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

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.

Seek First to Understand…All Stories

I learned years ago that the source of a person’s anger is usually due to their story not matching up with reality.  Simple, but still a great thought when trying to understand why someone has “feelings” about an issue.  What do I mean by a “story”?  Well, a person’s story is their version of what reality should be.  Of course, that story doesn’t always match reality.  Let me share an example.

The Parker’s go to movies VERY early.  We leave home at least 45 minutes before the show starts taking a leisurely drive to the theatre and arriving in our seats with a drink and a small snack that we plan to consume before the movie starts.  Then, we play on our phones while waiting for the previews to begin.  Yes, typically we are the first people in the theatre.  The story we play in our heads is that there is no need to rush; cashiers are quick as lines are short, and we get to sit in a seat that we prefer with very little hassle and without inconveniencing others.

In contrast, some folks must leave their homes when the movie is advertised to start, wait in a long line for a ticket, purchase 27 different snacks and drinks from the concessions, and then find their seat (usually right in front of us) 5 minutes after the movie starts thereby missing all of the valuable previews and an opportunity for the perfect seat.  They also talk for 5 more minutes as they pass their snacks around (that doesn’t bother me or anything…).  I imagine that the “late” arrivers are quite content with all of this.  Their story is that they got to a movie in time to see the “good stuff” and they are thankful that there were awesome seats right in front of this other family.  If we traded movie going procedures, the Parkers and the late arrivers would both likely have anxiety attacks.

Now, we strive to control our reality by leaving extra-early for movies.  Sometimes, reality doesn’t play out that way as we are not always able to leave at a preferred time.  Those times, when we are not able to leave early, we speed to the theater turning into the parking lot on two wheels.  I shove Pam out the door with a credit card, and I park the car and run in to catch her punching the self-serve ticket machine with vigor.  We still get to watch the previews, but we were rushed and we do not like to be rushed.  This situation may not make us angry, but we certainly are not happy because reality did not match our story of what traveling to a movie should be like.

Just like our movie going experience, when we are faced with situations that make us unhappy, we all have an opportunity to make a choice.  Either we can change our story, or we can change reality by leaving early for a movie.  In making a decision to change reality, one must weigh the level of emotion experienced with the effort that it would take to change that reality.  If something does not bother us much, and changing reality is arduous, then we are likely to change our expectations…our story.  In contrast, if something garners a great deal of emotion, we are more likely to put forth effort to change reality.  The amount of effort that we are willing to expend to affect change directly corresponds to the strength of our emotions or feelings.  That is the premise of why I like to work with passionate people. Passionate people WORK to change reality.

Of course, this principle applies when leading others.  I’ve often found that when working with someone who has “feelings” it is good to work very hard to try to understand their point of view by imagining their story for myself.  Why do they feel the way that they do?  What is their story and how is it different from mine or from reality?  I try to be empathetic and follow Steven Covey’s 5th principal:  “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.”

This is also a great way to deal with conflict or expectations not being met.  When the person with whom you are conversing truly feels that you understand why they feel the way that they do, you can usually be more successful when getting your own point across; and, perhaps your point will be even clearer to you when you have full understanding of all of the important “stories”.

As leaders, we must always strive to realize the stories that people have.  Remember, their story is a version of what reality should be.  Through understanding all of the related stories, we have the best chance to determine whether we need to change reality by leading others to implement a new program or procedure, or whether we need to communicate differently to help change the stories that cause people angst.

Characteristic of an Exceptional Leader

I’ve been a fan of Steven Covey since I first read his 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. His explanation of the four quadrants of time management and the choices we make in how we spend our time has long been a tenet of my leadership beliefs. I am a firm believer in Quadrant 2! For those who have not had the pleasure to read the book, or his book First Things First, I strongly suggest that studying Dr. Covey is a leadership staple. I have found that the very best leaders focus on behaviors that are important, but not urgent. Covey lists examples of activities in each quadrant.

Covey Quadrants

As you can see, focusing on behaviors that are in “Quadrant 2” are preferred.  What activites will you do today and tomorrow that are Quadrant 2 activities?

I believe that the very best leaders build a climate of cooperation and a strong culture of shared beliefs.  How do they do it?  They spend plenty of time in Quadrant 2.

Attached is an eight day audit.  Download the document and track your activities for the next eight work days and see where you spend your time.  Good luck!

Covey Quadrants Audit

Patience is More Than a Virtue

I do believe that patience is a virtue; however, in some areas of my life, I can be very impatient. One place where I find little patience is the mall. I walk so fast through the mall to get from one location to another that I imagine a security person watching me on their monitors and saying: “Joe, check this guy out. Do you think he just stole something?” I walk with purpose because I need to get on to other more important jobs! Patience does nothing for my shopping plan.

Conversely, patience is necessary when building anything of value. I remember from my teaching days when I would dig into content at a very deep and detailed level during a lesson and then expect students perform at a high level. It didn’t always work that way. Even though I taught my content very…thoroughly…, sometimes students just wouldn’t get to where I needed them to be. I learned that breaking up content into smaller parts and teaching those parts one at a time, always spiraling back and practicing those concepts, helped my students to perform at a much higher level. I learned that there were very few, if any, quick fixes for anything of significance no matter how hard I worked and how well I planned.

As an administrator, I have learned that the best programs come from ideas that grow over time. We work with people, not machines which make the tenet articulated in my title even more important. When working with a team of people, patience is much more than a virtue, it is essential to the success of everyone. Taking time and moving slowly through the team building and norm building processes will allow you to move much quicker in the future. Not only is it important to get everyone on the same page, it is important to develop a common understanding of the topic at hand. Taking the time to study together and develop that common knowledge makes all future conversations much more productive. It is not passé to develop the beliefs, vision and mission of the group. Remember, most success comes from how decisions are made, not from what was decided. Process is at least as important as content.

Like a train, big ideas start slowly as they build speed and power. Once they have gotten up to speed, they are very difficult to stop and are more easily sustained. Lay groundwork for your endeavors and continue to work toward excellence with a team. Be patient without being idle and you’ll find success down the track!