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.

“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.

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.

3 Tests for Adults, Superstar Teachers and Leaders

TEST FOR A CHILD BECOMING AN ADULT
An adult will do something before it needs to be done because they know it will need to be done later. Example: An adult will empty their bladder (even though it isn’t full) before they take a long car trip. When a child begins to think that way, he/she is on the road to becoming an adult.

TWO CHARACTERISTICS FOR SUPERSTAR TEACHERS
1) Undying sense of hope. They never give up.
2) Continual learner

LEADERS VS. NON-LEADERS
When faced with requests to change something, a non-leader will tell you why you can’t do something…many times. A true leader will look for creative ways to make the change that solves the problem.

Praise Is Simply the Best Motivator

Circle of Success

How many teachers would like to know the secret to motivating students?  Certainly many teachers are gifted in this area; however it seems difficult to reach every kid.  Most teachers can catch students when they are not meeting expectations and work with students to let them know that they need to work harder, but is that truly motivational?  What would you give for all students to be intrinsically motivated to learn YOUR SUBJECT to the best of their ability?

 I once read a book titled Whale Done! by Ken Blanchard, which shares the training techniques for killer whales.  The book advocates that there are only four responses to any behavior.  One can simply ignore a behavior, they can respond negatively, they can re-direct the subject, or they can praise the behavior.  Realizing that the first three work very poorly for killer whales, trainers implement the “praise plan” when helping to teach the huge animals.  It is also easy to see that the negative response simply won’t work for an animal that can eat you.  I don’t know if the trainers at Sea World ever say “Bad killer whale!” while shaking their finger and scowling.

 Now understand, they don’t praise every behavior of the whale; they only praise the behaviors that they are trying to teach.  Not only that, they set the whale up for success initially.  In order to teach the whale to jump over a rope, they simply lay a rope across the bottom of the tank and praise it every time it swims over it.  Incrementally raising the rope and ALWAYS praising the whale eventually motivates the whale to jump very high out of the water and over the rope when it is presented to them.

 O.K., they praise the whale with fish….  I’m not sure that a whale can learn pride in a job well done so a simple verbal praise won’t work very well for them.  I think we can take a lot from that story and apply it to what we do with students every day.  I certainly don’t mind jump-starting some students with an extrinsic motivational technique (a.k.a. candy), but how will that fair for them when they are in the work place someday and their boss doesn’t give candy?  Eventually, we must work to help students become intrinsically motivated. 

 I believe in “the circle of success.”  You must initially set some students up for success.  Once they achieve success, PRAISE THEM.  When they are praised consistently (and fairly) they will be motivated to work just a little bit harder.  Working harder will foster more success, which we will PRAISE THEM for.  With constant and proper praise, students will be motivated to work harder.  We can only teach students to be responsible if we can teach them the power of hard work.  Students mostly want to please the caring adults in their lives.  You’ve already got the caring thing down.  Let’s all work on catching students doing the right thing.