the notes of the listener—without going through the mind of either. —Mortimer Adler

Learning by doing is the antithesis of the mindless lecturing described by Adler.

It is most powerful when it includes reflection on the extent and meaning of that learning.

Whether learners are 5 years old or 50, it is essential that their talk and active engagement in the “doing” dominate both K-12 classrooms and professional development experiences rather than the voice of the teacher or “presenter.”

So, for instance, if we wish educators to become better planners, analyzers of research, and collaborators, it simply makes sense that they be provided with generous amounts of time to learn about and practice those skills during the initial learning and receive continuing feedback as they apply those skills in their job settings.

Likewise, educators’ professional judgment is strengthened when they:

• have extended opportunities to apply and refine their judgement as they grapple with meaningful problems of practice in sustained conversations with colleagues, and

• explore evidence related to the real-world consequences of their decisions.

What methods have you used or experienced that promote professional learning through doing?

The power of “improvisational conversations” to influence others

Dennis Sparks

Genuine influence seldom occurs when administrators or teacher leaders direct others to think or act in specific ways.

Nor, contrary to common practice, does it usually occur by building a logical case for change through research and other evidence, although evidence and logic may be part of the influencing process.

Instead, genuine and lasting influence begins by seeking to deeply understand the perspectives and experiences of those we are trying to influence.

Such understanding, and the empathy it creates, requires attentive, sustained, and nonjudgmental listening for the purpose of “seeking first to understand.”

Put another way, influence has at its core improvisational conversations that produce shared understanding and mutual respect, conversations that are as likely to spontaneously occur in hallways as in meeting rooms.

Steve Yastrow, in an interview with Skip Prichard about his book, Ditch the Pitch, emphasizes the value of improvisational conversations that are fresh, meaningful, and relevant.

“The most developed human improvisational skill is conversation,” Yastrow says. “Notice the social conversations you have; they are all created on the spot, in the moment, based on what happens in that particular interaction….”

Yastrow adds: “Everyone reading this interview is knowledgeable and expert about what they sell. Inevitably, this expertise helps us quickly diagnose customer situations and develop solutions. The problem is that we will always devise these solutions before our customers are ready to hear them, and if we tell them to our customers too soon we will overwhelm them.  The idea is to be patient and bring information into your persuasive conversation at a pace your customer can accept.”

Substituting “persuade” for “sell” and “teachers” or “students” for “customers” reveals a valuable insight for administrators and teacher leaders: Leaders too often overwhelm people with their solutions before others in the school community fully understand the problem, yet alone the viable options for its solution.

What has been your experience: Are improvisational conversations effective in influencing others, perhaps even more so that “logical” presentations of “facts” and research?

Getting better at getting better

Dennis Sparks

In a recent issue of the New Yorker James Surowiecki wrote about performance improvement in a number of fields, including teaching:

“…the biggest problem is that we’re in thrall to what [Elizabeth] Green [in Building a Better Teacher] calls “the idea of the natural-born teacher,” the notion that either you can teach or you can’t. As a result, we do little to help ordinary teachers become good and good teachers become great. What we need to embrace instead is the idea of teaching as a set of skills that can be taught and learned and constantly improved on. As both Green and Goldstein detail, school districts in the United States that take teacher training seriously have seen student performance improve, often dramatically. More accountability and higher pay for teachers would help, too. But at the moment most American schools basically throw teachers in at the deep end of the pool and hope that they will be able not only to swim but also to keep all their students afloat, too. It’s a miracle that the system works as well as it does.”

In response to the article I wrote this letter to the editor:

“James Surowiecki (“Better All The Time,” November 10, 2014) correctly notes the generally low quality of teacher preparation and ongoing professional development for teachers. He does not acknowledge, however, that inadequate compensation and poor working conditions in many schools discourage talented individuals from becoming teachers. Nor does he explicitly acknowledge, although he cites examples of it, the importance of sustained collaboration among teachers in continuously improving teaching and learning, a quality that has been undermined by ill-considered reforms that encourage unproductive competition among teachers and schools.

“The reason the education system works as well as it does is because of the often heroic efforts of hundreds of thousands of dedicated teachers and administrators in the face of immense and unrelenting challenges.”

What’s required for teachers and administrators to continuously “get better at getting better” so that “ordinary teachers become good and good teachers become great”? 

Say yes “to the subject that arouses a terrifying longing”

Dennis Sparks

“The lesson…then, is that if you want to win the war for attention, don’t try to say ‘no’ to the trivial distractions you find on the information smorgasbord; try to say ‘yes’ to the subject that arouses a terrifying longing, and let the terrifying longing crowd out everything else.” —David Brooks

Distraction is widely viewed as a significant problem in society and in schools. It dissipates energy at work and in our personal lives, and it is truly dangerous when we are behind the wheel of a car.

But perhaps the problem is not distraction, but rather the absence of a compelling purpose—a “…subject that arouses a terrifying longing”—as David Brooks describes it.

Cal Newport thinks about it this way:

“Distraction, from this perspective, is not the cause of problems in your work life, it’s a side effect. The real issue comes down to a question more important than whether or not you use Facebook too much: Are you striving to do something useful and do it so well that you can cannot be ignored?”

What useful thing are you striving to do that cannot be ignored?


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