Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Simple and Effective: My grocery shopping story and leading schools

The story you are about to read is true.  I know it is true because, well frankly, it is about me.  It takes place in the grocery store about 7-8 years ago, BC (Before Children).  My wife and I were doing our weekly shopping.  As we walked through the produce section, she noticed that cucumbers were on sale.  She asked me to pick a few out and put them in our basket.

Now before you fall asleep, let me say that my grocery shopping “jobs” are very specific.  Push basket, get items I am asked to get, and make sure we do not leave anything off the grocery list.  This last “job” is the key to the story.  I am responsible for the list.  As such, I am given the privilege of handling a pen or pencil to cross items off the list.  Again, I am in charge of the list.  This is key!

You see, cucumbers were NOT on our list.  For many people, this would be no big deal, but I guess I have some type of personality quirk.  As keeper of the list, I need to make sure that all items are present and accounted for.  If it isn't on the list, I cannot account for it.  Now, you see my dilemma – right?!

Ok, so I’m a little peculiar about my list, but I NEVER had an item left behind – and I wasn’t about to do so this time.  I needed a plan to adjust for this new twist in our shopping, but without distracting me from my “job” of managing the list.  So I did the only thing I could think of.  I simply added cucumbers to the list and promptly crossed them off.

Job done.  Disaster averted.  Relationship still in tact!

So, why do I share this story?  Well, I was thinking today about the complexity we often assign to challenges in schools that, when and if we thought for a moment, are not all that difficult to resolve.  Instead of just going with a proven, simple, and effective solution, we sometimes get caught up in the moment and look to be the most creative problem solver.

As educational leaders, we are always under tremendous pressure.  This can cause us to be unclear in our thinking.  One way I have tried to “clear the fog” is to remind myself to remain student-centered and mission focused.  Every potential challenge is not necessarily a reason to dig deep into your cache of solutions.

Often, simple and effective are more important.

Now if you will excuse me, I have a grocery list to prepare.  I wonder if cucumbers are on sale? 

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Waxing Philosophical on Educational Reform

End is Near cartoon found at:

While I do not have any specific historical data to back up this claim, I have to imagine that for as long as formal education has existed, there has likely been those who would be considered "educational reformers."  Think about it.  I'm sure there are any number of people whom history has long forgotten that observed how students were being taught and said, "There has to be a better way."  Just as I am sure there have been reformers, the degree to which these reformers fell on a "radical change continuum" must also be extremely diverse.

I do not necessarily consider myself a reformer, but I do reflect upon the nature of education, how it is part of our human experience, and the effect of leadership on these experiences.  I guess I am more of an educational philosopher than a reformer.  In this light, I offer a few reflections, theories, etc. on the nature of educational reform.  Note that these are simply ideas - I have no real evidence to back up these claims other than my own observations and experiences.  Basically, this is more philosophical than practical.

The nature of reform is grounded in adjusting current practice to account for missing or ineffective elements in the educational process.  I think terms like "reform" and "adjustments" are simply nicer ways of saying, "We need to make a change."  Therefore, educational reformers, historically, have been the prophets and agents of change.  The degree to which these reform effort shave been successful have likely depended on the degree to which the reformer understood the nature of change and how to lead others through these changes.

Of course, the opposite is also true.  Not understanding the potentially devastating effects of change on others can quickly derail any effective change effort.  If you combine a lack of sensitivity to how people respond to change with a weak leadership position (often due to lack of trust), then you have the perfect storm for a completely superficial reform effort that probably did more to spread fear and confusion than confidence and pride.

This would explain the relative failure of the many reform efforts put into place by politicians and government officials.  The reforms were virtually impossible to achieve and the support promised to do so was largely insufficient.  Thus, trust in the leaders of these reform efforts eroded (and will continue to do so until specific efforts are made to gain back that lost trust).

Another problem with sweeping changes or radical departures from the norm is the lack of continuity that these ideas bring with them.  In order to lead a successful change initiative, there must be a link between how things are done now to how they will be done after the change.  Also, continuity demands a real connection between how the effective pieces of the previous method will remain intact and part of the newer method.  This, too, has been largely missing in recent years - there is little being doe to identify what is actually worth preserving and how to do so with the new ideas.

Ultimately, what separates the true reform leader to the guy wearing the "The End is Near" sign is how well he/she understands the nature of change and the necessity to preserve continuity.

I would strongly recommend the following books that concern leadership and change.  While Dr. Evans' book is not specifically about change, it speaks very well of the challenges educational leaders face when attempting to implement changes.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

The "Little Black Rainclouds" of Education

One of my favorite movies to watch with my children is The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh.  In the film, there is a short piece in which Pooh covers himself in mud and "disguises" himself as a little black raincloud in order to get honey from the top of a honey tree.  Needless to say, Pooh's plan does not quite work as planned.  His "disguise" doesn't fool the bees and in order to get the honey, he eventually endures more difficulty than he probably may have if he had just been more direct.

The same concept emerges sometimes in education.  In an effort to achieve great things, we (teachers, students, administrators, etc.) are tempted to try to avoid the potentially difficult tasks with a series of "little black rainclouds."  The desire to avoid confrontation and address challenges in a way that allows us to "get the honey without disturbing the bees" is strong.  Unfortunately, we are often left with a larger challenge, having only superficially achieved our objectives, and "swatting at the swarm" of people whom we have unintentionally aggravated.

Maybe we need to stop and, as Pooh often needs to do, find our "thoughtful spot" to "think, think, think."  Leave the "little black rainclouds" to "bears of little brain." 

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Nobody said it would be easy (or always fun)

effort“Effort only fully releases its reward after a person refuses to quit." Image Source Page:

I was part of a conversation today during which a wise and respected colleague made a comment that I found quite fascinating.  He said:

“People like to do things that are fun, but these activities are almost always fun because the person doing them is good at it.  Unfortunately, getting good at something takes time, effort, and work – which are usually NOT fun.”

He was, among other things, implying that students face quite a interesting problem.  I know many of you will comment (either her or to yourself) that the teacher can make the learning interesting and fun – and I would agree with you.  The issue is not a lack of effort to engage students.  The issue that my friend was speaking of is that ultimately some learning requires a desire to learn and the willingness to work at something new. 

Effort is essential and does not necessarily eliminate the enjoyment of learning.  I think it is important to remember that sometimes school is hard and requires some grit, determination, and effort to work through a difficult lesson. 

In the end, what a student will become better at may not solely be the intended lesson.  Instead, he or she may be better at appreciating the value of hard work and getting comfortable with hanging in there when doing something new.

Monday, February 7, 2011

The Educator’s Golden Rule – Does it exist?

rockwel1 Norman Rockwell: The Golden Rule as found at

One of the easiest pieces of advice I remember getting as a child was “The Golden Rule.”  You probably know it.  Basically, “The Golden Rule” states something along the lines of, “Treat other as you would want to be treated” or “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”  The curious thing about that advice is that as simple as it sounds, almost all (if not all) children fail to follow it at one point or another.  Therefore, I am left to believe that such advice, while sounding good, is virtually impossible to put into practice at all times.

So I began thinking about some of the “Golden Rules” of education that I have heard over the years and found that many of them fall victim to the same issue – they are simple to say, easy to understand, but nearly impossible to employ without fail.  Here are a few “Educational Golden Rules” I have heard.

“Teach every student as if he/she was your own child.”

This was one of the first “Golden Rules” I heard when I began teaching.  Right away, I was skeptical.  If I do not have any children, then how does this apply?  On the other hand, even if I do have children, do I really want to teach every student like they were my child?  Being a parent is HARD WORK.  I have two wonderful children, but I cannot imagine trying to teach 20, 50, or 100 of them in a school setting.  At the end of the day, I want to go home to my kids.  As much as I respect and like my students, I do not want to go home to them.  Also, like most parents, I have bad parenting days.  When they happen, I can provide extra love and do not have to worry about getting an email or phone call about my bad day.  I can’t say the same about a bad teaching day.   

Teach every student as if they were your own child?  No thanks.  There are too many opinions about how to parent.  I cannot teach my class worrying about all the different thoughts on teaching as well.  I find that an impossible standard to uphold.

“Be consistent.”

Here is another “Golden Rule” I often hear.  When I do, I usually ask a clarifying question, “Do you mean consistent or fair?”  As I see it, consistent and fair are two different concepts.  Consistent means doing the same thing or having the same response no matter what context or situation.  In other words, there is no possibility for differences in responses to the same stimulus.

Fairness, on the other hand, implies reasonable consideration given to the context involved.  In other words, being fair involves being willing to at least consider the reasons for the stimulus having happened.  It does not mean that the response will necessarily change.  Only that fairness demands a willingness to consider reasons.

In my experience, students say they want consistency, but really want to be treated fairly.  I say, “Being consistently fair is better than being fairly consistent.”

Never have casual conversation with the general.”

Before I began working in administration, I really liked this “Golden Rule.”  It implies that teachers should avoid having casual conversations with administrators for fear of “saying too much.”  Since becoming an administrator, I do not understand this rule.  Obviously the teacher who is credited with coming up with it had a terrible experience with an administrator at one point and lost trust in them.

Of all the conversations I have with teachers, the casual ones are usually the most productive and enjoyable.  Getting to know someone beyond the “business” relationship is a key to building trust.  Besides, a break from the “Do you have a minute?” conversations are very much appreciated.

Make friends with the librarians, cafeteria staff members, and maintenance crew.”

Ok – this one I really believe in!

In the end, I usually fall back on a quote from Theodore Roosevelt that is the closest thing to an “Educator’s Golden Rule” that I can find:

“Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.”

Do you have any “Educator’s Golden Rules” to share?  If so, feel free to comment. 

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Leadership, collegiality, and change efforts

In my last post, I reported on Dr. Robert Evans’ presentation about teachers moving from congeniality to collegiality.  In that post, I described how educators are very good at the personal piece of our relationships, but not so good at the “business” part.  That “business” part is the arena in which we need to be more open with conflict and are able to constructively disagree with each other about where we are and where we need to go.  In this post, I will examine the implications such a concept has on school leadership.  Dr. Evans’ ideas about these implications make up a portion of his new book, Seven Secrets of the Savvy School Leader: A Guide to Surviving and Thriving.

The increased expectations on teachers over the last 30 years has had a equal effect on the leadership expected by administrators.  Unfortunately, as with all resources, there is an upper limit to the amount of leadership technique that can be packed into any one person.  One way leaders can address these increased demands is to fall back on a set of leadership basics that make leadership doable.  Often these basics rely on the natural authority and influence the formal leadership role provides.

Being in your role provides the opportunity to do exactly what most people want – to lead them (not boss them).  There is, however, a personal cost to being in your role as formal leader.  When you are in your role, it becomes increasingly more difficult for you to be yourself.  It gets even more complicated as you continue to move up “in the ranks.”  As you into higher formal leadership roles, it is less likely for others to see you in any other role than your leadership role.  In addition, your group of peers gets smaller and smaller.  Fewer peers who truly understand your role is important because if you are waiting for others to understand, you are wasting your time – they can’t and won’t.

The complexities of leadership also have an effect on leaders who are attempting to lead change efforts.  Most people will resist change, especially when they didn’t think of the change idea.  The resistance is even more pronounced when the resistors attach some additional meaning (usually conspiratorial) to the change effort.

People will cling to the known life patterns because they are comfortable and make life meaningful.  The more dramatic the change, the deeper the resistance to that change is likely to be.  Initially attitudes towards change will be negative before moving to positive. As the leader of change, you need to understand the loss that the change effort means to others.  In other words, leaders need to be prepared to ask not just “what” and “how” about the change, but also “why?”  The answer to the “why” defines the loss others feel.

On the other hand, the flip side of resistance is commitment.  Leaders who understand the change process can work to build commitment for the change.  Often, these leaders communicate a message similar to this, “Here is where we are.  Here’s why we can’t stay here.  Here is where we need to go.  Here’s how I can help.”  The clarity of this message is essential as people crave perfect clarity.  Leaders need to define what is negotiable, what is not, and own that decision.  Either way, leaders must be proceed with clear communication, not as a heavy handed boss.

Ultimately, leaders who can build trust during a change effort will be more successful.  Trust is earned, not given freely.  Most people would prefer a leader whom they disagree with but is predictable and clear than one whom they like but does not follow through.  Leaders also need to be willing and able to honestly reflect on whether they CAN be the leader needed rather than ARE they the leader needed.  Leaders who understand what their schools do well and work to build on those strengths rather than focus solely on weaknesses are in the better position to be successful – and less taken for granted.    

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Moving from congeniality to collegiality

One of the more anxiety inducing issues educational leaders face is having to engage in potentially difficult conversations. At a recent conference, Dr. Robert Evans suggested that, as educators, we are very good at congeniality, but not so good at collegiality. When I heard this at a recent conference, I was not so sure I agreed with this idea. My initial response was to immediately want to defend the “collegiality” I see in schools, but after the explanation, it made plenty of sense and had tremendous implications for leadership.

Dr. Evans provided a distinction between congeniality and collegiality based on the work of Roland Barth. Barth describes congeniality as being receptive, warm, supportive, giving nice responses, being helpful, etc. On the other hand, collegiality concerns talking about working with kids, how to do it, how to improve it, and how to disagree constructively about delivering lessons. It is this conversation, the disagreeing, that is often missing and thus minimizes the collegiality among teachers. If you examine the evidence about schools offered by Dr. Evans, it is easy to see why this lack of collegiality exists.
Schools have seen a steady increase in complexity over the past 30 years. Since then, teachers in K-12 settings have been asked to cover twice as much material. Now, raising the standards are not, in and of itself, a bad thing to do. What does happen, though, is that when we raise the ceiling, we also raise the floor. Thus, we are also experiencing an unprecedented amount of students with “documented” learning challenges. We want better, broader, and deeper educations, but are often doing so with students who are, by and large, programmed to learn the same as students from 30 years ago. Add to that mix, the outstanding research and new understandings of how the brain works. With every new discovery, the job of the teacher becomes more and more complex.
In addition, the challenges faced by schools as a result of outside of school factors are only increasing. Today, we are dealing with the decline of the developmental function of families as a child rearing unit. For example, Dr. Evans points to the numbers of parents who ask their doctors about decisions as simple as when to put their child to bed at night. These are issues families just didn’t need to ask about 30 years ago. Also in this outside of school arena is the increasing challenges of being a successful country. Dr. Evans points out that as opportunities go up, predictability goes down. Schools, therefore, have responded by acting in a more conservancy role. Because we cannot know what is to be, we are left to teach with what we know – the past, what has already been done.
Under these assumptions, Dr. Evans contends that collegiality requires extra work. It is hard. The difficulty arises from our general distaste for and open avoidance of conflict with other adults. Basically, we need to become more tolerant of the conflict, but that is easier said than done. Teachers, at least very good ones, typically invest a great deal of themselves in their work. For these teachers, it is personal – not business. On the other hand, tolerance for conflict requires a re-thinking along the lines of it is NOT personal, but business. Doing so allows us to disagree CONSTRUCTIVELY about what we do and where we are going. Ultimately, we need to talk more TO one another than ABOUT one another.
Dr. Evans continued to point out a number of interesting ideas. Here are a few of the ones that I captured in notes:
  • It is harder to assume that if it happened in school, than it must be good.
  • We are having new conversations around skewed enrollment (more students in High School than in Lower School at K-12 private/independent schools) as a result of the economy.
  • A dilemma is a part of life that has no solution. A problem has a solution. What are your school’s dilemmas? What are the problems?
  • Independent school leaders rarely use the leverage at their disposal.
A collegial conversation may be difficult to have. Difficult conversations cause us to question our points of view, our feelings, and our identities. I have found a wonderful resource about having difficult conversations in the book, Difficult Conversations: How to discuss what matters most by Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton, and Sheila Heen. In the book, the authors take you through all three types of difficult conversations and how to approach these events as learning opportunities or learning conversations. Though this new outlook does not eliminate anxiety, it can serve to minimize it and allow for productive discourse.

Dr. Evans’ presentation did also make implications about leadership given the above items. Those implications will be the subject of my next post.

Of course, you are free to disagree or discuss these matters, "collegially", by commenting or emailing me. I always welcome reader feedback.


Friday, February 4, 2011

Leadership as your story

Inspired by a presentation by Dr. Thomas Shields, I wanted to share some reflection points.  These points are based on what Dr. Shields described as “leadership as your story.”

  • No one skill, trait, style or characteristic is essential to successful leadership
  • Leadership is your narrative, a life story
  • What does being authentic mean to you?
  • Are you aware of your authentic leadership potential?
  • Which people have had the greatest impact on you (positive or negative)?
  • Which experiences do you find the greatest inspiration and/or passion for your leadership?

I always enjoy feedback from readers.  Please feel free to leave comments and/or suggestions.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Contextual "caves" of leadership

During today's VAIS Leadership Conference, I had the pleasure of participating in a presentation by Dr. Thomas Shields where he used Plato's cave allegory as the backdrop for talking about how leaders are those who go "back into the cave."

Dr. Shields' example basically dealt with the fact that as leaders, we often have information about the reality of situations that our followers do not.  In this case, as in the case of Plato's cave allegory, the leader is one who goes back "into the cave" instead of running away with the knowledge of the truth.  By going back in, the leader commits himself or herself to guiding others to an understanding of that truth.

In schools, we may be dealing with any number of contextual "caves" in which the manufactured truth is, in fact, a false reality.  These false realities may even be more pronounced in this environment of economic uncertainty - especially for private and independent schools.

How do you work your way out of these contextual caves?

Dr. Shields offered these steps to help you get out of the cave:
  • Clarify your center - what do you stand for?
  • Clarify what is possible
  • Clarify what others can do to contribute based on their talents and values - not a job description
  • Support others so they can contribute
  • Be relentless
  • Measure and celebrate successes
What contextual caves are you addressing in your school?

Dr. Shields is the Director of the Center for Leadership in Education, Jepson School of Leadership Studies, University of Richmond

Resources suggested by Dr. Shields during his presentation:

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