The First of Eight: Getting Focused

Distractors, too many initiatives, misuse of time, and an overall inability to determine a small number of goals that intentionally set direction are often missing pieces of leadership practice.  Every day, you start with a plan- with a list of things to do, people to talk to, actions to take, habits to stick with to help you accomplish your goals. Before you know it, the day has slipped away.  Does this sound familiar? What happens to throw you off your game? How do you get back on track?

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.

As promised, here is a snapshot of the first chapter of Leading with Intention (https://www.solutiontree.com/leading-with-intention.html) titled,  Achieving Focus and Staying Intentional. positive-habits_FI-1200x520-e1494578353345Each chapter offers several opportunities to reflect and ends with an activity to cause you to plan your next steps… what can you do with eight minutes, eight weeks, eight months. In this first chapter, the conversation is really about how you set your priorities and then work to keep distractors out-of-the-way.

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.  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?

To gain focus, we actually need to take the time to consider what we want to focus on. Writing down your goals can be empowering and will help you stay on course. We suggest several ways to think about how you use your time and what is distracting you from doing what you know you really should do.  Taking time to plan your day and then intentionally making sure that you are aware when you are being distracted is important. The really critical piece is when you take whatever step you need to stay the course.

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 that I had to truly hit the reset button and start again.  Working and living with intentionally is a “work in progress” for me.

This chapter is the first chapter of the 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 requires the road map with an end goal in mind. Identifying what you will be “tight” on, your non-negotiables, includes your intentional actions.  So, think about a few priorities and set your goals.  Take the time to consider what has to happen to get you there and commit to these actions.  Consider how you will message this to others. What will this look like? Sound like to them? Stay intentional.  That is what great leaders do.  And, when you take a detour or even get off the road for awhile, remind yourself of what you want to accomplish and get back out there! Have a great week and a wonderful easter.  See you next Saturday!

Superhero or School Leader?

“With great power comes great responsibility. Peter Parker, also know as Spider-Man, comes to this realization after a spider bites him and he is transformed into a superhero with exceptional powers, including the ability to sense impending danger”.  This is the first sentence of the introduction of Leading with Intention, a book that I co-authored withJeanne Spiller.  No, it is not a book about superheroes… well maybe it is… because it is for school leaders.

Jeanne and I know that like, Spider-Man, school leaders are faced with challenging, demanding, important work every day as a school leader. spider-man-1099203We wanted to write a book to help our school leaders become better at sharing this power and responsibility. We wanted to create opportunities for school leaders to think about how to collaborate more effectively and be student-centered, data-driven, focus on instruction, be well organized and great communicators! All without superpowers!!

We say in our introduction, that we wish that we could give you Spidey-senses or superhuman strength, but instead we settled for offering insights in approaching your work as a school leader. We set up the book to do what Uncle Ben did for Peter Parker, to provide advice, support, good examples and opportunities for reflection.

The number eight… have you ever though about it when it is turned on its side?  It is the symbol for infinity. As a school leader, you have infinite choices to make every day; how to use your time, what to focus on, who to talk to, and where to be. And the figure eight is made of two equal parts, creating balance.  So, Jeanne and I used the number eight throughout the book as our point of reference. We provided eight themes/chapters for your consideration.  At the end of each chapter, there is an opportunity to reflect on what you would do with eight minutes, eight weeks, eight months to improve your practice.

This book is about moving, from focusing on you, personally, as the leader, to intentional practices to guide your work and we want you to leave each chapter suggesting five leadership actions that you will commit to doing. We describe what great leaders do and what we want you to avoid. We both have learned a great deal from our mistakes (still do) and we have learned to celebrate as we have grown as leaders.

The funniest part of our journey together in writing this book is how we met and started.   We were assigned a district contract in California, together as consultants, and on day one we met up for breakfast to meet and share our plans for the day. Before you knew it, this girl from Eastern Canada and Jeanne from Chicago, discovered our mutual love of hockey and the Chicago Blackhawks. (It is a long story but we actually  spontaneously bought tickets to go to a game in San Jose that very night…only to find out it was too far away and we couldn’t get there on time after work!).  As we continued to work together that week, we soon realized that we also mutually loved developing leadership skills in others and we knew that we were missing a resource that we could take with us to help leaders sit and really reflect on their needs.  We wanted something that didn’t have to be read from cover to cover but could be used as needed.  We agreed that we didn’t have what we were describing, yet… so we wrote it.

To say that we had fun writing the book would be an understatement. We met wherever we could whenever we could. We laughed and worked hard.  We became best friends. I am not sure that is what happens with all co-authors but it was my only experience and I am glad that this is how it turned out. This was my first book and I struggled through some days. Writing was a challenge and a blessing. I learned so much from our publishers and editors at Solution Tree Press and Jeanne was a great cheerleader having co-authored other books.

And so, beginning next Saturday, for the next eight weeks, this blog will be about one of our eight chapters/themes. I want to share some of our thinking and help you reflect on the end of this school year and/or begin planning for the next one!  The book was published in late 2018 and we are so excited when we get feedback. Mostly, the feedback that we love is when a leader actually uses some of the reflection templates and exercises to help them think about their next steps.  In fact, when someone sends us a picture of  our book all marked up with the exercises filled in we are thrilled! That is a true celebration for us!

Thanks for reading and thinking along with me.  Embrace your strengths and your impact on others. You have an infinite number of ways to be you. Follow Jeanne at @jeeneemarie and you can follow me here or at @power58karen.  Our book is available through Solution Tree at https://www.solutiontree.com/leading-with-intention.html. See you next Saturday!

My Brother

As a school improvement coach, much of my daily work is focused on supporting leaders.  In fact, most of my readings, writings and conversations focus on leadership.  It has been that way for close to thirty years.  I had my first school administrative position in the late 80s and it was about that same time that I learned one of the most valuable lessons in leadership. The one that stuck with me through all the positions that I have had and impacts what I try to share in my coaching role.  And, I learned it from the person who, before that, I only knew in a different role… my older brother.  Here is how the lesson evolved…

When I was starting my school administrative journey, I was taking courses to finish my Masters in School Administration.  One of my assignments was to interview a leader and find out what made them successful.  Now, I didn’t know many “leaders” at the time so I thought that I would just call my brother who, ten years prior to this, had started a company with three others.  I didn’t really know much about what they were doing but I knew that he was part of the management team so he was my chosen “leader” for the interview.

I had several questions for Edgar but the one and only one that I remember today has greatly impacted my understanding about leadership.  I asked him what he felt was the most important practice that helped him be successful. He answered, without hesitation, that he always went in to the office early so he could reflect and think about the bigger picture of what he wanted to accomplish.  He went on to explain that once others were in the office he knew that the day would be more about problem-solving and daily decisions. He liked being able to be reflective during the quiet early morning hours and it helped him stay focused on what he wanted to accomplish. From that day and almost 30 years later, it is a practice that I work very hard to build in to my daily work and what I share with others as a coach.  I know how busy my school leader’s lives are and I also know that when they can reflect and focus on their goals, they are more successful.

On March 1 this year, my brother, Edgar Goguen celebrated forty years as a business owner.  His company, Arrow Construction Products Limited (https://www.arrowco.ca) has its head office in Fredericton, New Brunswick, Canada.  He is now the sole owner, CEO and President.  Serving Atlantic Canada, his company has five locations plus the head office.  Arrow began with a focus on very specialize products used in concrete for bridges and overpasses. Over the years they have grown and diversified and have introduced many innovative products including specialized roofing applications.

But, the real reason that I am writing my school improvement blog about him is because he is an exemplary leader.fullsizeoutput_107e Even though his role is not about making schools better for students, he gets the big picture.  Over the years I have watched as he stayed committed to his goals and knew that his number one asset was his employees. He has looked after both his staff and his customers and he seems to be able to do it with the perfect blend of hands-on leadership and empowerment.  I also know that he is humble about his success and not really great about telling his own story.  ( I am a little nervous that he may not like this attention at all!). In fact, we all know that it is hard to be a prophet in your own land and I am quite sure that there would be many, many New Brunswickers and Atlantic Canadians that do not know about this highly successful local story and leader.

So, when I think of leadership and my personal journey over the years, it all seems to go back to that interview with Edgar and how much being able to be reflective and visionary at the same time was so important to my work.  In our schools and districts, taking the time to do both is culture-building.  It means that we go backwards ( by reflecting) to go forward (with our vision).  It means that we take personal time for thinking and this might mean shutting off our devices, keeping distractors away and intentionally being committed to this kind of practice.  It takes self-discipline as a leader and it doesn’t mean that the next steps or answers to every problem come easy.  But, it demonstrates a belief in you as a person, that you know how important it is for you to be at your best.  Combine this with a positive mindset about your staff and students and you have a recipe for great success.

When Edgar drives across many bridges and overpasses in Atlantic Canada, he knows that he likely had a hand in building them.  We might not need concrete products as leaders of schools, but in order to see our continuous improvement, we do have to think of ourselves as architects and builders.  We are designing and building lives; the lives of our students.  And we are often “bridging” the gap between knowing and doing. Are you clear on your vision? Do you reflect on your progress to accomplish your goals?  Or, is it time to reset your daily practices and create time and space for you? Thank you, Edgar for being. a great role model and an amazing favorite brother (I only have one so he always knows he is the favorite!).  Have a great week everyone and as always, I appreciate your support and feedback.

Struggle

“The struggle is real.” A phrase that is often seen or heard when describing a challenge. When someone is going through a hard time, we describe it as a struggle.  I have to be honest, this past week was a struggle for me.  The struggle was real. The winter cold/flu that everyone has had finally caught up with me. It kept me home, off the road and finally after six full days of taking it easy,  I was coming around. Down time gives you time to rest and reflect.  And, as I was catching up on some reading, I thought about many of the conversations during this past school year that I have had in schools about what we expect of students.

Do we expect enough?  Do we actually let them struggle with their work?  Are we letting them figure things out? Use critical thinking skills, strategies and their own ideas to solve problems?  Maybe, just maybe, we jump in just a little too soon to give them the answers.  To lead them to the answer that we want?  And, sometimes, I know that we lower our standards.  Present reading text that is easier, change our questions to reflect where we think that they are at in their learning.  I understand, as an educator, the need to meet students where they are at and work from there, however, the more I work in schools with low performing students, the more I notice that we often are teaching below what we really know should be our expectations.

I was reading some posts this week that referenced “leveling up our lives”, “shooting for the moon”, “working towards the ceiling instead of the floor.”  It seems to me that these type of messages are all about expectations and the importance of seeing and keeping the end in mind.  Work ethic often means that we have the GRIT MNess_BLKT_Gritto stick with something, to see it through, no matter how hard it seems.  I am amazed when I see the performance of athletes who have come back from serious life-threatening injuries only to reinvent themselves and reach or exceed their potential.  You can only imagine the struggle of their experiences.  They might make it look easy to us as they perform but the hours and days of struggle are not as obvious.

The same can be said for our students.  A common discussion that I have had with teachers this year is about the lack of stamina that students seem to have to stick with their work.  They “won’t” read a long text, they don’t “want” to finish a project and they quickly turn to the adults in the room to give them the answers.  Our conversations require a mindset shift on our part; instead of pointing a finger at what they, the students, can not do, it is necessary for us, as the adults, to think about what we can do differently to build the stamina, create a culture of GRIT and to develop a positive attitude about “struggle”.

A teacher recently talked to me about how difficult it is for him to pause and to create space and time for a student or students to think.  He is a veteran teacher and recognizes in himself that he has developed a habit of asking a question and then not having any wait time for students to come up with the answer.  The students have him figured out.  They know that if they don’t answer, he will do it for them.  He confessed to me that he loves his students and has always felt the need to jump in and help them. He now recognizes that he is actually enabling them by not providing an opportunity for them to struggle a bit or a lot… to actually create an opportunity for them to feel challenged and then the success that comes from doing something difficult.  He is working hard to change so that the students are experiencing more of the thinking and the doing.  And, he is being very clear on what he expects and that he can not lower these expectations just because they are struggling. And, despite not wanting me to talk about him here in this blog (well, at least not identifying him), he knows that I am very proud of how he continues to grow and learn in our profession.

School improvement is about people improvement…adults and students.  It really is about continuous learning and this might have to involve a bit more struggle.  It is ok for things to be challenging, to cause us to think differently and for solutions and strategies to be generated from effort.  About a year ago, I used a theme that I had seen with the Toronto Raptors NBA team and I bring it back here again… GRIT over GIVEN.  It says so much about the amazing benefits of sticking with the work, seeing a project through, doing the heavy lifting, struggling…

Have a great week. Remember to make mindset adjustments as needed when you think about building stamina, raising expectations and encouraging others to think for themselves.

With Purpose

I met a teacher this week who had driven 20 hours, alone, to attend a workshop. He came from Northern Quebec to Quebec City.  When I asked him why he had decided to attend, he said that he wanted to improve his professional practice. He knew that, in order to meet the needs of his students, he had to be a lifelong learner. He came with a purpose. And, his purpose inspired others…

This young man was attending Solution Tree’s very first 2019 PLC at Work Institute.  There were amazing keynote addresses and then break out sessions were offered by seven of us. Teachers and school leaders could select what they wanted to attend. I met my friend from Northern Quebec on the very last day in the very last session.  He arrived to my room a little late and quietly joined a table of teachers who were already working. For a little while, he didn’t offer much commentary but as the session continued, he became more and more animated. purpose-1In fact, his passion for teaching and learning was soon apparent.  He asked great questions and added so much to our conversations.  His enthusiasm for his students was contagious.  Everyone in the room was impacted by his questions, comments and his interest.

Over the three days of the institute, I had so many great opportunities to learn from others.  Of course, the other presenters inspired me as their thoughtful messages challenged my thinking. But, it was the participants that really impacted me. In sessions or just in one-on-one conversations, I was reminded of the challenges facing the educators. I heard about their students and the work that the teachers were doing behind the scenes to make sure that they were continuously improving their schools. I reflected with them as they asked questions about next steps and how to continue to positively grow and do the right work.  We problem-solved together and made plans for when they returned to their schools.  And, mostly, I felt their passion and purpose.

What does it mean to have purpose in our lives?  What does it look like when it shows up?  Will it keep you focused and intentional in your work? Can it motivate others? Purpose can guide life decisions, influence behaviors and create synergy for what we are doing.  For some people, purpose is connected to commitments and the conviction for our work.  It helps us understand the “why” before the “what”.  And when purpose is missing, we may be doing things out of habit or in compliance with expectations.  In other words, we might still be following through with actions but our heart isn’t in it.  We  are operating more from “I have to do this” instead of “I am doing this because I know why it is the right thing to do.”

In my school improvement work, it is important for me to help my schools understand the why of our work. I do not believe that we can continuously improve schools without deep commitment to purpose.  Educators are often told what to do but, it is when they have an opportunity to build common understanding of why they are doing the work,  that real change happens. The young teacher from Northern Quebec who drove hours to learn was a great teacher to us all.  His purpose was inspiring and motivating.  When you believe so deeply in something, it is really hard for others not to feel inspired.  When you know your purpose, it can keep you focused and motivated. And when that purpose is about improving student learning, it doesn’t get any better than that!

So, I challenge you to think about your purpose.  Your “why”.  Do you have clarity on it. Do you need to revisit, review and refresh your reasons for doing things? Could this help you feel more focused and intentional in your work? Have a great week. Thanks for reading and I look forward to being with you next Saturday.

Why Go it Alone?

How hard is it to share tasks and decisions when you know that you are ultimately the person responsible? What does it take to “share” leadership?  In both my work and personal life, I have struggled with this; wanting to do more than I should, be in control more often than I ought to be and really needing to learn how to share the load.

I know school and district leaders struggle with this daily.  I work with leaders who have a hard time finding a way to empower others, accept that they do not have to have all of the answers and that a collaborative leadership style will be more effective than if they go it alone.  Sometimes the struggle is so real for them that they just can not get there and they really do try to do it all.  As honorable as this leadership style can be, it isn’t what I encourage when I am working on site as a school improvement coach. Part of my task is to ensure that school leaders understand how to establish and work with a leadership team. We often refer to this as a guiding coalition.

In this week’s blog, I want to introduce you to a school administrative team who, in my opinion, have become “experts” in creating, implementing and authentically using a shared leadership model.  Our road trip this week takes us to Morrilton, Arkansas, home of beautiful Petit Jean State Park and my friends at the Morrilton Intermediate School. I want to introduce you to Sarah Stobaugh, first-year principal and Anna Henderson first-year assistant principal. IMG_2286They are joined by Janet Carner who is the Instructional Facilitator at the school. (Ms. Janet missed the photo opp.).  These three women are rocking my world as their coach.

With each of my visits this school year, I have watched them learn and grow together as leaders, first “sharing” leadership with each other and then expanding their need for a school wide leadership team.  As we continued to work together, they deepened their understanding of what they needed from others in a leadership role.  The existing leadership team was provided with the description of the role and responsibilities that Sarah and her administrative team wanted and the teachers could decide to stay on the the team or go. As Anna said, “Early in the school year we laid out our expectations for the Guiding Coalition and asked them to truly consider the commitment and if they were willing to dedicate the extra time and energy toward doing what’s best for our school. The week we waited to hear back from them all was pretty nerve-racking. Fortunately, they all chose to come back. Having the personal investment and ownership from them has been a huge game changer. We are meeting weekly as a leadership team and have become ultra focused on the right work for our kids. We are changing the way we think about everything— always asking ourselves, “what’s best for kids?”.

If you are a principal reading this and you are still struggling with the purpose and benefit of an authentic shared leadership model for your school, consider what Principal Sarah has said about her experience this year:

    “If I didn’t believe in shared leadership and building capacity in others in order to affect change before, this year has proven its importance and made a believer out of me.  We did not gain the momentum we have now until we focused on our leadership team. The first step we took was to define the role and make sure we were all in agreement as to what a leader is.  I believe some thought their role was to be “just a messenger” and not a change agent.  Once we define what type of leader it would take to get into the work, they all had to agree to be a part of it. We gave them some time to commit, and they did. To me, this was important because now the team operates on the idea that they all chose to be here rather than they were appointed.  That changes our approach to the work.  We don’t have to lead the work alone; we support the leadership team as they lead the work.  We also recognized the importance of professional development with this group.  We spend every other week in a book looking at what it takes to lead using Leading With Intention, and then the other weeks are spent “in the work.”  This approach allows us to continue to build capacity in our team while also moving forward with what needs to be done.  For example, we read about “Keeping the Student First” before we started working on the master schedule.  The conversation about the master schedule was centered around what is best for students.  This conversation may not have happened had we not discussed the importance of making decisions based on what it best for kids. This type of work is so crucial because admin CANNOT do this work alone.  I have confidence now that if I am not “keeping a thumb” on my collaborative teams that the good work is still happening because they now have greater ownership of the process.  The felt need has been created by the leaders, and that is the only way we can be successful.”

I am so proud of Sarah. As a brand new principal, she could have decided to leave things as they were and not really dug in to understand just what a leadership team could do to move the collaborative work forward in the school.  As Janet said to me, “The teachers are really understanding our purpose and each of them takes their new learning back to their own collaborative teams. As a school we are becoming more evidence based as the leadership team practices using data before they expect others to do it with them at their grade and content level teams.”

As two of the teachers on the leadership team said to me this week, “We are learning from each other. We are are not asking people to change everything that they do, we are just asking each other to do better.” Tony, I could not have said it better myself!  And, Jessica reminded me that “the school has always had fabulous data to work with…the difference is that, as a leadership team, they now know what to do with it!”  On this St. Patrick’s Day weekend, I raise a glass of good cheer to the great amazing leaders, at all levels, at MMS! They are not leaving anything to the “luck” of the Irish; they are not just hoping for four -leaf clovers to bring them the results that they want…they are doing the work. Learning by doing at its finest!  So proud!!

 

Smart as a Fifth Grader

fullsizeoutput_104aIt was a cold, damp day in Wilson, Arkansas but there was a warm, cozy feeling in Mrs. Lights’ 5th grade classroom.  I was making my monthly visit to Rivercrest Elementary School and invited in to the room. It was the end of a busy week for me and this stop was just what I needed. Here is why…

If you have worked with me, you know that I can get a little obsessed with insisting that we have to transfer the work and learning to the student. Now, I don’t mean in its entirety but I do believe that when students do the thinking and truly understand what they are working to achieve, learning happens.  They have to see the learning targets and know what we expect. We can not keep these “secrets” to ourselves. It should not be a surprise to a student to find out, after the work is done, how we were planning to grade it or what success looked like. Imagine in your personal life the times when you had no idea what you were trying to accomplish. You work and work but see no end in sight. How does that feel to you? Anyway, I am on my soapbox again but this really is a huge piece of improving schools; the work I so strongly believe in.

Back to the 5th graders. They had just finished their first draft of an argumentative writing assignment. Each of them had prepared an argument for or against school uniforms.  Every student had a clear understanding of what the structure of their writing piece was to be.  How do I know this?  Well, to my heart’s content, each student had a scoring guide/rubric and they were actually scoring each other’s writing.  Ms. Light would call on a student to read their writing.  The student was offered an opportunity to stand or sit behind a podium with a sound amplification device (very professional!) and read their argument.  While the reading occurred, every student in the room was listening carefully and scoring the writing using the rubric that Mrs. Light had provided.

When each student finished, the learning really started! Student after student provided feedback to the reader.  Great comments were made about what was positive about the writing and very helpful suggestions were made for improvements. The conversations were based on what they knew was expected in their writing. The readers asked questions for deeper explanations from their peers and Mrs. Light guided the discussion when it was needed. For the most part though, the students were really learning from each other. It was obvious to me that they were used to working this way. It wasn’t just because I was visiting but this was how they edited and improved their writing with each other.

When the class finished their work, I had an opportunity to ask the students about what I had just witnessed.  I wanted to know if they understood the value of having the scoring guides and providing feedback to each other.  Not to my surprise, they were able to articulate just what I was hoping to hear.  These fifth graders knew that by being able to have the scoring expectations in front of them, they could clearly understand what the writing had to include, not just for the reader but obviously for their own writing as well.  And, the most important conversation that I had with them was about trust. They knew that it took a great deal of trust for each of them to stand before their peers and read and they also knew that it took humongous courage to take the feedback from the others and not feel criticized or judged. They handled it all like pros and this goes back to the environment that Mrs. Light has created.  There is a feeling of trust and respect in the classroom. It is a room where each and every student’s opinion is valued and a safe space for their thoughts to be heard.

I drove away that day with a smile on my face. I know that these fifth graders are learning to think, to hear what others have to say and to be honest and fair to each other.  I know that they are working to improve their writing and that is important but I recognized that day that the community of learners that they are part of is the value-added piece. They are experiencing great life lessons about working together in community so that they all can improve. When I grow up, I want to be as smart as these fifth graders!  Thank you, Mrs. Light for being you and doing the right work.