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Sunday, November 5, 2017

Reflecting on Reflection

I retired as a superintendent in New York two years ago. My wife and I moved to another part of the state, along the border with Vermont, after the birth of our only grandchild. Soon thereafter, I accepted the opportunity to resume my school leadership career as a principal in Vermont, just across the border. This enabled me to collect my pension in New York and my salary in Vermont.

I enjoy the return to leadership at the building level, but composing blog entries has been a struggle recently. This dormant period happens to coincide with my acceptance of a the principal's position a year and a half ago. 

The educational alchemist blog originated when I assumed the role of a school superintendent in 2010. I began to pen entries in earnest, offering perspectives on rising issues or simple reflections on daily activities. Entries during that fertile writing period averaged at east four posts a week. There was ample time to indulge in thought. The words surged forth and my fingers danced along keyboard. I enjoyed the exercise of expressing thoughts because it prompted me to examine what I experienced and reconstruct it in words. That introspection nurtured growth.

This weekend was the first time in weeks and weeks that I found, or made, the time to write. Whenever I questioned myself about the absence of posts I mustered several possible reasons, ranging from indifference, laziness, to a general lack of opportunity. I arrived at what I imagine to be the culprit. It was hidden within me, perhaps because I didn't want to confront the matter, perhaps it was due to an apparent simplicity of explanation that might render the reason too easy for the reader to dismiss, particularly if they are a school superintendent. 

That's the point of this blog entry. The daily role of the superintendent usually affords the district leader more time to reflect. While the schedule is cluttered with meetings, many of them (i.e. policy development, strategic planning, budget forecasting...) are focused on a linger view into the future and that proverbial "big picture."  

I never felt that assuming the role of a superintendent endowed me with greater knowledge or insight than I possessed as a principal. Instead, I explained the difference as a matter of a hierarchy of perspectives. That is, when I was a teacher, my view was limited, like someone sitting in a room with a lone window that narrowed the view outside to that single frame. When I became a principal, I found that I now had windows on two sides of the four walls. Therefore, I was able to see things that elude someone restricted to one window. When I became a superintendent, I discovered windows on all four walls. I wasn't any smarter, I just had views (i.e. on personnel, negotiations, budgets...) that was unavailable to most others.

We tend to limit ourselves because the realities of our day obscure our vision and opportunity to reflect. The constant assault of people, needs, conflict... whether it's a teacher contending with 25 learners all day or a principal addressing issues that pop up unexpectedly, like discipline, prevents one from pausing to reflect on our actions and words. There is an expression I learned in Texas that explains the situation - "When you're up to your ass in alligators, it's hard to remember your job was to drain the pool." 

This is not to say that a superintendent is immune from the unanticipated issue or surprising development (and I fully understand from experience that the extent and reach of such problems are deeper and farther), but they usually have more control over their time. Their todays do not necessarily hold their tomorrows hostage. 

As a principal, my day too often seems like one long game of "whack-a-mole," the carnival game where something pops up and you task is to use a mallet to hit it back down - except that as soon as one pops up and you nit  it, another pops up, then another, and another... Perhaps a classier way to describe it is the Greek myth of Sisyphus, the character who spent his day rolling a large boulder up a hill, only to have it roll back down and prompt another perpetual trek up the hill - again and again and all over again. In short, there's little time to sit back and reflect on whats happened and how you responded and learned from the issue.

This entry is an apologetic explanation of my intermittent blog posts, while reflecting on the issues that have limited my writing, and offering a perspective on a difference between the role of a principal and that of a superintendent.

Saturday, November 4, 2017

The Language of Leadership

There are a legion of books written on the subject of leadership. I have read more than my share of these texts. While I have cultivated much from these resources, my most simplistic view on principles underlying effective leadership begin with the manner in which we communicate. Specifically, the words we choose when speaking in any leadership role.

I believe that the appropriate point to start a discussion like this is the manner in which the formal leader of an organization refers to him/herself when speaking about the organization. Use of the personal "I" will not support an empowered work force and enlist them in pursuit of goals. Rather, when the formal leader employs the use of "we" or "our" in explaining the operation and aspirations of the organization.

Empowerment takes on heightened importance because it can increase commitment and outputs when people feel aligned with a greater purpose guiding an environment oriented to growing people as well as growing the success of the organization.

Money alone is not the incentive for people to invest fully in their work. It has been shown to not be a motivator, but rather a satisfier. The long term interests and needs of an organization rest on a compelling and credible vision, a meaningful mission, and most importantly a perception by the individual that they matter and make a difference within an organization that values and nurtures the opportunity to grow as a person.

Consider the advice of Bill O'Brien, a successful CEO who is quoted in Peter Senge's book, The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook:

Our traditional organizations are designed to provide for the first three levels of Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs – food, shelter, and belonging. Since these are widely available to members of an industrial society, these organizations do not provide anything particularly unique to command the loyalty and commitment of people. The ferment in management today will continue until organizations begin to address the higher order needs: self-respect and self-actualization."

Moving Boulders

Our Shared Decision Making Team, comprised of parents, teachers, and support staff, examined the needs of our school last year. The result of their study inspired them to invest in solutions to two vexing issues: the assigned locations of classrooms, and the master schedule. Members divided into two different groups, with each assigned to create responses to the pair of problems and improve our infrastructure. They met regularly with a collective commitment that served to forge a spirit of cooperation focused on meaningful matters that had been absent within the school. The process became as important as the desired product. There was a purpose that inspired and sustained their efforts and energy.

This team performed the heavy lifting. They generated a radically new master schedule that replaced the confusing framework that had previously inhibited collaboration and achievement. The new schedule provided common planning periods across each grade level, which included extending opportunities for collaboration that can advance instructional gains. Each special area class period was the same length, as opposed to the 30 minute Physical Education class twice per week, and the single 50 minute Music, Library, and Art lessons every week. The unaligned time periods disrupted attempts to work together on common needs and interests.

Finally, placing classrooms in proximity to their respective grades enhanced possibilities for teachers partnering and reduced time in transition for learners and interventionist in Reading and Math, as well as special education providers.

Together these two significant changes in infrastructure are designed to promote progress in learning outcomes. The Shared Decision making Team has moved the boulder and it's up to the staff to maintain the momentum for improvement.

Teachers as First Responders

Teachers as First Responders

I am appreciative of all those people who serve in the capacity of first responders. They encounter unimaginable experiences when reaching those in need. The recent shootings in Las Vegas that resulted in 58 deaths and hundreds wounded is a large scale tragedy, a carnival of carnage that must have produced horrific scenes. Thank you to those who willingly help others in distress.

That said, I want to shift the focus from the first responders of doctors, nurses, police, EMT’s who arrive to treat the injured, protect the innocent, or fight fires, to those who have a somewhat different relationship with trauma.

A cadre of our teachers recently received training in research and practices regarding children living with adverse experiences. Unfortunately, there is a growing need to support children impacted by trauma, due to a variety of reasons – incarcerated parents, addictive behaviors within the home, divorce or loss, generational poverty…

In addition to the speaker’s presentation on the physiological influence of stress, we examined two case studies of children that would allow us insight into the lives of specific learners. The more we heard about the challenges that faced these individuals, the more it became apparent that teachers are often performing roles similar to first responders. Although they do not face the dangers confronting police, fire, or emergency medical staff, teachers regularly bear witness to trauma of a different nature. The burden of frequently receiving narratives of misery, hurt, and loss, that may form a toxic combination with the potential to devolve into a sense of helplessness and/or hopelessness, exacts a toll on the emotions of teachers. The result has been referred to as vicarious trauma, or compassion fatigue.

But a review of professional development activities involving schools and trauma would likely reveal that the focus of the training is centered on how teachers can understand and respond to the needs of children experiencing trauma, rather than providing the resources and strategies for teachers to cope with the impact of contending with the stream of trauma they too regularly meet with.

As a result, I supplied the staff with several different articles:

When Students are Traumatized, Teachers are too, by Emelina Minero .

How to Support Stressed-out Teachers, by Joyce Dorado and Vicki Zakrzewski

Managing Vicarious Trauma and Compassion Fatigue, by Heather M. Helm

The more information and insight I digested on the issue, the more empathy I found for staff members who resolutely wrestle with the needs of children in impoverished environments like the community we serve. Though the focus of general professional development experiences address common core elements or a string of state or federally mandated assessments and forms of accountability, the more pressing needs in underperforming and underserved schools are often associated with the affective domain.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

This Day Forward

I presented these words to the staff of our school n the aftermath of the September 11th terrorist attack in 2001. The message rings true on this day following a different terrorist attack in Charlottesville, Virginia.

This is a day that will define us – not as educators – but as people. This is a day that we were not prepared for by college, but by our parents, family, and friends. This is a day to ignore the scores on a test, but concern ourselves with the test of our mettle. 

Our school is special because of the people within it. You were each hired because of your care and compassion, commitment and cooperation. If we are determined to pursue a mission borne of fostering hope and feeding dreams, then we must sustain that belief throughout this day and those that follow. 

Let us conduct ourselves with dignity and civility, sensitivity and faith. We must serve as purveyors of information, and reservoirs of understanding. Rest anchored to facts, not fiction; objectivity, not opinion. 

When the school bell rings, on this day that the nation mourns, we may be judged - not by grades and points, but by hugs and tears. If we are resolved to a future of freedom, then we must remain strong, speak as one, and act for all.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Buying and Selling

I recently, and reluctantly, parted ways with my car, after 178,000 miles. Many of us, including me, may loathe the process of buying a new care for fear of the complicated and burdensome interactions required to advance from looking for a car to signing on the bottom line of a contract. I never looked forward to dealing with salespeople.

That changed after reading Daniel Pink's book, To Sell is Human, and reviewing my notes from Harry Beckwith's Selling the Invisible. Pink makes the convincing case that we are all involved in selling on a regular basis, once we escape the notion of limiting sales to an exchange of money and products and understand that sales involve "moving people" through concepts and proposals... We are "selling" ideas to others all the time, whether it's making a pitch for which movie to watch tonight or explaining why we should not drink and drive.

Within that context (please read both books, it will be a wise investment of your time) I perceive myself as a person who sells ideas in exchange for the resources of time and energy and commitment. Think about it - effective schools "sell" parents on the value of their children sustaining a 13 year commitment in quest of a diploma that will lead to....? This is not like convincing a car buyer to purchase a specific car. The customer can see the car, touch the car, drive the car, and imagine how this car will make them feel. It's a transaction centered on a concrete object that results in an immediate receipt of a product by the consumer.

Conversely, as educators we must make a persuasive case for parents extending their commitment for a product (a diploma certifying standards and levels of performance) that they cannot see or feel. hence, Beckwith's book, Selling the Invisible. Beckwith contrasts selling a concrete object with selling an idea that is invisible that extends into the future with the following advice - "Selling aspirin to someone with a headache is much easier than trying to sell life insurance to a twenty-two year old bachelor." One has an immediate need, while the other is something that is not seen or touched or used for perhaps many years into the future.

That's the challenge for educators - selling the value and purpose of education to the community in a convincing enough fashion that the taxpayers will maintain financial support.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Something Old, Something New

As soon as one school is completed, preparations for another begin. One of the primary responsibilities in forging plans for the upcoming school term involves hiring staff members.

I have been performing this task for many years now. It's a challenge I enjoy. Nurturing growth in staff members is rewarding. I especially like observing the energy and enthusiasm that accompanies the resume each candidate brings to the interview.

However, the longer I remain in education, the more echoes of the past emerge. With a career than spans four decades, I have experienced a robust array of programs and practices pushed by consultants (all too often former educators imbued with the sales pitch of a snake oil salesman seeking to bilk public funds from anxious consumers in search of a quick remedy...) at conferences. During the course of a lengthy career, one hears programs explained in terms that sound vaguely familiar. Peering beneath the shade, light is cast on elements or concepts that are true, but couched in updated buzz-words and enhance with the technology of the time - all, to appear different enough to distinguish the program from earlier versions. Think about paraphrasing a quote, or citing a reference with a footnote in tiny font at the end of the book/article. As kids say, "the same, but different."

Somehow, amid all of the hype and noise, arise research based proposals that have survived critical analysis and been identified as viable solutions to stated needs. Even these programs are subject to subtle, nuanced tweaks that accumulatively have the effect to cloak the original and birth a new product.

Such was the case when I, many years ago as a new teacher, excitedly explained to my mother-in-law (a former teacher at a one room school house in Kansas, and later a principal of a small rural school there) about the new concept entitled "cooperative learning." I recounted the wisdom and recommendations presented by the authors (themselves products of a one room school house) and went on and on about the virtues of the philosophy and practice. My audience of one was patient, gracious, and accommodating.

Finally, after exhausting my knowledge and effort, my mother-in-law politely offered that it, "sounds a lot like what I learned years ago when studying the work of John Dewey." That took a little wind out of my sails, though she clearly did not intended to dismiss or discount my interest in cooperative learning. Nor did she imply that the Johnson brothers who formed the basis for cooperative learning were copying the work of Dewey, but rather building on his efforts and refining/updating the practice.

Nonetheless, it was an example of what continues to occur in the field of education, old practices and programs wearing new, more stylish clothes to impress shoppers.