Sunday, February 19, 2017

Challenge of Leadership

      If you've never been to a ropes course, I highly recommend going with some friends, your family,  faculty, and even your students. It's a fun day of team building and problem-solving. Many activities require balance and/or balancing someone or something. A person or team must make hundreds of micro-adjustments to maintain the right amount of push, pull, tight and loose tension on the ropes or distribution of weight to complete the challenges. A ropes course also requires a high amount of trust, risk-taking, encouragement, and individual commitment to the team effort. Of course, there's also a lot of celebration throughout the process as teams and individuals conquer fears and solve problems together.
     I think school leadership is a lot like a ropes course. There are so many parts that must have balance for the whole team or organization to experience success. One of those parts is the balance between being friendly, supportive, and holding people accountable to high standards of excellence.
     Most people want to be "liked" but as a leader, being trusted and respected are more important. A leader's responsibility is to drive sustainable change and to build other leaders. That can only happen if the leader is respected. What can school leaders do to build trust and respect?

Develop Relationships: Treat all people with respect every day. Listen with the intent of understanding. Show empathy. Expect others in the school to show respect to students, parents, colleagues, and other stakeholders every day and all the time. Do not tolerate sarcasm, yelling, or arguing. Model expectations.

Communicate: Clearly communicate values, high expectations, purpose, and vision. Be honest. Do not shy away from the crucial conversations that are inevitable. Leaders can have conversations that come from a place of caring that stretch and help others to grow without tearing them down.

Demonstrate Courageous Leadership: Be willing to take risks, seek feedback (from those with different perspectives), and take people farther than they thought they could go. Be an advocate for kids and stand up with conviction against the status quo to provide better educational experiences. Show an undying commitment to those whom you serve.

     Some leaders lead with a hammer, some with carrots to dangle. Neither are very effective alone. Once again, there is a need for balance. It's the tight and loose leadership. For sustainability, a leader needs to build trust, respect, and lead with their heart.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Collaboration Requires Effective Leadership

This month my #CompelledTribe of bloggers are writing about Competition vs. Collaboration. Follow the hashtag to read some great blogs!

When I first started teaching (back in the dark ages), teachers were collegial and helped me find resources when I asked. But, there was a sense of competition. The best lessons and “secret sauces” were highly kept secrets. Teachers competed to be the most popular, most requested by the “good kids,” and most recognized. Don’t misunderstand me. Teachers in the school were very friendly! We planned and coordinated our schedules. We compromised and cooperated. We enjoyed each other’s company. However, I can’t say that teachers collaborated much and the focus of any collaboration wasn’t about student learning. The work of the DuFours and others to introduce the concept of PLCs changed the mindsets of many educators.

However, I think real collaboration is still challenging work. A principal can say, “Here’s time for your PLC meeting” but that doesn’t mean collaboration happens. I don’t want to get caught up definitions and subtleties between words, but collaboration is different from collegiality, cooperation, coordination, consensus building, etc. I think collaboration requires complete trust in team members, vulnerability, vision, commitment, accountability, and group efficacy. I think having high-functioning PLCs in a school happens when there is strong leadership.

What do leaders need to do?

Build a guiding coalition with a small group of leaders in the school.
Inspire and build shared knowledge with faculty and staff.
Have the difficult conversations about school values, mission, vision, current data, and goals.
Ask questions.
Celebrate progress.
Continually communicate with clarity the purpose of our work as educators.
Focus discussions and actions around the four essential questions.
Expect effort and excellence.

Weak leadership affects the culture of the whole school. On the surface, there may not be visible signs of the iceberg below, but it’s there and affects the learning of all within the school. A school leader committed to student learning can’t have the philosophy of staying below the radar and doing “just enough” to stay out of trouble from superiors. Collaboration is not “coblaboration.” It is not a planned, and well-rehearsed show to make the principal look good for visiting dignitaries. There is no room for competition in the sense that there are winners and losers. It’s messy. It requires trust, risk-taking, experimentation, and freedom to make and learn from mistakes. The kind of collaboration necessary for creating a true professional learning community takes effective leadership. Therein lies the challenge.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Bright Colored Packages/PLC

Photo Credit: torbakhopper Flickr via Compfight cc

I loved receiving packages from my grandma as a kid. She’d spend hours wrapping a gift in shiny paper, tying big bows, sprinkling on glitter, and adding other doodads to the outside of the package to make it more attractive. In many ways, I hated opening the packages because they were so beautiful! I would always take my time to open the boxes being careful not to rip the paper too much or ruin the ribbons and bows. It was as much fun opening the packages as it was to see what was inside! The anticipation built up, and it made discovering the contents much more enjoyable. Even my younger brothers, who typically ripped into everything, slowed down to admire the package before tearing it open.
I often think about those packages whenever we hear of another directive from the district office. About six years ago, our district started to implement PLCs. Maybe the initial message was inspiring and motivational, but by the time it came to us as teachers, it was all about compliance. There was no explanation of what a PLC was, no explanation of why we were being asked to “have another meeting” and no vision shared about the benefits to our students. RTI was the same way. To us, it was yet another acronym in the world of education. We had no training, no modeling, and I can’t even recall a faculty meeting devoted to explaining what we were supposed to do besides “look at test scores.” I’m not blaming anyone. I’m just telling about my experience. I understand that in such a large district that communicating any message is similar to the old game of “telephone” where the original message gets distorted as it filters down the line to the next person.

At the time, I was on a remarkable team of other sixth grade teachers. We collaborated and talked about kids and their learning all of the time. In many respects, we were an active PLC before being told that we were “required to have another meeting about test scores.” We did what we were supposed to do, but it felt like we were functioning in the fog and had no direction of what being a real PLC meant.

Six years after being directed to “do a PLC,” and still seeing people struggle with the concept, I can’t help but wonder if the “packaging” could have made the difference. I know that in my classroom I can get my kids excited about doing a very mundane task depending on my presentation and how I frame it. I think it’s the same way with anything that teachers are asked to do.
Administrators often get to go to conferences and hear inspiring speakers. But teachers often get the watered down 10-minute version of a two-day conference. The time to process information, to ask clarifying questions, to reflect on how to implement a practice or shift a mindset is often missing. I honestly can’t remember the last time I felt inspired at school to try something new to improve my practice. If it weren’t for being a connected educator and my drive to improve, I don’t know that I’d be where I am today. I see many of my colleagues without vision, passion, and drive and I know at least part of the reason why.
We all need to be uplifted periodically. We need to hear about the successes of others. We need to be challenged. We need to be celebrated. We all need to know the WHY we are being asked to do something. We need to feel inspired! How can teachers inspire their students if they’re never inspired themselves? First of all, I don’t think teachers should ever wait around for their school or district to “develop them.” Learning is personal. Educators should show self-initiative and seek out their own learning and understanding.
  • Become a connected educator! When you’re a connected educator, you’re inspired by your PLN every day! (webinars, podcasts, edcamps, conferences, Voxer groups, Twitter chats, blogs, etc.)
  • Read! Read! Read!
  • Tap into your teacher leadership and share your great resources with others. Encourage other staff members to do the same.
  • Try something different like a lunch and learn, share via a Padlet or Smore
I wish that I had known years ago what I know about PLCs/RTI now. I wish that my introduction to the idea had been more inspiring. I would have completely embraced the concept in a whole different way. But at least moving forward, I trust my PLN to keep me informed and inspired about the practices that make a difference in student learning.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Letter to Struggling Veteran Teachers

Over the last few months, I’ve received some e-mails and have had several conversations with a few of my veteran teacher friends struggling in the classroom. Their thoughts have been on my mind!

Dear friends,
   First of all, I want to tell each of you how much I love you! Throughout the years, it’s been your smile, positive attitude, a listening ear, example, and advice that’s motivated me to push myself and grow. I am where I am today because of you! I cannot express in words how much I appreciate the time you have devoted to me. We were busy! But, you never made me feel like we had to watch the clock. We sure have had some fun times laughing and talking after school- sometimes crying both from laughter and fighting through the struggles of being a teacher. I admire all that you’ve done for kids! It’s why it's so hard to hear that you’re struggling now to keep the passion burning. So my friends, borrow mine for a time! I've certainly borrowed from you over the years!

Do you remember when I took piano lessons? I love music! I was highly motivated to learn! But taking piano lessons as an adult is a little different than being a 10-year-old kid. I remember a time when playing the piano wasn’t a joy anymore. It was a drudgery. I hated the hours of practice! I was practicing for all the wrong reasons! My frustration finally came to a head one day when my teacher and I had a “semi-heated discussion.” I felt like he was expecting too much! How many tricks can an old dog be expected to learn after all?
I distinctly remember him telling me that he was pushing and challenging me because he knew that I could play the music he was giving me. He believed in me more than I believed in myself! I had a choice. I could keep pushing myself and grow, or I could quit. Neither option sounded like much of an option to me at the time, but it did make me think. I pressed on, borrowing my teacher’s belief in me until I could believe in myself that I could play that particular piece of music.
I’m telling you that story because it’s the same with teaching. I KNOW you love kids! You have devoted your life to the service of your students. I am aware that the “music” you’re being asked to play in the classroom is difficult! Yes, a lot of things have changed! Changes are happening at such a rapid rate that it’s hard to keep up! But, staying in the status quo is not good for kids! It's not good for you either!
As I see it, you have the same two options that I had. Borrow my belief in you until you believe in yourself once again or go on with your life and exit the profession knowing that you’re leaving a great legacy! I'm so happy for one of you who decided to make that decision. I hope you'll have a fabulous time traveling the world and living your dream! You truly made a difference in the lives of hundreds of kids who will remember you forever!   
For those of you still contemplating a decision, change is continually happening. We have to make some mindset shifts to meet the needs of our kids. People are willing to help you! You do not have to teach in isolation. You don't have to figure out the technology, standards, etc. by yourself. Please, don't stay in the classroom for "one more year" and not be willing to make some changes. Our kids deserve our best now. 
  You can do it! I believe in you! You can still make a difference! Not only do the kids need you, but other teachers need you as well. They can learn from you! You can learn from them! We are better together!  
  I’m in your corner rooting for your success!

Love you!