We are “The System”

Throughout my career I have been privy to a number of conversations, debates, and discussions amongst educators on various educational initiatives and approaches.  During these discussions I have heard people refer to “The System” or “The District” in ways such as, “The System needs to change” or “The District ought to do something about that!”  It’s as though “The System” is some separate entity that we are distant from. What we need to realize is that WE ARE THE SYSTEM and if something needs changing or something needs to be done, WE need to be first-in-line to act.

Now some of the changes that you deem necessary will be within your circle of influence.  As such, you will likely be able to make these changes rather quickly in order for you to grow and become the kind of professional that you want to become.  In other situations we see that changes are needed but we don’t hold a position that puts us inside that particular circle of influence.  For example, you might identify something within the district that needs to change from a practice or policy perspective, however, not having a position at Central Office may lead you to believe that there is nothing you can do or that your opinion doesn’t matter.  For me, this is far too passive and emphasizes position rather than influence. Leadership is about influence, not title, and anyone can make that happen and everything is within our circle of concern.  Stephen Covey once wrote:

I am personally convinced that one person can be a change catalyst, a transformer.  It requires vision, initiative, patience, respect, persistence, courage, and faith to be a transforming leader.”

If we don’t hold a position of authority or a potential change is outside our circle of responsibility then we need to bring the message to those that do and make it loud and clear what it is we believe is necessary for our organization to grow.

While doing so, it is also important to bring that message of change to those who need to hear it in a way that is respectfully grounded in ideas that are sound and supported.  Using sensational language, putting people on the defensive, or attacking people personally (rather than focusing on ideas) will only serve to create more challenges and roadblocks along the way.

You are the system, you can make a difference, and you could be the reason why your classroom, school, district, or even province/state changes forever. Don’t sit back and wait for others to do what you know needs to happen. The time is now and the person is YOU!

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.

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.

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.

Working Smarter – 3 Questions

We’ve all heard this phrase before – work smarter not harder – but what does it really mean, especially in education.  We’re all busy, that’s a given.  However, just because we manage to fill our minutes doesn’t mean we are maximizing our possible successes.  Whenever you are beginning something new, implementing something new, or even thinking about something new, the following three questions will help you work “smarter” in your classroom, school, or even district.

(1) Is it going to make us more efficient? We are, as I mentioned above, all busy.  The question is whether or not the “IT” is going to allow us to maximize the use of our minutes.  None of us have time for the add-on so we need to make sure that whatever we are thinking about will make us more efficient at what we do. If we were only dealing with machines then efficiency would be the goal, but there is more to working smarter in education.

(2) Is it going to make us more effective? Education is a people business so efficiency is not enough.  Not only do we need to maximize the use of our minutes, we need to maximize the effectiveness of our outcomes.  We should seek to strike a balance between efficiency and effectiveness.  Too efficient and we lose kids; too effective and we might run out of time at the end of year. 

(3) Is it relevant to our context? This is about fit and whether the “new” that you are thinking of implementing has meaning for you in your context.  Some things work in some places but maybe not everywhere; other things are universally applicable.  The important thing is to ask the question about relevancy and fit.

YES to all 3 and you are ready to implement

YES to 2/3 and you are almost ready, but should consider if one is being sacrificed and whether it is worth it to do so. All 3 may not always be necessary if you know it’s good for kids!

YES to 1/3 and too little has been considered so it’s likely your implementation plan is not well thought out.

0/3…STOP!

Just by asking these three simple questions you will be able to develop an implementation plan that is sustainable.  Whether you want to implement something new in your classroom, school-wide, or throughout the district, these three questions will keep you focused on what really matters.

21st Century “Elevator Answer” Challenge

With all of the talk about Personalized Learning for the 21st Century, I thought this might be a fun challenge and way for all of us to refine our messages and learn from each other.  I am a big believer in making messages simple and accessible, which is why I think this challenge is so relevant.  It’s very easy to kill a good idea with a poorly constructed message, especially early in the implementation/exploration phase.

So….here is your assignment, should you choose to accept it:

“You are attending a conference on 21st Century Learning (yes, I see the irony!)  At the end of the first day you step into the elevator at the hotel in which the conference is being held with someone who is NOT attending the conference and is NOT an educator.  They turn to you, notice your name badge, and say as the doors are closing, “You’re attending that conference on 21st Century Leanring, right? What’s that all about anyway?”

You have 4 floors (3-5 sentences) to explain to this stranger what 21st Century learning is and give one example of what it would look like.  Can you do it?  How would you respond?

Good luck! This message will never self-destruct so send it to every educator you know!!

The Birth of a New Paradigm

For me, Virus of the Mind by Richard Brodie is another book that has influenced me both professionally and personally.  Brodie, who incidentally was one of the original authors of Microsoft Word, explores the somewhat controversial science of memetics.  Memetics is the study of the workings of memes (pronounced “meems”), the basic unit of cultural transmission or imitation.  As the gene is to genetics, so is the meme to memetics.  According to Brodie, ideas (memes) act in a way similar to “real” viruses.

Viruses – say a flu virus or a computer virus – essentially do three things: the first is to duplicate itself, the second is to infiltrate any openings or weaknesses, and the third is to spread.  With either flu or a computer viruses one can easily recognize the process as each has physical properties.  It all sounds very daunting, however, Brodie’s intent is not to suggest that all viruses of the mind only have a negative impact; we can have memes that are positive. He suggests that ideas can move through society in a way similar to other viruses, only a meme has no physical properties; this is how we develop cultural norms he suggests.

One meme that is very common amongst most people is that it takes a long time to change. . When we say that, we are essentially making a prediction about the future and, according to Brodie, if we keep telling ourselves that it takes a long time to change then it will (A positive meme would be that change is easy). Most memes are programmed into people without any conscious intent and can develop from your upbringing, your relationships, from television, and from advertising, just to name a few sources.  It is a very interesting read and certainly challenges us to think and reflect on why we believe what we believe, and whether or not what we believe is actually true.

Here’s the point. In the introduction of the book Brodie outlines the Birth of a New Paradigm and the four stages a new paradigm must go through in order to gain widespread acceptance.  Given where we are in education with 21 Century learning, the rapid evolution of technology, and everything we’ve learned about learning, these four stages brought me comfort in knowing that in order to get to acceptance, all other stages had to be experienced.  As a leader, I have been able to stay the course with any new initiatives and now have a level of awareness about what’s happening within the organization I work.

So, given all that we are trying to accomplish in education, know that all new ideas have to run this course:

1. Complacency/Marginalization: At first, new ideas are seen as off-the-wall ideas that are quaint but don’t threaten the dominant view.  As a result, most people will not pay too much attention the idea when it first comes out.

2. Ridicule: Complacency fades as the new ideas refuse to die which results in people ridiculing the new idea as it is inconsistent with what they hold to be true.

3. Criticism: As the new idea gains acceptance, people who have held conflicting views take off their gloves.  Those whose reputations are invested in the ‘old’ paradigm begin to sharpen their criticism through accusatory language and emotional feedback.

4. Acceptance: The new paradigm gains both intellectual and psychological acceptance as enough people make the leap; those who understand the new ideas are no longer alone.

My take: When we hit the stage of serious criticism, leaders can take solace in the fact that the new idea is on the verge of gaining widespread acceptance.  If it wasn’t, sharp criticism wouldn’t be necessary as the idea would just fade away on its own.

Whether we are looking to implement “new” assessment practices, grading routines, instructional processes, integrate technology, or any number of “new” initiatives, knowing these four stages has help me step back from being emotionally competitive about any implementation plan.  Knowing that new paradigms have to run through these four stages has brought a level of awareness to my leadership that allows me to support people as they work it out for themselves.