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Shifting the leader’s mindset from “me” to “we” - Smartblog on Leadership 9.12.2014

“Before you are a leader, success is all about growing yourself. When you become a leader, success is all about growing others.” — Jack Welch

The message didn’t really fit directly with the lesson that the professor was delivering. Perhaps that’s why I remember it most clearly from everything that he taught during that entire course.

In the late 1990s, I was taking a methodology class for teaching Social Studies at Roosevelt University in Schaumberg, Ill. The instructor did a wonderful job in helping his class understand the importance of making history come alive for students. We learned about engaging lessons with clear themes and plenty of opportunity for students’ creativity.

But where he really helped me as an educator was with a message that he shared following a conversation that he had with an executive at nearby Motorola. The topic of education had come up between the two men and the exec really laid into his professor friend. “You guys in education have it all wrong.” “How so?” asked the prof. “You teach everyone to work and think alone, that communicating and sharing ideas is cheating. Once these kids get into the workplace we need to completely deprogram and retrain them to cooperate and collaborate, to work together effectively.” The professor, duly humbled, shared this powerful message with us. It was a concept that I always remembered as I began my own journey in the field of education and school leadership.

Too many new leaders also “have it all wrong,” at least in terms of how they view their new roles. They think of leadership as the next step in their ascent, one that represents an increase in responsibility and authority but not one that necessarily demands change in their core thinking and approaches. In truth, to assume a leadership post is to enter into a whole new professional arena.

Before assuming this new position, accomplishment was all about you and your performance. You worked hard to achieve success and hoped that you would get noticed and promoted. Time and effort were invested in self-promotion, with the understanding that your success would translate into the next step that you desired. Once you become a leader, however, achievement is measured by your ability to grow others, to make the people who work for you more capable and more confident. The game is no longer about you winning. It’s your team that must win for your term as leader to be deemed a success.

No doubt, this can be much easier said than done. Since grade school, you have been encouraged to succeed as an individual. Sure, you were taught to be respectful of others and include them in social activities and school projects, but at the end it was about you. As you moved into the workplace you brought that “about me” attitude with you. Perhaps you were placed on a team and had to work with others to complete tasks. But were you genuinely invested in their success? If you are like most people, the answer is probably not.

As a leader, that old mindset needs to change, and in a hurry. In the words of the great industrialist Andrew Carnegie, “No man will make a great leader who wants to do it all himself, or to get all the credit for doing it.”

What can new leaders do to adjust their thinking and become more “we” oriented?

One primary consideration is to remember how your success will be measured. Keep a placard on your corkboard or a little stand on your desk that shares a message of cohesion and common goals. Choose something like:

  • “If everyone is moving forward together, then success takes care of itself.” Henry Ford
  • “Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much.” Helen Keller
  • “We cannot accomplish all that we need to do without working together.” Bill Richardson

Remember, a leader’s primary role is to advance her team and to engage their collective talents towards the goals that they have set. How she performs individually is of little consequence if the process falls behind schedule or comes in over budget. When the team wins she wins. When they stumble, the blame will find its way back to her. That alone should help motivate a leader to think more broadly than she has in the past.

Another strategy is to reflect upon the gift of leading. Leadership is not simply a better, more prestigious version of subordinate positions. Rather, it is an opportunity to make a much broader and deeper impact on others and the organization. Leaders who remember this blessing and come to work each day with the goal of helping others will find that they don’t have the time or the interest in thinking about themselves. They are simply too engrossed in the broader success of their endeavors to worry about the personal implications. As the adage goes, “focus on the process, forget the outcome.” If the process is strong that outcome will take care of itself.

Want to Change It? Scale It! - Huffington Post 9.8.2014

About three years ago I met with a team of teachers to discuss a common concern - student comportment. The teachers collectively felt that respect and responsibility were amongst some key areas of deficit within the student population and that something needed to be done about it. Without getting into details about how we approached the issue as a staff, we were able to get started on what could be an overwhelming task - defining and elevating the behavioral standard for over 350 children and the tens of staff that support them - and make meaningful inroads towards a better outcome. This was true because we were able to take an honest look at ourselves and our situation and identify the steps that we wanted to take to make meaningful improvements, in words and in deeds.

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One of the techniques that I often employ in my coaching and training work is a scaling exercise. It is a powerful process that offers a strong visual and emotional framework for individuals who seek change in their professional practice or some other area in their lives.

The first thing that I ask the client or workshop attendees is to describe the subject area on a scale from one to ten, with one being the ideal and a ten being the exact opposite. I ask for behavioral descriptors that help create a basic vision of each extreme and also ask for some emotional terms that connect the individuals more deeply with each experience.

An example of this would be to scale internal communication within a company. What does a "1" look and feel like? What does a "10" look and feel like? In the first case, I might get back such descriptive terms as "smooth," "continuous," "clear," and "timely," together with such feelings as "content," "informed," and "included." The lowest rung on the communicative ladder may be described as "infrequent," "ambiguous," and "isolated," making people feel disconnected and unhappy. By the time that we are done with this part of the process we tend to be pretty clear on how to describe internal communication in its optimal form as well as when the organization is operating at a dysfunctional level in this regard.

Once we have these bookend definitions in place, we then explore the current reality. I ask them, "If you were asked to scale your present situation, what score would you give it? Why?" This part can be particularly difficult as it forces people to come to grips with their situation and also seek to identify the factors, such as systems, professional conduct, and the like, that are contributing to their less than optimal experience.

After this process has been completed, I then ask those that I am working with to think about a level that is within reach, such as going from a 5 to a 4, or perhaps even a 3. We talk about the specific components that separate the two levels and formulate an actionable plan with quantifiable deliverables to know that we have reached our goal or are at least trending in the right direction. We also establish a timeframe by which to achieve this growth so that the initial clarity and inspiration is not lost along the way. The net result is an action plan that goes beyond griping about the present to agreeing to concrete steps that will result in progress.

In essence, the scaling technique is very simple, at least in terms of establishing the end goals. Arriving at a clear, applicable vision will be harder. The key to its success is a combination of identifying clear parameters and honestly assessing the present situation. Once that is achieved, leaders and their teams can get to work on converting their vision into reality and making the workplace a more fulfilling and enjoyable space for all members of the team.

Getting the Most Out of Classroom Observations - Huffington Post 9.5.2014

One of the time-honored practices of school leaders is to visit classrooms and conduct teacher observations. These visits are intended to provide teachers with constructive feedback about their performance and help them enhance their professional practice. They also help principals keep tabs on instruction and evaluate teacher performance. While the goals behind teacher observations are laudable, the process sometimes does not follow the script and can even lead to frustration and resentment for both parties.

For teachers, observations can oftentimes be disruptive. Even when notified previously, the presence of one or more administrators can interrupt the flow of class and be unnerving. Many worry about what is going through the mind of their supervisor and fret over the post-observation feedback that they will receive -- if they get any at all.

Many principals struggle with the process as well. When should they observe and how often? How much time should they be spending in the classroom? Do they need to notify the teacher ahead of time? What will they be looking for? When and how should they offer feedback? How can they use this experience to promote teacher growth and evaluation?

I experienced these issues firsthand, as a teacher and then as a principal. As a teacher, I knew what it was like to be visited often, as well as to go an entire year without an administrator walking in. I remember the highs of positive feedback and the lows of feeling that the principal really did not know what I was doing in class or how successful I was in my classroom. My years in administration allowed me to conduct many affirming, growth-oriented conversations with teachers. I also had too many talks with teachers that seemed awkward at times, or made me feel that I had not done enough to set the right tone.

The following represents a short list of suggestions for principals that I believe can make classroom visits and observations productive, constructive and positive for all parties.

  • Clarify intentions. Let teachers know what it is that you seek to achieve when you visit. What are you looking for, in terms of instruction, engagement and classroom management? What does good teaching look like to you? More importantly, let teachers know that the purpose of your visit is to help, not to catch them doing something wrong. Even if there is a breakdown, your interest is to help them reflect and identify better ways forward, not to get stuck in the moment.
  • Develop a common language. Use terminology that all parties understand. When analyzing the lesson, it is helpful to be able to speak about terms like objective, anticipatory set, input and closure and have the teachers know clearly what you mean. If there are terms that are unknown or ambiguous, use in-service teacher meetings to elucidate and explain their importance.
  • Take good notes. Script-tape is a way of keeping copious notes that allows you to drill down and achieve greater understanding about classroom activities and teacher rationale. By giving teachers the chance to explain before passing verdict -- "tell me about when you..." -- you will oftentimes find that their apparent misstep or incongruent comment was both relevant and purposeful.
  • Leave quick impressions with specificity. Pen a short note just as you are planning to exit the room. It should be positive and specific, detailing something in particular that you noticed and want to reinforce.
  • Debrief in the near term. Don't let much time elapse between your visit and the debriefing. Teachers are anxious to hear from you and a prolonged delay can lead them to think that something was amiss or that you simply do not care enough to get back with them. Moreover, the longer the gap, the harder it'll be for both parties to reconstruct the events and make sense of them, which is the real point of the visit to begin with.
  • Collect data. There are tools that principals can use, such as Teachscape, that can help them "check off" when they observe certain things in the classroom, such as student groupings and instructional tone. Such data can be useful to view in the aggregate, either to observe a teacher's progression over time or to see how prevalent certain teaching practices are amongst members of staff or even subsections. For example, perhaps trends will emerge in which lower school teachers are using more cooperative and group learning and middle school teachers tend to rely more heavily on frontal lecturing.
  • Choose frequency over duration. If done correctly, a principal can gather much information and a clear understanding of what's going on in a classroom in just a few short minutes. Short visitations allow principals to get into more rooms, which boost morale. They also put teachers at ease, as each visit is low stakes and part of a natural, organic process, not based on a concern.
  • Use a formative approach. As with formative assessment, a proactive approach gives teachers feedback in an ongoing fashion and gives all parties a chance to try to remedy problem situations in a timely fashion. Gone are the almighty summative observations in the spring that are used to determine whether a teacher is a keeper.
  • Stay to the goals. This may be the most important of all. I strongly suggest that every teacher be asked in the spring for a few goals that they wish to work on over the summer and into the following school year. The goals should be reviewed by a supervisor and agreed to. Once that's in place, principals should try whenever possible to comment with the goals in mind. How is the teacher faring? What steps need to be taken to help support her? Staying focused on goals not only helps you check off on an important growth area, but also makes the post-observation conversation feel more natural, as the next step in an ongoing conversation.

By following at least some of these suggestions, principals can set a more positive, focused and goal-oriented tone to the observation process. The result will be happier teachers and genuine sense of fulfillment, knowing that you are satisfying one of the most important tasks in your role as instructional leader.