Envision the “Best-Case” Scenario

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I’ve often wondered why – when faced with the prospect of professional or personal change – people often defer to the worst-case scenario or predominantly envision why something won’t work.

Now, while I don’t pretend to be an expert on all of humanity, I do believe that it is primarily a way to prevent ourselves from looking foolish.  There are few things in life more aversive than the idea that you didn’t think it through or were, in some way, naive about the potential downsides.  It seems as though we spend most (if not all) of our energy contemplating why something won’t work or envisioning the worst-case scenario, which really means we spend very little time contemplating why something will work or envisioning the best-case scenario.

The future, from where I sit, is really an illusion that we construct based upon our past experiences, successes, and failures.  Of course, some of those experiences are valid and do provide us with the necessary background to not repeat any mistakes we’ve made.  That said, we still can’t predict the future and don’t know for sure that something will or won’t work.

Think about it for a moment…do I not box myself in when I predict something won’t work? I mean, to predict failure, only to then try something and succeed would prove myself to be wrong…we don’t typically like that. However, to prove you were right you would have to try – and fail – at something that other people have succeeded at doing…we don’t typically like that either.  It’s a lose-lose scenario.

What if we spent an equal amount – or better yet more – energy contemplating the best-case scenario.  Since we can’t predict the future and don’t know for sure that something will/won’t work, why not develop a positive mindset of possibility and success.  Why not, at the very least, put yourself in the frame of mind that best reflects what it is that you actually want.  Predicting failure is negative; negative thoughts produce negative outcomes. Will it succeed or fail? Who knows, but envisioning the best-case scenario will at least create within you the kind of conditions you wish to produce.

Reflections on Edcamp Vancouver

If I were to sum up my experience at Edcamp Vancouver I would say it exceeded my expectations by a long shot!  Now don’t get me wrong, I expected to have a great day, but it was better than I anticipated and well worth the drive down to Vancouver. Darcy Mullin (@darcymullin – see his reflections here) and I made the trek to Vancouver and came away convinced that the Edcamp format is the way to take any initiative to scale through embedded, self-directed professional learning.

I think it would be a mistake, however, to say that we never need an outside expert or an organized conference.  I think there is value in having an “expert” begin the tough conversations, provide inspiration, or develop the necessary fluency and capacity within a school or a district; I think there is still a place for that. We all have expertise, however, we may not have the expertise in the specific area we are interested in implementing and/or growing.  The one-time pro-d sessions fail not because there is something inherently wrong with that format; it’s because once we experience that one-time pro-d we do very little in terms of contextualizing and embedding the big ideas to suit our context. Sometimes we need to be nudged or inspired by someone else, but once we are it is up to us to take it as far as we can.

If we want any of our initiatives, processes, programs, practices, or ideas to go to scale and be sustainable then we have to become far more self-reliant and determined to lead our own professional growth – this is where the Edcamp format undoubtedly plays a major role.  The choice in topics, the collective expertise and experience in the room, and the enriching back channel chats on twitter were inspiring. Meeting many of the people I’ve connected with on twitter was also great.

Choice in what I learn, the freedom to disagree, the synergy of collective experience, and the relationships that develop all make the Edcamp format for professional learning a non-negotiable if we are to move beyond the flavor of the month pro-d and begin to embed the changes that we know are necessary for the next generation of students.

A big thank-you to all of the organizers for a great day. I returned to Penticton energized by what I experienced and hopeful that maybe the thought of Edcamp Okanagan might one day become a reality…we’ll see!

The Invisible Leader

Sounds like an oxymoron, but all leaders will face the dilemma between the true purpose of leadership (empowering others) and the ego of leadership (getting credit) at least once in their careers.  Admittedly, this is one I have struggled with.  The struggle between humility and ego is one that all leaders must come to terms with.  Being an invisible leader is what we all know great leadership is about, but it can be challenging – even privately – to park our egos and allow others to flourish. Verse 17 of the Tao Te Ching:

With the greatest leader above them, people barely know one exists. Next comes one whom they love and praise. Next comes one whom they fear. Next comes one whom they despise and defy.

When a leader trusts no one, no one trusts him.

The great leader speaks little. He never speaks carelessly. He works without self-interest and leaves no trace. When all is finished, the people say, “We did it all ourselves.”

Like you, I have accomplished a few things in my career so far that I am proud of and have, for the most part, been fairly successful in keeping my ego in check.  That was tested a few years ago when I was part of meeting where an individual was heaping praise upon another person (not in attendance) for the great things this person had brought to our district. Now I’ll keep this purposefully vague so as not to identify individuals.  My goal here is not to criticize anyone else; this is about my reaction and how my ego was tested.

Anyway, as I sat and listened to this person go on and on I quickly realized that they were praising the wrong person.  I was the one primarily responsible for this so-called  great thing and the voice inside my head (ego) was going crazy saying, “It was ME, It was ME…not HIM/HER.”  Saying anything at that moment would have embarrassed the person; saying anything after would have done the same, and both would have been moments of self-indulgence that would only flip the embarrassment on to me as well.  Thankfully I chose to say nothing, nod along with the person heaping praise, and allow the meeting to continue uninterrupted. It’s something that is definitely easier to say – or tweet – than to do, but it was definitely a moment that tested me as a leader.

We all want to be great – to leave a legacy – and the thought of being overlooked is next to impossible to embrace, but our legacy is really up for others to establish and debate. My legacy is not up to me and while I can certainly convince myself of anything about myself, that’s not my legacy.

I think the most effective leaders are often the ones where others truly believe they didn’t need a leader in the first place.  The art of leadership is shifting the focus away from yourself and maintaining a kind of authentic humility that is not concerned with who gets the credit or whose name goes at the top of the list.  It’s the kind of humility that uses the words we and team and us! It’s not the awe shucks kind of  ‘false’ humility that is painfully transparent.

There is no mastering this.  Each time these moments present themselves our egos will look for any opening to infuse a me first mindset into the conversation. As leaders, must fight our natural tendencies and remain grounded in our knowing that the greatest leaders are the ones where the people barely know one exists.

Classroom Management is about “Predictability”

The other day I came a cross a tweet that asked what they key to classroom management was.  The first word that came to my mind was predictability.

Now before I explain…a little disclaimer.  This is not about “control” – it’s about creating “conditions.”  The word management seems to have fallen so far out of favor that it feels necessary to use “air quotes” each time we say the word.  There also seems to be a never-ending semantically anchored debate that labors to move to actually discussing effective practices when we continue to say, I don’t manage kids (insert air quotes).  Managing situations and learning environments – at least from where I sit – is not at all about trying to control every single move a student makes or stifle creativity.  For me, managing a class means creating the optimum conditions in which students can learn.

Classrooms are effectively managed when there is predictability around expectations, routines, and relationships.  

Predictability of EXPECTATIONS: Students have to know what is expected of them; how they are expected to interact with their peers and with the teacher in the classroom.  They have to understand how to listen attentively, how to respect both themselves and others within the room, how to respect the learning environment, etc.  The consistent interplay between teacher and students establishes a predictability that brings comfort to students; that what is expected of me is not a mystery but clearly established and agreed upon.

Predictability of ROUTINE: There is a rhythm to effective teaching – it’s the rhythm of how we do learning.  Predictable routines – how to access assistance, how to re-organize for group work, how to submit completed assignments, how to respond to feedback – create learning conditions that students can depend upon day in, day out.  In turn, anxiety around routines is reduced which reciprocally raises student confidence and removes yet another obstacle toward the expectation of eventual success.

Predictability of RELATIONSHIPS: For me, most important.  The relationships we develop with students need to be predictable in that there is no doubt that we are on their side and will do whatever it takes to help then succeed. It also means that the relationships between the students is also predictable; that the classroom is a safe place to learn, take risks, make mistakes, and recover free from personal or emotional harm.  All that we do – assess, instruct, grade, report – should not jeopardize our relationships with our students. Everything our students do should not jeopardize their relationships with each other.

The optimal environment in which to learn is one that is predictable enough to provide the necessary parameters without stifling individuality and/or creativity.  It’s a balance – a balance that when struck is the sweet spot of teaching that allows learning to sit front-and-center.

The Strength in being Soft

 

Over the last few years I have spent a fair amount of time reading the Tao Te Ching, a collection of verses authored by the Chinese philosopher Lao-tzu. Now I have been aware of this book for a long time, however, it’s only in the last few years that I’ve really come to know it, study it, and reflect on the profound messages within it.  It is a very short book – it can be read in one sitting – but the messages last forever.  This is a book written 2500 years ago that is still relevant today.

This past weekend, the 76th verse caught my attention:

A man is born gentle and weak; at his death he is hard and stiff. All things, including the grass and trees, are soft and pliable in life; dry and brittle in death.

Stiffness is thus a companion of death; flexibility a companion of life.  An army that cannot yield will be defeated. A tree that cannot bend will crack in the wind.

The hard and the stiff will be broken; the soft and the supple will prevail.

Being soft and pliable in life is something I’ve come to realize is much more important and effective in my role as a leader.  In some ways this contradicts what we’ve all been taught about leadership. Leaders are supposed to set the course, have a definitive vision for success, stay on track, and never waver from the original goal or perspective.  If you don’t have a strong opinion or a definitive vision you might be labelled a fence-sitter; if a politician changes his/her mind it’s called a flip-flop. Imagine that we’ve come to a point in our society where changing your mind is a sign of weakness…come again? And don’t ever be soft as people will not respect you and will take advantage. Unfortunately, the word soft has a negative connotation in so many of our societal arenas.

Now I’m not saying that as leader you should flounder and never form an opinion or vision. You have to have strength in order to be an effective leader.  The question here is not as much about being strong as it is about how you exert that strength.  We can either exert our strength through strength or we can do it through being soft.

Sometimes we have to know when to yield or bend with the wind.  Sometimes we have to know when NOT to voice an opinion; when we DON’T need to be heard or when we’ve said too much.  The allure of leadership and all that it can feed the ego is not easy to resist, but when we retreat and allow ourselves to be influenced our leadership is much more effective.

Having an opinion at all costs serves no one well; developing an unwillingness to reflect and change your mind reveals a stiffness that will be the companion of the death of your leadership.

I want to be a leader who changes his mind when new information is made available; when new research shows that what used to be true is no longer relevant. I want to be a leader who is open and willing – soft and supple.

There is a strength in being soft – in being able to bend with the wind – because once the storm is over you will be the one still standing.