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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?

Why professional reading is necessary, but not sufficient

Dennis Sparks

In some school systems a particular book takes hold for several months and everyone seems to be reading and talking about it. The following school year it is another book, and so on.

The ideas and practices recommended in those books are seldom deeply understood, and seldom implemented, no matter how substantial and important they may be.

While I value the intellectual stimulation professional reading provides, I am aware that it can be a distraction from the sustained and challenging daily work of meaningful change.

Just as leaders sometimes confuse activity with accomplishment, it is easy to confuse reading with the disciplined, sustained actions that are necessary to achieve important goals.

Put another way, while reading can be an important source of professional learning and a stimulus for change, it is far from sufficient.

Professional reading can, however, be an essential first step in a series of steps to produce meaningful change when leaders engage the school community in identifying within its reading the most powerful, compelling, and actionable ideas that are closely linked to the system or school’s most important goals.

To that end, leaders:

• with others, determine among the many ideas and practices they acquire through reading those most worthy of further exploration,

deepen the conversation in the system or school about those ideas and practices so that they are thoroughly understood and their merits carefully considered, and

patiently and persistently engage in the demanding and never-ending work of changing habits of mind and practice so that teaching and learning continuously improve for the benefit of all students.

In what ways can professional reading be integrated into the process of continuous improvement?

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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