Monday, May 30, 2011

My Memorial Day Reflection – Lessons Learned

All of us can learn something from the experiences brought back home from the brave veterans who answered America’s call and served.  On this Memorial Day, I want to tell about one veteran from whom I learned some very valuable lessons.

Frank Benjamin Watters served in the United States Army in Europe during World War II.  Mainly, Frank drove trucks, often filled with ammunition.  He was awarded the Bronze Star (among other accolades).

Frank, like many veterans, was never eager to  talk about his experiences.  It made him uncomfortable to remember.  So, for most of my time with him, I never heard about his service.  That all changed when he finally told me about being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease.  Frank knew his memories would eventually fade (many had already) and he didn’t want his war experiences forgotten.  The disease had forced him to tell his story and I am eternally thankful that he did.

Frank B. Watters, the man I called “Paw Paw”, was my grandfather.  He was our family’s hero and he will never be forgotten.

Paw Paw tells of a mission he was asked to perform. 

The mission required him to drive his truck into enemy territory, deliver the ammunition to troops at the front, and make his way back to the relative safety of his post.  While making his way back (having delivered the goods with relative ease), he encountered an enemy force.  Paw Paw decided to hide his truck and spend the night hidden.  He chose to NOT sleep in the truck (which would have been more comfortable) opting instead for a hard,cold night on forest floor somewhere inside Germany.

He was awoken by the sounds of shots and ordinance being directed at his general position.  Eventually, things got quiet and he knew that the immediate danger had passed. 

For the next few days, Frank travelled slow and deliberately.  Travelling small distances, checking for safety, hiding the truck, sleeping away from it, and then moving later.  When he finally returned to his base, he noticed quite a bit of damage to the truck from bullets fired at his position during the journey.  If he had slept in the truck, he would have been killed.  He was also approached by his commanding officer who congratulated him on the mission.  The way paw Paw told it, nobody back at the base expected him to return.  The delivery in enemy territory was a “suicide mission” that was kept from him as to not cloud his judgment.

After the war, Paw Paw returned to Louisiana, married my grandmother (Ma Moo) Laverne, and worked various jobs  before starting his own construction company.  His company helped build many houses in the suburban areas in and around New Orleans.  I grew up in one of those homes.

Paw Paw taught me many things, among them are the value of hard work, love of family, honor, duty, and resilience.  But one of the most important lessons was demonstrated during his last years.  In the face of a horrific disease, he never complained.  I never herd him feel sorry for himself.  He took each day as it presented itself and greeted me with a smile and a story.  Even when he no longer recognized me, I saw much of what made him special to his family.

I remember him asking me once if I knew how to spot a well built house.  Not having much knowledge of building codes, I said, “No.” 

His response was, “A good house is still standing.”

Today, his memory still stands.  I guess that says something about his the lessons I learned form him.

Thanks, Paw Paw.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

The Educator’s Summer – Reflection and Preparation

prepare For many educators, the beginning of the summer months marks the end of a school year and the beginning of a well deserved pause from the daily grind of school.  While most teachers I know are sad to be away from the students, very few do not look forward to this break.

I have always looked upon the summer as a critical piece to my own professional development.  When I was coaching, I volunteered to coach summer teams as a way to improve.  As a teacher, I often tutored or attended professional development opportunities available.  As an administrator, this time is vital to developing and refining operational plans to address the strategic goals of my division.

No matter what role you fill in school, the summer provides a great chance to reflect on the previous year and prepare for the fall.

Reflection

Personal reflection is one of the top three pieces of advice I give teachers about how to improve their craft (the other two are: actively engage in a professional learning network and visit/observe other teachers).  Reflection is powerful and safe because the only person to whom you are accountable is yourself.  You can be as critical or as complimentary as you like, but, in the end, the reflection should reveal areas of strength and challenge.

Entering the reflection process from the proper perspective will determine its value to you.  As much as possible, looking back on your performance needs to lead to growth and understanding rather than a mark against your ego.  Remember that the better teachers are those who accept growth and development as a natural piece to their “educational DNA.”  Unfortunately, we often do not see areas for growth without experiencing some set-backs, confusion, or errors.

Here are a few questions that can help you begin the reflection process:

  1. Did you accomplish your goals for the year?  If so, how do you know?  If not, why?
  2. What do you believe were your top 3-5 lessons/activities this year?  How do you know that?
  3. What were the lessons that were the biggest disappointments?  Why?
  4. Is the class set up to facilitate the type of class you want to teach?
  5. What feedback can you gather from students about their experience?
  6. Do you recognize professional growth this year?  If so, in what areas?  If not, why?
  7. If you had one thing to do over again, what would it be and why?

Preparation

It is possible that your reflection may uncover questions that you cannot answer.  These questions may provide a nice bridge to your preparations for the following year.  I remember a common teacher quote, “Failure to prepare is preparing to fail.”  Therefore, taking time during the summer months to truly get ready is essential to the success of your year.  Preparation can take many forms from the actual physical space and design of the class to the course goals, expectations, and assignments.

I cannot imagine any class that would not benefit from SOME adjustment.  The implication being that a lack of adjustment assumes that class was PERFECT.  This does not have to mean a complete overhaul of resources, reading selections, etc.  Adjustments can be as simple as setting up desks in a different configuration, committing to displaying student work more prominently, implementing a different approach to integrating technology, etc.

At the core of your preparation needs to be a focus on maximizing your strengths as an educator to:

  • encourage, facilitate, and support student learning
  • address your professional challenges as part of your growth and development

Here are a few questions that can help you with your summer preparations:

  1. On which “21st century” learning skills do you want to emphasize next year?
  2. Which model for professional growth do you believe is the most effective for you?
  3. What instructional skills will you focus your refinement efforts?
  4. What leadership and/or community building skills will you refine?
  5. What leadership role will you play in your school?
  6. What are your goals for the year?  What is your plan to achieve those goals?  What “deliverable” should anyone expect as a result of accomplishing your goals?
  7. What resources or support do you need to accomplish your goals?

If you would like to read more about my ideas concerning goal setting, please click these links to previous posts.

Image Source Page: http://www.studentlinc.net/studentlinc/2006/03/prepare_to_perf.html

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Pick Your Battles Wisely

800px-Battle_of_New_Orleans On the morning of January 8, 1815, British Major-General Edward Pakenham ordered a two-pronged assault against a largely out numbered American force led by General Andrew Jackson.  The assault took place on the site of the Chalmette Plantation near New Orleans.  Thus, the Battle of New Orleans, the final major battle of the War of 1812, began.  Although much of the pre-battle preparations were either poorly executed or not executed at all, Pakenham was determined to defeat Jackson’s force.  His reliance on his overwhelming numbers and his troops’ training overshadowed any concern about the multitude of obvious challenges facing a British victory.  Weather, landscape, timing, morale, motivation, etc. all were in favor of Jackson and his entrenched American troops.

When the fighting ended (after about 20 minutes, the withdrawal was ordered), the Americans earned one of the most lopsided victories in American military history.

  • British:  2,042 casualties (291 killed; including Pakenham, 1,267 wounded, and 484 captured or missing)
  • Americans:  71 casualties (13 dead, 39 wounded, and 19 missing)

This is just a single example of one of the most important skills that educational leaders must have.

Pick Your Battles Wisely!

Everyday, educational leaders are asked to make decisions.  Sometimes these decisions are somewhat easy.  There is a clear good or bad choice.  Given clear goals and objectives, decisions can often take an obvious form.  There are other times, though, that decisions fall in a hazy “grey area” where there is not necessarily a clear choice.

In these situations, leaders need to take into consideration many pieces of information and hold each of these up against the mission, vision, and goals of the school.  The leader’s responsibility is to ensure that the school’s operations are aligned with and are actively promoting the mission and philosophy of the institution.  If more than one mission appropriate option is available, leaders should examine the strengths and challenges of those who will be tasked with performing the decision (or who are most affected by the decision).  In many cases, this may provide an insight in to what will be most effective once implemented.  If the leader can get a clear sense of the issue at hand, the options available, and the assets at her disposal, there is a great opportunity for success.

There is another situation that also requires wise “battle plans.”  I find it more often in private and independent schools.  It is the teacher who expects the administrator to back them up on all their decisions in the class.  This is a challenging issue because many educational leaders have a default mode that wants to support the teacher. 

Would we want any other default mode of thinking from our school leaders?

Unfortunately, this also implies that when a conflict between a teacher and student or teacher and parent occur, the teacher is ALWAYS right.  The fact of the matter is that sometimes the teacher is not right and the wise school leader will help navigate this difficult terrain with the interests of all parties in mind.

Here is an example. 

Mr. Jones has a class policy that was not in his syllabus at the beginning of the year nor has he shared his policy with his division director.  The policy goes something like this: 

  • Students cannot talk during the taking of tests or quizzes (so far, so good)
  • The policy applies to students who are taking the assessment or who have already finished (again, we’re ok)
  • But the response from Mr. Jones, if a student is caught talking, is to throw away the student’s assessment ungraded and with no feedback to the student

Mr. Jones’ division administrator questions the reaction because it seems to run counter to the mission and philosophy of the school.  It also does not allow for any growth on the part of the student nor does the response allow Mr. Jones to assess how well the student understands the lessons.  The leader agrees that the initial policy was fine, but the response seems out of alignment.  Mr. Jones is asked to reflect on the response and suggest alternatives – all of which Mr. Jones refuses to do.  In his opinion, the response was sound and in keeping with his class policy.

The administrator now has a decision to make.  Among other choices, she can:

  1. Back Mr. Jones, but at the expense of what she believes is a class policy that runs counter to the mission and philosophy of the school.
  2. Coach Mr. Jones to understand that his position is counter to the mission and philosophy, explain why and how it is, and inform him that if he (Mr. Jones) chooses to fight this battle, it will be hard to provide the support he may need.
  3. Tell Mr. Jones that his policy is not in keeping with the mission and philosophy of the school and that he needs to repair the situation with the student.  After doing so, the leader offers to help Mr. Jones do this in a manner that helps him “save face” with the student and the student’s family.

In the end, Mr. Jones needs coaching in order to step away from his fixed mindset (questioning his class policy as an attack on his professionalism).  If successful, the work of the administrator moves Mr. Jones to accept that the policy situation was actually an opportunity to reflect and grow as a teacher who has chosen to promote and support the mission and philosophy of the school.

Success is the result of many factors.  Success in schools can also be defined in many ways.  Whether it is student achievement, enrollment, tests scores, college acceptances, school-community relations, or choosing when to mobilize your army for an assault; leaders who are skilled in picking their battles wisely are ultimately among the more effective.  

Monday, May 23, 2011

Growth Oriented Classes?

Mindset: The New Psychology of Success

Having recently finished Mindset: The New Psychology of Success by Dr. Carol Dweck, I am wondering about how to translate the personal challenge of reconfiguring one's mindset to a growth oriented mindset in classes?

For those who are not familiar with Dr. Dweck's work, allow me to briefly get you up to speed.

In her research, Dr. Dweck suggests that there are two basic mindsets that affect how people interpret information, process that feedback, and react according to these stimuli.  One mindset is "fixed."  The other is "growth."

The fixed mindset believes one's qualities are "set in stone."  This way of thinking drives people to prove themselves over and over again.  Because these qualities are fixed, there is no room for to get better and, therefore, set-backs or failures are met with a high degree of depression and anxiety as one tries to align the self-perception with the failure to produce or achieve at a desired level.

The growth mindset is "based on the belief that your basic qualities are things you can cultivate through your efforts."  Accepting that one can improve with hard work and focus, allows set-backs to become learning moments and opportunities for future improvement.  Self-worth is more closely associated with the effort put into a challenge rather than the actual results of the challenge.

More information concerning mindsets and the computer based training tool, Brainology, can be found at the Mindset website and at the Brainology website.

Now, back to my initial question.  How can we translate what appears to be a personal transformation from a fixed to growth mindset in a person to a growth oriented class?

Here are a few suggestions:
  1. Look at how you mark grades and provide feedback.  How much does effort count?
  2. Examine your written or verbal comments with students and families.  Are you fixated on grades or learning?
  3. When you give feedback, do you recognize growth and encourage effort?
  4. Is your feedback genuine?  If the work is not strong and the effort not up to expectations, are you honest?  Remember, you can deliver difficult news well if you avoid making judgement statements and focus on the process and how you can help.
  5. Do you example a growth mindset in class?
  6. Are the goals for the course clearly outlined, communicated, and supported by your instruction?
  7. Do you give students opportunities to grow in the class?  Do you associate their shortcomings as an attack on your value as a teacher, mentor, and leader or as an opportunity to do demonstrate the benefits of hard, smart, and focused work?
If you or your school has benefited from Dr. Dweck's work, please let me know.  I am very interested in how that happened and what was done to make it a success at your school.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

From unhealthy to healthy

good health In my last post, I wrote about the different reactions to ideas that are sometimes associated with unhealthy and healthy school climates.  As a result, a reader left a comment in which he asked me for advice on how to move from an unhealthy to a healthy environment.  I am happy to oblige, so here it goes.

The “Unhealthy” Climate

In order to explore how to move from unhealthy to healthy, I think we need to establish an agreed upon description on what an unhealthy school climate looks like.  Unhealthy climates, in the most general sense, redirect the energy and focus of the school away from students and mission.  In the place of students and mission, these climates struggle to move conversations and planning beyond addressing the “crisis of the day.”

There is also a higher degree of distrust, isolation, and political in-fighting among the various constituencies of the school.  Good ideas quickly loose momentum as they get bogged down in negativity, and efforts to defend the idea against assumptions that the parties presenting the idea have motives that are self-serving rather than philanthropic.

The leadership of the school is spending so much time “putting out fires” that efforts to regroup and get back on track are pushed down their list of priorities.

Structurally, the policies and procedures have become outdated and are causing inefficiencies.  Roadblocks caused by policy and procedures prevent and dampen the efforts to go above and beyond one’s immediate responsibilities for the benefit of the team.

Unhealthy climates are also lacking in celebrations, ceremony, and symbolic leadership.  Daily events hold no more meaning other than what is seen at the surface of the event.

Diagnosing the exact areas to focus treatment options must include a multi-frame approach: an examination of the structural, political, symbolic, and human resource elements of the organizational climate.    

The “Healthy” Climate

Now, lets turn our attention to a healthy climate.  Simply described, healthy school climates are student-centered, mission-based, and growth-oriented.  Conversations are collegial as well as congenial.  The school leadership maintains a forward thinking vision and develops systems within the school that are mission-based, yet adaptable to future initiatives.

In healthy schools, there are no shortage of reminders about success.  Effort and initiative are welcomed and expected among teachers and students.  Because of these efforts, these schools do good work and set good examples for their students.

The Treatment

As with any effort to get healthy, the fact of the matter is that there is no quick or easy fix.  Treating unhealthy schools will take time, energy, and plenty of effort.  It will take an enormous and sustained effort by the school’s leadership to get out in the front of these efforts and support the teachers’ efforts towards getting healthy.

In order to move to a healthy environment, the first thing that needs to happen is for the leadership to completely accept that change cannot be avoided.  Leading change is a complex issue, but the most important aspect of leading change is establishing trust.  In other words, begin “walking the walk.” 

Change also requires balance.  Forcing the change is superficial.  The change needs to come from within and genuine in order to have any chance of sustainable success.  Leaders need to give people a chance to go through the process of accepting change.  This is made easier when the leader communicates that change is required, why it is required, and explains how he or she is going to help everyone accomplish these changes.  It is this last part, the telling how the leader will support the change effort, that is most often overlooked.

Leaders must remember that there is a HUGE difference between “Follow me!” and “Go there!”

Choose, “Follow me!”

The Recovery and The Commitment

Recovery times vary depending on how unhealthy the climate was originally.  I have seen some schools make extraordinary changes and become extremely healthy in a relatively short time.  These are usually schools that had a solid foundation and clear mission, but needed to clear some plaque in order to refocus on what mattered most.

On the other hand, some changes need plenty of time because the dysfunction runs too deep.  Some schools, once the true issues are identified, need to go through significant multi-layered adjustments.  Structurally, policies and procedures may need amending.  Symbolically, important events and traditions need to be nurtured to bring value to seemingly ordinary happenings.  Political differences need to mending and new coalitions need to be established.

The key to sustained recovery and growth is making the commitment to developing the habits of healthy schools.  Recovery is not easy and good leaders inspire the school to identify and treat the unhealthy parts of the organization.

Great leaders take the new healthy school and deliver on the commitment to sustain growth and long term health.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

The Only Thing That Matters Is That It Should Really Matter

idea2 At one point early in my career, I remember thinking that there was no way I would ever consider taking on a formal leadership role in schools.  My fear, as I so eloquently said at the time, was that “I would wake up one morning having lost all common sense.”  One of the reasons I had such an opinion at the time was that the level of autocratic, top-down directives were pervasive that I truly felt as if I had no value at all outside of my class.  I wanted to contribute.  I had good ideas.  But none of that mattered.

Now, as I serve in my current role, I am highly aware of the need to be inclusive and work to understand, appreciate, and involve teachers in the operations of the school.  I believe these are important qualities for any school leader.  Establishing a professional and respectful atmosphere in which your best people can contribute and are motivated to engage in school-wide initiatives is a key element to success.  Most effective leaders will agree with this point.

Good teachers engage in the life of the school.  They make a difference because they bring all their talents and enthusiasms to their classes.  The results are usually engaged and active learners.

Would we attach this same description to an effective leader?  In other words, is a good school leader one who is engaged in the life of the school by bringing all their talents and enthusiasms into the building each day?

Let’s assume both descriptions above are acceptable.  Let’s also assume that a great idea has been brought up for consideration.  This idea is student-centered and is something that both teachers and the administrators believe will have a positive impact on the students’ learning.  Many of us can probably relate so far to this example.

Now, let’s assume the idea originated from a teacher or group of teachers.  How would you expect the administrator to react?  In a healthy environment, it is probably expected that the administrator would ask legitimate logistical questions, ask what kind of support is needed from the “office”, explore the impact on items specifically under the administrator’s responsibility, etc.  Ultimately, the teacher would expect to be told to “go for it” or “give it a try.”

In an unhealthy environment, the idea is likely never heard by the administrator.  It lives on the faculty lounge and filed under the heading of “great ideas that will never see the light of day.”

Let’s flip the scenario somewhat.  Let’s assume this great idea originated with the administrator.  In a healthy environment, the idea is presented in a way that allows the teachers to reflect, ask questions, clarify purpose, and make adjustments as necessary.  If the school uses a department chair system, the administrator probably presented the idea to the chairs first to gage potential issues and work out some challenges ahead of time.

In the unhealthy environment, the administrator is treated with skepticism.  He/she is accused of forcing an agenda on the teachers or being too top-down and dictatorial.  Since there are likely no objections (after all, why object, the administrator is going to do it anyway), problems arise early on during implementation.  Teachers are blamed for not following through.  The leader is blamed for not considering the teachers needs.  In other words, the administrator has “lost all common sense.”

Great ideas that can potentially make an impact on learning are invaluable.  Does it really matter from where the idea originated? 

If a teacher has one, administrators need to listen, ask clarifying questions as needed, and then ask about how to support the effort.

Teachers also need to accept that administrators sometimes have great ideas too.  Believe it or not, most of us have not lost all common sense (at least not yet).  Ideas generated by your school leadership are not top-down efforts to micro-manage your life at school.  Often, they are simply great ideas for students.

In the end, the only thing that really matters is that new ideas have a direct impact on student engagement and learning.

The only thing that matters is that it should really matter.

Image by Cayusa

Friday, May 13, 2011

3 Pillars to Uphold a Student-Centered Culture


Developing a student-centered culture in your school and among your teachers is a key component to nurturing high achievement. Effective schools recognize this, but can get stuck in the conversation about how to promote such an environment. The hard part for me has not been KNOWING this, but TRANSFORMING these beliefs into practice.
As we plan for the next school year and begin to introduce the underlying foundations for our faculty conversations, I offer these three “pillars” for upholding a student-centers culture. Each pillar is described in terms of a relevant resource for you to use as the backdrop to your conversations.

Motivation

Every school at which I have worked has grappled with the issue of student motivation. Face it, at some point all teachers are confronted with the challenge of coming up with new and innovative ways to motivate students. Daniel Pink’s Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us tells us about how external motivators often serve to lower productivity when we are engaged in activities beyond simple mechanical functions.  Pink writes of an internal motivation that leads to greater innovation and problem solving by focusing on autonomy, mastery, and direction.

For schools, this is a great read to spur discussion and reflection on how students are motivated in your school and how your own system may actually be working against you.

Growth Mindset

The very nature of education is about change.  As students move through school, they are faced with many opportunities to grow academically, ethically, morally, intellectually, physically, etc.  We also observe students who are fixated on results rather than the process and effort necessary to achieve the results they desire.  In our schools, we need to remember that encouraging effort and recognizing growth is often as important (or more important) than the final result.

Mindset: The New Psychology of Success by Carol Dweck presents the argument that talent and ability combined with effort and the belief that we are able to make significant changes creates a growth mindset more conducive to lifelong learning and resilience.  For schools, this is a great place to begin examining your own culture's mindset.  Does your school have a fixed or growth mindset?  This book will help you decide and how to begin making the changes you seek to make. 

Communication

One of the key factors of student achievement is the relationship developed between student and teacher.  The foundation of any effective relationship is the quality of communication between the parties involved.  On the other hand, one of the more anxiety inducing situations for teachers is the difficult communications that can sometimes come up with students and their parents.  Entering into these difficult conversations from a learning angle instead of a defensive position builds the foundation for productive communication.

In Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most, Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton, and Sheila Heen guide us through a number of difficult conversations while revealing tips and suggestions about how to transform these tough situations into learning conversations.  Ultimately, the anxiety that arises from these situations may not actually go away, but we are left with a skill set to put these conversations in a more productive context.

Motivated, growth oriented, students who are the center of productive learning conversations are usually the result of motivated, growth oriented schools that enter into essential learning conversations with their teachers, administrators, and families.  The three pillars described here may help provide some clarity and inspiration for your own plans for the rest of this year and moving forward into next.

Great Minds Think Alike

great minds think alike It is easy to associate only with those who are mostly like us.  People who share our opinions are safe and often validate our thoughts and ideas.  It is much harder to engage with those who are less like us.  When we are faced with a challenge to our beliefs and philosophies, we get uncomfortable.

We see this in schools.  We tend to become quite collegial with those like us and tend to be simply congenial to the rest.  When great minds think alike, they seem to gravitate towards each other.  When we are faced with a colleague who thinks differently, we often stay at arms length.

But at what cost to the culture of our school does this happen?  As “lead learners” in our schools, do we not have a responsibility to enter into “learning conversations” with those who might have a different opinion or approach to teaching and learning?  Engaging with the goal of learning instead of needing validation can be quite liberating and satisfying, especially if during this interaction you discover hidden truths in your own beliefs that were otherwise in hibernation.

We also need to remember that, as teachers and leaders, we probably share a foundational belief that underscores all others – we are passionate about our disciplines and care deeply about helping our students.

Effective educational leaders do not shy away from the uncomfortable, but rather view difficult conversations as opportunities to learn.  These are also moments when one’s true leadership skill is put to the test.  If we approach these situations from that position, we are certainly in a good place to advance the missions of our schools.

Being intelligent educators, I hope we can all agree to that.

Image Source Page: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/evolution/great-minds-think-alike.html

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Educational Leadership and Sharing

I began writing this blog in July, 2010. When I decided to take the leap into the blogosphere, it was because I thought I had achieved some level of experience and knowledge that could be useful to others. Being in a formal leadership role, I thought sharing my ideas was both helpful and appropriate. I still believe this to be true. In other words…

I am a leader, therefore I share
 
Since then, I have engaged in other means to get my ideas out and to learn from other people. Using social networks such as Twitter and Facebook has been invaluable in opening up my professional perspective.  There is such a diverse assortment of educators who are willing to share their own ideas and experiences. As excited as I get when someone comments on my ideas, I am just as excited to read a fresh, interesting, and new take on educational matters.

Many of these new ideas are not necessarily shared by educators in formal leadership roles, yet by proactively advancing the causes of professional development and collaboration, these educators are all, essentially, engaging in educational leadership. They are all leading. This has led me to another realization.

I share, therefore I am a leader
 
I am not implying that one needs to blog, Tweet, etc. to share. I would suggest that for those who are not involved in these tasks, start by sharing face to face in your school. Have conversations about teaching and learning. Throw your ideas off of a trusted friend. Get feedback from others about how you are doing. These are all examples of what many others are doing via the internet. In time, you may be comfortable in taking the leap into other methods (as I became).

 
Either way, sharing your skills, talents, and ideas with others places you in a different category than those whose gifts do not venture outside of their classroom walls. If you know someone like that, challenge yourself to help them open up to sharing with others. Maybe they can begin with you as a confidant.

I want to end this post with an inscription I got on an autographed copy of Leadership Secrets of the Rogue Warrior by Richard Marcinko. Mr. Marcinko wrote:

 
“Troy, Pass all you can along to those who need to listen. Set the example.”

Such fitting words for us who endeavor to lead our schools.

Monday, May 9, 2011

The 5:1 ratio and school relationships

Public speakers The longer I work in education, the more I am convinced that successful educational experiences are, to a great extent, the results of building positive relationships.  These relationships can be student:teacher, teacher:teacher, student:parent, parent:teacher, etc.  I am also of the mind that at the core of every strong relationship is effective communication.

This begs the question, “What defines effective communication?”  For schools, I would be as general as saying that effective communication is the interactions of school members that advances the mission of the school.  More specifically, this may take many forms, including:

  • Specific and accurate feedback on student work
  • Follow up on school events
  • Discussion of pedagogy and curriculum
  • Forums to share thoughts and ideas about how to help individual students

This list can be endless, but each example involves building, nurturing, and employing a team or partnership approach to the school’s operations.

While the idea of establishing strong relationships is not a new concept for schools, it is often one that is elusive and taxes energies.  These relationships take time.  An atmosphere of mutual trust and respect are key ingredients, but are not easy given or earned.  Strong relationships also stand the test of time and are not easily swayed by the crisis of the moment.  Much like a strong marriage, relationships at the heart of educational success recognize that each side will not always live up to expectations, but over the long run, their should be no doubt that decisions were made and actions were taken for positive and noble reasons.  Our means and methods may be debated and discussed, by our intent should not.

If we at least somewhat agree to this past analogy, can we also agree that strategies that help foster strong marriages may also help establish strong educational relationships?  If so, I think an important piece for schools to remember is the work of John Gottman.  Gottman’s research with married couples suggests that those who engage in a 5:1 ratio of positive to negative interactions have a much better statistical chance at establishing a happy and stable relationship than those who do not.  In other words, for every negative interactions, 5 positive ones are needed to maintain a reservoir of good feelings.

What does this say about establishing strong relationships in school?  I think it demands that we reflect on our communications with the ratio in mind.  When you get a message from school or a parent of a student, what is your initial reaction?  When you send messages, what is the tone?  Do you see a pattern forming?  Are efforts to be more positive (or at least proactively positive) necessary?  If so, can you begin establishing that habit now? 

A quick list of areas that may be affected by the 5:1 ratio include:

  • school website
  • emails
  • newsletters
  • phone conversations
  • parent/teacher conferences
  • “bus stop” and “drop off/pick up line” conversation

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Staring a new habit during the final stretch

Depending on your school’s calendar, it is likely that the school year will end for many of us at some point in the next three to five weeks.  In addition, many teachers and administrators are either planning for 2011-2012 or sighing relief to the end of 2010-2011 (or both!).  Most educators, however, are not necessarily looking to try something new in the final few days and weeks of the school year.

I think this is actually a very good time to begin trying something you have been wanting to do, but have not begun.  With roughly three to five weeks left, you have just enough time to start and develop a new habit for your school leadership and/or instruction.  In addition, you can use the summer months to either continue the habit and make any adjustments to your approach based on real experiences.

For example, you have wanted to send weekly positive messages to parents, but the idea got lost in the daily grind of teaching.  Begin now by making the effort to write one or two each day.  After a few weeks, you should find it easier to maintain your schedule.  You will also have had a chance to get any feedback from parents.  This feedback may help to continue this “new” habit is the most effective manner.

Reflection on this school year has hopefully revealed a few areas to address in 2011-2012.  Why wait for the summer to distract you from initiatives that are fresh in your mind now?  Pick an item to begin doing and begin doing it now. 

Saturday, May 7, 2011

The "evolution" of education


In his Pulitzer Prize winning book, The Metaphysical Club: A Story of Ideas in America, Louis Menand writes of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species:
The purpose of On the Origin of Species was…to debunk the concept of supernatural intelligence – the idea that the universe is the result of an idea…Darwin wanted to establish…that the species were created by, and evolve according to, processes that are entirely natural, chance-generated, and blind (121).
Menand also goes on to write:
Darwin thought…that variations occur by chance, and that chance determines their adaptive utility…Natural selection is a law that explains why changes occur in nature…Since some members of the group must die, the individuals whose slight differences give them an adaptive edge are more likely to survive. Evolution is simply the incidental by-product of material struggle…Organisms don’t struggle because they must evolve; they evolve because they must struggle (122-123).
I have been thinking about these passages and asking myself “how or if” these principles can be applied to thinking about schools and education. Later in the 19th century, such thinking was the foundation of the Social Darwinism movement, which was not very successful in examining class and social structures in society. Can a generally accepted work, such as the idea of evolution as put forth by Darwin, be applied to educational reform? Is reform simply the evolution of education being observed in the struggles faced by many of our schools?

In some ways, an analysis of education through a Darwinian lens may provide some interesting insights. For instance, if we examine the history of education, there may be some pedagogical aspects that have remained in place over the course of time. If so, then the Darwinian approach suggests that the evolution of education that has taken place, and the subsequent struggles inherent in that evolution, have determined these consistent pedagogical approaches provide an “adaptive edge” in effectively delivering an education.
On the other hand, a Darwinian approach to examining education may not be useful. Education is a field of inquiry, not a living organism. In order to make a realistic application, we need to accept Darwin’s thoughts apply equally to organisms and fields of study. The concept that “species were created by, and evolve according to, processes that are entirely natural, chance-generated, and blind” (121) would have to also apply to education. Essentially, we would need to accept that any change in education has been the result of natural, chance-generated, and blind forces. As the field of education is a human created and promoted endeavor, I’m not sure Darwin’s theory can be appropriately applied. In other words, changes in education are typically not left to chance, they are the product of human experience, experimentation, and adjustment – trial and error with the quest being to discover new and innovative methods.
So, has education “evolved” or has it simply grown as a field of inquiry with a fluid body of knowledge? I think it is safe to say that we view education and we instruct students today differently than ever before. The science of learning and motivation adds an insight into the educational process that was unknown in the not too distant past. The experiences of teachers in the classroom and the research in the field and in universities should add to our understanding and appreciation for the educational process.

Maybe education is less like an evolving organism and more like the law. For as Oliver Wendell Homes, Jr. states, “The life of the law has not been logic; it has been experience.” But that is the topic of a future article.


Thursday, May 5, 2011

“Edleaders Academy” – defining educational leadership

EDLEADERS ACADEMY (2)

This is the first in what I hope is a series of posts designed to be more interactive.  The purpose is to explore and share more defined aspects of educational leadership through a progression of exercises.  Each exercise has an accompanying Google Doc that I will provide access to in these posts and in the “Open Contribution” page on this blog.

I hope you find these exercises engaging and helpful in your developing understanding of educational leadership.

Today’s Assignment

This is the first exercise in the series.  Being the first, I thought it appropriate to begin with asking a simple question.

What is your definition of “educational leadership?”

If you would like some tips on how to put together your definition, please check out this out this post I wrote about defining educational leadership.

Feel free to comment and share!

The “Mind Dump” class exercise

Explanation of the exercise

I used this exercise today in my history class.  The basic premise is designed around  doing a “mind dump” of information.  “Mind dumps” are simply taking time to write down keywords or phrases that you know about  a given topic.  I have seen this used before tests, but not as part of a classroom lesson.

I began by listing the three most current topics of discussion in our class: Westward Expansion, Civil War, and Civil Rights.  Students were then instructed to use either a sheet of paper or their laptops to create three columns (one for each topic).

After the documents were set up, I instructed the students to take about 20 minutes to quickly list the keywords or phrases they remember from our discussions.  The only provision was that they could not use their notes from those discussions.  This was to measure what they actually remembered.

Once the lists were made, I asked each student to choose one topic and one item on their list to share with the class.  After each share, the class had a chance to ask questions.

We then looked at the 3 lists and broke into small groups – one for each topic.  Each small group then decided on 4 main points taken from their lists.  Each small group then was instructed to divide into subgroups – one for each of the 4 points.  Essentially, we had 12 subgroups; each in charge of a main point.  That subgroup is then in charge of creating a presentation for the class (5-8 minutes long).

Other notes

My class meets every other day for 80 minutes, so you may need to adjust this for time.  Also, I hope to video a few of the presentations which could then be shared with everyone as a reference or an addition to our school website.

Feel free to comment or try this out in your class.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

The give and take of educational leadership

Being an educational leader is very rewarding and taxing.  One day, your efforts pay huge dividends.  The next, you may feel as if you haven’t accomplished anything at all.  Progress is one area may lead to spinning your wheels in another.

As with many things in life that are worthwhile, being an educational leader has it’s share of “gives” and “takes.”

“Give”

“Take”

Ideas and concerns consideration Time to listen to concerns and ideas
The support necessary to help teachers achieve their goals The opportunity to congratulate teachers on accomplishing their goals
Honest and constructive feedback about how well a class is going Feedback on whether or not my expectations are reasonable
Reasons to keep doing your best when things are going rough Away as many burdens and anxieties as possible
A vision for the school’s future that is inclusive and shared by others Opportunities to involve others in generating or refining the school’s vision and beliefs statements

If you have other examples to share, please feel free to comment below.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Suggested summer reading for teachers and parents

It is not uncommon for schools to assign summer reading to students. Some schools even have summer reading for teachers. It is less common for schools to make summer reading suggestions for parents.


This year, I am making a suggested reading list for teachers, but also inviting parents to read the same titles. I have either read or am in the process of reading each. A brief description is included.


If you have read any of these, please feel free to comment.  I am also interested in other suggestions, so feel free to make those as well.

Descriptions from Amazon.com.

 

Seven Secrets of the Savvy School Leader: A Guide to Surviving and Thriving by Robert Evans
From the Inside Flap


School leaders today are working harder than ever, longer than ever, dealing with ever greater complexity, and sacrificing ever more of their personal and family time to their work. At the same time they are subject to increasing criticism, second-guessing, and unrealistic expectations. Adding to this crisis in leadership is the fact that an entire generation of school leaders is retiring, many of them early, and the number of candidates applying to replace them is plummeting. How can we make school leadership more doable and offer hope to both experienced and beginning leaders?

Seven Secrets of the Savvy School Leader tackles this challenge head on. Written by Robert Evans, noted school consultant, former teacher, and psychologist, this book offers concrete help and inspiration for anyone serving as or considering becoming a school administrator. From his experience with many of America's most savvy school leaders, Evans describes the qualities, characteristics, and behaviors that lead to success in today's uncertain environment.
As practical as it is readable, Seven Secrets of the Savvy School Leader offers solid advice for overcoming even the most daunting of school leadership challenges, from dealing with the innate tensions that face all administrators, to learning how to tell the difference between dilemmas and problems, to guidance on where leaders should put their focus. The book also reveals why following the latest leadership fad can lead to ineffective and misguided decisions and practices.
For anyone who wants to serve schools in a leadership position, this book provides an essential survival guide and a road map for excellence.


Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most by Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton, and Sheila Heen


From Publishers Weekly

Bringing together the insights of such diverse disciplines as law, organizational behavior, cognitive, family and social psychology and "dialogue" studies, Stone, Patton and Heen, who teach at Harvard Law School and the Harvard Negotiation Project, illustrate how to handle the challenges involved in effectively resolving "difficult conversations," whether in an interpersonal, business or political context. While many of their points are simplistic: don't ignore your feelings, consider the other person's intentions, take a break from the situation; they're often overlooked in stressful moments. Most useful are the strategies for disarming the impulse to lay blame and for exploring one's own contribution to a tense situation. Also of value are specific recommendations for bringing emotions directly into a difficult discussion by talking about them and paying attention to the way they can subtly inform judgments and accusations. If these recommendations aren't followed, the authors contend, emotions will seep into the discussion in other, usually damaging, ways. Stone, Patton and Heen illustrate their points with anecdotes, scripted conversations and familiar examples in a clear, easy-to-browse format.
Mindset: The New Psychology of Success by Carol Dweck


From Publishers Weekly

Mindset is "an established set of attitudes held by someone," says the Oxford American Dictionary. It turns out, however, that a set of attitudes needn't be so set, according to Dweck, professor of psychology at Stanford. Dweck proposes that everyone has either a fixed mindset or a growth mindset. A fixed mindset is one in which you view your talents and abilities as... well, fixed. In other words, you are who you are, your intelligence and talents are fixed, and your fate is to go through life avoiding challenge and failure. A growth mindset, on the other hand, is one in which you see yourself as fluid, a work in progress. Your fate is one of growth and opportunity. Which mindset do you possess? Dweck provides a checklist to assess yourself and shows how a particular mindset can affect all areas of your life, from business to sports and love. The good news, says Dweck, is that mindsets are not set: at any time, you can learn to use a growth mindset to achieve success and happiness. This is a serious, practical book. Dweck's overall assertion that rigid thinking benefits no one, least of all yourself, and that a change of mind is always possible, is welcome.


Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us by Daniel Pink


From Publishers Weekly

According to Pink (A Whole New Mind), everything we think we know about what motivates us is wrong. He pits the latest scientific discoveries about the mind against the outmoded wisdom that claims people can only be motivated by the hope of gain and the fear of loss. Pink cites a dizzying number of studies revealing that carrot and stick can actually significantly reduce the ability of workers to produce creative solutions to problems. What motivates us once our basic survival needs are met is the ability to grow and develop, to realize our fullest potential. Case studies of Google's 20 percent time (in which employees work on projects of their choosing one full day each week) and Best Buy's Results Only Work Environment (in which employees can work whenever and however they choose—as long as they meet specific goals) demonstrate growing endorsement for this approach. A series of appendixes include further reading and tips on applying this method to businesses, fitness and child-rearing. Drawing on research in psychology, economics and sociology, Pink's analysis—and new model—of motivation offers tremendous insight into our deepest nature.


Seven Secrets of the Savvy School Leader: A Guide to Surviving and Thriving  Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us  Mindset: The New Psychology of Success  Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most
 

Sunday, May 1, 2011

That is why they call you “teacher”

“My students are so unorganized.” – That is why they call you, “teacher.”

“I can’t believe how often the students forget to bring their (fill in the blank) to class.” – That is why they call you, “teacher.”

“Why can’t she get this problem?  I’ve gone over this a hundred times.” – That is why they call you, “teacher.”

“Yes, it’s on the test and yes, you need to take notes.” – That is why they call you, “teacher.”

“If you didn't understand, why didn't you raise your hand and ask?” – That is why they call you, “teacher.”

On the other hand….

Thank you for seeing me at lunch to explain.  Now, I get it.” – That is why they call you, “teacher.”

I can’t believe I got an ‘A’!” – That is why they call you, “teacher.”

Can we do another project like this one?” – That is why they call you, “teacher.”

Can you email my mom to tell her how well I am doing?” – That is why they call you, “teacher.”

Would you write a recommendation for me?” – That is why they call you, “teacher.”

I appreciate your help.” – That is why they call you, “teacher.”

Have a great day!” – That is why they call you, “teacher.”

Why do they call you, “Teacher?”

“You can’t swing the bat for them.” A perspective on school leadership

BSTEE Once upon a time, I was a baseball coach.  I remember instances (thankfully few of them) when the team was in a slump.  I felt frustrated and disappointed for the players.  I knew they were trying, but things just weren’t going our way.

After one of those games, I was having dinner with a friend and I remember him saying to me, “Coach, you’re doing a fine job with the team.  The players know what to do and are putting out a great effort.  As frustrating as it is to see them in this slump, you need to project confidence for them.  At this time, that is the one thing they are lacking.  Remember, you can coach them to hit the ball, but you can’t swing the bat for them.”

As an educational leader, I see teachers go through both good and difficult times.  There are moments when the teaching and learning are in perfect synchronicity.  At other times, teachers and students appear to be on totally different wavelengths.  In my earlier days as an administrator I may have been quick to offer advice and try to “fix” the teacher with the difficulty.  I was also a little slow to praise and recognize the teachers who were “on a streak.”

I quickly learned to change both of these reactions.

Now, I believe I draw more upon the wisdom of my friend in the baseball story.  As an administrator, I see one of my most important roles being a source of support and a resource for development.  I recognize the strengths and challenges of my teaching faculty and am frequently reminding them that, “I am here for you.  My job is to help you do your job in the best possible way.”  I also have come to find a great deal of sanity in accepting that while I can help a teacher identify and address an area for development, ultimately the teacher needs to take ownership and do the work to make a real difference.  My role is to eliminate as many barriers to that development as possible and put them in the best position to teach a great class.

I can “coach them to hit the ball”, but I “can’t swing the bat for them.”

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