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!

 

Love of Learning

Wow, I had such a great week of learning and celebration! What a nice way to end (well, almost end the work year 2019)!  It was a reflective and energetic week of adult learning experiences; for me, both as the learner and the teacher.  I loved seeing the progress of one of my schools and I truly appreciate the opportunity to present and lean with other like-minded school and district leaders at the annual Learning Forward Conference.

One of my favorite moments this week was just being in the middle of the hustle and bustle of an elementary school five days away from the holiday break.  It was “candy cane” day and all staff and students were dressed in red and white.  I loved all of the classrooms doors ( see the snowman made of cups that graced one classroom door!) that were brightly decorated with winter and holiday themes. IMG_1376The staff were having their “Secret Santa” reveal and, despite the weary faces, it is obvious that everyone is digging in and doing all they can to continue to ensure learning (and, fun) right up until the last bell before the end of the year!

In the middle of all that was going on, the two principals that I work with in Rivercrest School District in Arkansas were modeling “multi-tasking”.  One minute they were analyzing student data to make sure they had the very best plans for next term for each student, another second they were making lists of adults who could help with a popcorn reward incentive. They quickly switched gears and were meeting with a parent who dropped in with a concern and then I caught them signing papers and doing other administrative tasks.  The spend hours with me in collaborative meetings and then off they went to plan an outing for some students.  Oh, and they both drive school buses to and from school (yes, with students on them!). The other small detail- the whole time that they were doing a million little things, they spent their two days with me in leadership conversations.  It is the reality of a day in the life of a school principal… the only thing missing these two days were the bandaids that they might have needed to put on a student ( I might just have not seen this!)  or a storm closure.

So, with all of the actual responsibilities and tasks, how do you continue to grow your own learning? What helps you as an adult, as a professional, to stay current and motivated to be a continuous learner? What makes a difference for you?  For many adults, it might be attending a conference and sessions like the ones at Learning Forward this week in St. Louis.  It might be reading and reviewing books, blogs, twitter feeds and other social media sources.  You might be someone who benefits the most from one on one conversations or you truly need evidence to look at to see what really are the facts and what you need to do next.

I know that we all learn differently. I also know that, each and every one of the leaders who I have the amazing opportunity to coach needs something different from me.  I think of my friend Kimberly Miles in Oregon who is the most avid professional reader I know.  She gets everything that she can from a book, journal article or blog and then asks really inspiring, reflective questions. I think of my friend, Suzan Watkins in Georgia who had the most authentic way of looking at student data to really get to root cause of needs.  I never went in her office without a data display and conversation as the priority focus of our work.  Or Julia Williams in Louisiana who often started my visits with breakfast so we could ground and align our thinking to what leadership challenges that she was facing. It meant that when the business of the school day started, we already had a plan of action.

Whatever your learning style is, this is a great time to begin thinking about 2020 and all of the learning that can happen.  How can you make sure that you are inspired, well planned, energized and keeping your mind sharp? What adjustments might you make to your daily time log or your focus to get back in to a learning frame of mind?  And most importantly, do you believe in personal and professional growth?

Every time I see the commercial on television that I fondly call the “good enough” commercial (the one that the doctor basically admits that he is just an “ok” doctor), I think of how that is so NOT what we want in our schools.  Status quo, especially when we are not improving conditions of learning for students, is not “ok”.  In fact, we have a moral imperative to do all that we can in the service of our students. And, I strongly believe that that means learning about anything and everything that will make us more impactful and more effective.

Just being good enough has proven time and time again to let our students down. And, sadly, the students who need the very best relationships, strategies, actions are often the ones who we avoid rising to the occasion for; we simply expect less of both them and ourselves. I know this is not intentional on educator or leader’s parts; it is often a case of just not knowing what to do.  I was asked this week what a collaborative team could do when they were not sure of their work and the practices that were expected.  We had a great discussion of how we can continue to learn, what resources we have to reference, who might be able to help us grow and develop our skills.  If we don’t know, we have to figure it out.  It is that simple.

This beautiful world of education now means that we are able to learn in community with one another and we can develop our skills.  We don’t have to settle for what we came in to the profession knowing as all we know. We certainly need to be continuous learners if we are going to give each student every opportunity to grow.  And, what an amazing chance we have to model, for our students, how learning continues and to really share a love of continuous self-improvement.

I wish everyone a wonderful holiday season and all of the joy and pleasure that learning can bring you in 2020.  I look forward to being back with you in the new year.

The Story

They say that every picture tells a story.  At first glance, we may think we understand what we are seeing but we are often mistaken.  Sometimes, it takes a closer look, careful examination and a more focused examination to really see what we see. Or, is it that we just don’t take the time to appreciate what is in front of us? That seemed to be my lesson on the road this week. Let me tell you why.

I headed out for my usual stops to work in schools in Arkansas. I had two districts to visit and it was suppose to be a shorter week than usual so I was looking forward to the work and being home again for a long weekend.  As soon as I got off the plane on Sunday night, I knew I wasn’t feeling well. In fact, I found myself quickly feeling miserable and not too energetic.

Digging deep is what we have to do when we are not at 100%.  I know that I have to work harder to really pay attention, to have the right conversations and as a school improvement coach, to be able to give the right advice, support and encouragement no matter how I am feeling.  It’s weeks like this that I think I have my most meaningful “life lessons”.  Maybe it takes slowing down for the moments to be appreciated, the thoughtful gestures to be noticed, the kind words to have more meaning and the stories to unfold.

For whatever reason, everything this week seemed magnified to me.  In all good ways, it felt a bit overwhelming.  The conversations were more meaningful with everyone, the work that was done in one district in particular seemed exactly what was needed and I was surrounded by kind and loving people.  Most importantly, I felt like I really listened.

Now, I say that because coaching has to be first about the art of listening; seeking first to understand.  I firmly believe that we can not support school improvement without understanding the story.  We have to see the real causes of concerns beyond what shows on the surface. They say that about ninety percent of an iceberg is below the surface of the water. photo-1543470388-80a8f5281639I have seen some very large icebergs off the coast of Newfoundland and to think that I am only looking at ten percent of the structure is daunting.  School improvement, in my opinion, can present this same way.

In fact, my biggest fear when I leave a school or district office is that I haven’t quite figured out the story. I haven’t asked enough questions or listened attentively enough to see the rest of the iceberg.   How can I help if I don’t see it all?  There are root causes to every thing that we are trying to figure out… we need to see the evidence of the why or why not… not just make our own assumptions.  This takes time and an intentional desire to get to the bottom of something.

Teachers and leaders spend a great deal of time and energy trying to figure out the story of the student.  Why is he or she not coming to school? Why is academic success so lacking? What motivates? Challenges? Or, causes boredom with a particular student? On the surface, we see what we see. It might seem like boredom and misbehavior or it might seem like a lack of interest in being in school.  “I don’t like to read” becomes the screen hoping that we don’t look any deeper at what is really the cause. The real work of improving schools comes when leaders and teachers make the commitment and take the time to stay the course and figure out what really isn’t working and most important, take action to fix it. They try something different, step up their focus, whatever it takes because they want to change the story.

My story this week, on the surface, would have looked like someone not feeling well just trying to get by. The real story was, though, that I had an amazing week despite the sickness. I felt inspired in my school and district because teachers and leaders were trying so hard to figure out the best next steps for students and to really understand why things are not working.  I had the best conversations with work friends and was well taken care of by the kind people of Arkansas.  I heard from two principals who I no longer work with but both happened to reach out this week; just when I needed to hear from them.

It was a week of connections, conversations and inspiration. Story-making at its best.  Have a great week. Connect with someone, have meaningful conversations and know that you have impact.

 

 

 

 

When it Works

So much can happen from one Saturday to the next.  For example, last week when I wrote my blog, I was feeling tired, a little overwhelmed from the three week road trip that I was on and the work that was ahead of me this past week. Today, as I write this blog in the early morning hours, I feel at peace and grateful for  my life. I had impact this week and others greatly impacted me.  Sometimes, the connections just happen and you know that you are in a good place. That was how this entire week felt. Let’s see why…

In two different states, Texas and Alabama, I had the pleasure of working with educators and district leaders who want and are taking action to make sure their schools improve.  I want to share some of the conversations and professional development that I observed and participated in that would tell me that both districts (Huntsville ISD in Texas and Tuscaloosa City Schools in Alabama)  are improving and will continue to improve…

Time is being taken to build shared understanding of the purpose, the why, of the work.  In Tuscaloosa City Schools for example, they are having consistent professional development that is aligned to their beliefs and the culture of high expectations that is their vision.  Part of my work this week with them was in support of deepening their focus on being evidence-based in their practices and not relying just on opinion to decide what was going to happen next for students. kTMKrqMTjLeadership teams gathered together their artifacts from collaborative teams and shared these with each others. Schools had an opportunity to learn from their peers and to continue to build their common understanding of the necessary work to improve their schools. It was similar to an old fashion “show and tell” that I remember as a young girl growing up.  It included a celebratory feeling and a time to really learn from each other.

In Huntsville ISD we spent great time defining what cultural expectations should become the vision of the district. What is the culture of learning that can be created? What actions will get us there?  The district leadership team is thoughtful and reflective and so invested in what their students need to improve.  They know that there is still a great deal of hard work ahead of them and their schools and they are being continuous learners while at the same time, they are leading the work.  All schools are building shared leadership teams and they are focusing more and more on ensuring a guaranteed and viable curriculum, collecting strong evidence of student learning that will help them decide what to do next for their students.  And these schools are not working in isolation, being well supported by a district team of literacy and math coaches.  As we continue to build shared ownership there, I am confident that their students will benefit from so much adult commitment.

In both districts they are expecting consistent practices through district “tight” expectations and they are willing to examine and adjust this as needed.  They are not shying away from difficult conversations when educators or leaders are struggling with the direction of change.  And they are opening their minds and hearts to accepting that the status quo will not be the best thing for students.  They are learning better ways and taking action to get them there. You just have to love your job when you get to work with so many dedicated and wonderful people.

The most touching story that has happened to me for a long time happened this week. I hope Shelley, in Alabama doesn’t mind the share.  She was part of a group of educators working with me on Thursday. I asked them all to self -reflect on their “why”. Why did they become an educator? What is keeping them in the profession. A few brave souls were willing to share with the entire group and one of them was Shelley.

She told us that her dad had grown up in poverty in a family with no education but, that teachers and education changed his life -getting him out of generational poverty.  She knows the value of education for many reasons but the most impactful one is that her dad was a constant reminder of why... there are students like her dad in all of our classrooms. The only chance that they might have to be successful in getting out of a cycle of poverty is by being well educated.  Shelley touched our hearts with her honest, emotional story.  Her why should be the why in every classroom and school and district.

Thank you to the educators and leaders of Huntsville and Tuscaloosa for giving me such a great week. Thank you for reminding me of the why of our work and having a chance to renew my own commitment to improving schools.  It was a great way to end this road trip and to feel that I can continue to make a difference.

Have a wonderful week and to my American friends, a lovely Thanksgiving.

A Conversation

In a few words, we learn so much. We experience the lives of others through their words and often these conversations cause us to reflect on our on days. This is how I would describe the past two weeks for me… full of connections and conversations that had and will have impact on me for a very long time.

I had the wonderful opportunity to work in five different schools (4 districts) in Arkansas. Each of these schools has teachers and administrators working diligently to improve so that their students will be more successful. They are all involved in implementing the Professional Learning Community at Work (PLC) process… in other words, they are focused on collaborating to use evidence to meet the needs of their students.

They are having intentional conversations about what they want students to learn and how they will know. They are taking great steps to collect evidence of student learning and collectively figuring out what to do for students who are not learning or are ready to move on. Leaders are honing their leadership skills so they can support and coach these effective practices. And, while this may all sound systematic and easy to implement, it requires true commitment and deep understanding of why we do what we do.  And, what really plays in to whether a school or district implements with fidelity, are the values and beliefs of the adults that I work with.

If I was to establish a time line or continuum of where each of these schools are in their implementation of the PLC process, there would be  five very different locations. One school recently celebrated its “B” school rating ( moving from a C) because of their hard work over the past two years, another is also on the move with their practices (celebrating being just a point away from moving from a C to a B school). I know that grading schools in general is a hot topic but in these cases, it does tell me that the teachers and leaders are working on the right work. They are paying attention to the students. The other three schools are not as far along but the real celebration is what I heard in these three buildings- adult talk more focused on students and learning. That is what I really loved about my school visits… collective thoughts and actions around what students need.

As I started off by saying in this blog, the conversations of the past two weeks are what really inspired me and made me reflect. iStock_64493419_LARGE-cropped-1080x675 had a chance to meet a young teacher who is very gifted and has experienced living and working in very successful school systems. It seemed to me that he could pick any state to work in and he would have a teaching job. What I love about him is that his decision is to work in a very low performing school and district because of his commitment to the students.

In a twenty-minute conversation with him, he talked mostly about the students. We were in the cafeteria and he called every student by name and was able to share so much about their needs and his dedication to making their world a better place.  He would stop the conversation with me whenever a student passed by us and talk with that student.  His eyes were often wandering the room, looking to make sure that the students were doing ok. When I left the school that day, I continued to reflect on one thing that he said to me, ” These kids deserve great teachers too.” How simple a statement but so impactful in our work.  Without this kind of dedication, it will be very difficult to lift this type of school out of a cycle of low performance.

Sandwiched between my two weeks of work was a chance to connect with my work family. We had a learning retreat and many, many powerful conversations happened there. I always appreciate the opportunity to be a learner and thankful that I can do this with so many people that I love and respect.  Besides being inspiring, it can also be difficult and I had one of those moments as well when my own vulnerability and ability to accept constructive criticism was challenged.  It is one thing to say that we are lifelong learners but it is another to truly model this.  I am so thankful that I have thought partners and critical friends who will always be honest and supportive despite the lessons that we might be learning from each other. You know who you are in my life and I thank you for this.

So to end on a lighter note, I also learned through conversation that I am getting on in my years of experience. Well, I knew this without this reminder but let me tell you what happened. I was doing leadership coaching with a superintendent and sharing some of my past experiences with him. I talked about when I was a principal of a middle school in 1995. He grinned when I said it and then said to me…”Oh Karen, I was in middle school in 1995 too… as a student!”.  The comment stopped me in my tracks for a minute and immediately my thoughts were… oh dear, it must be time to retire.  In the end though, I know that age isn’t the most important thing here- it is the work. What expertise can I share, what knowledge can I bring to the table, what can I observe and coach from and how can I support leaders and teachers make things better for students?  When I stop feeling that I am contributing to this, I will know it is time to retire.

My challenge to you this week is to notice your conversations with others.  What can you learn when you listen? What one thing can you do to take action from something that you learned this week to have impact? Have a great week of reflection and learning through conversation.

In Service of Others

Remembrance Day or Veteran’s Day… it doesn’t matter what we call it in the two countries that I live and work. Monday, November 11 is a day to remember.  We honor and celebrate the men and women who have provided us with the freedom to live our lives as we wish.  For both world wars,  it is very difficult now to speak to a veteran. We have to rely on the artifacts, the stories, the documents and pictures that have been preserved.    There are veterans, service men and women from many other battles living among us. This blog is dedicated to you…

On Monday, cities, towns, schools will remember.  We will hear the last post, stand in parade, read the poem, In Flanders Fields and we will take time to reflect. It is hard for some of us to understand what it felt like or truly meant to go off to war.  How do we connect this in our current reality? images I have the opportunity to know, love and respect people who spend their days doing all that they can to make our world a safer place for us to live. I know that in offices, on military bases, in remote parts of the world, there are women and men who work unselfishly, diligently,  in the service of others. They are not in the “limelight” or get the accolades but they go to work, day in and day out, to do all that they can to help make our world a safe place to be.

They might be on a front line of military action, or in a support service role or even in a position that isn’t really understood by most of us. They might not physically be in the trenches of World War I, but they are in the trenches as we know them today, examining systems, communication, decisions and patterns to understand how others view our world to prevent disasters; to keep us safe. They might be visible to us in uniform protecting our neighborhoods, fighting fires, in security details or working all night in an emergency room. Service to others means that we are being protected and this dedication gives the rest of us peace of mind.

On Monday, as we remember the brave men and women who fought on our behalf, we have to also think about what it takes to keep our communities, our schools safe.  There are decisions and actions taken, big and small, understood, not understood, known and not known to create safe environments for us all to work and live.  This on-going commitment to a safe world is the most authentic way to honor those who fought and gave their lives for us.

When I visited the Dachau Concentration Camp, Flanders Fields, the site of the Berlin Wall, or even pass by a monument or memorial in any town or city, I am reminded of the pleasure that I have to live with personal freedom.  I also know that this freedom is treasured by many, many people in our world that do not have it.  And, I also know that this freedom came with a price and that it can not be taken for granted.

When you meet a veteran of any battle or have the opportunity to thank anyone who is in service to protect us, tell them what this means to you.  They may have a uniform on or they may not but if you know that they are working in some capacity to make our world safe and a better place to live, let them know that this is absolutely appreciated by you. It is the purest, most significant way to remember the past and hold on to our future.

Over the past few days, many schools held programs and assemblies to recognize the sacrifice of war.  Educators have a unique opportunity to impact their students by modeling respect and understanding and helping our youth understand the significance of a safe world.  We know that school safety is a priority and we also understand that the bigger picture is the safety of cities, countries, our world. It all trickles down to each of us feeling secure and safe where we work, live and play.

Let us not take this for granted, appreciate and be aware of the sacrifice and service being provided on our behalf. And, most importantly, what can we each do to help others? How can we enrich our own lives by being in service to others? What can we teach our students about giving of ourselves?

For those of you in my life who are in service of others, I appreciate you.  Have a wonderful week.

 

 

Head, Heart, Hand

For many reasons, I sometime find myself wondering about the journey that I have taken in my life. Decisions that I have made, both personally and in my work – good or bad- have made me who I am today.  For example, when I finished high school, for very personal reasons, I did not pursue the career of my choice and entered an education program in my home town.  I lived at home and elected a vocational track, studying Home Economics as a teaching discipline.  Despite that not being my first choice, I have never regretted my decision and I know that having this vocation background has served me well throughout my life. Sadly, I didn’t always feel that others saw it this way.

I recently visited the city of Zurich.  On a tour, the young tour guide was very proud to tell us all that Zurich is second in the world for quality of life and that the education system in the city is very important.  He went on to explain that the Zurich education system followed a belief in educating the head, heart and hand, based on the theories of  Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi who was born in Zurich in  1746.

Pestalozzi wrote books based on the theories that he had about education. “Children should learn through activity and through things (hands-on tools). They should be free to pursue their own interests and draw their own conclusions.”8873652-3d-illustration-of-a-measuring-scale Pestalozzi argued that there was a need for balance, that the three elements of head, heart and hands were most important to children receiving a great education. In Zurich, and in many other European cities,  apprenticeships and experimental-learning opportunities are a strong component of education systems and are part of the overall expectations of a balanced education program.

Over my career as an educator, I experienced a strong focus on vocational programs.  Sadly, I also witnessed most of the vocational labs removed from schools only to see the need later to have them restored.  As a Superintendent, I was part of a great project that saw students able to go out in the workforce and experience an “apprenticeship-like” program; although not to the extent that was described to me when I was in Zurich. I also had many conversations with educators, parents and students and know that, it was often seen as a less than favorable decision to select a vocation training course.

Personally, I can remember many times when someone would find out that the superintendent had a home economics degree.  And then the surprise would continue when they discovered that the assistant superintendent had been an industrial arts teacher. Imagine two vocationally trained teachers leading a school district?

As I continue to work in schools that want nothing more than to make students successful, we focus many efforts on engaging students in their own learning. Teachers know that students will be more interested in what they are studying if it is relevant to them and especially when their is a hands-on experience attached to the learning.  It is not always possible, especially in small schools, communities or districts to provide a large buffet of programs to offer,  however, in each and every classroom, teachers have the choice of how they will present the learning.  Considering ways to engage through project-based learning, exploratory lessons and opportunities for students to have choice when it is possible can go a long way in sparking an interest.

My home province of New Brunswick, Canada is reviewing the current education plan and inviting input from all New Brunswickers.   I was part of the research and recommendations for the ten-year plan in 2015-2016.  I clearly remember the conversations that were had throughout the province as we were asked to make sure our recommendations included a focus on vocational, cooperative learning and hands-on opportunities. Business leaders, community members, parents and students discussed the need to make sure that essential non-academic skills were seen as important as literacy, mathematics and science.

Please do not misunderstand this blog. I would be the first person to tell you that if we do not ensure that children have strong literacy skills then we are not going to succeed as an education system.  Ensuring that youngsters learn to read and then read to learn is critical to the success of any community or country.  Once this is done however, we can look at the opportunities that support the balance of head, heart and hand.  It is a balance; not one or the other.

In school improvement work, it is about each student – student by student/skill by skill.  How important is it for us to know more about these students and the skills that would truly turn them on to learning? How valuable would it be for us to have opportunities for more experiments, more hands-on projects, more music, more art, more drama and more vocational programs?  However small or big we can make these offers, they will be appreciated. Have a great week.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

October Blues

Why is October referred to as the month of the “teaching blues?  Why is this month so difficult, especially for beginning teachers?  What makes school and district leaders feel so overwhelmed? What happens to cause overload, frustration and most importantly, zap that energy that happened when the pencils were newly sharpened?

Teaching is hard.  Let’s not ignore this fact.  Working every day to inspire, engage, support, encourage and create learning opportunities for every student is hard work.  imagesBuilding relationships, making connections and balancing all of this with the demands of curriculum and assessment expectations can take its toll. As the year progresses, the demands increase and the reality of this demanding work is felt in every hallway and classroom. Especially, when this is a new experience.

In a conversation this week with a school principal (Ross) we talked about how he could support his new principals.  In his school of sixty teachers, fifteen of them are new teachers and for the first time this school year, he feels that they are struggling to find the balance of all that is expectedWe talked a great deal about going back to the basics and really looking at the systems and practices in the school that might be causing some of the overwhelm and how to best keep distractors away from the teachers.

Ross knows that he has to continue to build a culture of trust at his school and he is working hard to do that. He communicates clear expectations for his staff and students and he asks staff (authentically) for their input. When I started coaching Ross, he admitted that he struggled with explaining the why of decisions and actions and spent too much time assuming that others understood why things were happening in his school. He is working on his listening skills and I reminded him that October might be a great time to take the pulse of the staff? Find out what is causing the lack of energy he is feeling in the building and actually talk about the struggles that are real to the teachers.

One thing that I often see in schools this time of year is a lack of confidence in our practices. I notice that leaders and teachers seem to question their own abilities more frequently when they are tired and overwhelmed.  Continuing to build our own sense of competency is necessary.  How do we do this when being busy is taking on a life of its own? It is important to accept that we can’t do it all and we have to prioritize what is truly important. What does this look like in a school?

I always see a level of confidence and belief in oneself improve when we focus on a few things and celebrate our accomplishments around these few things.  For example, if you are a school principal reading this, when was the last time that you took time to check in on your priorities? What are you doing to be accountable for what you said, at the first of the year, would be the most important things to accomplish this year? Have you celebrated? Is it time to refocus?

Personally, it seems to take New Year’s Resolutions for me to reset my priorities and get focused on the important things in my life.  Maybe October is our New Year’s in education… a great time to look at what we can do, what we can’t do and what we have to do.  Current reality and focused, intentional actions instead of just spinning our wheels.

And, if you are a teacher reading this, what do you know that you are really, really good at? What classroom practices are your teaching strengths and how much time, right now are you spending connecting with your students?  Have you asked for help from colleagues? Are you part of a collaborative team and benefitting from the expertise and experiences around you?  Can you refocus in your classroom with goal-setting so that you and your students can feel successful in smaller chunks of time?

In our book, Leading with Intention, (https://www.solutiontree.com/leading-with-intention.html), chapters one and two offer a great many tools to help you refocus, redirect your energy and set those priorities.  We also have a one-hour free webinar that is focused on this as well, https://www.solutiontree.com/leading-with-focus-and-intention-webinar.html.

Be well, be happy and refocus. Your personal energy is important to the students and staff that you serve.  Have a great week.