Posts Tagged 'leadership'

Conversations for learning


Some of our most important learning occurs in conversations. And because learning is a prerequisite to sound decision making, good decisions are often preceded by good conversations.

Conversations for learning matter so much that virtually all meetings and even one-to-one discussions with colleagues, parents, and students within the school community should be designed to maximize learning.

Unfortunately, some leaders believe that effective leaders make decisions independently. Such decision making, they think, is a sign of decisiveness and strength.

For these leaders the purpose of meetings is to tell others about their decisions.

Their subordinates are so accustomed to a passive role in which they simply receive what their bosses tell them to think, say, and do that it may be hard for them to even imagine participating in conversations for learning and decision making.

But not all conversations are created equal.

Conversations for learning require: 

• Intentionality;

• Deeply-attentive listening;

• A willingness to go beneath the surface of conventional assumptions and understandings;

• Slowness that provides space for thinking and elaboration (think “wait time”);

• An openness to learning based on a deep respect for the experiences and perspectives of others; and

• A belief that everyone has something worthwhile to contribute….

How is it in your setting— are conversations for learning an essential part of professional learning and decision making, or are “conversations” more often monologues that communicate what has already been decided?

5 essential skills for every leader…

Dennis Sparks

I have seen leaders rise or fall based on the presence or absence of one or more of the following skills:

1. The ability to discern and paraphrase the assumptions, values, and points of view of others with sufficient skill that those with whom they interact would report that their leaders accurately understand their perspectives.

2. The ability to effectively manage one’s feelings and to discern and respond appropriately to the feelings of others.

3. The ability to manage one’s responsibilities efficiently and with integrity, which includes but is not limited to email and social media, short and long-term planning, and task and project management.

4. The ability to effectively delegate meaningful responsibilities to others in the school community without micromanagement by providing appropriate support and skill development to ensure success.

5. The ability to facilitate meetings (or when appropriate delegate their facilitation) that achieve their stated purposes and are satisfying to participants.

Do you agree that these are essential skills? What skills have I missed?

Kent Peterson suggests ways to support “wary and weary” teachers

Dennis SparksKent Peterson was one of the first educational thought leaders to recognize the power of school culture in shaping teaching and learning, an influence he explored with co-author Terrence Deal in Shaping School Culture.

So I was particularly eager to see how he would respond to the questions I put to him.

Kent is an Emeritus Professor from the University of Wisconsin-Madison who has spoken to school leaders across the U.S. and internationally about shaping positive and transforming toxic school cultures. He may be contacted at

What are the two or three most important things you’ve learned about school leadership from observing and studying it?

Over the past decade I have visited hundreds of schools and talked with thousands of school principals and teacher leaders, and in all cases there are several important things that they school leaders do.

First, they work to make school culture and environment a positive one, where all are respected, there is a sense of purpose in the school that is clear and focused on students, and the contributions of everyone are celebrated.

Second, they build trusting relationships by being consistent, following through, and caring about the learning of teachers and students.

Third, work in the classroom is supported and celebrated—the administrative side of the school is well organized and dependable.

They also say that school leaders connect with all staff and community—food service workers, secretaries, custodians, parents, and teachers—fostering energy and commitment.

In short they make the school an enjoyable place to work with positive relationships and a clear, shared direction.

What would you say to a principal in his or her first year on the job?

When a new principal enters the building many expectations, issues, and demands confront them—some positive, some quite difficult; some obvious and some hidden. While the regular administrative issues need to be addressed, it is key to learn about the culture of the school.

Every school has a culture—that set of norms and values, traditions and ceremonies—that shape everything that occurs.

Early on, a new principal needs to do several things right away.  First, learn about the current culture.  Find out what are the ways teachers interact, work together (or not), and share ideas.  Ask about the important traditions of the school and the ceremonies and celebrations that give the school life from August to June.

Second, delve into the history of the school and find out what shaped the culture.  Who were the prior principals and what were they like?  What were the ways previous principals interacted with teachers, students and parents? Ask yourself how you are different from these prior leaders.  Consider the history of change in the school—was it a positive experience or a grueling trudge?

Finally, talk to teachers about what they like best about the school, aspects that really make them proud and happy to work there.  Consider nurturing and celebrating these in the early months in the school year.

From your perspective what seem to be the qualities of leaders who thrive in their work? 

School leaders who both enjoy their work and who are successful at helping teachers and students learn seem to exhibit several characteristics.  They have:

• A clear set of values focused on students.

• The ability to build positive relationships with staff and between staff.

• An understanding of the administrative side of schools, with a strong sense of the how to foster a positive school culture.

• A clear knowledge of how to enhance the learning of staff.

• The ability to do complex problem solving.

• A healthy balance in their own lives that fosters positive relations within and outside school.

• A sense of humor.

What thoughts do you have about how leaders might develop those qualities?

There are many ways to build skills and knowledge about leading and about oneself.  Leaders have told me that they have developed deeper understandings and knowledge through:

• Great professional development that engages their minds and hearts.

• Good colleagues who ask tough questions, offer interesting or complex ideas, and who deeply understand school leadership.

• A personal approach to gaining insights, sometimes called experiential learning.  This involves analysis of one’s actions and the reactions or consequences followed by building new insights about what happened, and then experimenting with a new approach based on these insights.

• Reading.  And not only educational or leadership sources but novels, short stories, blogs, plays, and personal reflections on life.  These can push and expand understanding of schools, people, and oneself.

A common concern expressed by both new and experienced principals and teacher leaders has to do with teachers who are reluctant to engage in new practices. What ideas or practices would you offer to those leaders?

Paradoxically, leaders in all organizations need to find a balance of change and stability.  Pacing a change means that movement forward does not unbalance the boat.

But if the needs of children are not being addressed, a red light should come on and leaders need to develop a sense of urgency and commitment to the changes needed to serve children.

Change is never easy and in schools, with so many years of changes, some staff may be reluctant to jump into new curricula or teaching approaches.  While some of these changes were perhaps “bandwagons” and disappeared, others are useful trains to jump aboard (such as job-embedded staff development and the use of data for decision making, to name two).

But teachers have become both wary and weary at times, resistant to trying new approaches. Here are some suggestions from teacher leaders, principals, and those who study schools.

•  Connect the change to existing values and purposes.  Most new techniques exist to accomplish existing goals—but one needs to be clear how they do.

•  Provide the needed resources, support, and time to make the implementation of new ideas smooth and (relatively) easy.  Most classroom or school level changes have to be fit into existing routines—it takes time, professional learning, and materials to do this.  Leaving one of these out can crash any new initiative.

•  Understand and acknowledge the concerns of teachers.  The history of change for seasoned staff is not always a positive one.  Some of the concerns and resistance come from the reality of other failed reforms.  Acknowledge these past efforts that raise concerns and show how the new efforts will be different.

•  Fullan talks about seeking small successes; I agree.  Identify the small successes along the way but also celebrate the larger victories months if not years into the implementation.

In what ways do you recommend principals spend their time, energy, and resources to improve schools?

I would suggest that principals think about their time as an investment in school improvement. As we know, principals engage in hundreds of different activities in a day, work on a large set of problems and issues, and have interactions with dozens if not hundreds of different people.

Principals should see each of these activities as an investment of their time and energy, an opportunity to make the school better.  Where principals spend their time is one of the largest single investments in any school.  Here are some things to consider:

•  Each activity communicates a message about the values and the mission of the school.  These foster a clearer focus on what’s important. What messages are you sending?

•  Every problem that is solved—from working with a disheartened teacher to insuring that buses are available for a field trip—increase the successes of the school.  Which problems are you choosing to address?

•  Every positive interaction—with a student, staff member, or community member—is a way to shape the school culture, to enhance motivation, and to build commitment.  Are you aware of every interaction?  Or do you slide through the day unaware that this one interaction may be important to the other person?

Using time wisely, focused on the right activities, problems, and interactions fosters school improvement.  All of these—small and large, are investments in success.

Effective leaders listen with empathy

Dennis Sparks

When we move out of ourselves and into the other person’s experience, seeing the world with that person, as if we were that person, we are practicing empathy. —Arthur Ciaramicoli & Katherine Ketcham

Civility is the bedrock of productive and supportive relationships within schools.

An essential building block of  civility is leaders’ ability to demonstrate empathy for the experience and perspective of others within the school community.

“Being aware of others is where civility begins,” P. M. Forni writes in The Civility Solution: What to Do When People Are Rude. “To be fully aware of them, we must weave empathy into the fabric of our connection. . . . The empathy of strangers is good for us not just because it makes us feel better about ourselves and about life, but also because it encourages us to be better persons. Empathy is wonderfully contagious.”

In my experience, leaders’ lack of empathy is a leading cause of interpersonal problems in the workplace, which, in turn, undermines a school community’s ability to achieve it’s most important goals.

Empathic leaders:

fully and deeply hear what others say, 

• convey both verbally and nonverbally that they understand that person’s perspective and experience, and 

• communicate respect for the individual who is speaking.

Through their words and demeanor empathic leaders communicate to others the value of both the message and the messenger

Too often leaders inadvertently communicate disrespect by cutting off speakers because they assume they know what the speakers will say, “hijacking” speakers’ stories to focus on things the listener regards as more worthy of discussion, or demonstrating inattention and disinterest by glancing at their computer screen or smart phones.

On the other hand, leaders who listen with empathy demonstrate respect for what the speaker is saying through such simple but often neglected practices as making eye contact, tolerating periods of silence during which speakers can reflect on their own words, and demonstrating through their demeanor an appreciation of speakers’ feelings.

“[T]he quality of our listening is as good a measure of our humanity as any. . .,” P. M. Forni notes. “[W]hen we find the strength to engage in considerate listening we are in fact expressing ourselves. At our best.”

Leaders with high levels of emotional intelligence listen attentively to deeply understand the experiences and perspectives of others and demonstrate that understanding through their words and demeanor. It is the bedrock of civility and meaningful collegiality within the school community.

6 common “confusions” that inhibit the continuous improvement of teaching and learning

Dennis Sparks

1. Confusing good intentions with a strategy.

2. Confusing a goal with a plan.

3. Confusing activity with accomplishment.

4. Confusing professional development with professional learning.

5. Confusing teamwork with any group activity.

6. Confusing management with leadership.

Taken together, these “confusions”  dissipate energy and help preserve the status quo.

Fortunately, principals and teacher leaders can turn confusion into clarity through professional study and dialogue.

That clarity can include meaningful, stretching goals that guide and fuel robust plans through which seemingly impossible goals can be achieved.

Students, of course, will be the primary beneficiaries of educators’ clarity.

What other “confusions” would you add to my list?

Why getting others to change is so difficult

IMG_1365Influencing others is one of leaders’ most important responsibilities and greatest challenges.

Most of us are familiar with techniques that are less than effective—providing rational reasons for the change, threatening, and ordering people to change, for instance—yet we persist in doing them, often because we don’t know what else to do.

David Brooks explored this issue in his New York Times column.

“You can tell people that they are fat and that they shouldn’t eat more French fries, but that doesn’t mean they will stop,” he writes. “You can make all sorts of New Year’s resolutions, earnestly deciding to behave better, but that doesn’t mean you will….”

“People don’t behave badly,” Brooks says, “because they lack information about their shortcomings. They behave badly because they’ve fallen into patterns of destructive behavior from which they’re unable to escape.”

Brooks encourages readers “…to pick one area of life at a time (most people don’t have the willpower to change their whole lives all at once) and help a person lay down a pre-emptive set of concrete rules and rewards. Pick out a small goal and lay out measurable steps toward it.

“It’s foolhardy to try to persuade people to see the profound errors of their ways in the hope that mental change will lead to behavioral change. Instead, try to change superficial behavior first and hope that, if they act differently, they’ll eventually think differently. Lure people toward success with the promise of admiration instead of trying to punish failure with criticism. Positive rewards are more powerful.”

What does work then?

  • Having modest, measurable goals within a framework of larger, stretching purposes that energize the change. The achievement and celebration of modest goals also provides the energy to persevere when our motivation lags.
  • Learning to think about things in new ways. While such “reframing” is often essential, it isn’t always necessary for people to change their beliefs before they change their behavior. In fact, a change in beliefs often follows a successful change in behavior that produces the desired result.
  • Repetition of new behaviors until they become habitual. Because old behavior are often deeply rooted and provide their own rewards, it’s easy to underestimate the amount of effort and perseverance required to change even one behavior.
  • Having supportive relationships, particularly with those who are a bit farther down the road of change and who offer hope, a new way of thinking about the problem, and practical solutions to common problems.

The essential role of social support in making lasting change will be explored more fully in my next post.

What have been your experiences with change—as an influencer of change, as the subject of someone’s change effort, or as a person seeking to change—taught you about the “essentials” of influence and the change process?

8 ways to know that you are challenged by management responsibilities

Dennis Sparks

Both leadership and management skills are essential in schools that seek to continuously improve teaching, learning, and relationships in the school community.

Too often significant goals are unachieved because principals and teacher leaders struggle with the day-to-day management of their personal and professional lives.

Here are eight signs that you or others are challenged by those responsibilities:

1. You over promise and under deliver because you find it very difficult to say no and/or to prioritize your work. As a results, activities related to important goals are not being accomplished and your integrity is compromised.

2. Your days are filled with unproductive and unfulfilling meetings.

3. You spend almost all of your time reacting to events rather than shaping them.

4. You are aware that many of your actions are not aligned with your values.

5. You hear from those closest to you that they are concerned about your health and emotional well-being.

6. You are not exercising and eating in ways that you know are best for you.

7. You find it difficult to focus on anything for very long.

8. You know that a lack of sleep interferes with the quality of your work and life.

What would you add to this list?

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