As Good As We Are…

As good as we are, what would It take to make us better?  I heard this tenet years ago and it struck me in many different ways.  I saw it as motivation to improve…to “get better” even though one may already be “good”.  I also saw it as a shield to complacency for those who are reluctant to change in a world that is transforming right before our eyes.  In the years since hearing this phrase, I have found even more meaning in this tenant as it aligns with my belief that the best teachers are the best learners.  Simply put, I believe that we must strive to improve…every chance we get.
When Pablo Casals, Spanish born cellist, was asked at age 90 why he continued to practice, he replied: “Because I think I’m getting better.”  Why did he feel he needed to get better at age 90?  He was already extremely well accomplished.  I contend that his mindset, his belief, didn’t allow him to be “good enough”.  I like to think that he knew of no other way to live his vision of music performance excellence, other than to continually strive to improve his art.
I’ve had the pleasure to work with many Pablo’s in my career.  Ironically, I have seen those who jump first at voluntary training are already the higher functioning professionals.  Why is that?  Well, the best teachers are the best (and most motivated) learners.  Hmmm…does that mean that the best teachers need the least support?  No!  I believe that those with the largest appetite for knowledge need the most attention as they have more power to pull their colleagues “up” as they learn.
About the same time in my life that I heard the tenet mentioned in the first paragraph, I met someone who would become a strong mentor for me.  In a session of the Indiana Principal Leadership Academy many years ago, I remember hearing Todd Whitaker’s principle that when you work with your superstar teachers, your ability to positively impact the entire staff could be much greater.
Dr. Whitaker will tell you that the “mediocres” best chance of improving is through their witnessing of trusted and respected colleagues catching on and adopting change.  Ron Clark refers to those who are reluctant to change as “sitters” on the bus.
We are in the change business!  We don’t have to stop the train to get everyone on board first, but we must remember that once we have a critical mass willing to move forward, it’s time to get the wheels spinning!  With support and strong focus of keeping the train on the track, most of the others will catch up.

Leaders Bring People Together

As I read and listen to the news, I get more and more worried about the increasing polarization of our society.  People seem to love or hate much more than ever.  From the national stage, I am amazed how so many people are vigorous supporters of one candidate, yet others express the same vigor with dislike for that candidate.  Even recent discussions in our own state’s legislative branches demonstrate significant polarization.  I just heard a legislator on the radio say that his caucus is very set on an issue that surveys show is against the will of the people in the state.  Even in my own community, we have polarization on too many issues.

I realize that news folk seek out responses from both ends of the spectrum on issues, but as I listen to talk shows or reports from the street, it seems to me that so many people have tunnel vision only looking at one aspect of an issue and not seeing the big picture.  Of course, some of the people who are put on camera appear to be missing something…, but so are people who look at a mountain and can only see a rock.

Those that know me can attest that I am far from Milquetoast on many matters that are important to me.  Really, I have the ability to express some passion.  But, I ask myself, what the heck is wrong with seeing all sides of an issue…the good, bad and the in-between?  When did we start to become a society of people who wear blinders?

Of course, our connectedness through social media has arguably been a part of pulling us further apart.  We now have so many forums for us to hold personal court.  Don’t get me wrong, I participate moderately in social media functions.  One of my favorite aspects of social media isn’t reading the idea that is expressed initially, it is digging into the many responses to the idea that is originally posted.  Every once in a while I actually see someone demonstrate some thinking and regard for what is expressed by others.  It still strikes me that so many people are much more interested in expressing their opinions first rather than trying to learn the opinions of others.  (My favorite Covey quote:  “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” comes to mind here!)

I am blessed to work in a great profession where there is a significant proportion of reasonable people compared to the rest of the world.  I will say though that even in education, we have those who are quick to judge.  The silent majority still rules in the end, but so many times the path is fraught with frustration.  More often than not, I am heartened to see people disagree AND understand and respect the opinions of those with which they disagree.  I really do love school people!

As a leader, I have found that getting to the point where the middle ground can be found on significant issues usually comes when we work deeply with BELIEFS.  Determining the best questions to wrestle with and facilitating a conversation where others are learning, reading and discovering all perspectives before cementing their own opinions often leads to products that are best for students and teachers.

Ask yourself when the last time was that you had a thorough conversation at the beliefs level with your colleagues.  If you are a leader, when is the last time you facilitated such a conversation?

If we want to bring people together, we must focus on developing shared beliefs.  We need to ask questions of significance that are difficult to answer; and we need to give people time to digest the thoughts and opinions of others.  In our ever increasing world of polarization, now more than ever we need to have a firm understanding of how to build consensus through developing shared beliefs

By the way, if you don’t want to bring people together, please don’t lead anything.  We already have too much of that in our world and we don’t need anymore.

The BEST Teachers…

Straight from John Hattie’s Visible Learning

When students were asked about their best teachers, the common attributes were teachers who built relationships with students (Batten & Girling-Butcher, 1981), teachers who helped students to have different and better strategies or processes to learn the subject (Pehkonen, 1992), and teachers who demonstrated a willingness to explain material and help students with their work (Sizemore, 1981).

In my humble opinion those are very LEARNER focused behaviors. When we focus on learners, our teaching becomes a solution, not an activity we perform every day. To help students learn, we must change our solutions.

While working on my laptop last night, my wife was channel hopping (she does that a lot). Stopping on the movie The Blind Side when the character playing Michael Oher was being tutored by character being played by Kathy Bates caused me to stop working and watch for a bit. During the scene I was watching, the actor playing Michael Oher looked at his tutor and said: “I don’t get it.” She replied: “YET, you don’t get it YET.”

So, I continued watching a bit even closing my laptop to save the battery. During another tutoring session, the tutor was working with Michael to find a topic for a paper he had to write. It was a very important paper as his future college scholarship rested on him getting a B or better on the single assignment. Kathy Bates’ character (sorry, I can’t remember her name in the movie) exhausted her ideas to motivate Michael, so she encouraged his father to step in. With a new approach and new ideas, they came up with a great topic to write about. The tutor never gave up and continued to find a new approach that would get through to help Michael learn.

Learning = (Teaching + Creativity) x Different Approach

Every Teacher MUST Answer This Question

In a recent conversation with several teachers, I asked the question: “Does teaching exist in the absence of learning?” This is the most essential question any teacher can ask of themselves. The answer, Yes, No, or somewhere in between, sets the boundaries of a teacher’s effectiveness.

This is a question that many wrestle with as they have experienced students who were very difficult to teach or who were very resistant to learning. How can we make a student learn if they don’t want to? Perhaps the better question one can ask of themselves is: “What power do I have in motivating the most challenging student to learn?” How much power one believes they have is their level of self-efficacy. Webster tells us that self-efficacy is a person’s belief of their power or capacity to produce a desired effect; effectiveness. Fancy psychological research found self-efficacy as the foundation of human motivation and accomplishments. Unless people believe they can produce desired effects by their actions, they have little incentive to act or persevere in the face of difficulties.

Yep, that’s us. We are working with our colleagues to increase teacher effectiveness in the face of difficulties and motivation is certainly key. That, perhaps, is a rather large understatement! Can we motivate teachers to become more effective if they don’t believe that they can be?

I once heard a story about a swim coach who “taught” a group of children to swim; however, try as she might, one student just couldn’t learn and had to be saved by a lifeguard on the last day of class. Did that swim coach teach that child to swim? Can everyone learn to swim? Maybe there are great reasons why the child didn’t learn to swim. Perhaps he didn’t take baby swim class when he was 9 months old like other children and he is just too far behind to learn. Maybe he has a disability that doesn’t allow him to make the proper connections in his mind to control his limbs as well as other children. I don’t know, but to me it is clear that the student didn’t learn to swim.

So, if he didn’t learn to swim, was he taught to swim? Did teaching occur?

Well, to me the big question hinges on the definition of teaching. Is teaching simply providing all of the necessary information on a subject? Being a formal student for half of my lifetime has taught me at least one thing…that there are some very knowledgeable teachers/professors in this world who can’t teach worth a darn. Knowing your material doesn’t mean that you can teach it.

If you’ve read this far, you’ve likely figured out where I stand on the subject. For the most part, I believe that teaching does not exist without learning.  I get it, there are some students that you just can’t reach.  I will say that if you never give up and always try new strategies and tactics, at the end of the day you’ll earn my respect.  I’m not quite Yoda when he said: “Do. Or do not. There is no try.”  Trying is important.

Do you believe that all students can learn? Search deep within yourself. If you truly believe this mantra, then you must also believe that you haven’t finished teaching if a student hasn’t learned enough…yet.

“How” and “Why” are More Powerful than “What”

One of the many things that I learned from Jim Ellsberry during my first semester in Butler’s EPPSP program was that process was AT LEAST as important as content. That was the fall of 1995, and that may have been the first conscious moment of my conviction that the path to anything is more important than the destination. Many will argue that as long as you get to the correct destination as quickly as you can, then you are going to be successful. That would be ok, if it weren’t for the fact that we work with people. People take time. To make any change effective, people must first BELIEVE that the change is valuable.

I ran across a quote from Joellen Killion the other day regarding coaching. She currently serves as senior advisor to Learning Forward and she said: “A good coaching relationship is one in which the coach and teacher are willing to talk less at the level of practice and more at the belief level. The coach is willing to have very courageous conversations, challenging conversations with teachers about their belief systems and how their beliefs impact their instructional decisions.”

So, BELIEFS impact DECISIONS. That’s powerful!

Not only is “how” we go about our work important, so is “why”. Understanding the purpose for our future action takes into account that when we work at the belief level with others, we have a greater chance to impact their actions. With purpose comes passion and with passion comes ownership. When we get others to own the initiative, we’ve led.

Leadership

Speaking with a colleague at lunch today…made me want share one of my favorite leadership books:  “QBQ! The Question Behind the Question” by John G. Miller

Here’s a sample for you from page 92:

Leadership, more than anything else, is about the way we think.  It’s a moment to moment disciplining of our thoughts.  It’s about practicing personal accountability and choosing to make a positive contribution, no matter what our role or level.

Solve a Problem Forever

In my many roles I have the fortune to interact with multiple school administrators. During my time with these great leaders, I strive to make connections and to find meaning for my own study of leadership. Recently, a theme has emerged that has wormed its way into the reoccurring conversations that I have with myself. The principle that I am calling “Solving a Problem Forever” (SPF) is one that I believe helps to set the very best leaders apart from the rest.

Have you ever said something like one of the following statements to yourself or to someone else?
“I can’t believe this is happening again.”
“This problem keeps coming up.”
“I am tired of always hearing this complaint.”

One simple example of when I experienced the need to SPF was when I was a building principal and I constantly received complaints about the drop off zone at our school. For some reason, more and more parents chose to drop their students off instead of having them ride the bus to school and this created some issues for those 300+ cars each morning. While few students were late to school, the amount of complaints I received made this a significant issue for me. It would have been easy to ignore this problem because it didn’t affect the school day much, but it did create nagging heartburn for my parents who wanted to get their children to school on time. And…I hate repeated complaints. To me, it became a cultural issue and one that I knew I needed to tackle.

So, to solve this problem, I first began by designing a set of protocols and listed them on one side of a page with the opposite side being a satellite view of our school with arrows and specific zones marked off. Knowing that developing these “rules” would not solve the problem forever, I knew that I needed to engage my teaching abilities. I made TV announcements talking to the students, sent home messages to parents, collaborated with our maintenance director to secure signage and curb paint AND I started the second semester greeting each car that entered our drop off zone with the new safety and procedural protocols. All of this solved the problem…but not forever. Knowing that the few people who think of themselves before others had the power to mess everything up, I began policing the drop off zone and assigned an additional staff person to do this on a regular basis. When a rare parent would choose to not support these new protocols, I approached their car and talked with them.

While the system wasn’t perfect, it did improve drop-off considerably. Cars no longer backed up onto the road and parents stopped complaining. I even received comments about how much they appreciated the new procedures and a few who noticed me addressing those who tried to skirt the system praised me and our school.

Leaders know that to solve a problem forever usually takes time…sometimes a lot of time. While it is impossible to solve every problem you have at a “forever” level, it is important that you work to SPF every chance that you get. Because there are so many issues that need to be managed, it can be easy to allow problems to continue because you don’t have the time to solve them; but don’t let that be an excuse. Many times the large investment up front provides more time over the course of the year as the multitude of having to “deal with something” diminishes.

Additionally, not only does SPF usually require significant time, it usually also requires dealing with issues at a fundamental level. Having difficult conversations, following up with those you are serving, and developing shared expectations that are best for students, will always pay into your time bank. When you are able to have conversations at a fundamental and foundational level, you build trust and confidence…or rather, leadership capital. When you solve a problem forever, you affect your culture and that influences other areas of your leadership.