I Trust your Intentions

Over the better part of the last decade I have had the good fortune of presenting in schools & school districts, and at a variety of workshops & conferences across North America. The topics have varied, but the message has always been similar: Some things in our system need to change or improve and here are some ways in which I think we can accomplish that goal.

Anyone who knows me knows that my presentation style is fairly direct, clear, honest, and focused on what I perceive to be the job at hand.  I believe what I believe, I try to show credible research and examples of why I believe it, and help others understand what it might look like if applied within their context.  Even as a school leader, I’ve never been one to avoid having the conversations, debating the merits of an issue, or guiding someone to feel compelled to move in what I think is the more appropriate direction.

With all of that, there is one thing I try to avoid at all costs and that is questioning a teacher’s intent and telling them how wrong their career has been up until that moment.

I trust your intentions.

While I might not agree with you and we may – fundamentally – have a completely different view of what is best for our students, I try to avoid being right by proving how wrong you are. I believe that every teacher has the students’ best interest at heart. Whether it is how you develop a positive school climate, how you support students with behavioural challenges, how you assess, grade, and report student progress, or design the instructional experiences for your students, I believe that you believe it is the most effective way to maximize learning. Again, I might not agree with you, but to question your intent, for me, crosses the line. I want what I believe to stand on its own and not rely on simply being the best of the worst; teachers are not inspired by that.

Occasionally, and especially on twitter, I come across 140 character attacks that question the intent of people who have dedicated their careers to teaching and supporting their students.  Words such as malpractice, dangerous, control, power, manipulative, bribery, conspire, and coerce, are thrown around (I’m guessing) for their definitiveness and their shock value.  Bribery as an example, is about coercing people to act in an illegal or immoral way; I don’t know any teachers who do that. It’s easy to have keyboard courage but it’s something else to look people in the eye and inspire them to learn, move, or grow. I’ve come to know – and have experienced several times firsthand – that you don’t need to browbeat people and put them on the defensive in order to create the optimum conditions for change and growth.  Browbeating people through inflammatory language only serves to expose our own insecurities about our convictions, create animosity, and drive people away from the messenger who, in fact, may have a compelling message worth listening to.

Questioning teacher’s intentions cuts to their character and none of us – none – are fully qualified to judge that invisible entity.  I believe many things in our system do need to change and/or evolve, BUT I also believe that 99.99% of the teachers, administrators, district staff, support workers, custodians, secretaries, etc. are doing what they believe is in the best interest of the students in our schools.

Push their thinking, challenge their widely held beliefs, and show them there is a more effective way and they might just feel compelled to listen and follow. Attacking their character and questioning their intent will only lead to them tuning you out and to you becoming white noise.

Time Out – Time In

Maybe it’s just me, but it seems as though “timeout” is getting a bad rap.  While I am definitely NOT in favor of creating a fast track to removing students from classrooms, there are times when removing a student from a situation is an effective way of intervening. Even if only for a few minutes, sometimes a little distance between the teacher/environment and the student is the most effective way to defuse the situation. Sometimes, it is important to intervene and/or discuss an issue with a student privately rather than confronting it in front of the entire class.

Time out works.  My issue is more with the misuse of time out by thinking it always works; it doesn’t. Here are a few guidelines that may help you determine whether time out is or is not an effective way to intervene and how you might go about maximizing its effective use.

1. There must be a desirable ‘time-in’ environment. Removing a student from an environment they do not want to be in will never be an effective way of reducing the likelihood that a challenging behavior will occur again.  It’s as silly as suspending a student out-of-school for skipping. This will only serve to reinforce the negative behavior and increase the likelihood that the behavior will occur again – only sooner and with more intensity.  This is why two students can/will have very different responses to the same intervention (time out). The student for whom the environment is desirable will respond positively; the other, not so much.

2. Keep it brief – no more than 5 or 10 minutes MAX. If you need to appropriately remove a student because you are in the middle of something that’s okay.  However, the idea that a student sit in the hallway for 30-45 minutes is, for me, unacceptable.  If, as part of a Behavior Improvement Plan, a student needs to be removed for an extended period of time, then another location should be part of the plan so the student can continue their learning.

3. Keep it business-like. This is much easier said than done, especially if the T.O. is the result of the student telling you to F.O. The bottom-line in any teacher-student relationship is getting emotionally caught up in any discipline issue never goes well for the adults involved. Remember, this is not a judgment of the student as a person; this is about their behavior and, as such, we need to remain as objective as possible.  Taking things personally usually leads to ineffective interactions.

4. Teach ‘how’, ‘when’, and ‘where’ to take the timeout. This is especially true for students for whom timeout is a part of their behavior improvement plan. Not only will this reinforce the objectivity of the intervention, it will give the student a clear picture of how the timeout is supposed to occur.  Then, if the student follows through on what they’ve been ‘taught’ there is an opportunity for positive feedback on how respectfully they moved to the hallway without disrupting the other students. Students with severe behavioral challenges may never fully change, however, we can teach them prosocial ways to handle their inevitable emotions of anger and frustration by self-regulating how they respond to what you are asking them to do.

5. Review the ‘context’ of timeout use if it’s frequent. This means two things.  First, if you find that you are consistently needing to use timeout on certain days or during certain periods, analyze what you are typically asking the students to do during that time.  As well, it could be that the students arrive to your class immediately after P.E. and the exercise and/or competitiveness hasn’t quite transitioned out.  Second, if a specific student is given a timeout consistently during a certain time/period/day, then examine their specific situation to plan  for ways of preventing escalations and creating an optimum environment.

As I wrote on March 16, 2011, behavior interventions are neutral.  How students respond determines an interventions effectiveness. Timeout is not inherently wrong; however, the misuse of timeout can be counter-productive and only increase the intensity, severity, and duration of the presenting challenging behavior.  In the end, our goal should always be to create a positive teaching and learning environment where timeout is unnecessary.

Who do I choose to be?

This past week was brutal.  The transmission on my truck has to be completely re-built…here are the details.

I drive a 2006 Ford F-150 (purchased in 2008). All you Chevy owners will, of course, tell me that was my first mistake!! When I bought the truck I purchased the extended warranty which I have been able to utilize on a couple of occasions.  Here’s the timeline from the last week-and-a-half.

  • WED. APRIL 27 – Truck is absolutely fine…no issues.
  • THURS. APRIL 28 – I notice a little hesitation as I press the accelerator.
  • FRI. APRIL 29 – Noticeable hesitation in reverse and accelerating.  There is definitely a problem.  I’m going to take my truck in tomorrow.
  • SAT. APRIL 30 – “Transmission Malfunction” light comes on as a drive to FORD.  I pull over, call BCAA, and have the tow my truck the rest of the way.
  • MON. MAY 2 – I find out my transmission needs to be completely rebuilt.

Here’s the best part!? I took my truck in on April 30, 2011….my extended warranty expired April 23, 2011…7 days earlier.  The repair on my truck will be somewhere in the $4500 range!

Now, it’s at this point that I have a choice to make; who do I choose to be?

On the one hand, my warranty had expired and while it had only been a week, it had been a week.  Try telling the insurance company after a car accident that your car insurance has only been expired for a week…I think we all know how that would turn out.  However, my truck has been well maintained and my warranty had only been expired for a week – we’ve all heard the stories about things going wrong after the warranty expires…now I am one of those stories!

While I was obviously not thrilled with the prospect of paying for the repair, I kept my perspective on what was happening.  Was there anything I could do to change the circumstances? No. Would getting upset, ranting, or pouting change anything about my truck? No. Would all of this matter a year from now? No. Would the way I treat people during this process matter? You bet! 

I made a conscious decision almost immediately that I wasn’t going to damage any relationships or my self-respect during this process. It is easy to treat people well when you feel good; much more difficult during a time of stress.  Being aware of how I was feeling made it a lot easier to be mindful of my emotions.  This situation could either get the best of me or I could keep it in its proper place. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t have an extra $4500 lying around waiting to be spent, but it’s only money, there is nothing I can do to change the situation, and I was convinced that something was going to be done in my favor.

 The local Ford dealer was sympathetic and “made my case” to the warranty dept. at Ford Canada.  After a couple of days of silence I heard back on Friday; Ford is prepared to cover 50% of the repair.  I thought that was fair.  They didn’t have to do anything to help me out, but they did I was grateful for it.  Could I have got a better deal? Maybe. Would Ford have eventually covered the entire cost of the repair? It’s possible. Could I have pushed it? Probably.

However, to do all of that I would have had to choose to be someone else, and in the end, I wasn’t prepared to be the kind of person I don’t want to be.  Adversity, I once read, introduces you to yourself. I continue to learn about perspective and what truly matters in life.  Five years ago I think I would have handled this situation much differently; far worse from where I sit now. I don’t think there is ever a time where it’s okay to compromise who you are.  That doesn’t mean there aren’t issues (much bigger than a transmission) that aren’t worth fighting for.  I think that while we are fighting we still have a choice.  You can never take a timeout from being you – there is no fee pass. I was happy with the way things turned out and, through it all, more happy with the person I was during the entire process.

Envision the “Best-Case” Scenario

Image via charlottesvillerealestate.posterous.com

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.

Behavior Interventions are…Neutral?

Pop Quiz…Is temporarily removing a disruptive student from your class a consequence or a reinforcement? 

Here’s the scene:

Two students in your math class – Jennifer & Allison – are being disruptive enough to make learning very difficult for the other students.  Jennifer is your top math student and has proclaimed several times that math is her favorite subject.  On the contrary, Allison hates math.  You know this because she has also told you several times.  After repeated attempts to get them to quiet down, you ask each of them to step out into the hallway; both students comply with your direction and you plan to discuss the issue with them in 5 minutes.

Question: Have Jennifer and Allison been consequenced or reinforced?  Recognizing the limitations of hypothetical situation involving students you don’t know personally, most would likely answer consequenced…same intervention by the teacher therefore same result.  The truth is…it’s both.

Jennifer loves math so she will likely view the removal from class as a consequence since she wants to do well, loves the subject, and is connected to you.  Allison, on the other hand, will likely view the removal as a reinforcement since she doesn’t want to be in math in the first place.  This is where we can get tricked if we are not paying attention.

How is it that the same intervention can produce different responses from students? It’s because behavior interventions are neutral…how a student responds to an intervention determines whether it was a consequence or a reinforcement.

When any behavior is reinforced it means we have increased the likelihood of that behavior occurring again. What has Allison learned…be disruptive and you will be removed from an environment you don’t want to be in. By removing Allison from class, you have increased the likelihood of Allison being disruptive again; for Jennifer it’s likely the opposite.  The whole point of consequences is to decrease the likelihood of a behavior occurring again. For Allison you haven’t done that.  The first rule in using “time-out” is that there is a desirable “time-in” environment.  This is how we inadvertently reinforce negative behaviors and scratch our heads wondering why it didn’t work.

Think of it this way…If IT didn’t do what you thought IT was going to do, then IT wasn’t what you thought IT was.

As a school administrator, the silliest thing I could do is suspend someone out-of-school for skipping.

Every student’s response to the behaviour interventions you use will reveal to you whether you are accomplishing the desired outcome.  You see this as an administrator, teacher, and even a parent.  All of our relationships involve a social interaction feedback loop.  As adults we need to pay attention to the results of our efforts and put more thought behind what we are doing; maybe you already do that. 

The point is that we can’t categorize any behavior intervention until we see how the student responds.  Ony then will we know what it was.