Friday, March 30, 2012

When the Rubber Hits the Road

Several months ago, I had reached a saturation point with posts, articles and tweets that were centered around 'what we need to do'.  We need to create lifelong learners.  We need to make school more meaningful.  We need to change, well, basically everything.  An excerpt from that post:

"On a daily basis, I read countless newspaper articles, impassioned posts, and convincing studies that shout out "we are failing children", "change the system", or "do something different".  These excellent resources are written by talented, skilled educators who work in the system today and clearly care deeply about students and student learning.  And to this end, I agree with all of the posts (or at least almost all of them) that I have read.  But then I think about Mom's comment in the Detroit Public Schools investigative report--"I know you care, now what are you doing to show it?". "

And this, to me, is the penultimate point:  while we can talk until we are blue in the face about what is wrong in education, I still find it far more productive to hear how people are making the rubber hit the road. 

Recently, a colleague approached me about their interest in getting into school based administration.  She was busy preparing a resume and thinking about how she was going to approach the whole application process, and she wanted to get another perspective on some of the key points she should emphasize during her presentation that would demonstrate her potential to be a successful administrator.

I found this to be a complex question that I did not want to take lightly.  There are so many things to consider when it comes to characterizing effective leadership.  Moreover, it is my belief that future success is predicated on past practice, so I feel it is important to show what you have DONE to illustrate what it is that you can DO.

But after taking some time to think about this, my answer for my colleague hit me.  The concept that covers it in terms of leadership for me is IMPLEMENTATION.  What is it that you have implemented that you are most proud of?  It is my belief that implementation of an initiative on a large scale encompasses numerous characteristics of an effective leader.  While not an exhaustive list, these are some of the abilities that I feel someone possesses when they have successfully implemented a program or concept:

  1. The ability to reflect and self-assessment:  If you are able to reflect, self-assess, and have the humility to admit there is an issue and the desire to change, you are demonstrating leadership.  If you can ask yourself questions such as: what do you do well in your learning situation?  How do you know?  What are the antecedents of these successes?  Where are areas for growth?  Where are areas that you just flat-out stink?  How do you know?  What are the reasons why you need to grow in these areas?  Can you be vulnerable enough to admit that you or your school might need some assistance to help ameliorate these issues? 
  2. The ability to create a vision and a strategic plan:  Planning is a cornerstone for successful implementation, and great leaders always have a plan that begins with the end in mind. What is the desired outcome in your situation?  Why?  Do you have a compelling rationale and data to support your moving in a new direction?  Who are the key partners?  What questions should you be asking?  Where are the potential hurdles, obstacles and pitfalls?  What are the timelines and benchmarks? What are the negotiables?  The non-negotiables? How will you know when you have reached your goal?  What will be the measure of success?  How will you celebrate when you get there? 
  3. Creativity:  Sometimes the solutions to issues can be solved by being creative with things that already exist.  This can apply to personnel, resources, or just the way that you approach the initiative in the first place. Great leaders don't just think outside of the box, they turn the box on its side, look at it as a diamond and wonder why it was used as a box in the first place.
  4. The ability to effectively utilize existing and new resources: Nothing is 'free', and there is no more money, so get over that piece.  But saying that, not everything costs money,  What are you able to do in your current situation?  What you need to start doing? Stop doing? Are you using your existing resources in the most effective manner?  Can you look at alternate means of implementing your goal?  Are you using those juices from #3?  It is difficult to have an initiative come to fruition without the appropriate resourcing (please do not just hear MONEY when you hear resources), and by making resources come together, you have clearly demonstrated leadership.
  5. The ability to collaborate and communicate:  No initiative can be successfully implemented without these.  Period. (And I am sure there are many of us that have discovered this the hard way).  Whenever you put forth a vision and a plan, you open yourself up to criticism that can come from all directions.  However, the mistake that I have made in the past was to get defensive or to disregard the criticism.  Or to surround myself only with like-minded individuals so I could easily justify my actions.  True leaders listen to the criticism, and to try to understand the source so they can get a more diverse perspective on the initiative.  They are able to take criticism and turn it into a positive that actually makes the initiative even stronger and more compelling.  They collaborate with supporters and naysayers, and through extensive communication that is based in greater understanding, they move forward.
  6. Courage:  Finally, implementing an initiative takes courage.   There can be unpleasant conversations, attacks that feel very personal, hurt feelings, and sleepless nights.  There are the endless thoughts of "why am I doing this to myself?" when the status quo seems so much easier.  But to me, when someone has the fortitude and focus to keep their eyes on the vision that they had in the first place and be doggedly determined to move forward through adversity, they are showing leadership of the highest order.
I have not yet responded to my colleague who is considering administration, but I will soon.  However, I feel that if she or anyone else can proudly describe an initiative that they have successfully implemented from the embryonic vision to when they finally make the rubber hit the road, they will have described themselves as an effective leader that I would hire in a heartbeat.

    Friday, March 16, 2012

    I Want To Go Back to Kindergarten

    A couple of weeks ago, the administrators from our school district had a Professional Development session.  We were assigned to groups of 5 or 6 seated at circular tables.  We had wi-fi access for our tech devices (which ranged from people who had basic cell phones and notebooks to others who had smartphones, tablets and laptops that were connecting using a Google Doc).  There were pens and pads available.  There was water. The chairs were quite comfortable. There was even a little glass bowl filled with candies.  Terrific.

    Then came the structure of the activity.  A quick video to pique our interest, followed by a three or four minute talk from the facilitator.  Then, it was time for us to discuss a scenario in our groups.  There was some joking, a bit of banter with another table, and it was down to business.  We had choices on how we wished to approach the activity, and were going to report out to the rest of the group when we were finished.  Our discussion was lively, and we had multiple contributions from each member of our mixed group.  The time came for us to report out as groups, we gave our impressions, got feedback, exchanged thoughts, and moved on.   It was very relaxed and incredibly productive.

    While sitting there with my colleagues, I suddenly had one of those moments when I stepped outside of myself and pictured watching us from a distance, learning as a group of professionals.  But then I pictured a very different learning situation.  With uncomfortable chairs.  In rows.  Facing forward.  With someone speaking at us at the front of the room.  With limited opportunity to interact with those about us.  For 75 minutes without a break.  About a topic in which we might have limited (or no) interest.   And while this may not describe every classroom in every school around the world,  if we asked our students, I wonder how many might say that this is not too far from their current learning reality.

    Recently, I had the opportunity to see Larry Rosenstock (founder of High Tech High) speak at the Spring BCSSA Conference in Vancouver.  He said something that resonated with me when he stated "secondary school classrooms could learn a great deal from kindergarten classrooms".   I started to think back to my own Kindergarten classroom and a few that I have visited over the course of my career.   I remember comfortable furniture, sitting on the carpet working in small groups, gathering as a class on the beanbag chairs during story time, self-directed time to visit learning stations around the classroom, hands-on manipulatives and activities, even singing and dancing!   I loved Kindergarten.  I loved going to school (although my mother would remind me that I cried pretty hard on that first day of K).   I loved telling my parents what I did at school that day.  I loved learning.

    I also had a chance to reflect on my experiences as a Kindergarten teacher.  Let me qualify that--my VERY brief experiences in the form of three teacher-on-call days early in my career.  With my high school training, I strode into those classes thinking that I would whip the little rascals into shape and have them eating out of my palm in no time.  Seriously, how hard could it be?

    Wow, was I ever wrong. 

    I discovered in about 30 seconds that if Kindergarten kids are disinterested, they will literally stand up, turn around, and start doing something that they are more interested in.  I quickly realized that Kindergarten teachers must constantly engage a group of students that can be VERY difficult to engage.  By incorporating a multitude of strategies that address different learning styles, senses, and levels of ability along with a student-friendly learning setting, Kindergarten teachers do a tremendous job of captivating their students and instilling a love for learning.

    As a result of these contemplations, I want to explore a two additional threads with our students over the next couple of months in my "If I Could Ask Students Anything About Schools", focus group project:

    - What happens to levels of student engagement between Kindergarten and high school?  What are some of the reasons that this engagement level changes?
    - What are things that we can do in terms of physical learning spaces, classroom amenities and school amenities (such as the library) that might help increase the engagement of students in their learning?

    I know that many educational jurisdictions are going to be looking at different pieces with respect to student engagement such as curriculum, instructional techniques, and assessment practices.  I agree with all of these efforts wholeheartedly.  However, after reflecting on my own learning experience last week and thinking about how engaged young students are in their learning, I wonder if we can't look at some simpler solutions in the way that we set up our classrooms and our schools that can pay some immediate dividends. 

    I look forward to talking more to our students in the next few weeks. 

    Perhaps we will be going back to Kindergarten!