Doing the Right Thing

Two weeks ago, when I wrote my last blog about integrity, I was just finishing an amazing week of school improvement coaching and had spent the weekend traveling to visit my oldest daughter and my sister.  I had returned to work only to have the week cut short as COVID-19 continued its march in to North America. Little did I know, when I left the school that day, that it would be highly unlikely that I would see the teachers and school leaders any time soon.

Over the past two weeks, I struggled to make the changes that are needed so quickly. What routines were normal are now missing in my day; friends and family who I had plans to see and spend time with are now virtual connections only; worrying about loved ones is a constant and knowing that the schools and districts that I support are full of questions and unknowns, makes me sad.  Despite this, we have to look for the silver linings and I want to tell you about principals that I talked with this week who are bound and determined to continue to make a difference… here they are…

The first principal I want to re-introduce you to is Sarah Stobaugh at Morrilton Intermediate School. You may remember a blog that I wrote about the incredible shared leadership model that Sarah had created with her teachers. This week, I want to give her and her community (South Conway County School District in Arkansas) a shout out for the time and attention that they are spending making sure families have food (and teaching is continuing).  image1That’s Sarah in the picture with her own bus -driving dad, delivering food to families.  With Sarah’s permission, I am sharing what she wrote about her school community this week on Facebook:

“Let me tell you what happened today. Our district prepared over 1,100 meals for our community. Teachers took time from answering questions for kids and parents online (as they try to find the best ways to serve our students through a completely different platform other than the classroom) and jumped on a bus to go deliver lunches. When they had meals left over they asked their bus driver to drive around to find more kids in other neighborhoods. They asked to go to houses of specific kids just to lay eyes on them and make sure they were ok. They looked for bikes or kids’ toys in the yard and knocked on doors to see if there were more kids inside that needed food. They weren’t satisfied until they thought they had fed all they could find. Then they went home and answered more questions and recorded more instructional videos for their students to stay engaged as we deal with these uncertain times. Tonight I know they will send up some prayers for their kids before they fall asleep. And they will wake up tomorrow and do it all over again. Our teachers are incredible, selfless people that get things done no matter the circumstance.”

The second principal I want you to meet is Meg Boyd, Principal of Edgewood Elementary School in Greenfield, Wisconsin.  I had a great conversation with her and despite the conditions that have been presented to her, she told me in, her calm and organized way, about the “virtual social” that she held with her staff on Friday afternoon. slideshow60_1She felt so positive about the chance for her staff to still feel connected and the opportunity that she had to really help create a sense of normalcy during this very challenging time.

We talked about all of the multi-tasking that has taken place this week; doing her job from home, making decisions about the direction for the school year, supporting her staff, families and students, attending virtual meetings and at the same time, trying to home school her own children.  In all of this, her biggest concern is equity; are all of her students going to have the same experiences with distance education, support etc. while they are home? She has students who need translation, interventions and she knows that many of her families are struggling. On Monday evening, Meg started a virtual story time through Facebook. She read a story to her students and teachers are now volunteering to help out and they hope to be able to do this five nights a week. Libraries are closed and she is concerned for students who do not have many books at home. I am sure her families loved her virtual story time! She also told me about a teacher who had had a “virtual conference” with four of her students just to check in with them and how she was thinking about different ways that relationships with families and students could continue.

Meg also knows how easy it would be for her teachers to work all the time while at home and that definitely is not her expectation. How does she balance the reality that there is still teaching and learning to take place with her staff’s needs to look after themselves and their families?  And lastly, she reminded me that while the situation is one we have never experienced before, student behaviors are now not getting in the way of instruction and she is confident that she could have even stronger relationships with her parents and community when this ends.

There are so many stories that I could tell you in this first week of our new way of living- people doing the right things to keep themselves and communities healthy, caring, connecting and showing that relationships truly matter. To my readers who are health care workers and others providing essential services- thank you for the tireless efforts being made. To my principals and teachers, I am thinking about you and will stay in touch as we continue to find ways to help each and every student be successful.

I appreciated every check in with me this week, every coaching conversation that happened on the phone or virtually and all of the times that some one demonstrated the absolute finest ways that we can create loving opportunities for others. Have a healthy and safe week.

 

Integrity

Writing a blog means one of two things- I am either well organized and get my writing together well ahead of my own mandated deadline or I wait for a “sign” of a topic that I might want to write about.  I find that I write more from the heart and perhaps provide more relevancy for reflection when I respond to an experience or an adventure rather than just writing to write. This week, for whatever reason, integrity seemed to be the word swirling around in my head.

What does the word integrity mean to you?  When you hear or see the word, what is it to you? It’s a personality trait that we admire and in my opinion, it is an important value for leaders to possess. It represents honesty, being reliable and always doing the right thing.  It symbolizes a moral compass that doesn’t waver.  hand-3585349_640People who model integrity in their words and actions are people that we know we can depend on; they will come through for us and they will always do what they have said that they will do.

I watched some education leaders that I worked with this week struggle with difficult decisions.  Their hearts and heads were at odds on what was best to do. They worried about causing other people hurt or grief, knowing that the honest, right decision was going to be hard for others to understand. I knew that, as they thought out loud with me, that because they are people of integrity, they would recognize the right thing to do and that is how their decisions would be made in the end.  It wasn’t easy for them at first because it was uncomfortable to do the right thing.  Leading with integrity doesn’t always mean that you are popular or even feel great about a decision; but being true to your own values and your moral compass means that you strive to honestly live by your values. In the case of my leaders, they knew what was best for their schools and students and at the same time, recognized that not all of the adults would understand their decisions.  There would have to be thoughtful conversations to deepen the understanding because not every one was going to see the decisions in a positive light.

One thing that I have learned working in schools and districts (for way too many years!), is this… educators go to work every day to do their very best. They set out with the best intentions and they want success for their students.  And, when integrity shows up as a leading character trait, great things happen in districts and schools.  Honest efforts are put forth in the service of students.  Making difficult calls to parents are appreciated because that is the right thing to do.  Asking a peer to comply with school policies and expectations models what integrity looks like to others.  And, giving one hundred percent, no matter how tired or frustrated we feel because we know it is what our students deserve everyday, is that moral compass.

Digging deep every single day in a school means we never lose sight of why we are there. We know our purpose, our why and it always about the students. Integrity means that we get that and we know that we fairly and purposefully will take care of their needs.  And, we know that, as challenging as this is on us personally… we don’t come first… they do. That is what I saw this week in all the schools I worked. I appreciate the constant reminders of how necessary school improvement is and why I still pack a suitcase and leave home so often.  The bumps in the road can challenge our core values and cause us to pause. The fork in the road is always there. It is up to us to make the best and right decisions. Thank you to all the educators this past week, and every week, who allow their moral compass to lead them to what is best for kids.

 

 

.

Relationships

On the road the past two weeks, I had several reminders and conversations about the importance of relationships in our education work. How critical is it for students to know that adults will connect with them AND how meaningful it is for administrators to build relationships with teachers?  I saw some great examples of trusting, respectful relationships and saw student faces light up because adults demonstrated their love and care for them.  Here are a couple of examples that I want to share…

I had an very thoughtful discussion with a superintendent about the qualities that he was looking for in a new administrator (he remains nameless only because this position is not filled yet).  As we talked about what the school needed and what he felt was most important, we circled back (actually, several times) to hiring someone who could truly take the time to build relationships with the staff.  He understand the value and need for a new principal to take the time to get to know staff and to truly listen.  Productive listening skills are a necessary leadership skill and finding ways to ensure that staff know we are listening and will respect and value their opinions goes a long way in building a positive school culture. We call it taking care of the staff so that they can feel good about taking care of the students.  We want teachers and support staff to come to work feeling valued and cared for and too many times, in my opinion, we do not pay enough attention to the culture that a leader does (or, unfortunately, does not, create). This superintendent is on the right track to make his district great… as he said… he wants to move from good to great because good isn’t good enough for his students.

In a second school in Arkansas, I had a chance to observe another school improvement coach in action.  Paula Maeker was working with teachers at an elementary school.  In every conversation,  the relationship of mutual trust that Paula had built with the teacher in her few short visits there was obvious to me. 9fVVRVL8QDyPInKWuxChngAmazingly enough, she had the same with many students in the school. One student in particular was misbehaving in class and Paula took the time to talk with the student and have him do some school work for her. His behavior quickly changed and he was fully engaged in his lesson…and it was good work. This kid went from the class problem to someone who could really perform.  Just like in this picture taken at the Beyer Watch and Clock Museum in Zurich, the parts that make up our students are complex and many.  Teachers who figure out the workings of their students, have much more success at meeting their learning needs.

My last stop on this two week road trip brought me tears and smiles. At Robert F Morehead Middle School in Arkansas, I was able to attend the Black History Month Program. Students performed dance, songs and read poems and several times I had tears in my eyes. There were beautiful, thoughtful and meaningful moments created by the students. The staff demonstrated their faith in these students by having them be the program. Several parents were there to watch and the smiles of pride and joy in their faces were priceless. I also had a chance to be at the school book fair and watch a young boy’s absolute excitement in picking out two complimentary books to take home to read. Adults were showing their belief in him and wrapping their arms around him with support and encouragement. His joy was our joy!

This week’s questions for reflection- How important are relationships in your work with staff and students? Do you need to think about your communication skills? What message are you sending with your interest (or lack of interest) in the people you work with? What might be a first step in improving your working and learning culture? Have a great week. I will see you in two weeks- this weekly blog is now a bi-weekly blog! Thanks for reading.

 

The Earring

There is a clip from an I Love Lucy show that I adore.  She is looking for a lost earring in the living room. Ricky her husband asks her if she is sure that she lost it out there and she replies, “no, but the light is much better out here to see and find it.”

In his leadership book, The Advantage (2012), Patrick Lenioni uses this scene from the show to help his readers think about how often we spend time looking for answers in all the wrong places. IMG_1863That perhaps, we stay in our comfort zone, where the light is better, instead of doing a reality check and taking care of cultural issues, things that are truly the root cause of our problems.

I had a conversation with a principal this week who truly understands this culture piece of our school improvement work.  He is new to his school this year and we were having a mid-year review of his work to date.  He talked about how important the relationships in his school were to him and how he felt that he had spent so much time this first half of the year building trust and respect with students and staff.  He knows that he has a great deal of work to do around academic success but job one to him was to create a healthy school culture of adults working together towards a common good before he would see the benefits in student success.

Sometimes, in my coaching role, the opposite happens. A principal might name the problem (poor student attendance, for example) but blames the students for this and doesn’t take the time to figure out that this is a problem that he or she can solve.  We call that admiring the problem. “If the parents sent us better students, we would have no attendance issues.” The root cause(s) of the problem are ignored… as in little or no attention paid to student relationships and/or student needs, policies that work against the students, bullying issues in the school that are ignored, poor classroom management strategies, lack of engaging lessons, etc. Adult decisions and actions that can be changed go untouched because it is the student’s fault.  We forget to hold up the mirror to see what we can do about the problem. In a healthy school culture, leaders bravely “name and claim” the issues… they are not waiting for someone else to find the earring.

I read a blog this week that truly resonated with me. In it, Jeanne Spiller and Brian Butler write about the labeling that is happening with students in far too many schools and districts that pull us away from authentically seeing the needs of a student.  I especially appreciated this quote from them:

The qualifier or label is not who the student is; it merely indicates something the student may need or identifies circumstances the student may be currently experiencing. If we are not careful, we can subconsciously attribute a set of expectations to the label. “Oh, he is a special education student, there is no way he can master that standard, we should give him something easier that he can handle,” or “she’s a really low reader, she can’t read grade-level text, let’s find text she can read instead.”

(https://www.allthingsplc.info/mobile/blog/view/409/does-all-mean-all-labels-be-gone?fbclid=IwAR1T78Gxp7Y57_PEDrb8Udn3AORhor1tuphAQ34Twv9Y3K4L7e-2gaKG7qc)

Labelling can include generalizing, for example, based on poverty, race and other bias. Lots of times, we unintentionally use the labels to provide an excuse for low performance.  Again, we are not looking in the mirror or perhaps the darkest rooms to see the real needs of the students.  The labels become excuses and smoke and mirrors when what we really need to do is problem solve. Spiller and Butler also remind readers that in labeling students, we also create higher expectations for those we labeled as high achiever and lower expectations for those we labeled as low achievers.  As they explained, we have confidence in the high achievers and challenge them more often. We have less confidence in those we label as low and we don’t push them or challenge them as much.

As unintentional as our messages are, students and other adults learn quickly how low our expectations might be of them. Let’s be honest, if we walk through a door and no one expects too much from us or ignores what support and encouragement and skills we need to improve, it is easy to just do as they expect.  When we are challenged to be better and when the time is taken to get to know us and problem-solve about what we need, as individuals, we can and will rise to the challenge.

So, this week, I am asking you to reflect on your current practice of naming… do you name the problem AND claim it or do you admire it a bit too long? How often do you spend time looking for the earring in the wrong room when your time would be better spent truly addressing the current reality? Do you know what your students need to improve? What are you doing to take action? What can you do differently tomorrow?

Have a great week.

Willie

 

During one of my very first visits to a school as a school improvement consultant, I met with a group of high school students.  They didn’t know me and I had never met them. We had a great chat about their school. They were thrilled to tell me what they loved and just as excited about what had to change. I mostly remember Willie- he was a junior (11th grade) and loved to talk!  Here is why years later, I still think about Willie…

He had a huge grin on his face when he described the teacher who let him lead the US History discussion about World War II. He loved that I was from Canada because he had studied our country in Geography.  And he was so passionate about what needed to improve at the school. He carefully articulated that he wanted a good education because he knew it was his “ticket” out of generational poverty (he even used this term).  His parents wanted it for him too.  He described his home life as challenging but he knew that he was loved and that getting a good education would open the doors that his parents could not access.  His parting statement to me as he left the room has stayed with me for years… “I hope we see you again in our school because I bet you can help us.  Please let the teachers know that I want to learn.” As I left that day I knew I had experienced my first lesson on the road and here is why…

The most telling message from the students was the clarity with which they talked about the teachers in the school who wanted to build relationships and engage them in their learning. They loved being in these classes. They couldn’t contain their excitement, talking all at once and competing for my attention. They mostly described situations that they had hands-on experiences or had choice.  One girl was really interested in aviation and described how she was struggling in Physics classes. The teacher took the time to talk to her and understood that she was “in to airplanes” so she helped her create opportunities to use her love of flying to understand physics. She bubbled over with energy and enthusiasm describing how she was able to interview an aircraft mechanic and remembered everything this professional said to her about the physics behind her work.

The students clearly did not mind being challenged and obviously loved the lessons that were relevant… they could see some connection to daily life.  And, most importantly, they described the teachers and administrators who took the time to get to know them and have a relationship with them. They knew which ones stayed after school for extra help or events, organized clubs and activities  and attended weekend games.  And, as we were finishing the conversation, Willie asked me if I ever thought that teachers gave up on students.  When I probed a bit, the students explained that sometime they felt that some of the teachers in the school didn’t really believe in them. That maybe they expected them to fail because of the situations they came from or just because of the school that they were in.

Interestingly enough, when I interviewed the teachers in that same school, they saw the students in a very different way than I did.  I talked about how much I enjoyed my conversation with them and how fortunate that they were to have such great students to teach.  One teacher was so surprised by my impression of the students that she asked me if I was sure that they were their students.  The students that the teachers described were not interested in learning and misbehaved so much that they couldn’t teach them. They were bored and their parents sure didn’t care. 82307178_10157815018889709_4503052697645088768_o described the school as a difficult one to work in and couldn’t see how they were going to get out of the cycle of poor student achievement. They knew that the state and district expected them to be better but they were at a loss for how this could happen with these students.  And it was genuine concern and frustration. They really didn’t know what to do. It was obvious to me that they cared and truly believed that the students gave up on themselves.

With both the teachers and students, I sensed their desire to be successful.  The teachers worked hard and wanted what was best for their students.  And the students wanted to be their best.  Obviously, there was a huge disconnect between what the students and the teachers believed about the school and each other. What is the old saying- perception is reality? This was the first time in my very long career that the gap between the adult and student understanding was so apparent to me.  I knew that my work in Willie’s school would start here.

How do we build the bridge when what we perceive to be true becomes reality? Where do we start when mindset and the culture of the organization are creating disparity?   In Willie’s school, like so many others, school improvement takes on a life of its own.  Too many initiatives, too much focus on programs and so many rules are created that no one remembers why. Structural changes are put in place but not the cultural shift that has to happen. If you are reading this as a school or district leader, is it time to review/revise your practices that might be taking you away from the student? In Leading with Intention, https://www.solutiontree.com/leading-with-intention.html, you can find some helpful hints in chapter five to get your focus back on the student.  Changing minds and practices, focusing on beliefs and values and recognizing schools as places that people come together in community to learn and work are part of the dynamics that create a more positive school culture. But, it doesn’t happen over night.  I have learned this the hard way.

The good news is in Willie’s school the principal was all in with the energy and desire to create the changes necessary.  The teachers accepted that a growth mindset was needed.  The students embraced their own learning. It isn’t over and there have been many challenges… two steps forward and five steps back. Thanks for being here with me. If you have followed this blog for awhile, you might feel that you read this before. You did. It is one that I felt worth repeating. See you next Saturday.

 

 

 

Time

It is almost the end of January. One month since you set those personal new year resolutions. Almost a month since you have been back to work in your school or district. Every day, you start with a plan- with a list of things to do, people to talk to, tasks to accomplish and habits to stick with to help you accomplish your goals. Self-discipline or no discipline? Which rules your world? For me, it is a little bit of both, depending on what I am working on.  If it is personal health choices, the “no discipline” takes over too often. If it is work related, I am much better at being self-disciplined.  What distracts me? How do you keep your focus?  What happens to throw you off your game? How do you get back on track? It seems like a great time of the year to talk about getting our focus back. Here is something that might help you…

In our book, Leading with Intention, (https://www.solutiontree.com/leading-with-intention.html) Jeanne and I tackle the issue of keeping your focus in chapter one. We start with a conversation about your use of time. We know that with time- the struggle is real. Acknowledge this. Say it out loud. Own it. Reflect on how you use it.  It is what it is. Twenty-four hours. That is all that we have. Everyday, no matter what is happening, that is all we have.  Take a deep breath.  Embrace the day.  And, do the things that matter. Take action that honor your goals and plans. What you spend your time on truly defines what is important to you. This chapter is the first chapter of our book for a reason.  As baseball legend Yogi Berra says, “if you don’t know where you are going, you will end up someplace else.”  School improvement or personal improvement requires a road map with an end goal in mind.

Have you asked others to describe what they believe your focus or priorities to be?  Can they tell from your actions? Would they respond with confusion or would it be crystal clear?  To me, this is the true test of how we spend our time.  Let’s face it, in our personal lives or our work lives, where we spend our time and what we spend it doing says everything about what we prioritize.

I have to admit (and my friends and family reading this will know it to be true), I have found myself in a funk the last few weeks.  I have been wasting my personal time and struggling to keep my focus.  I had to have a real hard look at things this past week and get some friendly coaching and stern reminders that it was time to get back on track.  IMG_1805I actually did one of the exercises from chapter one in the book, filling out this template a couple of times to admit to myself that what I intended to do was interrupted by something else. I let distractors get in the way and when I look at the list of distractors, they were quite simply taking over my personal time.

When I work in schools and districts, leadership coaching often involves first, figuring out where time is being spent.  For example, a school principal makes decisions every day about where in the building he or she will be. During leadership coaching, I ask school leaders to think about this…are they spending time in the school where they should be? In conversation with the people who they need to be interacting with? Or are they avoiding the classrooms or the people that might be important to helping achieving goals?

How many times do you hear someone ask you, “Do you have a minute?” You both know, it isn’t really just a minute of your time that someone wants and at that very moment, you have a decision to make.  Do you allow this distraction or do you need to find a way for the conversation to happen when it works better for you. What happens when you are working online?  Do you find yourself quickly distracted by Twitter, Instagram or Facebook?  Does it become how you spend your time despite your best intentions to focus on the right work?

Believe me, I am guilty of all of the above. I have learned how easily distracted I can be every single day of my life.  I know that as a leader and as a person, the self-discipline of staying focused on my goals is a challenge.  And, it all feels very messy some of the time to me and there have been lots of times, like this week, that I had to truly hit the reset button and start again.  Working and living with intentionally is a “work in progress” for me.

When I started writing this weekly blog on school improvement a couple of years ago, I wanted to support the work of  the amazing educators that I was with each and every week. .  As time has passed, I recognize that many of the practices are also really good ways to take care of ourselves as well. So whether you are reading this to improve your workplace or your personal lives, I thank you for staying with me. Hit the reset button this week if you need to. Challenge yourself to reflect on your intentionality or lack of it.  There is always time to start again. Have a great week.

 

Competence

I have to admit, once the holiday break started, it was hard to get back to work and writing.  I know that I must have needed the break and I honestly expected to begin writing my weekly blog a couple of weeks ago; in fact, I had great intentions that I would write several and get ahead of myself over the break.IMG_1737 Family, friends, fun activities and even jigsaw puzzles seemed to take over my world… all in a good way. It was extremely timely that this new book, ended up in my mailbox just as vacation was ending. Here is why…

First of all, yes this book is for educators but I am going to go out on a limb and say that, for those of you reading this who are not educators, you would have a very worthwhile read.  Robin Noble brings a very important issue to print; the need for educators and all of us to have a sense of ourselves. She describes our “internal culture” and the three innate human needs that we all have- the need to relate to others, to live and work with competence and to feel autonomous with our decisions and in our lives.

As I read the book, I reflected on the many times in my life that these three needs were filled or not filled and how it impacted how I worked or lived. I know that all three come and go on a scale of importance to me; some days I need to know and feel the relatedness to others in my life and other times I need to know that I am doing things that I am good at.  When I have had new challenges or changes in my life, I don’t feel as competent right away (or with my golf game, hardly ever) so that lack of competence influences my being. And, for sure, there are so many times that I want and need to have the autonomy to make my decisions, set my goals, be me and live my life.

One of Robin’s opening statements in the book really hit me hard.  She talks about the terms that we hear so much in school improvement work- how the schools that need so much help and support are constantly seeing labels such as “needs improvement”, “corrective action”, “low performing”, “restructuring” and “failing”.  Robin also brings solid research to her writing and one I appreciated was the reminder that when people lose their ability to define and solve the problems that they face, they also lose the drive, motivation and sense of self-efficacy that keep them moving forward toward their goals (Margolis and Mc Cabe, 2006 and Pink, 2009).

My favorite chapter in the book is Chapter Four titled “Competence”. It speaks to recognizing our own sense of incompetence and how to increase self-efficacy. Robin helps readers find ways to reboot and set goals, and we all know that that seems to be part of our New Year resolutions. As I was working in schools this week, this chapter in particular really helped me see the teachers that I was working with in a different perspective.  I observed as they started to really understand what was being asked of them, they were becoming more competent in their work.  This has taken a few months and sometimes takes longer than that in our schools, but until we support deep understanding and give teachers and leaders time to practice and figure things out, the competence doesn’t come.

What we often see instead is change after change after change to the point of no one ever feeling safe in making decisions or knowing that they confidently can go forward with their work.  We forget to tell them the “why” and really miss the opportunity to help them understand their purpose. And even when we ask teachers to set goals, we forget to notice and celebrate their wins; big or small.  As a leader reading this, how can you help teachers gain the competence in their practices? What can you do to ensure that they have the knowledge and time to practice (without distractors or constant change) to build their toolkit with confidence?

Robin also does a great job of helping the reader understand how collaborative work supports our internal needs.  Being part of a team, developing interdependence so that we all contribute and that we all need each other’s thinking and expertise is important to meeting our own needs.  We know in schools that students benefit from the collective work when teachers put their heads together to meet the needs of the students so I appreciated thinking about how this also helps the adults in the building.

I recently read an article about Iceland’s Prime Minister  Katrin Jakobsdottir urging governments to prioritize sustainability and family time over obsessing about economic growth — as most developed nations seem to do. I know that many will argue that without economic stability, wellness is not possible.  Robin’s closing comments speaks to what I believe Ms. Jakobsdottir is getting at; “the ball is in your court. Change must start with you.” This is a great time of the year to reset your goals, consider how you can internally develop your own sense of autonomy, relatedness and competence and also how you influence and impact others around you.

Robin’s book is available at https://www.solutiontree.com/finding-fulfillment.html. Happy reading and have an amazing Saturday. I look forward to being with you again next week!